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The Essential Media Exec Survival Guide

Here's what media execs are being told these days.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer to the Washington Post: "...there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form."

Digital gadfly Michael Wolff at a panel on The Future of Media: "If Newsweek is around in five years, I'll buy you dinner." (Told to a senior writer from Newsweek.)

These statements are not boosting the confidence of execs in an industry already reeling from bad earnings reports, falling circulation, staff cuts, ownership changes, and the emergence of scary oddball owners like Sam Zell at the Tribune Co. and Rupert Murdoch at the Wall Street Journal.
At the same time, just down the street, metaphorically, are all kids of innovative media startups where the energy is high and the mood is positive. I've profiled a bunch of these small companies in the past week, and I've got several more pieces coming up about a bunch of others.

The point of looking at the smallest, newest companies in any industry is a simple one: Innovation almost invariably comes from the bottom up.

One of the benefits of having been working for over four decades in this business -- since the age of linotype operators, green visors, proof sheets, and crit sheets; darkrooms; cutting and splicing audiotape and film; writing long-hand, on a manual typewriter, on an electric typewriter, and finally on computers, the earliest of which sported word processing capabilities so limited we had to keep each document artificially short -- is the ability to spot patterns.

There have been three great revolutions in media during my professional lifetime. The first came in the 1970s, when the so-called alternative press innovated new content and design styles that eventually reshaped all media.

The second was in the 1990s, when Web 1.0 transformed all known content and design styles much like the earlier era, 20 years before.

Then, something inevitable but unfortunate occurred. Dot.bomb. Inevitable, because the collective greed unleashed by the widespread emergence of Internet alternatives to conventional media created a speculative bubble.

Unfortunate, because it provided a false respite for old media companies. They widely interpreted the pop of the bubble as an affirmation that web media were a passing phenomenon.

While media execs in the newspaper, magazine, radio, and television industries were congratulating themselves for avoiding a bullet, the web was reloading.

Over the past three years, the digital assault has re-emerged in the form of Web 2.0, which not only challenges the content and design assumptions in the media industry, but also its family jewels -- distribution.

What is unprecedented about the present moment can be boiled down to an unpretentious item -- the widget. Yes, it is widgets that are destroying old media. Why? Because widgets represent tiny Trojan horses that can be inserted in the massive new social networking spaces that represent the new town square -- the equivalent of places where paperboys used to cry out "Extra! Extra!"

Of course, all of this is an oversimplification. There are so many other moves existing media companies must make -- ASAP -- of they are to survive, let alone thrive. It starts back, once again, with content and design. They need a much more compelling, personal, incisive content strategy. They need a sense of humor, self-deprecation, and modesty.

In design, they need it throw away the old hierarchical structure of newspapers and magazines, and learn how to rebundle content relying on search, navigation, and ease of browsing. Most of all, they need t relearn something they knew a long time ago -- the art of surprise.

Predictable = boring. I'm not talking about sensationalizing the news here, nor yellow journalism. Rather, how to engage your audience on an equal level, not in the patronizing style that became engrained during the age of the "anchor," i.e., an all-seeing God-like voice. (Think: Uncle Walter.)

It's over, that age. One word captures the new media space better than any other: Democracy. If you want to play, it's time to get with that program.

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