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The Failure of We (the) Media

In the wake of the latest We Media event last week the usual round of self-flagellation by a group of attendees is occurring.

David Cohn wishes We Media was an unconference. Scott Karp acknowledges that media companies need to make money, but bizarrely refers to that as an "idealogical agenda". A BBC exec calls it groundhog day. The staid Mark Glaser even throws a few rocks (one at me!), with a big pile-on in his comments to boot.

Andrew Nachison and Dale Peskin put on a solid show. They make a real effort to have the panels interact with the audience. This is not easy -- you get 200 people in a room for 90 minutes, how much interactivity do you really expect? But they managed to pull it off and the results were far more successful than many other panels I've been on. They also get really amazing attendees. Major publishers, tons of senior media execs, a dozen startup CEOs, VCs, Pulitzer-winning journalists, and an eclectic spectrum of media spinners like documentary filmmakers, artists, social activists, and the like to keep the cocktail mixer from getting too businessy and boring. If you can't find someone interesting to talk to at this thing, it's not the event's fault.

So what's the problem?

The problem is that the hopes that Dan Gillmor raised for the media industry in his book -- which kicked off this whole business -- have largely failed.

Tremendous excitement followed the publishing of Dan's We the Media (the conference's namesake). It accompanied the trumpeting of a new model of media by the newsy press, and the rise of blogs with attendant breathless hype.

Unfortunately, after doing the author's victory tour, Dan then attempted to put his ideas into practice in a business venture. I suppose there is some due credit for having the courage to cross the line from a long career as a newspaper journalist (observer) to become a startup founder (participant), and try to prove the viability of his alt.media business plan outlined in the book.

But, like nearly every News 2.0 venture so far, Dan's Bayosphere was a failure.

He has a lot of company. The dog's breakfast of new media startups includes Gather, Backfence, Newstrust, Daylife, TailRank, Associated Content, Pegasus News, Tinfinger, Findory, Inform, Newsvine, Memeorandum, NowPublic. The highest distinction on this list is to be one of the few still spoken of in the present tense (or present perfect -- "They haven't yet succeeded...")

And yes, I would include Topix here as well. We are, in fact, the most successful News 2.0 company, with over a million pageviews/day, 10M server/4.6M Comscore uniques, a million participants in our forums, a $60M exit, yada yada. But, we can face it, even we haven't yet burned down the world, or upended the news industry.

There is actually a media revolution in the works. So what's going on here? By implicit definition, participatory media is non-commercial. If it's commercial, someone owns it, and it's not "we" anymore.

Furthermore, as soon as a new media venture crosses the line and tries to become a business, it either becomes a successful business or a failed one. Businesses aren't about ideology, they're about getting a job done and earning revenue to keep the thing going. Even wild success tends to leave ideology behind. Ideology is the realm of nonprofits and failures.

There is still a power law to success, and the few continue to reap disproportionate rewards, as they always have. Pub media turns out to be a farm league for big media. The bloggers who "make it" look more and more like regular media than "us". They graduate to to the A-list, and start to get lumped in and criticised along with the establishment. Success looks like a sellout to a big media company, or a good business doing job boards and conferences on the side to pay the bills.

Yes, there is a media revolution in the works. But it's messy, it's nasty videos on Youtube, not the neat & tidy civic Welcome Wagon of citizen journalism. You can't quit your job as a journalist and replace your salary with adsense on your blog. You'll be lucky to make beer money, let alone pay COBRA and fund your SEP-IRA.

And big media has been watching, and buying the winning ventures, and building their own platforms to -- yes you're right! -- exploit the new models.

So shut up and keep blogging, or putting your time in as a wage slave in your chosen profession, or keep slugging it out at a startup. But please stop whining that "we" haven't achieved consensus at the latest industry schmoozefest. If you don't know why you're there, you probably shouldn't be. :-)


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Comments (2)

An issue I see with all aggregation attempts, even smart ones, is that they don't really create a community of participants who are really communicating with each other. Reading these conglomerations starts to feel rather sterile after a while, and the systems are too easily gamed.


Attempting to commercialize the New Media as alternatives to the Old Media is the classic no-win situation, especially if it's measured by Old Media metrics. There are only three classes of outcome possible for a given venture:

1. It succeeds in attracting mainstream attention and revenue. Since mainstream attention is defined by our culture in terms of Old Media exposure, attaining it is synonymous with "selling out". This outcome can lead to getting rich and famous, but it counts as a loss in the PR department, not to mention the whole mission-betrayal thing.

2. It remains true to its roots by refusing to play the Old Media game. The audience it does attract will respect it more, but it's unlikely to even consistently cover its own bills, let alone turn into a profitable business. Most people count this as a loss (but see below).

3. It tanks. Good old fashioned straight-up failure. It brings the show, but the audience doesn't come, and it sinks in ignominy. Nobody but the founders care. Loss by any definition.

There are no possible outcomes that don't fall into one of those three categories. So who, exactly, is shocked when ventures like this fail?

The trouble is in a misunderstanding of the problem. Amateur media are not necessarily improved by becoming professional media. The power of the new media is not in their purported ability to supplant the old media and make tons of money, but in their power to bring expressive technology to people so easily and so cheaply that content no longer needs to be monetizable in order to be viable for wide distribution.

An unprofitable end-state is only a failure if getting there required promising profits to third parties...and the whole point of new media is that we can now reach the audience we want to reach WITHOUT having to solicit investor capital with promises of a monetary return.

So yes...as businesses, new media outfits tend to be failures. But what led them to failure was the decision to put themselves up for judgment as businesses, which they're no longer required to do.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 13, 2007 7:59 AM.

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