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Dinosaurs to Superhumans

  |  October 3, 2008   |  Comments

Thirteen years ago, newspapers squandered an opportunity to collaborate and innovate on the Web. Has anyone learned from that failure?

Despite movies like "Aliens" and "War of the Worlds," scientist and science fiction writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, himself no slouch at screenwriting ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), suggested that if extraterrestrials exist, they'd be benign. To have developed such advanced technologies, he said, they would have had to evolve beyond the level where their own squabbles could have destroyed themselves -- the level now confronting us humans.

Or, in the more pithy words of police beating victim Rodney King, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?"

Nothing today is causing more destruction in the media industries than the companies within each of its sectors failing to cooperate fully with each other. You don't get to build the world of the future by competing tooth and nail.

Any truly epochal change in technology -- the inventions of tools, the printing press, broadcasting, atomic power and nuclear weapons, the Internet -- forces the preexisting tribes, companies, industries, or nations to cooperate more fully with each other to prevent ever more massive destruction. Nuclear arms control, global warming, and globalized economies are some of the recent examples of how nations, nonetheless industries or companies, must cooperate due to technological advances.

What's this have to do with media industries? The answer is that the emergence of digital technologies, the Internet in particular, is so epochal a development that it destroys any legacy media industry whose companies don't cooperate in unprecedented ways to meet the challenge. Moreover, entire media industry sectors need to cooperate with one another in ways never seen before.

I'm not advocating measures that would run afoul of anti-trust laws. I'm just reminding folks of a pointed pun that Benjamin Franklin told squabbling politicians from competing states at a time of epochal political change, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Let me give you a somewhat contemporary example in media. Thirteen years ago, the largest newspaper companies in the U.S. formed a consortium because they had a hunch that the rise of the Internet might profoundly change their businesses. The consortium that Knight-Ridder, Tribune, Times Mirror, Advance Publications, Cox Enterprises, Gannett, Hearst, the Washington Post, and the New York Times companies formed was called the New Century Network.

NCN planned to create a news search engine that would draw from the majority of the nation's daily newspapers and possibly also major foreign newspapers. It also planned to create a classified advertising search engine that would draw its content from all those dailies. And it planned to create a single advertising system that would allow advertisers to place banner ads to across any geographic or demographic strata of those newspapers' Web sites.

Unfortunately, the nine major newspaper companies were more used to competing against each other than cooperating. With some exceptions, they didn't loan their best new media personnel to this cooperative effort. They weren't able to agree upon a CEO from among their own companies for the consortium, ultimately having to go outside and pick an executive without any background in either newspapers or online. Then, when the consortium began launching its services and earning some money, the companies argued with each about who should get what share, despite previous agreements about that. All the while, each of the companies was progressing with its own new media plan that would each compete with their cooperative effort.

Within months of launching its first services, the New Century Network consortium of newspaper companies imploded. (Read BusinessWeek's article, "New Media Meltdown at New Century") about that. NCN certainly wasn't perfect (indeed, it hired me as a consultant), but it clearly was its industry's strongest attempt at what should have been unprecedented cooperation in the face of epochal change.

The ramifications of its failure soon became clear for its industry:

Six months after NCN collapsed, Larry Page and Sergey Brin incorporated a company they named Google and seeing, among other things, an opportunity for a news search engine, they later launched Google News, which now dominates the news search market.

Craig Newmark realizes there is an opportunity for a classified advertising site that goes beyond his native San Francisco or any one newspaper's readership area, so he expanded Craigslist nationwide, now dominating online the market for classified advertising, what should have been a newspaper industry sinecure.

The newspaper industry never developed an online advertising system that would allow banner ads to be placed across any geographic or demographic strata of newspaper Web sites. The newspaper industry has now ceded that to Yahoo, after that search engine company became a lifeboat for digital executives from failing newspaper companies (of which there are more and more each day).

By failing to cooperate, the newspaper industry squandered its best opportunities -- opportunities that startups then saw and captured. I've seen the magazine, TV, book, and film industries similarly botch industry cooperation, although not to the degree the newspaper industry had.

Moreover, many media industries need to cooperate with each other in ways never seen before. For example, the e-paper device that succeeds with consumers and business people will be one that automatically delivers to them books and magazines and newspapers, all in an Open Source format. That's more than the Amazon Kindle, Sony, iRex, or Plastic Logic readers will do. It requires the book, magazine, and newspaper industries to work together, rather than rely upon any one vendor to create a format or device. Vendors prefer proprietary formats and competing with each other, but the reading public has other needs. It's also why relying on just the trade association of the book, magazine, or newspaper industry alone won't solve the problem. Unprecedented cooperation among media industries is the fastest and probably best solution, however unlikely.

To use advanced technologies ably, we must evolve beyond the level where our own squabbles can distract us and destroy our own industries. Learn that lesson from the newspaper industry, the first media industry to be affected by the Internet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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