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Opinion: Time Is Running Out on Legacy Media Brands

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Media has been moving from the general to the specific for some time. As the world moves faster, becomes more interconnected and complex, specificity is needed to stay fully informed on any given topic. The Web has only accelerated this trend.

Examples of the impact of this are clear in many areas. Newspapers, the newsweeklies and national evening network news programs have all suffered due to their inability to keep up with 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet. The general business magazines, the b-to-b press and even The Wall Street Journal have all suffered greatly as both readers and marketers have moved their focus to the always-on digital solutions that are fast becoming the most important outlets for news, information and analysis. As for sports, while live events will continue to capture consumer attention, time spent reviewing events, and stats and opinion about the events can all be done online.
 
Old media, even highly focused old media, simply cannot keep up. Look at almost any vertical and the story is the same: There are huge discrepancies between offline reach and online visitors. Too often the legacy publisher continues to think about the brand's Web site as an extension of the base product and therefore something smaller in reach and ambition than the mother ship. But not only is it impossible to attract bigger audiences online, it's core to a brand's ability to stay relevant.
 
Time spent online as a percent of overall time spent with media has been going up every year for the last 15 years, a trend that shows no sign of slowing. With the shift in consumer focus, advertising dollars have been transitioning online as well (although it is worth noting that while the overall percent of ad dollars online has continued to go up, the gap between ad spend and time spent has in fact been widening).
 
Every offline medium has been hurt by these trends, but print -- both newspapers and magazines -- has been among the most drastically affected, in part because, at its core, the form factors simply cannot keep up. In a true innovator's dilemma (an idea from Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovator's Prescription), the response by the established print players to these structural inefficiencies has been to try to make a better legacy product or to produce it less expensively or, more recently, replicate it in a derivative fashion but with the same limitations.
 
The results of these trends and actions have been well documented. Magazine and newspaper ad revenues have been substantially down for some time, rate bases have been cut and many newspapers and magazines have simply given up and gone out of business. In many ways, the idea of general-interest media is coming to an end. Media will be about pointillism, with the consumer free to dive into specific areas of interest when, where and how he or she wants. The "general" will come when the end user connects the dots that are most important to themselves.
 
Forbes.com, for example, enjoyed 20 million unique visitors online compared to 4.5 million readers for the magazine. This did not happen overnight but it did happen.

There were two fundamental reasons why this occurred. First, it was quickly realized that what Forbes.com was not was Forbes magazine. Both products were produced for the same audience, but they served radically different needs.  And second and even more importantly, it became abundantly clear that Forbes.com had to be constructed for the Web right from the very beginning. It certainly had to be true to the brand, but it was also of paramount importance to create a product that used as much of the Web's combined attributes as possible -- the notions of "always on," "fully multimedia" and "selfdirectedness" being perhaps the most important.

While far fewer than there should be, there are other notable examples of offline brands that have successfully iterated onto digital platforms. The New York Times has done some wonderful work around online navigation and new digitally empowered applications. ESPN has taken the entwining of text and video to new heights and CNN has been a very fast follower of using advanced social networking applications to make the news of the day come to life in wholly new ways.  
 
I fear, though, that as we sit on the verge of the second decade of the new millennium, if the vast majority of legacy non-digital media companies do not quickly become more open to the tectonic shifts in how consumers interact with content, we will see a whole era of media brands disappear. And they'll be replaced by more and more Huffington Posts, CNETs and others.

Jim Spanfeller is president and CEO of The Spanfeller Group. He can be reached at jim@spanfellergroup.com.