Sorting Out the Content Tail

One of beauties of the Internet is it’s an open publishing platform. Anyone can publish, and many do. The explosion of blogs and other self-publishing formats over the past year testifies to the amount of pent-up desire within “Citizen’s Media” that wants to self-publish.

People have some interesting to say, and the tens of millions of readers are looking for different points of view. Interestingly, a large portion of self-published content is directly related to breaking news or to content published in traditional media channels.

We saw examples of this around the election. Blogs ran stories about exit polls (and made projections, sometimes incorrect, before the TV networks did). They ran analysis and critiques of the network projections in near real time and ran stories for days and weeks afterward, dissecting early results, late results, and election coverage by all other media.

For every election news story or analysis carried by traditional media, there were probably hundreds more in the blogosphere, and hundreds of millions of page views and RSS (define) feed downloads. Lots of online media was created; much of it directly related to content produced by other media entities.

This phenomenon, called the “content tail” by some, is developing as a force to be reckoned in the media business — just ask Dan Rather!

You’ve been exposed to the content tail if you read John Battelle’s Searchblog, Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine, or Wired Magazine’s October issue; heard Martin Nisenholtz of New York Times Digital speak recently about the future of online media; or downloaded the Jon Stewart/”Crossfire” clip via BitTorrent.

Most media companies are clueless about what, if anything, to do about this tail.

Getting massive free customer acquisition and free distribution and redistribution of your product is usually a good thing. At least, it is if you generally give your product away for free, as is the case with much ad-supported media. I’m sure the “Crossfire” folks, upon learning more people downloaded and viewed the Jon Stewart clip online in the first few weeks than have watched the show in its entire history, were overjoyed about the free publicity.

On the other hand, we saw how the music industry reacted to Napster. Currently, the motion picture industry is taking the same steps relative to those who download and distribute movies and video clips without authorization.

Caught in the middle are media that are both ad- and paid-consumer supported, such as newspapers and magazines. They produce much of the content that starts the tail wagging. How should they react to bloggers who distribute and redistribute their content? Should they police it, like the music and movie folks do? Should they embrace it, like the TV folks do (for now)? Or should they try to exploit it? If so, how?

It may be the single most important question content creators face. Today’s blog and Citizen’s Media world is only the tip of the iceberg of what we’ll see in a few short years. It will dramatically change the way print and broadcast media organizations operate.

Though the content tail can be a threat, the opportunities it offers are even greater. Media companies that understand how to make money on the long tail their content creates are very likely to outstrip the money they make selling content in its original form, perhaps exponentially. Massive distribution and redistribution by other organizations and people of all types around the world will keep content alive for years after it’s originally produced.

There are people out there with ideas. I can’t wait to see them. They’ll change our industry — again.

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