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May 22, 2012, 2 p.m.

Rory O’Connor: Traditional media companies cling to their brands at their peril

What’s in a name? Not enough to guarantee you’ll survive this messy media revolution, author Rory O’Connor says in his new book.

Rory O'Connor “If everybody’s a brand then arguably nothing is brand.”

That’s journalist and author Rory O’Connor’s nice way of telling big, traditional media companies that clinging to the power of their brands isn’t necessarily going to keep them afloat. As the lines between big brands, microbrands and personal brands keep blurring, O’Connor says expectations about brand value are changing.

“The very notion of what a brand is is being radically stretched,” O’Connor told me. “We’re in an age where we’re all told that we have to create our personal brand… so we have to begin to question what that very word ‘brand’ means. It meant something large and rather expansive, and I think we’re moving away from that.”

In his new book, Friends, Followers and the Future, O’Connor explores the intersection of social media, politics, traditional media and big brands. At one point, he details Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt’s controversial 2008 comments about the Internet as a cesspool where lies thrive like bacteria, and brands serve to “sort out the cesspool.”

“People like Eric Schmidt, they’re clinging to brand power as the solution,” O’Connor told me. “That the Internet is a cesspool of information is so wrongheaded as to be laughable. To say the Internet is a cesspool of information is like saying you can’t trust the telephone system because people tell lies over it. It’s just the medium. The people who are legacy media who are clinging to this idea that brands are how you sort out this cesspool, as Eric Schmidt put it, are exhibiting all of the foresight of an ostrich.”

Schmidt’s not alone. O’Connor says he got a similarly brand-oriented response when he interviewed Paul Slavin, former senior vice president of the digital operation at ABC News.

“Paul Slavin, I asked him, I thought, a very point-blank question: ‘Why should people trust ABC News?'” O’Connor said. “He was flabbergasted. He was almost speechless. He took it as some pejorative attack. After he stopped sputtering he said, ‘Because we’re ABC News.'”

I asked Slavin about the exchange, and he said that he still believes “big brands are enhanced in this period” of media uncertainty. (Also: “As a rule, I don’t sputter,” he said with a laugh, describing his pause in the interview as a “moment of reflection” instead. It’s worth noting that Slavin is now general manager of Everyday Health, an online consortium of health coverage and information. His goal there is to increase brand power as part of Everyday Health’s “attempt to become a larger media company.” Does he miss working for a traditional media company? “No.”)

“I still maintain that The New York Times or ABC or the Washington Post, those media brands still have power in the marketplace,” Slavin told me. “It’s possible that others can very rapidly though social media learn to trust someone, and a brand can very rapidly evolve to have the power it took ABC decades to get. It doesn’t diminish the big, old brands. It just means they have more competition. They have to experiment and play in the same space as the new media people are playing in. They have to be willing to try different things. They have to be willing to share their content more aggressively.”

O’Connor argues that the power of a familiar news organization’s name — even a big, well-known, long-since-established name — has all but disintegrated as social structures based on self-organization have emerged. He sees traditional big media as dinosaurs that happen to be “still trampling around” at the beginning of an information revolution that will get even messier and more chaotic than it has already been.

O’Connor says the death of a major daily newspaper would be significant only historically, not practically. “We’re there,” he said. “We’ve already witnessed, if you will, the death of the homepage.” He’s referring to the growth of social media, which is driving higher numbers of readers to websites. (Many major, traditional news brands still get most web traffic through the front door but those numbers are changing.)

In his latest book, O’Connor quotes the Berkman Center’s Yochai Benkleras quoted in The New York Times — describing a generation of 20- and 30-somethings who are accustomed to self-organizing: “They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.”

In some ways, Friends, Followers and the Future reads like a sequel to Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody. That was the year O’Connor started the research for his book, a process he began with an assumption about the future of journalism that he now says he realizes was “rooted in ignorance.” At the time, O’Connor says he was biased against algorithms and “the idea that a machine would be able to play a useful role” when it comes to navigating a “crowded and chaotic news and information environment.”

“From a distance of four years it almost seems obvious,” O’Connor said. “But at the time, not only was it not obvious but it was something that was challenged by traditional journalists. But I went out there and talked not only to tech people but academic researchers and they reassured me that in fact [machines] can and they will do better. They’re in their infancy, and they will get more sophisticated.”

Put more bluntly, O’Connor says he believes that if there’s anything a machine can do that a journalist is doing, the machine should be doing it instead.

“It frees the journalists,” O’Connor said. “It’s similar with publishers. Clay Shirky said publishers have been replaced with a button…and they get very freaked out with good reason. But my message to them was the same: Anything that a publisher can do that a button can do should be done by a button. Focus on value-added.”

But also focus on getting it right. O’Connor says trust is the “No. 1 issue facing all of us” — meaning both professional journalists and people looking for accurate news and information — and that reporters need to remember their core values. You know, “make a phone call or two” before retweeting one another.  

“They’re so afraid they’re going to be scooped but they’re not bothering to check,” he said. “That’s precisely the kind of behavior that’s going to lead to poor performance, and diminished trust, and the breakdown of their brand. That’s how it works.”

By O’Connor’s measure, we’re at the very beginning stages of an information revolution that may end with us relying on filters that haven’t been invented yet.

“We’re in, like, Week 1,” he said. “Revolutions are messy and chaotic. They’re messy, and things get broken. There are winners and losers, and the outcome is uncertain. The outcome depends a large measure on what people actually do, and how they work, and whether they take responsibility. That includes the people formerly known as the audience. We do need these shortcuts and filters to assist us with the sheer volume of news and information. It is too much. But it’s not enough just to sit back and point fingers.”

POSTED     May 22, 2012, 2 p.m.
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