Media’s Blame Game

Earlier this week, the New York Post reported that the cover of the July 29th issue of Time magazine, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission to the moon, is “brought to you by Jimmy Dean” and features a front cover flap with “an ad on its underside ‘celebrating 50 years of quality sausage.’” The decades have certainly been kinder to sausage than they have to magazines. This is just the latest indignity to be suffered by a former property of Time Inc., which itself has been dismantled and sold off like pieces of scrap metal to other publishers, who are now primarily in the business of strip-mining for consumer profile data.

This is clearly the darkest timeline. How did we end up here, and who is to blame? When posed to people in the industry, especially those on the business side, such questions often elicit a list of usual suspects dominated by technology companies. They may even include consumers on the list. Basically, anyone might be on there except the media companies themselves. And I, for one, am sick of this blame game.

The offices of Time Inc. just so happen to be where I experienced my first interaction with media industry executives — I mean the people in power, not the reporters and editorial types. It was 1994, and the company was at its zenith, still many years out from being humbled by the internet. I don’t know how, but I weaseled my way into this meeting, where I hoped to learn more about Pathfinder, their newly launched Internet portal. It was an amazingly astute product for its time, and I assumed that the company behind it must surely have an insight or two into the future of media in the digital age. These were the early days of trying to make media work on the Internet, and we were all seeking answers. But I didn’t get any at that meeting.

Instead, I learned that the business side of Time Inc. treated Pathfinder as a cute experiment, to be treated much like a newsstand. Despite their public posturing, it was clear that no one in the room was thinking about the long-term potential of the Internet. I expected invigorating discussions about how to build Time Inc. into a company that could thrive in the constantly connected world, one in which we would read our news on screens instead of paper, that was surely coming. But from what I saw, if these sorts of dialogues were happening at Time Inc. in 1994, the executives weren’t the ones having them. Pathfinder was shuttered just five years later.

Here was a company that could have masterminded the successful future of media on the Internet, but instead its namesake publication is reduced to selling its hallowed cover to a sausage company. This should tell you all that you need to know about the business of media. It is what happens when you are too incompetent to make bold decisions about the future and opt instead to rely on others to — hopefully — carry you to the promised land. Keep this story in the back of your mind (along with a gigantic pinch of salt) whenever you hear media mandarins bemoaning the ills wrought by Craigslist, Google and now Facebook on their industry. Self-accountability is sorely missing from media company board rooms.

My theory is that the lack of forward thinking in this industry stems from the predominance of sales executives as leaders of media companies. Most companies (in any industry) that have survived major transitions and the onslaught of innovation are those who have a product-centric approach to management, which allows them to think in the long-term. In the media industry, very few individuals transition from product to leadership positions, and those who do — Jim Bankoff of Vox Media and Jim VanderHei of Axios, for example — find they can build an outfit that embraces change.

Still, the surest path to becoming a chief executive of an organization is through sales — and this is especially true of media. These days, if you are a media executive with a developed (albeit chimerical) reputation, an ability to manage an advertising sales force, and a willingness to hobnob with media investment bankers, then you are always in demand. No matter your level or lack of competence, you can jump from one gig to another.

Much like the investors, who simply want to make or at least recover their money, this kind of media chief doesn’t really care about editorial principles. They are more inclined to hire carnivores to slash expenses and do whatever it takes to goose up the numbers, even if it is a short term lift. (Gizmodo team, don’t worry, you are on your way to becoming a paid content platform — much like Forbes.)

When you have sales guys (they are mostly guys) in charge, decisions will reflect their usual approach, which is to maximize their personal gains as quickly as possible, cash in their bonus checks, and then move on to another outfit desperate enough to let them do it all again. This won’t work in an industry in need of the focus, foresight, and boldness that brings about transformational change. Sadly, the media establishment’s attitude appears to track more with our politicians’ thinking on climate change. They tell themselves, “I’ll be dead before the bad stuff happens.”

Whether its sharing content on Facebook or the importance of SEO for Google, media companies are consistently slow (and bumbling) on the uptake when it comes to technology. I remember when Digg was the pretty young thing. After it had helped boost the fortunes of the likes of my old blog or Michael Arrington’s blog, big media executives discovered that they could juice up their pageviews and arbitrage those free views with cheap display advertising. This was the wrong lesson.

If they had been paying proper attention, instead of focusing on pageviews, media executives would have noticed Digg’s social impact — how it was, as I like to say, putting the “me” in media. Social was not about ads it was about getting to know your readers, creating personalized experiences and building deeper, meaningful bonds, which went beyond just a means for creating clicks and advertising dollars. Technology companies, soulless and greedy as they might be, got it. And so, they were the ones to capitalize on social and become the primary gatekeepers of information.

To put it bluntly, media execs are good at aping, not at innovating. Most wait for others to try new things, and then adopt those things once they have proven successful. As a smart media insider quipped to me, “The smartest people in media get out.” It is a forest fire of an industry. There is no upside to hanging about and dealing with the chaos. Those left in power after the exodus have dubious credentials and operate with very limited time horizons. I can name at least four major executives who, though dismissive of the Internet and digital technologies in the early days, now pass themselves off as digital media gurus.

I hope everyone remembers these short-term thinkers — and wonder who is really to blame for destroying the media landscape — when they notice Time magazine mentioning what a wonderful half-century this has been for the sausage industry.

This first appeared on my weekly newsletter dated July 21, 2019. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest

A letter from Om

Sign up & get it delivered to your inbox