Explosion in the Content Factory: Fragmentation Shakes the Foundations of Publishing

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Don't freak out. Try to keep it together.

I know the thought is frightening, but as digitized content disperses, publishing brands and content wares splinter across countless platforms, devices, feeds, and syndication venues, the business and editorial infrastructure beneath it all is fragmenting and reassembling just as quickly. The business models, like the content, are flying everywhere and the trick is to keep the overall vision on target, not just cope with content shrapnel.

In just the last few months, major business publishers like IDG, Penton, Hanley-Wood, American Lawyer, and many others say they are re-evaluating or reorganizing their fundamental structures to accommodate the new age of digital fragmentation. The bedrock of publishing tradition has crumbled. Publishers no longer control the context in which their content is used. And that changes everything.

"The earthquake happened very quickly," says Simon Alterman, VP of content for Dow Jones' Factiva line, which works with hundreds of publishing partners. "I don't think anyone assumed that the business models of newspapers or film or music would be rattled quite so profoundly and as quickly as they have been." Not surprisingly, as we interviewed publishing executives, aggregators, and consultants, it was clear that the implications of media fragmentation for the publishing industry are, well, fragmented, and going in many intractable directions at once. "It is not clear yet what the successful business models will be," says Alterman. The best one can do at this early stage in the quake is locate the tectonic shifts, where the great fragmentation is affecting all aspects of content production and business infrastructures. Through the dust, a few basic tactics may become visible.

Content, Content Everywhere
The fundamental reality of media fragmentation is that digitization tends to cleave content from its original context. "Media is no longer something that is authored from start to finish in one way," says Carl Frappaolo, co-founder of Delphi Group, which has consulted for R.R. Donnelly and Pfizer among many others. "It is highly parsed and managed at the individual level with a variety of tools for different means of consumption."

Frappaolo sees law firms sending breaking case-related news to BlackBerrys in the courtroom, or airline technicians pulling plane specs into PDAs from the fuselage. RSS, web syndication, remote device distribution, and search engines have turned all content into potential fragments. "The concept of consuming the content of a publisher as a complete package is under severe threat," says Alterman.

For Alacra, which aggregates over 50 publishers and 100 databases for financial institutions, data must disintegrate and reassemble into intranets, portals, PDFs, Word files, RSS feeds, or Excel spreadsheets. "Whatever the best way is to deliver the content," says co-founder Steven Goldstein. "Any device that can receive an RSS feed, like a BlackBerry, by the end of this year we want to deliver to it." According to PQ Media, in 1975, consumers had only eight major platforms (film, TV, newspapers, etc.) to access media, but by 2005 there were 21.

But even at this early stage in that process of digital fragmentation, a company like American Lawyer Media is seeing beyond the threat to the oppor- tunity. Like many magazine "lists," its ranking of the top 200 law firms is a high point in American Lawyer Magazine's publishing year. At its core, the list comes from a detailed database of revenue and statistics gathered from thousands of firms nationwide. The magazine feature represents only a top slice of that data, but it generates ad-page revenue and the most reprint orders of the year.

At Law.com and AmericanLawyer.com, smaller pieces of the database get cut for select charts, to which ALM sells lucrative sponsorships. The company then sells spreadsheets of deeper data from the top 200, so law firms can compare themselves to the top companies. And then the biggest clients can subscribe to the full ALM databases of all surveyed firms in the country. In the old days, what might have been a typical "lists" piece owned by the magazine unit is really a massive database of research that is re-imagined and monetized across different platforms. Within the organization, says Jack Berkowitz, SVP at American Lawyer Media, this kind of project requires a different infrastructure and an internal culture shift among print, online, and database staffs. "It's the psychology of people understanding that they don't own their content but need to develop products."

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