Content is enjoying a shiny new moment.
Since the internet arose, it’s been technology’s weaker twin. It’s easy to see why. An example:
Last week, headlines about Facebook focused on founder Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to wire 5 billion new people to the internet. By contrast, headlines about the Los Angeles Times focused on a decision by the Koch brothers — a billionaire pair — to step away from a deal to buy the California daily. They no longer think it financially viable.
How can the dark, broody media story compete with the peppy, feel-good tale of tech?
So it’s interesting to see a small reversal of fortune. Content — the old-fashioned editorial kind, not the new-fangled marketers-tell-great-stories-too type — is once again sharpening the cutting edge of conversations about media. And it’s come with a cool, crisp reminder about the media business — neither tech nor brand nor pomp nor circumstance define its success. Editorial strategies do. But not just any strategies, controversial strategies.
This summer, several major news outlets have found themselves front and center of the news by launching a variety of controversial editorial strategies. They include Rolling Stone, The Guardian newspaper, and the all-new Al Jazeera America cable news network.
Two of the three are well-known, traditional news outlets.
The third is a start-up, albeit one reportedly funded by hundreds of millions of dollars. Al Jazeera America is a new news network being launched, essentially, by the Middle Eastern emirate of Qatar. The launch has been years in the making. The Arabic news company has often tried to negotiate “carriage deals” with U.S. pay-TV carriers. It always failed.
That’s because people mentally link it to foreign radicalism. The emotion can be intense. In January, it paid $500 million to buy Current, a failed cable news network, in an apparent effort to jump into existing carriage contracts. A lot of people were enraged by the deal.
Al Gore, the famous founder of Current, was vilified by them for “selling out” American interests.
That didn’t stop Qatar. Al Jazeera America launched last week with a surprising editorial focus: hard, American news. The controversial network, and its cleverly controversial editorial strategy, seems to be having an effect.
The New York Times published not one, but two stories on Al Jazeera America last week. Both stories delved deeply into the novelty of a news network that focuses on hard, flat news. That seems like quite an achievement.
Almost no one gets two bites of the apple out of the Times.
A lot of other outlets covered the launch too. It’s too soon to tell if the controversy will translate into ratings (Al Jazeera America is currently available in roughly 45 million homes).
But some other recent coverage suggests it might:
1) Rolling Stone enraged a lot of people in July by putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover. Despite a ban by some chain stores, the issue featuring the 20-year-old alleged Boston Marathon bomber did some brisk business. It sold almost double as the same issue last year, while website traffic jumped some 20% to 3.6 million.
The point is pretty simple. Content is king — if it’s provocative, interesting, and controversial.
(Disclosure: James Abels runs a software start-up focused on media creation and distribution.)