Media companies have to become technology companies, able to quickly and effectively deliver new services that appeal to a generation of readers who only spend about seven minutes a day of their free time reading stuff printed on paper.
That’s the contention propounded this morning by Harold ‘Terry’ McGraw, president and chief executive officer of The McGraw-Hill Companies at the B-to-B World Conference Monday at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. “You can’t defer this to someone else,’’ he says. Even if you outsource some of your technology operations. Media companies have to become experts in using, implementing and executing online services that are based on the appeal of unique content, but driven to users by equally creative technology.
McGraw’s comments come at the same hour that his company’s flagship publication, Business Week, publicly launched the biggest digital investment (and, you can say, gamble) in its history. It’s a service called Business Exchange, where editors and users alike can set up create and then follow content from all across the Web on topics "meaningful to them." In effect, they create their own niche publications on topics such as ... the magazine industry.
McGraw-Hill, at the same time, is the lone media company repeatedly reported to be involved in the bidding for Reed Business Information and the scores of trade publications belonging to this unit of Reed Elsevier. That is the British-Dutch outfit which brings businesses the Lexis and Nexis legal and news services online, for a price. This is not contradictory, McGraw contends. “Content is everything,’’ he says. “We will invest in content.”
But it’s interesting to note that all of the great technology companies that McGraw citied in his keynote address were founded not by veterans of technology, much less media. Google, Facebook and Microsoft, he noted, were all founded by twentysomethings. If that. Sergey Brin, Larry Page finished studies at Stanford. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates each dropped out of Harvard or took leave.
McGraw laments that the “millenials” that are to be the core “reader” for all media companies are “more adept than ever at technology, but as they spend more time online, the less time they spend reading.’’
Maybe it’s because they aren’t educated as well as prior generations. McGraw cited educational statistics that indicate 70% of eighth graders in this country can’t read at an eighth grade level. Or maybe it’s because young people are absorbing, sending and receiving information in different more visual and interactive ways.
The Fourth Estate hasn’t done that great a job of creating a Fifth Estate, on the Internet. Name one breakout online site or service created from within an established media company.
Even BusinessWeek's own Business Exchange, which McGraw did not mention or try to tout at this gathering of business publishers from around the world even on its opening day, does not take one's breath away.
Even BusinessWeek's own Business Exchange, which McGraw did not mention or try to tout at this gathering of business publishers from around the world even on its opening day, does not take one's breath away.The lead item in the magazine industry topic was a thoughtful piece by Executive Editor John A. Byrne on "The Next Big Thing In Journalism." What is that thing? Engaging readers in what you're publishing.
But if you try to put your two cents in on what John has to say, try to find a "talkback" button. What you find is a "Letter to the Editor" button, beneath his byline. Yet that doesn't post your comment online. It doesn't even send it to BusinessWeek. It sends it to ... The Christian Science Monitor. Makes sense -- only if you look around the page. The Monitor must be the sponsor. Or where John's comment originally appeared.
Not only will the Monitor get all your "Letters to the Editor" from that page, it gets pretty much all your next steps. If you want to go "home,'' to the front of the Business Exchange, you look for a clue in the upper left corner of the page. But if you click on the only link to "home" that you can find (anywhere), it takes you to ... The Christian Science Monitor, as well.
"Feedback"? "Innovation"? All the top of page links take you to parts of the Monitor. There's not a single one for BusinessWeek or the Business Exchange.
Sure, the Exchange labels itself as a "beta" service. This still gives me pause. Disclosure: Mr. Byrne and I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism together, three decades ago. The only form of reader "engagement" pretty much was the Letter to the Editor or a heated phone call that the public never heard. Navigation? You just turned the page.
Traditional media remain behind the curve. Attendees at this conference of publishers from all over the globe were advised more than once to turn off their phones and "all electronic devices."
Just imagine trying to tell that to a similarly sized gathering of the Millenial generation. You could ask them that, but if you insisted on them stopping their multitasking, their instant messaging and their twittering, they would walk out. You'd lose them.
But Terry McGraw's comments about media companies becoming technology companies hold in them one way for the oft-clueless traditional media to come up with a game-changing path to the future.
Go after the smartest twenty-something engineering graduates you can find at Stanford or the most antsy dropouts from Harvard that are trying to build Internet-based businesses instead. Put them in control of your technology company-cum-media outfit. Exercise adult supervision, like Eric Schmidt at Google.
And let the Millenials rip. They know how to be engaged -- online.