This year’s Changing Media Summit concluded last week with some intriguing insights into the anxieties and hopes of legacy media companies (books, newspapers, TV, radio etc.).
Somewhat patronisingly dubbed “old media” by the rising digitocracy, it’s fair to say that they’ve taken quite a hammering over the years. Not only were they blindsided by the pace and scale of digital transformation during the closing few years of the last decade, but they were then brutally savaged by the recession, which laid waste to whole revenue streams for some.
Survival has been painful, involving major cuts, all manner of contortions and restructurings, and, most importantly, digital extensions. But they now look in a far healthier shape, having embraced the field of digital content rather than fought it.
A measure of the level of stress and adrenaline this transition has involved came in a description proffered during a panel discussion at the summit (chaired by The Guardian’s media correspondent Robert Andrews). Anna Jones, CEO of Hearst UK, likened developing media strategy to “white water rafting.” But the maturing digital efforts of these traditional media companies, and the balanced management of their ever-shrinking analogue cores, has allowed their owners to exert more control over their futures than anyone would have anticipated just a few years ago.
That said, there are still anxiety-provoking challenges ahead, like competing with what Freemantle Media’s CEO, Keith Hindle, described as “heavily venture capital-backed, digitally-obsessed companies.” As he put it:
“We’re talking here about how we’re managing to move towards a more digital-focused model in our core businesses. But, actually, there are many players out there – Vox and Vice, BuzzFeed – who have no other dream, they have no core business that they’re trying to fold digital into. They are digital at their core.
“When you’ve got that coupled with venture capital money that says, ‘Here’s $50m, we don’t want you to make a profit for eight years, go and build a business’, that becomes a challenging thing to compete with and I think that’s the real challenge to us.”
That’s a formidable kind of competition. But by playing savvy, there’s still hope – former “enemies” like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple (“GAFA”) are turning out to be “frenemies”, competitors whose platforms can be partnered with to drive business.
Legacy media companies are, as the old Chinese proverb says, living in “interesting times.”