Chicago Tribune Phil Rosenthal column
Jan 01, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
There's a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, that pundit Chris Matthews and others tell about former politician Bill Bradley. The featured guest at a banquet, Bradley asked for a second pat of butter and was rebuffed by the waiter, who insisted each diner was allowed only one.
Bradley told the waiter something along the lines of: "I don't think you know who I am. I'm Bill Bradley. I was a Rhodes scholar. A United States senator. I won an NBA title with the New York Knicks, and I'm tonight's keynote speaker." The waiter was thoroughly unimpressed.
"I don't think you know who I am," the waiter supposedly said, and Bradley had to admit that he didn't. "I'm the guy with the butter."
Technology has upended so much in life and commerce, empowering consumers through access to data on increasingly mobile devices. But those who want something to spread on their dinner roll still have to go through the guy with the butter.
No matter how much or how fast technological advances alter the means of distribution and consumption, those with something that's unique and valued should be able to leverage it.
This is the challenge and the hope for 21st century media companies, including Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co., newly emerged this week from a little more than four years under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
There is little profit to be squeezed from giving people what they easily can get elsewhere cheaper or for free. It has to be better, distinctive and coveted. Produce content people want and value and that only you can provide, however, and they'll have to come to you.
It's no different than any other marketplace. Outbound CBOE Chairman and Chief Executive William Brodsky rightly rhapsodizes about how developing proprietary trading products such as the VIX market volatility index has added value and stature to the Chicago Board Options Exchange.
The priority on the proprietary in the music business has meant easily copied recordings have been replaced as major moneymakers by live performances. Online movie services compete in part on the basis of films and TV shows they offer exclusively.
TV outlets can ill-afford to simply be satisfied serving as spigots for programming available elsewhere, and full-service news operations must be more than a pipeline to the same basic reports, pictures and scores as everyone else. An audience with a world of options in their palm demands better information, perspective and/or enterprise.
The new directors of Tribune Co. -- including Peter Liguori, a former cable TV executive whose fortunes rose through development of groundbreaking series -- have decisions to make about how to maximize the value and effectiveness of the company's holdings in this fast-changing digital age.
This may mean breaking long-standing bonds between broadcasting assets and publishing, splitting apart the company by medium, region or markets, perhaps selling individual outlets.
Rupert Murdoch, for example, is splitting his news and entertainment media empire in two, separating publishing interests from movie and TV properties.
Regardless of the combinations Tribune Co. settles upon, success will depend on its agility and ability to deliver proprietary content. The exponentially accelerating speed of change will demand it.
"Google's how old " said Dag Kittlaus, co-founder and CEO of the company that developed Siri and gave rise to Apple's voice-recognition assistant app. Not long ago, near his suburban Chicago home, he contemplated the speed of change: "Remember the Dewey Decimal System and going to library and all that Think of how much the world has changed in that amount of time. That's in the blink of an eye."
What Google and the card catalog both needed to be useful was the same: content.
Ditto for social media, blogs, websites and the portable tablets, smartphones and computers used to access them. Content lends value to DVD players, TV sets, radios, audio players and plain paper.
Apple is known for its computers and gadgets, but it shrewdly has supplemented them with a media ecosystem of content through its lucrative iTunes and App Store businesses.
No one knows what the next Google or iPad will be. Those who get too hung up on specific media platforms are at risk of being blindsided by the next one. Best to be platform agnostic, and focus on one's own core capabilities.
"I was recently in Silicon Valley, and somebody said to us, 'Every idea you've heard about someday is going to happen,'" Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, whose cable, Internet and telephone empire has expanded to include the additional content and distribution resources of NBCUniversal, told Forbes a few weeks ago.
"Software is changing everything," Roberts said. "So you have to reinvent your company all the time and reinvent the business model."
So far people have seemed willing to pay if they believe they will be entertained, become wealthier, healthier or smarter in an area of particular interest. In short, people will pay to live a better life. It's still a struggle for segments of the news business, however.
Tribune Co. boss Col. Robert R. McCormick, 21 years after getting into radio via what's now WGN-AM 720 and three years from launching what would be WGN-Ch. 9, said the then-nascent medium of TV would be an adventure and an experiment both for those in the media and those who consumed it.
"Again we are pioneers," McCormick said in July 1945. "We shall have to develop new skills. We shall face disappointments. Unquestionably we shall face difficulties we do not now imagine. But that is a part of pioneering. We don't know what's out there. That's why we're going all out to find out."
This is no less true today. Because the media business is not the butter business, it will have to do more to get on a roll.
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