It's been a rather ugly few months for several digital media companies. First Gigaom shut down (though new ownership promises a relaunch). Then Re/code got acquired in a deal that raised questions about the site's business model. Next, Reddit faced a moderator firestorm. And now Gawker's core business and editorial management are under fire.
Amy Katz and I have worked in and around the IT media market since the early 1990s. We've seen plenty of market shifts... from print to web to custom media to blog/opinion... to a market that looks pretty messy at the moment.
Quite a few giants are moving in to reset the table. Apple News may turn some heads. Facebook Instant Articles could be a game changer. FlipBoard apparently has raised another $50 million. And social players like Twitter are looking to redeem themselves.
What do those developments tell us? I believe:
- You need to be a giant in order to compete against the giants. But I don't know how many giants (example: Yahoo!) really have the long-term stomach for the digital media market.
- There's no room for tween-size players in media land, as this excellent analysis from Mathew Ingram explains.
- Super-niche startups (media sites like DevOps.com and Container Journal) suggest that you can still drive synergies between specific topics, community engagement and sponsor models.
But most of all, media success remains a moving target -- where waves like cloud, mobile, social and big data are disrupting just about every media model at the moment.
Wanted: Control Freaks
To address all those variables, I think startups need to own and innovate up and down the entire stack. For starters, you're going to need highly flexible, powerful and customizable underlying infrastructure. A base blog platform simply isn't "going to get it done" these days. Nor will basic content curation, syndication and social media likes.
Assuming you find or build the underlying code, all that power must be harnessed and transformed into a simple system that delivers an Apple-quality customer experience across mobile, tablet and desktop systems. Powerful yet simple media delivery -- that's a really challenging balancing act.
I don't think you necessarily need to raise venture capital or angel funding to build such a system. Far more importantly, you'll need clear vision -- across business development and content -- to target a specific market. And then you need a tireless work ethic to storm the market.
As I watch financial or business-model struggles at Gigaom, Reddit and Gawker. As I watch giants like Apple and Facebook make their media moves. As I watch editors and aspiring journalists worry about the future of media. I wonder: Who, if anyone, can storm the market in a new or fresh way?
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