@ V I E W P O I N T
The Big Boys (Still) Don't Get It
A year ago, a cyberdude we know was called to midtown to meet with a friend
who works at a major record company. It seems that the record company exec,
brain brimming with hype-fueled Net dreams, wanted to put up a Web page for
the division he controlled.
So one day, in a cubbyhole office of a towering high-rise, he gathered a
digital coterie including our cyberfriend, an artist who worked for the
label, and two young women--full of bright notions--who worked in the
company's Internet division.
The room started buzzing with ideas. "We'll go online interviews with the
artists," one person said, "Chats too."
"We can load sound clips," another chimed in. "Link to fan club pages, and
sell CDs directly over the Net . . ."
All great ideas, no-brainers really. And all were shot down. "Well, the
legal department won't let us link to fan pages because their discographies
list bootlegs," one of the women said.
"And we can't do direct sales," the executive said, "because it will piss
off our retail distributors. We can't load entire songs either because the
lawyers are afraid of bootlegging."
The artist squirmed uncomfortably as well. "If you guys are going to use my
art on the Net, are you going to pay me more?" he asked.
The room fell silent. There was nothing left the discuss. All the company
was willing to do was put up a digital version of its promotional brochure.
Within weeks, the two frustrated Net specialists had left the company.
New York's big media companies spent much of last year doling out huge
salaries to lure the best and the brightest young Web designers, writers and
infopreneurs into their employ, only to bury their talents under a mountain
of fears and pre-existing alliances.
Typical is the case of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp./Delphi venture. Murdoch
conspicuously hired a dazzling array of journalistic talent, reportedly to
create a newsroom of the future that would do original reporting and help
create a new kind of multi-tiered, two-way, meta-journalism to be published
on the Web.
Well, although the site has been home to two or three decent lifestyles and
feature stories, most of the content on the site consists of teasers for The
Simpsons, The X-Files, and NFL Football--television properties owned by
Murdoch. And now word comes that Delphi's ready to scrap that pie-in-the-sky
news stuff and to relaunch as IGuide--the digital equivalent of Murdoch's
most successful publication, TV Guide.
Time Warner, another of the city's biggest players, began dipping its
corporate toes in the new content waters this year, but in a way that made
no sense at all. In a world full of 24-news radio and television, regularly
scheduled news broadcasts, and daily newspapers, the bigs at Pathfinder
decided that their big move into new news would be short daily updates on a
couple of big national stories.
Yeah, it was redundant for anyone who read a newspaper or heard a news
broadcast that day, but hey, TW already had reporters working those stories.
They didn't need to spend money on staffing a new news operation. They
expanded the program by slapping up wire service dispatches, may of which
were already directly available on the Net.
The city's specialty magazine publishers certainly weren't going to
cannibalize newsstand sales by giving away content or cut into the bottom
line by developing ancillary electronic content. When both Rolling Stone and
New York Magazine launched online additions, they did so inside Compuserve,
choosing to run the digital equivalents of 970 phone lines for a small group
of online patrons instead of forging ahead with new business models for a
new distribution medium.
And even the major online services won't budge. Instead of repurposing wire
stories and magazine reports, why not send a reporter into Bosnia with a
laptop and digital camera to do on-the-ground human reporting from the
war-ravaged Balkans? Why not cover the 1996 Presidential election on the
ground--the cyberboys on the bus? (Two bright ideas dismissed by all the big
services thus far). I guess human suffering, ethnic cleansing, and bigtime
politics aren't cool enough--better to schedule a celebrity chat with
Smashing Pumpkins for some phony middle class angst instead.
Whether it's because of the bottom-line pressure of quarterly reports to
shareholders, the binding commitments to already existing products and
distributors, or a sheer lack of vision, the big media companies just can't
get it done. If Internet content is going to matter it's going to be up to
the little guys.
In New York there are several interesting e-pubs belonging to the little
guys. But mostly these are journals of opinion--full of think-pieces and
reviews. It is stuff that can be written relatively quickly, stuff that
doesn't require a staff of professional photographers and writers roving the
city with a bevy of professional editors to make sure the reporters ask the
Yes, a thriving Internet scene sprung up in New York because the big media
companies are here, but it also sprouted because this ground is so
fertile--rich with creative talent. The Net is providing a revolutionary
opportunity for folks to do something with that talent. Don't let the moment
We know it's tough for big-time media executives coming at this from a
television or print publishing experience. In those worlds, the big
companies hold the leash, deciding what to allow users to see or read at a
relatively high cost. In the brave new world of the Internet, however,
they're the ones wearing the collars--and those collars are getting tighter.
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