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If media is being disrupted like the car industry, then who is the Tesla Motors of media?

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In an earlier post for paidContent, I looked at the broad similarities between the automotive-manufacturing industry and the media business — specifically newspapers — and how disruption has affected both in some fairly similar ways. And that got me thinking: if these two industries are roughly equivalent when it comes to disruption, then who qualifies as the Tesla Motors of media? In other words, who has been the most disruptive force over the last decade or so, the one that has forced other media companies to question some of the most fundamental aspects of their business?

Whatever you think of Tesla or its founder Elon Musk (who also happens to be working on sending people into space), his company has defied some long-held beliefs of the car business, including the idea that bespoke car companies always fail, that electric power isn’t ready for prime time in the consumer automotive space, and that car companies can’t sell direct to the consumer (my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher has a great post on Tesla here).

The most disruptive force in media?

The idea of picking a media company as the Tesla of that industry isn’t to find a one-to-one equivalent, for what should be fairly obvious reasons: for one thing, the car business involves making and selling expensive physical products — products that can’t be digitized and copied or aggregated the way that media content can. And there’s probably no development in new media that corresponds directly to Tesla’s ambitious bet on the long-term value of electric power (although I would argue that the use of crowdsourcing comes fairly close).

newspaper boxes

That said, it’s worth thinking about who has been the most innovative company in media over the last decade or so, and I think the Huffington Post (s aol) deserves that title — although there are some caveats to that, which I will get into. In discussing this with colleagues, some voted for Twitter or Facebook (s fb), and it’s true that they have been extremely disruptive (Twitter most of all, I think, for a number of reasons). But they are still outside the industry to some extent in that they don’t compete directly, although they may want to.

For me, The Huffington Post is the Tesla of media because it is the closest thing to a traditional entity that sprang into being, seemingly out of nowhere — sui generis, as the saying goes — and very quickly forced the industry to question a lot of long-held assumptions. Among those assumptions were the following:

No one of any quality would write for free: Although newspapers and other media companies have always taken occasional submissions from readers or experts and run them for nothing, the Huffington Post was the first to show that you could build a substantial media entity on that approach, and that in many cases the quality could match or exceed what newspapers pay for.

Users wouldn’t want a news aggregator: This was one of the most absurd assumptions, since many newspapers themselves are essentially just aggregators, but there was some scepticism that the Huffington Post would be able to succeed by running excerpts from other news sites. In fact, many readers saw this as a valuable service rather than an affront to journalism.

A new entity couldn’t build a large audience: Even after the Huffington Post launched and it was obvious that it appealed to many online readers, traditional media players said it wouldn’t be able to compete with established brand names like the New York Times. In 2011, its traffic exceeded the Times.

Viral content can’t be treated like a science: Before BuzzFeed, there was the Huffington Post, which was the first to show that fairly simple tools (integrating Facebook’s open platform, adding sharing buttons and using strategies like A/B testing for headlines) could increase web readership almost exponentially.

A viral-media site couldn’t evolve: Once it became clear that the Huffington Post was not going away, and that it had developed a large audience, there were those who believed it would always be a sideshow devoted to either lowest-common-denominator content and/or thoughtless aggregation. In 2012, the site won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism.

Huffington Post was, but now BuzzFeed is

Arianna Huffington

All of this helped The Huffington Post build what became a $315-million organization in a little over five years, right under the noses of the largest and most well-funded media entities on the planet. And the value of the company was determined by the acquisition offer in 2011 from AOL, then part of the sprawling AOL-Time Warner empire, something that many saw as a huge validation of the Huffington approach.

This is also where the caveats come in: For me at least, much of the early innovative energy that The Huffington Post had seems to be gone. That might be because time has moved on, or because it has been absorbed by a giant entity and has less freedom to move (and a lot more internal politics), but it seems as though much of the innovative spirit has gone elsewhere — to newer entities like BuzzFeed, for example, which shares much of the same DNA as the early Huffington Post, via co-founder Jonah Peretti.

BuzzFeed has not only doubled-down on some of those elements, such as the viral content and the aggregation approach, but it is forging new ground as well — including an attempt to build a scalable model using nothing but “native” advertising or sponsored content. And it has also evolved, just as the Huffington Post did, adding more long-form writing and branching out into politics and other categories that were seen by some as being incompatible with its model.

Does all of this make BuzzFeed founder Peretti the Elon Musk of media? We’ll have to save that for a future post. If you have any of your own suggestions for who deserves to be the Tesla Motors of media, feel free to add them below.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Scott Beale and George Kelly

15 Responses to “If media is being disrupted like the car industry, then who is the Tesla Motors of media?”

  1. Wait – wasn’t there lot’s of news aggregators back before Huffpo? I remember quite a few that were essentially doing news aggregation based off of a Slashdot model – so i would say Slashdot is Tesla. Arianna ironically used old MSM to promote her website, which I believe is the thing that created the growth of her sight over other news aggregators at the time. Hell, I even had a news aggregation site before Arianna – but I didn’t have the luxury of MSM to promote it. And, lets not forget Drudge who was the true Tesla pioneer and still to this day is 100x more influential than Huffpo as far as setting the tone for the news of the day.

  2. Leo N. Holzer

    I’d say Huffington Post was No. 2 behind Craigslist in crippling newsrooms. Craigslist took away a powerful revenue stream, which slowly led to newsroom budget cuts. The aggregators followed, including the Huffington Post, and newsrooms were far too slow to adapt to the changing landscape. Even today, traditional newspapers are having difficulty recapturing their audience if they have instituted a paywall for their web sites.

    I think many paywall publications are missing out with an all-or-nothing approach. They need to aggregate their coverage and charge for sectional news. For example, I might pay $4 or $5 a month for access to the Orange County Register’s features section, since I’m a Disney geek. Someone else, maybe a former resident of the circulation area, might be interested solely in the OCR’s sports coverage. Imagine the revenue a great sports staff covering a major professional team could generate from “fans” who don’t live within the circulation area.

  3. What about the inventor (no idea who he might be) of the first ‘daily-news’ e-mail newsletter? It was he who started the transition of getting the ‘I am well informed’-feeling out of a small list of bullet-points instead of browsing through a broad news-offering which was and mostly still is the model of newspapers.

  4. Stephen McAteer Jr.

    I think the company that is the Tesla Motors of media is “The Blaze Inc.”
    What started out as a widely read website has grown into an entertainment company. All of their video programming is available on the web, through Roku, and now through a growing number of cable and satellite providers(Dish network being the largest)…The amazing thing about it being on these providers is it only gets on them after a lot of people call and request they carry it.
    The web and cable channel is actually programmed like a cable network, with a set schedule.

    It is pretty fascinating.

  5. Keith Hawn

    Analogy (or whatever it is) doesnt hold water:

    “bespoke car companies always fail, that electric power isn’t ready for prime time in the consumer automotive space, and that car companies can’t sell direct to the consumer”

    All of that adds up to less than 1% of the auto industry. That must be a new definition of “disruptive”…

  6. George Nimeh

    Hi Mathew,

    I agree. HuffPo is definitely the Tesla of the media business. Not sure why you think they’ve lost some of their mojo (in the States?), but abroad they’re just getting warmed up. Plus now there’s HuffPo TV … Who knows where that’s going, but they seem pretty committed. Stay tuned, I guess. They’re a Top 25 US site, and CNN is the only other media company that tops them, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them surpass Blitzer and co in the next 24-36 months.

    As for BuzzFeed, I think it is still way too young for them to be considered a “Tesla”. And for all the interesting things that they are doing – and they are doing a lot of interesting things -they’re still outside the Top 100 … When they’re Top 50, then let’s talk about politics and cats ruling the media world.

    However, I think you’ve overlooked one company which is most definitely disrupting the media business: YouTube.

    If media means “media” (and not just “news media”), then I think it’s appropriate to put YouTube into the mix. YouTube is more than a “Tesla” … In car industry terms, YouTube is McFly’s DeLorean or Bond’s tricked out DB5 or Michael Knight’s KITT … It looks like a car, but it isn’t a car. It’s much more underneath the hood. In addition to their incredible and ever-growing stockpile of content, it’s easy to forget that YouTube is also the world’s second largest search engine, making it a pretty solid self-contained ecosystem … and thus much more than “just” a Tesla.

    I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts … and what you’re driving these days. ;-)


  7. Jeff Sine

    I think the parallels between the auto industry and the newspaper industry are strained at best. While it is true that outsourcing nonessential functions is a trend that impacts both industries, you could say the same about pretty much every other industry as well.
    Perhaps if cars were replaced by teleportation devices, the analogy would be well directed. in the meantime, it is deeply flawed. Newspapers have been crushed by the INTERNET, not outsourcing. For a century, newspapers enjoyed monopoly profits throught the classified ad business. When the internet enabled better and cheaper (free) options, that marked the rapid end of that business and the associated profits. So too, the newspaper format enabled a vertically integrated exclusive means of delivering information to a targeted, controlled and coveted audience for display advertisers. Once the internet changed both the format and consumption habits, analogue dollars began to be replaced by digital dimes. The format premium evaporated as online news inventory looked like commodity CPMs.
    I could go on at length, but the essential point is there is actually very little in common with the auto industry since no one has yet invented a digital replacement for the quintessential American transportation device. Lets talk again when that happens.

  8. Guillaume Decugis

    Nice and interesting parallel, Mathew.

    I’ve been an entrepreneur in both the music and now the media industry and I find a lot of comparison between the two. From that standpoint, don’t you think that platforms are much more disrupting to both?

    Music was much more changed by Napster, the iPod/iTunes and Spotify than any other players, even the new kind of record labels that were created such as the Orchard. Similarly, I feel that Google Search, Google News, the iPad and social networks have had greater impact than the HuffPost or BuzzFeed (Great admirable companies btw : not trying to take anything away from their success).

    • Mathew Ingram

      Thanks for the comment, Guillaume — I agree that platforms like Napster and even Twitter are much more disruptive, but I was looking for companies that were more directly competitive as a way of highlighting what other players should be thinking of as they try to adapt to this new environment.

  9. Brian Cubbison

    I’m not sure the auto industry was truly disrupted in the way that the news industry was. What if you could order a car online, and it would be delivered to your house in several big boxes, and if you were at all handy, you could put your own car together in an afternoon or two? Someone who’s not so handy might get the fellow down the street to put a car together in exchange for an apple pie. Somebody might set up a shop in town and hire high school kids to put together cars for people. We’d hear rants about “citizen automakers” — never mind that citizens have been hot-rodding and tuning their own rides for generations; this just lets everyone in on it.

    Some people would still drive around in a fully loaded Mercedes or F-150, while the rest of us drive our personally assembled Bugs and Wranglers, the WordPress blogs of cars. Now that’s disruption.

  10. David Skok


    The Tesla example is an interesting one because if you were to look at Tesla through the lens of Disruption theory, from the perspective of the incumbent market players it is actually entering the market at the high end. (For $100,000+, a luxury car that not everyone, particularly this lowly journalist, can afford!)

    It is my understanding that they hope to lower the price point as they ramp up scale, but by starting at such a high price-point, they’re actually not following the traditional model of ‘cheaper, faster,and good enough’ disruptors.

    We cited Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post as classic disruptors in our work because they too were, ‘cheaper, faster, and good enough.’ But I’m not sure that they represent the same strategic value network as Tesla.

    While manufacturing this car may indeed result in a strong market, this will primarily be in the ‘niche’ luxury car market. For Tesla to reach mass scale, they would need to focus on different jobs to be done. This is outlined nicely by Clay in an article from last February in the Silicon Valley Business Journal:

    “…If you really want to make a big product market instead of a niche product market, the kind of question you want to ask for electric vehicles is, I wonder if there is a market out there for customers who would just love to have a product that won’t go very far or go very fast. The answer is obvious.

    “The parents of teenagers would love to have a car that won’t go very far or go very fast. They could just cruise around the neighborhood, drive it to school, see their friends, plug it in overnight.”

    The question then becomes, is there a similar example of a niche journalism product starting at the high-end that manages to move down-market and satisfy different jobs to be done. I’d venture to say that Forbes, because of their contributor network and the Atlantic, because of their renewed emphasis on digital news-gathering, would be good examples of doing just that.

    It’s a wonderful discussion and I watch with eager anticipation to see how Tesla manages to expand it’s market. Thanks for spurring on the dialogue.

    David Skok
    Co-author, Breaking News: Mastering the Art of Disruption in Journalism

    • Mathew Ingram

      Thanks, David — I agree that Tesla doesn’t follow the classic disruption value structure described by Clay, and so the analogy from that to the disruption occurring in the media business is imperfect at best. In fact, the Huffington Post has arguably already disrupted the media industry far more than Tesla will wind up disrupting the car-making industry, for the reasons you describe. But in terms of a newish competitor who has defied conventional industry wisdom on a significant number of fronts, Tesla was the best analogy I could come up with :-)