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Summary:

Prior to the digital age, there were three companies that, acting like undersea currents, steered all news. Namely, I am referring to the bi…

steering wheel
photo: Shutterstock / Thomas Bedenk

Prior to the digital age, there were three companies that, acting like undersea currents, steered all news. Namely, I am referring to the big three TV networks. Even if you didn’t own a TV, back in the 1970s and 80s your news was indirectly influenced by what other journalists saw on ABC (NYSE: DIS), CBS (NYSE: CBS) or NBC (NSDQ: CMCSA). They dominated because they controlled the largest distribution channels.

Today, at least in the United States, a similar dynamic exists – even in a digital age. There are now five companies that influence all news we see, hear and read. Just as before, they do so by controlling the largest distribution channels. Also just like before, even if you don’t own an modern device, your news has been influenced indirectly by one or more of these players.

That’s where the similarities end, however. The entire dynamic is different today and rapidly changing with advances in technology.

My hypothesis, which requires more data to validate or refute, was born out of a conversation I had about a year ago with Dr. Henry Jenkins at USC Annenberg. He detailed two intersecting planes of media. On one continuum there’s “spreadable media” where news finds us. On the other plane there’s “drill-able media” where we find news. These map to our behaviors – passive vs. more active consumption.

This made me wonder: who controls how news finds us or we find news? Five names kept coming up in my mind – Twitter, Facebook, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), Amazon and Google.

Twitter and Facebook dominate the “spreadable media” spectrum. News in short, increasingly visual formats rides along one or both of these currents, winding around the world from sea to sea.

The media is putting a lot of energy into how to create more real-time content that gets shared. Reuters (NYSE: TRI), according to Social Media Editor Anthony Derosa, is seeing huge success with its live blogs.
Infographics, videos, memes and slide shows are de facto weapons in the war for page views. One key reason: they’re irresistible to share on Twitter and Facebook.

That’s what makes Buzzfeed an interesting mashup. The company, which rose to prominence as a zeitgeist for web culture, is branching out into news by hiring writers that understand how to write stories with social networked-lace emotional intelligence. Buzzfeed Co-Founder Jonah Peretti is betting that the social era is replacing search, the reigning king, and browsing, the onetime king, as the primary means we discover news.

Peretti maybe right on one level. However, searching and browsing aren’t dead yet. Tablets and e-readers, in fact, are reinventing both searching and browsing because the devices are reigniting interest in long form content – what Dr. Jenkins calls “drill-able media.”

This is where Apple, Amazon and Google reign. They operate the three largest platforms where people go to find long-form news (my focus is on news vs entertainment, which has many other players to consider like Netlfix and Hulu).

Apple runs the App Store. This gives it the power to knight news apps that play by its rules or nuke ones that don’t. In addition, Apple also runs the iBookstore, which is becoming powerful in its own right.

The consumer electronics giant is now also making a push toward getting media companies to adopt it’s nascent Newsstand feature, which allows consumers to subscribe to publications on their iPhones and iPads. The goal: sell more devices.

Then there’s Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN). In addition to being the dominant e-commerce site, Amazon is the leading distributor ebooks, digital newspapers and magazines. It’s launching low-cost devices to sell more content and is battling Apple for the hearts and mind of the media and news consumers.

Finally, there’s Google (NSDQ: GOOG). In addition to its flagship search engine – long the key way we drill into news – Google also runs YouTube, which has set aside a large pile of money for media companies. Some, like,
Reuters are all in. Google also owns the second largest mobile app store in the Android Marketplace and is also trying to make a run at the spreadable continuum as well with Google+.

As I travel around the media world, everyone I talk to, from execs to junior reporters, is focused on how one or all of these five deep undersea currents can steer their content. They’re rapidly building their mastery of how these companies work – and at every level. No one yet has cracked how these five intersect. But everyone is trying.

This post is excerpted from the forthcoming second edition of The Clip Report, Steve Rubel’s periodic briefings on the future of news.

Steve Rubel is EVP of global strategy and insights for Edelman. A thought leader and writer on media, technology and digital culture, he shares his insights through his blog and his monthly Advertising Age column. You can follow him on Twitter @steverubel.

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This article originally appeared in Edelman.

  1. Maybe I missed something. The headline states FIVE companies, yet I only see three (Apple, Google & Amazon) mentioned – unless we’re counting Reuters, but that’s still only four.

    1. My read is that the author is suggesting Twitter and Facebook are two “spreadable” outlets that join the three “drillable” ones (Google, Apple & Amazon) which makes five. Interestingly, these are the same “big 5″ that dominate tech reporting.

      1. Jeff, correct. We made an edit to make this more clear.

  2. While it is true that how we access the news places important constraints on what we see and hear, one must begin with the question of where the news comes from in the first place. Studies have long showed that television and radio outlets rely heavily on newspapers for news content. This continues to be the case (see Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2010 study of the Baltimore news ecosystem, which showed that despite an explosion of digital sources, the local newspapers continued to originate the major bulk of news). Where do Google and Apple or any of the aggregators get the news they pass along? Still from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other legacy outlets. 

    1. Anne, that’s correct – but I believe they steer the news, less so the originators.

  3. I think Anne is right and kinda blows this whole argument to pieces. The premise is pretty shaky to begin with – the networks never controlled news gathering. Steve’s either Yoda and needs to slow down for us noobs or so smart he’s stupid – making an issue unnecessarily complex and missing the point… like the fact that a media company can’t live off another ecosystem. The “Lamprey Strategy” won’t create enough inventory for the vast majority of web sites to survive. You have find a loyal, direct following – which means “the 5″ are important but still secondary to the good old fundamental of building a brand and loyal audience. Could Jeff have the answer – this is skewed by someone a little close to the tech perspective?

  4. Regarding the various comments above…I think there’s a disconnect between whether we’re talking about creating news content or distributing news content. 

    A few years back, we were talking about blogs and online news sites and the like as being what was really revolutionary because now everyone could be a publisher. However, perhaps the more fundamental shift has really been in how news content circulates through our culture. That’s shift in terms of distribution is what we’re talking about when we write about “spreadable” media. (FYI, I’m co-author of a book with Henry Jenkins–mentioned above–and Joshua Green called Spreadable Media out this fall from NYU Press.)

    Once upon a time, circulation was through broadcasting channels. A select few outlets pumped news into our homes through the mailbox, the radio, or the television set. These days, though, we’re as likely to receive news from one another as we are from big media companies, whether it be through Twitter, through Facebook, or some other communications channel (rather than content programmer).

    That’s not about creating content, though, but rather who circulates it. The majority of the most popular content is still often being produced by traditional news companies. Yet, they are increasingly following their readers because of what is being talked about, and spread. That means a shift in the scales of power, even if it doesn’t mean all citizens are writing New York Times-quality examinations of world events.

    But the role we ALL as citizens come to play in spreading media content doesn’t replace the role of the professional journalist (which is to create the in-depth stories that often informs the news that is being spread). So I may learn about a big event from my friend’s on Twitter, but they are passing around links to in-depth news content (still often produced by traditional media producers) that I can drill deeply into. The distinction between “spreadable” and “drillable” is that the full, dense, and deep text isn’t often what is being passed around in its entirety but rather smaller and easily portable pieces of content. (In the case of Twitter, we can see the tweet is the spreadable content and the full story you click through to as being the “drillable” text.)

    1. Good note, Sam, with a clear connection and distinction between the creators and the spreaders of content. It’s a fascinating topic, but I still think the piece’s headline misleads (or
      plain gets it wrong). Look in your inbox, if you have
      conservative relatives, and tell me that Fox/Rupert Murdoch don’t steer
      the news. Even when they don’t create the actual content, they have
      influenced the tone and style of what’s being spread (and then drilled). Or look at Rush Limbaugh from this weekend. He was spread far and wide, from more drillable sources that we can count and by every distribution channel imaginable (few controlled by the “Big 5″). Hell, how many saw it on TV or a favored website? Where’s Comcast on the list – for cable and internet access? Verizon’s FiOS? NPR in the car – how about good old radio? There are a lot more than a small handful of entities steering the news, and the proliferation of platforms will only expand that number. Granted the original point, while oversimplified, is right that the number’s probably a lot smaller than most would think.

      Maybe my quibble is with the verb. You could argue that none of those cited actually “steer” the news. This post is really about the circulation piece that Sam mentions. The Market/Audience/People steer by voting with their mouse or touch screen. Yes, there are a new set of distributors, controlled by a few big names but all listed are content agnostic and are additive to the existing distributors. They facilitate circulation but they don’t steer the News.

  5. Good points. It’s absolutely the case, Bill, that–even though all of us now have the chance to circulate content–we can expect that the creators of the most highly spread content still will often be big media companies (although their proportion of circulated content has diminished considerably compared to content generated by everyday people when compared to a few years ago, of course).

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