“Content is king.” It’s one of the oldest, most frequently trumpeted maxims in media. Original work commands a premium, while aggregation and curation are merely commoditized collections for easy distribution…or so the thinking goes. Only, what happens if the script is flipped? That’s the question that Martin Nisenholtz, senior VP of digital operations at The New York Times, pondered in a recent keynote address at NAA mediaXchange in Dallas.
Nisenholtz believes that the news ecosystem is now inverted. Content reigned in the print and portal eras, but “platforms won in Web 2.0.” If there is any lingering doubt, take a quick look at the valuations and market caps of leading digital platforms (Google, Facebook) as compared with top publishers, and the “who won?” debate summarily ends.
Largely open platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook (though debatable) capitalized on a confluence of drivers to control Web 2.0: broadband acceleration, mobile growth, open-source tools (SaaS) and flexible standards for “re-mixing data” (i.e., RSS).
If Web 2.0 has been decided, is the game entirely over? Nisenholtz isn’t willing to concede the point just yet. In fact, The Times new digital subscription model (don’t call it a “paywall”) is one attempt to cultivate a “web of managed links” by finding a “new equilibrium between content and platforms.” Another is Ongo, a personalized news service that customizes the reading experience across multiple sources and categories. The Times, Gannett and The Washington Post each have a financial stake in the platform.
Nisenholtz insists that these are platform-agnostic efforts to control and moderate content flow, not lock it down. Where the “lock down” is occurring is with audience data because, as Facebook, Twitter and Groupon valuations have shown, he who controls the audience data controls the money. As an example, The Times no longer participates with any ad networks.
But an elephant-in-the-room question persists: Ongo is a paid platform ($6.99 per month). Facebook, Twitter, The Huffington Post Flipboard, Instapaper, Pulse, Zite and numerous others are not. If The Times’ publishing contemporaries don’t move in lockstep to similarly control their content, then profuse free options will continue to exist. And if that’s the case, why would anyone pay? This is one of many reasons why Ongo launches with few guarantees. And a reason why fellow media execs may be reticent to join.
It’s all part of the tangled “web of managed links” that Nisenholtz is trying to weave.