It used to be easy to identify the biggest players in the news market. Names such as Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner and their wealth of well-known media brands and properties would immediately come to mind. Today, the web and social media, in particular, have quickly and effectively changed the news media terrain. No longer are people devoted to that one brand or channel for their news or that one stalwart that runs a nationally known newspaper or cable (or network) news channel. News junkies have started to turn to a variety of sources, not just the trusted anchors or illustrious mastheads.
“The days of everyone watching the 6 p.m. news and people getting their news from the same source are long gone,” says Larry Schwartz, co-founder and president of Newstex, which offers its client base aggregated news and full-text feeds from thousands of news sources. “The segmentation is huge now and the speed at which news travels is huge.”
It’s not just a huge media enterprise that is managing the flow of news content today. The whole definition of a news source has greatly changed. “A single person now can be a news source and publish, broadcast, and get as much buzz as [a larger outlet],” says Schwartz. “A single person can tweet a story … and have as much impact as The New York Times. That’s a huge change.”
The Making of a News Leader
So what’s leveling the playing field? How are small players—so small that they may be a one-person operation—able to earn the eyeballs and respect of content consumers? There are many factors at play. “They can really come from anywhere,” says Kathy Greenler Sexton, vice president and general manager of the content division of SIIA (The Software & Information Industry Association). “They have the technology. They’re smart guys and they have the right idea at the right time.”
“When you think of a mogul … it’s all about relevancy and context, and a mogul has the influence,” says Greenler Sexton. “But influence on the web, depending on who you are, you don’t need that money to match the old moguls of the past. But you will have the influence.”
Schwartz says that these new tycoons are created through a specific cycle. First, they typically begin with one person posting his or her opinion. After an audience is established, that person might hire staff members and get venture capital funding. Sometimes, the operation is acquired by another media company. “But it always starts with one or two people in a room typing out their thoughts and their opinions. And if they get an audience, they grow it into a network or into a media company,” says Schwartz. “They’re just not people sitting at home in their pajamas anymore. These are important media companies that sway public opinion.”
One of the most notable examples of this is paidContent, which started with Rafat Ali sitting at his computer. He built a following and a team before selling the company—ContentNext Media, Inc.—to Guardian News and Media Ltd. in 2008. Earlier this year, paidContent was sold again, this time to another leader in the world of digital news, GigaOM.
Schwartz points to Business Insider, a business website that provides news for a variety of vertical markets, from finance to politics to entertainment and sports. Led by Henry Blodget, a former Wall Street analyst, Business Insider “produces as many stories as a major newspaper does. They’re probably read by more people than a metro newspaper now; and they’re influential,” says Schwartz.
For news on a national or international scope, the local daily news sources don’t typically provide the depth of coverage that today’s readers seek. “Nationally or internationally, if your interest is technology or politics or whatever, the local paper or the nightly news just doesn’t deliver the depth or analysis that you want anymore,” says Schwartz. “There are so many choices. There’s so much segmentation.”
Who Are the New News Tycoons?
It’s hard to truly get a handle on just who the new leaders in news are. The very nature of the internet makes it difficult to pinpoint who the most influential voices are at any moment. It’s so difficult, in fact, that when industry experts were asked who they thought the new news tycoons were, they couldn’t agree on a substantial list.
There are new “must read” news sources almost every day. Each has its dedicated followers who remain engaged through a mix of breaking news and analysis. And identifying the new news leaders isn’t made any easier by the variety of forms they take. Some of the biggest names in news take traditional journalism and give it a digital spin. From The Huffington Post—and all of the other AOL, Inc. properties that are now part of the Huffington Post Media Group—to GigaOM, many of the new news leaders don’t look all that different from the old tycoons. But each of these started as the vision of one person—Arianna Huffington and Om Malik, respectively.
Sites such as ProPublica eschew the fast-paced breaking news and aggregation models of other sites such as The Huffington Post and concentrate on in-depth, investigative journalism—the kind that had all but disappeared at even the most well-respected, old-fashioned news sources. ProPublica, Inc. is led by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal; Stephen Engelberg, a former managing editor of The Oregonian and former investigative editor of The New York Times; and Richard Tofel, the former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
But the new leaders in news don’t always take such a familiar shape—many look more like Schwartz’s Newstex. Aggregators such as Flipboard, News360, and Google Currents neatly package content from a variety of sources so readers don’t have to hunt for news from the ever-proliferating number of sources. And often these aggregators deliver that directly to smartphones or tablets.
Social Media and the Personal News Experience
In the past, solid financials and strong brands have made identifying the traditional news leaders an easy task. Today, those brands don’t always hold the value they once did. In many cases, digital media sources are able to provide a more personalized experience. With fewer staff members and less overhead, these new news leaders are able to focus on niche content and to cater to more specialized audiences. In fact, it’s this niche nature that makes determining the new news tycoons such a difficult and subjective process.
No discussion of a personal news experience is complete without a mention of social media, where each of us is able to curate our own news stream and, in effect, be the editor of our own personal news site. Facebook is making it even easier to do this with Interest Lists, which allows users to subscribe to content on a specific subject matter.
“If I had to vote for the new news tycoon, I would vote Twitter,” says Schwartz. “If someone breaks a story that I think is authoritative, I’m going to retweet it and if enough people retweet it, that becomes breaking news. Twitter is really the new news tycoon.”
In fact, Schwartz says that he considers Twitter today’s news wire, where people can find those breaking news tidbits. While Twitter is not perfect—it can be difficult, at times, to separate truth from rumor—it does provide a level of immediacy that is challenging for the traditional news players to compete against.
“I think it’s a new world and you’re seeing people adapt to it,” says Schwartz. He notes how the newsgathering process has changed for people seeking breaking news. He points to what he did when singer Whitney Houston died in February, and news of her death began to emerge.
“I hear a rumor and somebody says Whitney Houston died. I open my iPad, look at CNN and there’s nothing there. I go to FOX News, nothing there. I go to NBC, nothing there,” recalls Schwartz. “Then I go look on my RSS feed and see some rumblings. Then I go to Twitter and Twitter’s ablaze with news about Whitney Houston. You start to realize that if you want to find out breaking news, you go to Twitter.”
“All of the big players have tried to get into social media,” says Dan Strempel, senior editor/analyst of the business and professional group at Simba Information, a market intelligence firm that covers the media and publishing industries. “They all have Twitter accounts and they comment there on things that are happening in the news or they release product information through Twitter.”
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