Is every company now a media company?
Tom Foremski will be covered in my new book, Pioneers of Social Media in the chapter called braided journalism. He has twice blazed a path for others to follow.
In 1999 he joined the Financial Times’ San Francisco bureau full time to help expand the newspaper’s coverage of US technology markets and Silicon Valley. He left the Financial Times in 2004 and continues to write columns on Silicon Valley for the Financial Times, and on his own Silicon Valley Watcher.
In your recent past, you shifted from being a media company employee to becoming a media company. What made you decide to make the move?
In 2004 blogging was starting to emerge from the geek space and be noticed by the mainstream press. I was working at the Financial Times and it just seemed like a good idea to jump right in. I didn’t really understand blogging but I knew in my gut that it was game-changing and the best way to understand it was to start doing it.
Also, I had some experience being a publisher, I had published a local newspaper in the Haight/Ashbury district called “The Street: A View From The Haight” in the late 1980s; and I had run a news company, West Coast Media for about 15 years, so I knew that I didn’t need to have a safe, regular job.
How does blogging for yourself change how and what your write?
When I left the Financial Times I continued writing on the same topics and in the same way: interviewing senior execs at companies such as Intel, Cisco plus startups. That didn’t change much at all from my FT work. However, I also found that I could write in a different style, what I called my 3 am style, which could be off-beat and more gonzo journalism in a toned down Hunter S. Thompson [l] style. That made it all very enjoyable and it was acceptable, because the medium was new and no one knew what “blogging” should be like.
Why do you think there hasn’t been a great stampede of reporters and editors into the blog journalist role you have pioneered?
I don’t see a big stampede. In fact, I see very few blogs out there. Look at GigaOm, ReadWriteWeb, All Things D, Business Insider, VentureBeat… What makes them blogs?
They are online news sites with the same structure of editors, sub-editors, photographers, etc. that the old media has. Yes, they use a blogging platform to publish but that’s because blogging platforms are inexpensive, rock-solid publishing platforms. (When I was at the Financial Times we were transitioning to a new media publishing platform that cost millions to build and required a full time support staff of dozens.
When I left, I installed Movable Type on a server in the cloud. I had an extremly powerful content management system, running on a Linux stack for $50 a month.) But just because you use a blogging platform doesn’t make you a blogger. What makes those “new media” publications different from the “old media?” I don’t see any difference at all in their content or their organization.
For the past several months, your anthem has become “every company is a media company.” Just what does that mean?
‘Every company is a media company’ is something I began to notice soon after I left the Financial Times. I only started to write about it in the last year or so because now people can understand this idea a lot better.
I remember a meeting in early 2005 with Dan Scheinman[r], head of M&A and corporate communications at Cisco. He shared with me some of the traffic stats Cisco was getting for their in-house newsroom, news@cisco, which employs former media professionals — reporters and editors. Cisco was getting more traffic than the largest IT publications.
That’s when it hit me that every company is a media company, every company has to publish to its customers, to its staff, to its communities.
Even if you make diapers you still need the skills of a media company. And in today’s fragmented media world you need those skills even more than before because there is an important phenomena in media: if you establish a pole position it is very difficult for others to dislodge you.
For example, Zappos blogging in online shoe buying, have you heard of anyone else in that space? The same happens in other media sectors. People complain about the quality of Techcrunch coverage but it’s in a pole position in startup coverage and so you have to live with it whether you like it or not. For companies, if they can’t establish a pole position in their media space their competitors will grab it. If you are not seen online you are invisible. But what does it take to be a media company? That’s where I’m hoping to help companies and help finance my day job publishing Silicon Valley Watcher.
Can you give me an example of a company that has demonstrated it can take advantage of being a media company?
Zappos is a good example. Also Intel, which I’ve worked with and now produces a lot of media, such as Intel Free Press, with photos, podcasts, video, hiring former media professionals to do the work. Also IBM has been very savvy thanks to Jon Iwata [l] and his visionary leadership.
So companies can use social media to tell their own stories by themselves. Is there not a danger that they’ll just embed a PR writer on the corporate blog to pump out marketing crap in social media clothing?
Yes, there is a danger of doing that, which is why it is important to have some media professionals on hand to try to keep a high quality. But that’s not easy because companies will always have tendency to “gild the lily” and worse.
The beauty of the Internet is that you get a quick repsonse to how well you are doing. Yes, you can write marketing claptrap and delight your internal audience but the external audience will avoid it. What result do you want? Unfortunately, companies approach media projects via a committee and that doesn’t produce the best results, it tends to produce mediocre results.
Can you suggest a few ways that a company can take advantage this new role as a media company?
Companies need to find the natural storytellers within their organizations. Sometimes those people are fairly junior people but they know how to tell the stories of the company and they have a natural enthusiasm and passion for their subject. A
lso, companies need to understand the ephemeral nature of media, “yesterday’s fish wrap” is still very true, or in today’s world, it’s the “prior hour’s fishwrap.” The noise level in the online media world is loud and getting louder. How do you punch through that? You have to be consistent and you have to be in it for the long haul.
Becoming a media company is not for the faint hearted but it’s something that every company has to master or be left out of the picture. It’s one of the most important strategy issues facing every business.
How does “every company” change the way they interact with traditional media companies?
They don’t. And they can help traditional media. For example, today’s newsrooms are poorly staffed, the journalists are working three times as hard, if you can provide them with background info, pictures, video, etc in a readily usable form then that helps them do their job and you, as a company, help them get the story out. The traditional media companies don’t have to use your media materials but if it is there then they probably will because it makes them more productive.
What is the role of communications managers and consultants in all this?
Once companies realize that they also have to be media companies there are lots of skills and services they will need. If they are large like Intel or Cisco they can develop many of those skills in-house. But for many smaller companies they will need to buy-in those skills as they need them, and so there will be a huge need for skilled media professionals and services.
Is this whole concept another nail in the coffin of news media companies?
No, not at all. It’s all about “horses for courses.” Companies won’t displace news organizations they will be complimentary. The way people consume media is different. When I go to Cisco or IBM I am conscious that what I read will be biased in some way towards the company, that’s fine, I can adjust for that. News media companies are an independent platform and I adjust my expectations. One doesn’t negate the other.
The nail in the coffin for news media is that they cannot port their legacy business model to the new digital business model. For example, Business Insider, the popular news site founded by Henry Blodget, the former Wall Street analyst recently revealed its 2010 finances. It made a profit of $2K on $5m in revenues. It has 8 million readers yet each one is worth just 62 cents a year. That’s the stark reality of the online media business model. You can’t get there from here. That’s why we see the old media in so much trouble and that’s why the carnage has a lot further to go. And with fewer media organizations out there, companies need to start relying on their own efforts to help tell their own stories.