Investing in Media? Junk Traditional Models

The business of media, especially news media, is a curious one. You wield a lot of power, but often the economics of running the business is tricky. It is a business that delivers above-normal returns to the top 2-3 players, and practically nothing to the rest.

The reason is that success is dependent on the quality/quantity of content and the TG reached – each feeding off the other to form a positive feedback loop – something that lesser players will not be able to replicate. But, on both ends, you need to pump in a lot of money and keep at it.

Unlike a content aggregation and curation business, which may be more of a play on content marketing and tech, core content creation is extremely human-skill-intensive.  Therefore, typical success parameters like revenue, efficiency ratios, margins, active users, returns, exit opportunities, etc. will all come to naught if one doesn’t add Editorial Talent & Patience to the mixture – These two require investment and conviction.

A content-heavy media business is not amenable to the regular cookie cutter method of investing/business modelling. There are three essential components – content creation (input), content discovery & engagement (output).

Creation

Let’s face it quality news/informative content is inherently not exponentially scalable, regardless of the technology that you might deploy. This is because one requires human skills that can identify trends, smell out stories, contextualize them and produce compelling content (text, videos, pictures, infographics, etc.). This means you need to seriously invest in good talent and then give them time. Every time you wish to ramp up quantity of content, you need invest in more talent, and so on and so forth.

Yes, there’s user generated content & citizen journalism, but if you are a serious player you would mandate serious fact-checking and editing. That implies equally dedicated editorial process/teams. Curation is an option but there’s no long term benefit, as you would want to own the content and the associated value chain.

Discovery/Distribution

The next leg, discovery of content, is perhaps where one could apply a traditional business prism of marketing and audience building. Discovery is dominated by platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. and stories are being discovered by contextual shares.

Therefore, you need to be (1) creative; (2) iterative; (3) able to crunch data; (4) repurpose content; and (5) most importantly, prepared to spend money. Given constant algorithmic tweaks by discovery platforms like Facebook, pumping up organic reach is not easy and paid reach is getting expensive. Hence, one needs adequate funding and a healthy disregard for instant gratification.

Moreover, you need to focus on where the trend is, where your TG hangs out, how the content fits in that spectrum, and what is it that will drive discovery into engagement. Once again, it boils down to investing in talent that can straddle content creation and community building, and empowering that talent to do so every day.

Engagement

Home pages are no longer the entry point, which means that you need to figure out more meaningful UI/UX across your entire product. It also means being able to create an affinity with your content in the time it takes to scroll from one time to the other on the feed of any of the discovery platforms.

Need I mention it again that it boils down to the right talent? Content businesses need leaders & teams that can integrate tech and content in a way that they are able to tell a story and distribute it across several channels for maximum impact. And the talent that can do that is scarce.

Ultimately, it all boils down to a founder’s/investor’s commitment to the cause and her stamina to run the course every day of her life. The shelf life of news/informative content is low and one cannot afford to take their eyes off the meter even for a day.

The question is how does one sustain such a business? Constant fund raising is not the solution. It calls for looking for revenue sources outside of regular advertising & branded content. Can we put the bad genie of free content back in the bottle? Can our wish for patient capital be fulfilled?

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