The Middlegame in Media Chess Has Begun

Despite its complication, a game of chess is basically a three-act play. So too is our current, transitional era for media companies.

The first act is known as the opening, and its purpose is to put the various chess pieces or actors in the best positions for the coming battle or drama. Then comes the middlegame, in which the various pieces attack, defend, and perform according to their best capabilities. This is generally the part of the game when pieces are disposed of, when most of the action takes place. Finally, there is the endgame, when not many pieces remain and in which one side or the other obviously becomes the winner.

In our transitional era for media companies, we’re now into the middlegame. Media companies’ jockeying for position is nearly done.

Three or four years ago, many of these companies didn’t know where to make their stands. Now their battle lines, including what their chief executives are saying, are well-defined.

For examples, an alliance of NBC, Fox, Sony Pictures, and Warner Brothers has created a bastion called Hulu from which to battle Google’s YouTube and others for the future of online television. And earlier this week, Steven Brill, the creator of Court TV and American Lawyer magazine; L. Gordon Crovitz, formerly publisher of The Wall Street Journal and a vice president of Dow Jones; and venture capitalist Leo Hindery, former chief of AT&T Broadband and the YES Network, announced they are constructing Journalism Online LLC, a Maginot Line (define) pay wall to allow newspapers to charge people for online content.

Meanwhile, Google’s blitzkrieg continues. Like the German army in the opening and middle of World War II, Google isn’t adhering to the traditionalist theories of how to battle. It doesn’t keep to how things were done in the past. Instead, it operates according to how best to use new technologies.

Other pure-play companies are similarly using new media business strategies that have little or nothing to do with how traditionalist played this game in the 20th century. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and others are redefining what media can be, even what news is.

Last month, guest speaker Ryan Sholin of Gatehouse Media, a newspaper chain, asked the 40 students in my graduate-school new media business class what media they used for news. Though consumers of news, most of my students were perplexed by the question, an interesting reaction at a media school.

Only two ventured answers: a newspaper student said “The New York Times” and a broadcast journalism student said CNN. A decade ago, a class might have all answered newspapers or TV news networks.

“OK,” Sholin said, “How many of you check Facebook more than once per day?” All did. “Then that’s your media and what your friends on Facebook are pointing to in the outside world is your news,” Sholin declared.

Traditionalist professors at my media school were apoplectic at that. How can Facebook, a non-media company, be media, they asked. News isn’t friends telling you things of mutual interest, they protested.

But Sholin is correct: your media is whatever you regularly use to get information and news is whatever satisfies your interests. Media and news aren’t necessarily defined as things that only newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations and networks, or other traditional media companies produce. Go ask a high school or college kid.

So the battle lines are being drawn between opposing groups of companies and also according to radically different strategies and philosophies.

The opposing forces are polarized; the opening part of the game is over. Now the middlegame — and the carnage — begins on a grand scale.

I expect to see a large number of major media companies go out of business between now and 2015, many of them traditionalists — companies that are still using outdated strategies and tactics. The public relations industry will likely adapt, as will the advertising industry, despite some wrenching changes. But the greatest carnage will be among legacy media companies. I hope that by 2015 the winners will be obvious.

The quicker it’s over, the better for everyone. A long battle, a long game, suits no one. The quicker companies that are using the wrong strategies and tactics take stands, the quicker all media industries can build a new world from the rubble.

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