Monday, 6 May 2013

Generating capacity and the personal media brand

Stuff of legend. Silicon Valley. There's the San Francisco business district at the top of the peninsula  There's the University of California, Berkeley, out of frame across the bay, top-right. There's Silicon Valley itself at the bottom of the bay which is home to most of the big online media companies that have emerged in the last 15 years - names like Google, Yahoo!, Twitter, Facebook - and that have come to redefine the way the media operates. There's Stanford University right smack in the middle of Silicon Valley. The place is to information technology what the City of London is to global finance, and Guangdong is to computer manufacturing. There have been countless books written about it and it is also home to manufacturing companies like Intel, which started up in the 50s making integrated circuits; they gave the place its moniker. Because new technology has always been good business the existence of these companies attracted investors and managers looking for ways to leverage the expertise located in the area into new ventures. Cafes, offices, and dedicated meeting spaces are visited by people who carry their laptops with them and often work remotely, on the hoof, to build capacity for their ideas; they also meet up here with investors looking for viable concepts that can be turned into new businesses.

With this kind of specific gravity, Silicon Valley tends to lead global media and IT innovation and spawn entrepreneurship in those areas. People join companies, they leave companies, they talk with like-minded individuals, they generate ideas, they partner with software developers, they make the business work. And entrepreneurship boosts the economy. When I spoke with Jonathan Ortmans of the US-based Kauffman Foundation, a philanthropic entity that supports entrepreneurship, for a story I wrote in 2009, he said that there is a definitive connection between economic growth and high-growth entrepreneurs. "It’s really these entrepreneurs, ultimately, that have grown our economies over the last 30 years," he told me. So fostering the exchange of ideas is good for the economy.

And the start-up culture is not happening only south of San Francisco. There are many people doing things also in New York, the traditional home of media and publishing, and in regional centres such as Seattle and San Antonio. There are about 1300 media businesses in the US and they're all trying different things in order to keep going. Some businessmen, such as Warren Buffet, the fabled billionaire investor, have counter-intuitively started buying media companies. Then there are rumours that mega-wealthy businessmen Charles and David Koch want to buy a newspaper. And Rupert Murdoch is also allegedly eyeing the Los Angeles Times to add to his list of mastheads. Evidently there is money to be made in the media still.

Accompanying the busy activity of trying new ways to do journalism in the US, there are also numerous pundits, such as Jay Rosen of New York University, who talk routinely in a very public manner about what's wrong with the media - there's been a lot of soul-searching going on due to the media's poor economic performance in recent times - and who have readers across the Anglosphere because most of the public chatter that is specifically about the business and practice of journalism is happening in the US. Prominent academics there who work at universities that have their own media schools also participate in the debate; there are many of them and you can follow them on Twitter to keep informed. There's even an annual meet-up at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, where prizes are awarded for good practice and keynote speakers come to talk about how their organisations are doing it in the new digital economy; it's the 14th year of the symposium this year and proceedings were podcast from Texas to a global audience. On top of these actualities, the Public Broadcasting Service in the US operates a web page dedicated to talking about the media which has a full-time host in Mark Glaser.

In Australia there is a lot of innovation taking place within existing media companies but the university sector has also picked up the ball: The Conversation, started by ex-The Age editor Andrew Jaspan, is funded mainly by a collection of universities. Word is that the model has been so successful at attracting clicks that they're planning to launch a UK version this year. More recently, Margaret Simons, an ex-journalist who teaches at the University of Melbourne, has launched The Citizen, a news website publishing stories written mainly by students. There was also YouCommNews, a website allowing freelance journalists to pitch story ideas publicly in order to gain funding for them; this venture was set up in association with Swinburne University in Melbourne but it hasn't developed much capacity and has largely dropped out of the picture.

As for startups in Australia there is Delimiter, a niche IT website and wire service set up a couple of years ago by Renai LeMay. News Ltd recently acquired Alan Kohler's Business Spectator because it was making money. Both are niche plays. Another niche play is Mamamia, set up by Mia Freedman, who used to work in magazines.

Which brings me to personal branding, something that Stilgherrian does very well. Personal branding and journalism has been discussed in the US a fair bit in the past six months or so. In Australia personal brands that might stand up alone include those right-wing columnists at which Twitter loves to express astonishment on a regular basis. Why they continue to sit inside established media companies is puzzling, but it's probably mostly to do with the fact that they are not online natives and just wouldn't know where to start.

I once interviewed Jack Matthews, who worked as a senior executive at Fairfax Media, and on the way to the elevators after our talk I popped out a comment about disaggregating parts of the company's mastheads to create individual websites that could operate independently and try their own approaches to doing journalism, but the response was negative. Fairfax has kept its mastheads together under recognised URLs - and even expanded them - because of their business model, which is about selling banner ads. There are some exceptions but the principle of agglomeration is dominant for the Big Two.

The ultimate in disaggregation is the personal brand, but as we see in Stilgherrian's case the big money comes from getting commissions from established brands; Stilgherrian is still a freelance journalist, although I believe he also does IT work for clients as well. Who else could set up a website doing journalism alone on the strength of their personal brand? In the business space you can think of Paddy Manning, who has a history of entrepreneurship - he set up Ethical Investor magazine a decade ago and then sold it before moving to Fairfax, which he recently left. You could think of Latika Bourke in the field of politics; she has a swathe of Twitter followers and was an early adopter of new media platforms. There's John Birmingham, who writes op-ed pieces for the Brisbane Times; Birmingham has lots of writing under his belt, including history and fiction. Like Stilgherrian, Birmingham waves the Gonzo tag around a bit, which gives him leave to write in an amusing, irreverent style that entertains his followers. You could think of many others if you wanted to have a chat over a beer with a mate similarly obsessed with the business of media. How about Julian Assange, Antony Loewenstein, Benjamin Law?

The journalists' union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, has started to turn its face toward freelancers because of the large number of layoffs at the Big Two. It recently started offering a type of accreditation service for freelancers designed to lend its reputation for ethical journalistic practices to those who want to go it alone. There's also been a freelancers' website mooted but websites are not the MEAA's strong point. For their part, freelancers continue to pitch story ideas and get commissions from established brands, but there are always struggles and many also do PR, media advice, ghost writing and other higher-paid things on the side.

What kind of things could help people establish personal brands, and make a living out of them? How about digital wallets? A company that rents out video crews? Maybe if there was a type of Australian Silicon valley here there would be more talk, more ideas generated, and more new businesses. Leaving it up to the Big Two is the way it's panning out. Government has no idea. Universities try to be good public citizens. Personal brands are few and far between outside the established mastheads.

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