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Media Bites Its Benefactor

John A. Byrne, a former Business Week editor who is no relation to the Anglo-American comic book artist John L. Byrne, and who started a blog of his own after leaving Business Week, has taken traditional media — newspapers, magazines, radio, motion pictures and television — to task for biting the hand that feeds them. The hand here is Google, the top search engine on the Internet. As a Techdirt commenter noted,

Google profits from connecting users to content. It is a service that most web publishers appreciate greatly. Google, unlike any other search engine ever, goes to great pains to deliver the least-skewed results possible. Google is constantly on the hunt for people who game their system. That's why they succeed. There is a direct connection between Google's user-centric, community-oriented approach and their financial success.

Traditional media does not see that. Google drives wave after wave of traffic into the Web sites of traditional media, making them more profitable. You would think that traditional media would profit from all that traffic that Google provides for free. Instead, traditional media — especially those controlled by Rupert Merdoch and the Associated Press — weep and gnash their teeth and gripe that Google is stealing from them.

The blog entry explains that the traditional media griping has to do with branding and relationships. I know what a brand is. From what I can make out from the blog entry's text, a relationship is some sort of mental assocation between a brand and a medium.

For example, Scientific American has a relationship with those, who associate the magazine with reliable science news. The New York Times has a relationship with a large number of Americans because they associate the newspaper with reliable news. (It is a false association, historically, given the habit of the New York Times of printing all the news that fits. But that's off-topic.)

The heart of the traditional media's pain in dealing with Google, according to Byrne, is the Google has become this massive transaction machine, and as everyone knows, transactions are the antithesis of relationships. Evidently, business — at least a media business — is not about buying and selling (transaction), but about associating a brand in the mind of customers (relationship). This is what marketing is all about. In fact, some businesses are all about marketing/relationships[†], which makes me wonder how they make any money, unless they are some sort of scam.

Google, in contrast, is just a search engine. People use it to search for what they want, and they trust it to find results — results without the taint of bias or party or brand. But that is what media: That taint of brand or bias. But the taint has washed away in the spring water of Google, the water that Murdoch and others are choking on.

What is traditional media to do?

To offset the massive transaction machine that Google is, media brands need to focus on restoring relationships with users. … [They] need an audience that is deeply and meaningfully engaged in the content of a site, so engaged in fact that many of those users become collaborators, and that requires tremendous amounts of work and editorial involvement with the audience.

That sort of engagement is costly in time and in money. Traditional media, run by executives beholden to stockholders looking for the next-quarter fix, have no patience for building brand loyalty long-term. They are also parsimonious with their money and what money they can borrow from banks. Also, building brand loyalty requires those top suits in the traditional media companies to give up on traditional business models that have sustained their growth for the past 20-30 years. It is the sort of growth that has alienated readers, listeners and viewers: Even without Google or the Internet itself, traditional media would have lost people, anyway, to other non-traditional media (like video games) that can accommodate a growing populance that is either functionally illiterate/innumerate, or so hostile to business as to turn it a collective deaf ear to its marketing song.

Appendix (22 April 2010)

How many times does a newspaper try to make the web pay out? Someone in Honolulu tries to create a virtual newspaper that invites public participation via social networking. It costs twenty dollars a month to join in.

NPR's take

Techdirt's take

It seems that the main difference in perspective is NPR's focus on the technology and the social interaction, and Techdirt's focus on whether the newspaper adds enough value to justify twenty dollars a month. NPR, whose denizens are oversocialized neurotypicals, tend to value social interaction over almost all else, which makes the story compelling to them. Techdirt, on the other hand, doubts there are enough of the oversocialized who are willing to plunk down twenty bucks a month for the newspaper to survive.

And using the Wall Street Journal as an example of how paywalls can dish up is irrelevant. To quote Techdirt, the WSJ has scarce value that helps people make money now. Normal newspapers, or even those with more social interaction, have no such value. You can get the news anywhere else on the Web for free.

On the other hand, this virtual newspaper came about just after the iPad was released. It it perfectly likely that this newspaper came into being with the iPad in mind. If that is the case, that paper ought to announce that specifically, that the paper is for the iPad only. It is pointless to use it for the Web in general for the reasons given above.

† I once saw a PBS documentary about a potential airline company called Song, which branded itself on passenger experience. In fact, that documentary was part of a Frontline report on marketing. Wikipedia reports that the airline did exist, from 2003 to 2006, after which is vanished into its parent company, Delta.

Written by Andy West on 26 December 2009. Updated 22 April 2010.