The once monolithic media industry is undergoing a radical schism, dividing itself into content creation, on the one hand, and content aggregation and distribution on the other.
The nature of this transformation suddenly crystallized for me when I read Tom Foremski’s piece on the new West Coast/East Coast media industry divide. Tom seems to be focused more on media as defined by publishing, since New York has traditionally been the center of the publishing world, while Hollywood has been the center of the video-based media industry. Regardless, I think Tom gets it half right, because the schism in media has nothing to do with geography.
The real divide now emerging is between companies that create original content and companies that create platforms for aggregating and distributing that content. Newspapers embody the old media world where content creation, aggregation, and distribution were inextricably linked. But the digital media revolution has made it possible to separate these functions.
For traditional media companies, original content creation still straddles both coasts, but geography is quickly becoming irrelevant as an army of newly empowered individual and small enterprise content creators are storming the web from every corner of the globe.
The radical shift in the newly disaggregated business of original content creation is that, with so much competition (one might even call it a content creation bubble) and no control over distribution, content creation is no longer an easily scalable business — in fact, many players in the new content creation game are not in it to build scale business, or even to make money at all.
Individuals can now make a good living as content creators, without ever creating or becoming part of a scale content business. What’s more disruptive, however, is that in the market for original content, the attention economy is draining dollars out of the cash economy. There remains a zero sum game for consumer attention, so for every minute a consumer spends with content created by an entity whose compensation is in form of attention, there’s a minute not being spend on content created by a for-profit entity.
In contrast, the content aggregation and distribution side of the divided media industry has all the advantages of scale, with the technology-enabled platform (e.g. MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, search) serving as the organizing principle for the new scalable media businesses. Content creation is asymptotically approaching commodity status, while platforms that can effectively aggregate content and allocate scarce consumer attention can unlock immense value in the new media marketplace.
YouTube is now ground zero for the battle over the new scalable half of the divided media industry. Content companies like Viacom who have lost all of their distribution leverage are fighting YouTube to control the new platform-based media economy. The future of media will be determined by how well legacy media companies survive the unbundling of their business models, how much better legacy companies like News Corp who have acquired a platform (MySpace) can restructure their business, and the degree to which the new native platform media companies like Google can position themselves to dominate the new media landscape.