Optimal configuration for innovation

A lot is happening in the media world. Is it meaningful?

Spinning out from the media behemoths are experiments like <re/code> and Ezra Klein's new venture, which the Washington Post decided to pass on but which found a home at Vox Media, which itself was already hosting some new media brands like The Verge, Eater, Curbed, and SB Nation. The Washington Post, of course, is now owned by Jeff Bezos. Andrew Sullivan went from the Atlantic to The Daily Beast, then spun out as an independent entity, turning entirely to his readers for direct financial support. Glenn Greenwald and Pierre Omidyar's First Look Media looks to be rounding into shape. Jessica Lessin's The Information has been up and running for a short while now, and I've long grown accustomed to getting pieces of tech news from sites like Techmeme, Techcrunch, GigaOM, Mashable, PandoDaily, and dozens of others.

Another class of new media enterprise is one that's joined at the hip to more traditional brands. Grantland and Nate Silver's soon-to-be-relaunched FiveThirtyEight draw support and resources from ESPN but stand alone as brands.

On the one hand, it's somewhat hard to tell all of these apart. If I were to describe one of these ventures as a new type of newsroom, armed with the latest technology to allow rapid publishing of both original content and curated content, with an emphasis on original voice, deeper data analysis, and beautiful design and visualization, which of these would ventures would I be pointing the finger at? If you chose All of the Above, perhaps this is a glut in which brands just take the same readers with them from one place to another.

Another daunting challenge is the economics of digital advertising. We're in a world where the supply of digital advertising space is effectively infinite, and so each time you take your batch of user attention to the bank to exchange it for cash, you get less back per eyeball. In an environment where it's not clear that your particular ad unit is markedly superior to that of another property, everyone's attention is valued the same, in a currency that's in a deflationary spiral.

And yet I'm heartened by the activity. The proliferation of smaller enterprises is transforming the media sector into a structural configuration that has proved more conducive to innovation in the past across a variety of industries. Rather than a few behemoths slugging it out, we now have added many media startups experimenting in a number of directions. I still believe the extinction rate will be high, but that's also a characteristic of highly generative environments.

The importance of having a high volume of startups failing quickly in order to lead to innovative breakthroughs is one reason I suspect the Asian giants will need to foster a more supportive startup environment if they're to evolve from being amazing fast followers to surfing at the front of the wave.

In Korea, a massive percentage of the GDP is accounted for by Korean Chaebol, massive business conglomerates. From the time the Korean War ended until now, South Korea has been an economic miracle, transforming from one of the poorest countries in the world (its GDP per capita following the Korean War was $79!) into a modern industrial powerhouse. Government support of a few Chaebol allowed it to rapidly evolve into an export giant. Concentrating resources in the hands of a few companies likely accelerated South Korea's economic rebound in its post-War reconstruction.

Now, however, that structure may be an impediment. Can meaningful innovation occur if it must occur within the Chaebol? I have my doubts. This has nothing to do with my feelings about the Chaebol, for which I have both awe and admiration. Seriously, look at the GDP per capita growth of South Korea from the Korean War until now. That is unbelievable.

Granting all that, the suppressive power of large institutions on innovation is also a powerful force. Many of my Korean friends who want to do startups in South Korea end up having to raise capital in the U.S. before heading back across the Pacific to start their company.

Even once they secure funding, competing against the Chaebol is difficult, as it often is competing against larger companies who have scale and can also subsidize any business with profits from another.

This is not to say large companies can't innovate. Some do so because they happen to be led by an innovator. Others try to set up independent teams who have a mandate and support to try lots of crazy things with a big budget, a long time horizon, and plenty of room for failure.

However, some fraction of innovators will always want to travel alone, not just to be free of corporate overhead but to own more of the profits and/or fame if they develop a product or service of world-changing proportions. Some people just reach a stage where the only voice they want to hear is their own. That's healthy for the overall ecosystem.

The world of journalism is fracturing, and it's exciting. However, what I hope most of these ventures devote ample attention to is innovating on their business models, whether that involves advertising or not. I say that not because I am partial to one model or another but because I'd like to see journalism of all forms continue to thrive. It's a critical institution in well-functioning society, one we've been spoiled by in the U.S., and it only takes traveling to some less fortunate parts of the world to see the impact of not having a healthy Fourth Estate.

Whatever Nate Silver or Ezra Klein or Bill Simmons produce, I'm sure I'll read it, wherever it appears. The problem of making that a profitable venture, on the other hand, is not a trivial one. Journalism has always run on a healthy dose of subsidies, whether from classified or other ads. The separation of that side of the business and the reporting side of the business is a healthy Chinese wall from the standpoint of journalistic integrity, but cleaving the revenue generation from the actual production side of a business and a service has its downsides, too. When the economic environment and market forces turn against you and the subsidies disappear, many of your top employees (in this case the writers/reporters) aren't thinking about how to keep the lights on. For most other businesses, not having your key product people thinking about how to pay the bills would seem like a terrible idea (an example of an exception is filmmaking, where the director, crew, and actors worry about the budget while line producers on set enforce budgetary constraints, but that's not an ongoing concern like a newspaper or magazine).

Ironically, it's entrepreneurial one or two person shops who've never had the luxury of subsidies who've shown that breaking down that Chinese wall need not be a disaster. Many famous bloggers and podcasters have turned to interesting advertising models to support their craft. I remember when Daring Fireball had no ads. Now I'm used to seeing regular sponsor shoutouts in his blog. To ensure the ads are seen by people accessing his content in a variety of ways, he integrates the callouts directly into his stream, ensuring the ad appears in his RSS and Twitter feeds.

Likewise, when I first started listening to podcasts years ago, most were labors of love. Now it's the exception when I listen to a podcast that doesn't include in-stream sponsor callouts (especially Stamps.com and Squarespace, who have either figured out that there is a temporary market inefficiency and have cornered the podcast sponsorship market or are just the only ones buying this ad medium. Or both.). Unlike sports broadcasters who try to feign a modicum of enthusiasm when they share that the latest broadcast is brought to you by Budweiser, the king of beers, many podcasters will spend a few minutes extolling the benefits of their sponsors in their own unscripted voice.

Just doing some back of the envelope math, I wouldn't be surprised if these independent bloggers or podcasters actually have the potential to make a lot more profit doing what they do than a journalist at a larger enterprise, like Ezra Klein's upcoming venture. They probably have much lower cost structures because they don't do traditional reporting which involves a lot of travel and phone calls and networking and many of them can work from home. They don't have a lot of corporate overhead they have to subsidize.

While it's not fun to hear about some of the most esteemed journalistic institutions struggling to survive in this shifting environment, the stormy weather has shaken more than a few seeds loose from the oldest trees in the forest. I'm curious to see what sprouts up on the forest floor.