February 10, 2007

The Big Debate: Online vs. Offline, and Web Influence

In 1998-1999, when I worked for Internet Valley, a small Silicon Valley startup focused on Web search engine optimization, Web influence and technology trends, we believed that you had to "Get Web or Get Out", meaning that the traditional big companies who had dominated the offline world would need to adapt to the Web or risk being left behind altogether. In the year or so I was at the company, we developed new benchmarks to track a Web site's influence, and even tried our hand at predicting the market capitalization of Web companies looking to go public.

Nearly a decade later, it is clear that the Web and the world of e-commerce have had a dramatic effect on the competitive technology and media landscape. It's no mystery that all companies, big and small, have a Web strategy. Some are executing well, while others are seeing their business models completely eroded by faster, nimbler, newer challengers.

Foremost on the road to extinction, barring revolution, are off-line media companies, from newspaper giants like the New York Times to print magazines - especially in the technology field. While technology publications used to number in the hundreds of pages per issue, even the leaders are seeing editions with only a few dozen pages, and maybe a dozen ad pages, including house ads promoting upcoming issues or conferences. Smart advertisers are learning that the best way to accurately track their ad spend and subsequent return on investment is through Web advertising, either through keyword sponsorships, ad banners, or customized landing pages and dedicated sites.

Additionally, the lead that traditional media once had in disseminating the news is long gone. Rather than wait for the New York Times morning edition or the 11 o'clock nightly news to get the day's information, 99% of news can be found from one's favorite news portal online, RSS feeds, or local sites. We stopped getting the San Francisco Chronicle in 1997, and despite my role in our company's media coverage and tracking, I'm slowly letting my free print subscriptions expire at all the tech magazines that have filled my work mailbox for years.

Newspaper circulations are down around the country. Reporters are losing their jobs. But some companies are making change and seeing real results.

As Colin Crawford of IDG writes:

"The brutal reality that we’re facing today is the costly process of dismantling and replacing legacy operations and cultures and business models with ones with new and yet to be fully proven business models. However, we face greater risks if we don’t transform our organization and take some chances."

At IDG, Crawford says that total increase in ad spend online is finally exceeding the decline in the print advertising for the IDG family, meaning the total revenue decline has ceased, that online advertising is carrying a higher burden for sales, and that the success of print is becoming less critical. Meanwhile, the New York Times has seen profit decline each of the last four years, and the near-eventuality is that the Old Gray Lady where "All the News is Fit to Print" may not be in print at all for much longer. The paper's publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, now says he doesn't care whether the Times will be in print in five years or not.

We aren't ignoring what's happening. We understand that the newspaper is not the focal point of city life as it was 10 years ago. "Once upon a time, people had to read the paper to find out what was going on in theater. Today there are hundreds of forums and sites with that information," he says. "But the paper can integrate material from bloggers and external writers. We need to be part of that community and to have dialogue with the online world."

I've written here before about how the advent of the Web significantly impacted my career path, away from being a reporter, and more toward the world of technology and the Internet. I still work with reporters and media every day, but in a new way, in a new medium. To have expected to stay the course, to hope that things would never change, would have been foolish.

Blogs and RSS feeds and instant access to news are changing the way we take in journalism, to the point that even the 24-hour news networks seem like dinosaurs in a fast-moving world, only becoming important in times of crisis or national elections. To stay on top of the news and to maintain true Web influence doesn't take the brand name of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal as it once did. Instead, consumers and news junkies are turning to their peers, through peer media, to get the scoop quick. For the Times and IDG and others to survive, hard decisions are going to need to be made. Luckily, some are doing just that.

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