Summary:

The annual paidContent 50 list ranks media companies based on digital revenues. But revenues aren’t the only thing to watch. Here are the five media companies that I think have most interesting, innovative strategies.

As the media industry continues to undergo unprecedented disruption, thanks to the web and the democratization of distribution that it provides, everyone is searching for the secret to success. Does it come from controlling the platform, as Amazon and Apple do, or in being as open as possible and adapting to new media tools and behavior?

In the second annual paidContent 50 list, we rank  the most-successful media companies in the world according to digital content revenue. On that list, you’ll find companies like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters. But, in this post, I want to look at what I think are the most interesting media companies, new and old, and what they can tell us about where the opportunities lie in the future.

These are not the most financially successful media companies, or the most influential, and I’m not recommending that everyone emulate them. I’m simply arguing that they are interesting in some way — either because they are trying something new, or because they are zigging while everyone else is zagging. With that in mind, here are my choices and why I think they are worth paying attention to, in no specific order:

Twitter

We’ve been arguing for some time that Twitter is a media entity, and there is increasing evidence to support that argument, including the company’s move into curated editorial offerings such as its weekly email (which it launched after acquiring Summify) as well as sports-related news hubs like the one it is planning to launch in partnership with NBC for the Olympics. One of the most interesting things about Twitter is that it is trying to create what amounts to a multibillion-dollar advertising-supported media company using other peoples’ content, especially with new features such as expanded tweets — which embed additional content inside Twitter’s apps and website. And now there are rumors that Twitter is looking to help create TV-style programming that will appear within and be promoted throughout the network. But can the company do these things without diluting what many users see as its core value as a real-time information utility?

Amazon

The world’s biggest online-only retailer helped to revolutionize the media industry by disrupting the book-retailing business with its website, but then it went a step further with the Kindle e-book reader — which has created a platform for publishing of all kinds, whether it’s magazine-style feature stories, or self-published books that have made some early adopters such as Amanda Hocking into multimillionaires. In the process, the company has disintermediated not just book publishers but agents and publicists and almost every other aspect of the traditional publishing industry, and the virulence of the reaction to the e-book pricing deal that publishers signed with Apple (as an attempt to stave off Amazon’s growing market power) is another indicator of just how high the stakes are. It’s also more evidence that the only company to have revolutionized mobile media as much as Apple is Amazon.

BuzzFeed

For many people, the “viral content” site may still be associated with photo galleries of funny pictures and animated GIFs of various internet memes, but BuzzFeed has been making some ambitious moves to become a full-fledged media player — and regardless of its reputation as a time-waster, it’s worth paying attention to. In a recent internal memo to employees, co-founder and CEO Jonah Peretti talked about how the company wants to create the first truly digital-native media company (although The Huffington Post arguably also fits that bill), one that understands how content works online and what users want. BuzzFeed is currently trying to take the same principles that apply to cat pictures and figure out how to use them for more serious topics such as world politics, but it remains to be seen whether readers will want such a combination.

The Guardian

It may seem odd to nominate an old-media company like a newspaper as one of the most interesting media companies, but The Guardian fits into the “zigging while everyone else is zagging” category. With almost every other major newspaper either implementing or contemplating a paywall (apart from the Washington Post), The Guardian has remained steadfastly opposed to paywalls. Although editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger has mused about offering some form of subscription content, it’s clear that The Guardian is more interested in pursuing what Rusbridger calls “open journalism,” which involves bringing readers into the process in as many different ways as possible. The Guardian has a bit more room than other newspapers to experiment because it is owned by a trust. It’s a little early to call open journalism a recipe for success, since the newspaper just announced a loss of $70 million. But it is a fascinating experiment nevertheless (please see the disclosure statement below).

Gawker

Almost every online media company struggles to deal with the comments that readers leave on their content — they know that having them is important, but comment sections are also often filled with bile and invective rather than insight. In one of the first real efforts at re-thinking how comments function, Gawker founder Nick Denton introduced a new system at his online properties that turns each commenter into an editor (in the sense that they can choose to respond to or hide any response their comments get) and at the same time encourages them to become a contributing part of the discussion, something Denton says is starting to have an effect. The Gawker founder’s vision is that comments shouldn’t be an afterthought or a second cousin to an online post — they should be the most important part of the impact that post has. Whether Denton’s new system will become a model that other media outlets can duplicate or learn from remains to be seen.

So can a platform owner like Amazon manage to use its control over a device like the Kindle to supplant the entire book-publishing ecosystem? Can The Guardian pursue an “open journalism” approach and make it work financially? Can Twitter turn itself from an information utility into a full-fledged media entity without losing the unique properties that made it desirable in the first place? These are just some of the questions that are raised by the companies in this list — and watching the answers play out over the next year or so should be a fascinating learning opportunity for other media players of all kinds.

Check out the full paidContent 50 list.

Disclosure: Guardian News & Media Ltd., the parent company of the Guardian newspaper, is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media

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