Are We Entering the Golden Era of Media?

Larry Kramer is the Founder and Former CEO of CBS Marketwatch.com. He was the first president of CBS Digital and sits on the Boards of Discovery Communications, Inc., American Media Inc., Freedom Communications, Inc., Answers Corp., Black Arrow Inc., and Harvard Business School Publishing. He is the author of the upcoming book C-Scape: Conquer the Forces Changing Business Today and runs a blog by the same name.

There is a chance that we may look back on the first few months of 2011 as the moment in time that things turned around for the news business. Suddenly we are seeing bold moves on several fronts. Chances are being taken again. Investments are being made, New revenue models are being implemented. Competition is heating up.

Let’s take a look at very recent developments in the massively shifting news media landscape.

AOL (NYSE:AOL) bought Huffington Post for $315 million. It appears that AOL (NYSE:AOL)  finally realized that it was missing an editorial infrastructure and personality. It certainly bought a personality in Arianna. The only question is can she extend herself and her model into a much broader arena and accelerate revenues quickly? My guess is that it will be difficult, and AOL (NYSE:AOL) will feel pressure for immediate profits to offset shrinking revenue streams from their dial-up business. But the important point here is the realization on AOL’s (NYSE:AOL) part that editorial intelligence and point of view matter. Like her methods or not, the news industry should respect the fact that Arianna Huffington has convinced people that interesting news content is worth a lot of money.

–The Daily Beast (NASDAQ:IACI) merges with Newsweek. Here we have a new media company taking over an old brand and making a big bet that it can rescue the old brand with new media content. If they pull it off, it will be the first road map that much of the print media has been longing for. Tina Brown has the energy and talent and if this rebirth is possible, she’s the likely midwife. Her goals for Newsweek include bringing back the glory of it’s investigative reporting. The combined news operations of a magazine, website and their mobile outlets should be able to support a first class news operation. If they move aggressively, this can be a prototype for newsrooms of the future.

Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) takes over NBC Universal. A huge cable company buys content. We will see if news can benefit from a closer relationship between cable and broadcast and a more aggressive digital partnership. NBC has great news content as well as CNBC and MSNBC, but it has lagged in digital platforms and Comcast has aggressively built a digital platform that lacks powerful content. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful relationship that might lead to the development of the long-awaited multi-platform news organization?

–Both Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) AND Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) unveiled their systems to allow media companies to sell subscription products using their devices or hardware using their operating systems. These are long-awaited critical steps to begin to build real revenue streams other than advertising, which has been slow to adapt to the new digital platforms. These systems each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and there are serious things the media companies don’t like about them, but two of the largest and most powerful companies on earth have finally stepped up with SOMETHING, and some magazine and newspaper companies will be trying each.

JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) announced it’s setting aside a billion dollar fund to put into digital media efforts. While $200-400 million of it may go into just Twitter, that still leaves a fair amount for new efforts in the rapidly changing digital media landscape.

–Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWSA) finally launched “The Daily,” the first tablet-only news publication. While it has many flaws, some technical, some on the content side, it still represents a major step forward for an industry trying to find it’s future. If you need any indication of just how important a step this is, take a look at the first USA Today, or the early broadcasts of CNN (NYSE:TWX) or ESPN (NYSE:DIS). You will be stunned by their simplicity and lack of pzazz.

Discovery (NASDAQ:DISCA) is launching an entirely new division called “MyDiscovery” which will create non-fiction content specifically for the new digital platforms, particularly the tablet. While many companies are doing a lot for these new formats, this is the first time a major media company has assigned an entirely new division, with P&L responsibility, reporting to the top of the company. (full disclosure, I sit on the board of Discovery (DISCA)).

Each of these steps are significant and important. But together they represent a lot of movement in a short period of time. It could be because the economy has started to improve, or even that everyone finally believes the economy is improving, but whatever the reason I am excited that things are starting to happen. These events don’t represent the final answers to the mystery of how news companies will survive, but they do demonstrate that the industry has turned a key corner, and is willing to invest in FINDING OUT what might work. News Media companies need to be in serious experimental mode right now, which is not where they are used to spending time.

Larry Kramer is the Founder and Former CEO of CBS Marketwatch.com. He was the first president of CBS Digital and sits on the Boards of Discovery Communications, Inc., American Media Inc., Freedom Communications, Inc., Answers Corp., Black Arrow Inc., and Harvard Business School Publishing. He is the author of the upcoming book C-Scape: Conquer the Forces Changing Business Today and runs a blog by the same name.

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