Five Companies Steer All News

steering wheel

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.

This article originally appeared in Edelman.

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