The common phrase goes: "there is only freedom of the press for those who own a printing press." For many years this was true. Up until the past few years, if you wanted to distribute content—whether it be a book, an article, a movie, an album, a television shot, etc—you had to go through the big media companies to get it out there. If you wrote a book, you had to find a publisher. If you had a script, you had to find a production studio. If you were in a band, you needed to find a record company.
The days of media companies controlling distribution have been slowly dying and they are closer to the grave now than ever before thanks to the internet. But not only is distributing this media changing, but the way we are consuming it is also changing. Newspaper sales continue to decline as more and more people get their news online. I watch all my favorite shows online, at a time convenient for me. I download most of my music—sometimes a song at a time—as opposed to purchasing physical albums that may only include two or three songs I like, I don't need a media company telling me how to consume it.
For the past few weeks, like many Americans, I closely followed NBC's late night scheduling drama. After a mere seven months, Conan O'Brien walked away from host of The Tonight Show because he felt moving it later in the night to make room for a new Jay Leno-hosted show would lead to the destruction of the franchise. "I sincerely believe that delaying The Tonight Show into the next day to accommodate another comedy program will seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting," O'Brien stated in an open letter to his fans, "The Tonight Show at 12:05 simply isn't The Tonight Show."
Since O'Brien took over as host, he constantly received lower ratings than when Leno hosted and continually lagged behind CBS rival David Letterman in ratings. NBC, of course, used this to their defense when deciding to put Leno back as host because this obviously means O'Brien lost fans or had a smaller fan base or people just didn't like an O'Brien helmed tonight show.
Of course, we now can see this was not the case. The fan-initiated "I'm With CoCo" campaign brought thousands of Conan fans in the spotlight using the internet as their medium to show (1) their support for Conan O'Brien and (2) their disapproval in the idea of removing O'Brien as host.
So where were these fans when Conan was actually hosting. The answer, I believe, is quite simple. Conan O'Brien fans don't watch tv. Not in the traditional sense at least. Conan consistently has a younger fan base than his late night host rivals and I would argue that the majority of his fans would much rather watch The Tonight Show on their schedule on Hulu the next day than when NBC schedules it. And I'm pretty sure networks don't count Hulu viewings into their ratings.
Illustration by Steve Ellis.
Over the last few years, traditional news publications have seen their readership decline, not because people aren't reading anymore, but they no longer need a printed publication to get their news. The New York Times announced a few weeks ago that by 2011, they would initiate a paywall on their popular site, charging readers for certain articles:
Starting in January 2011, a visitor to NYTimes.com will be allowed to view a certain number of articles free each month; to read more, the reader must pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the print newspaper, even those who subscribe only to the Sunday paper, will receive full access to the site without any additional charge.
I believe this is a fundamentally flawed system. First of all, the details of the plan are so confusing I wonder how anyone will understand when they've reached their limit of free articles and when they need to start paying. Will this be overtime or per visit? Secondly, I would be willing to bet that the news they pay for on one site, will probably be free on another.
However, that's not to say money can't be made on the web. John Gruber argues the problem with these news companies is there size; in addition to their editorial staff, they have salaries for sometimes hundreds of other staff that have nothing to do with content. This isn't how web publishing works:
What works in today's web landscape are lean and mean organizations with little or no management bureaucracy — operations where nearly every employee is working on producing actual content. I'm an extreme example — a literal one-man show. A better example is Josh Marshall's TPM Media, which is hiring political and news reporters. TPM is growing, not shrinking. But my understanding is that nearly everyone who works at TPM is working on editorial content.
Old-school news companies aren't like that — the editorial staff makes up only a fraction of the total head count at major newspaper and magazine companies. The question these companies should be asking is, "How do we keep reporting and publishing good content?" Instead, though, they're asking "How do we keep making enough money to support our existing management and advertising divisions?" It's dinosaurs and mammals.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the days of large media companies controlling distribution are near over. We are quickly entering the age of independent media.
Under his exit contract with NBC, Conan O'Brien is unable to join another network until after September 1. So what will he do until then? Mr. O'Brien finds himself with a lot of free time and a lot of cash which make for the terrific combination to fully embrace independent media. It would be extremely easy for Conan to launch a new show without any network, contract, and deals and it could be all online, the way his fans watch him anyway. He would get to do his show, the way he wants to do it and not have to worry about networks giving him a hard time. The way we are consuming our media is changing and it's about time the distribution caught up.
The same goes for The New York Times. Apple's announcement of the iPad makes for a tremendous opportunity for the newspaper to start presenting content in a whole new way. The company may have found a way to capture the best of both print and digital media on this device, incorporating more interaction and multimedia into it's articles through a custom app. The app could be a one time fee and then constantly updated content, or with in-app purchasing, it could easily be a monthly fee that may actually be worth paying for do to its unique experience and alternative medias.
Independent media operations understand this and are profiting from it. The big media conglomerates are stuck in the last decade. I don't believe they will go away, but I do think they will be in serious trouble if they continue operating the way they are now.
Anyone can distribute their media now and that's scaring these bigger companies. Everyone owns a printing press.