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

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