The tech media world is all atwitter (pun intended) over the collapse of GigaOm yesterday. Yes, it was a loss. The site was one of the first of the tech blogs, it was among the most respected in a world filled with self-aggrandizing click baiters (e.g. The Verge, Venture Beat and Tech Crunch), and it offered what may be the deepest, most thoughtful coverage of the tech world, from semiconductors to gaming. But it could not make enough money to stay alive, much less give back some of the $22 million it took in from investors.
Above the wailing laments of the reading public is a steady drumbeat of independent tech journalists claiming they have discovered the secret of profitable journalism in the tech world. Among them are John Furrier, CEO of SiliconANGLE, a site hyper focused on cloud and big data. Furrier says business is booming for him. I’m certain it will continue to be… as long as the industry he covers booms. Once it starts flattening out or going south, his readership and sponsorship will drop accordingly.
SiliconANGLE was early to adopt near real-time coverage of events through video and maximized his site for video, something few online media sites have done and it gives him a differentiator. He also claims he is an independent journalist, but his multiple, interconnected enterprises rely heavily on outside sponsorship. He is a man of integrity and I believe him when he says he is not unduly influenced by that sponsorship. Several media companies are attempting similar models and they are surviving by staying relatively small, focused on a single technology niche and supported by a few large sponsors. It’s when they try to grow beyond that niche, like GigaOm, that things get dicey because as soon as you expand coverage, you stop covering your sponsors’ issues as comprehensively and money starts to dry up.
So small, niche oriented media is a good way to go if you are an independent, but it isn’t providing the broader, balanced coverage the industry needs. That’s why I think that coverage is probably going to come not out of corporate sponsorship, but out of corporations themselves.
A few weeks ago I published the results of a study Footwasher Media did on media readership in the semiconductor industry. Unlike Furrier’s coverage of the cloud and big data, that industry is dead flat. There is very little profit and very little investment in media sponsorship. Total sponsorship funding from every company totals less than $10 million that is doled out to less than a dozen online sites and print publications covering the news. Most of this enterprises are losing money on the news business with a few exceptions (e.g. semiengineering.com and techfocusmedia.com). But our study learned that those sites and publications share the exact same readership, engagement and content. If you have read one, you have read them all. What’s more, they are all supported by the same handful of companies large enough to have marketing budgets. Right now those niches are doing all right financially and are helping those media companies pay the bills and grow a bit. They will not be so lucky of things get bumpy.
But what came out of the study that was so fascinating was the rise of corporate journalism. Lots of people, mostly journalists, say those two words are self canceling. They want to say that corporations cannot possibly be objective enough to be called journalism in any definition and that readers know the difference. And yet, looking at the results of the survey, Corporations that have employed former “independent” journalists ranked higher in readership, engagement and original content. In fact, the number one source of trusted industry news is cadence.com
Trusted? How can it be trusted? Because the numbers show that the site has more page views per visit, longer time spent consuming the content, and SHARED more often then any three independent media sites together. People don’t share content they don’t trust.
Cadence Design is one of the big three in the Electronic Design Automation (EDA) industry. It has a vested interest in not promoting any competitor in their semiconductor industry niche. And yet you can find frank discussions of their strengths and weaknesses against those competitors in their content. This is due to the efforts of Brian Fuller, a respected former editor in chief of EE Times and a lifelong journalist going all the way back to the days of United Press International. Other companies int he niche, including Xilinx and Altera also have former “independent” journalists (some of whom called me crazy for promoting the idea of corporate journalism 10 years ago) that have raised their employers trustworthiness with their approach to content. It is a growing trend and will continue to be, because it makes sense. A corporation has a vested interest in growing the trust of their customer base. Without an independent voice outside of the company (as in the semiconductor industry) they can’t survive in the market with their typical marketing BS. They need to provide trusted content.
There will always be room for well-run independents, but they can only do so much Corporations need to step up and start doing it themselves for their own survival.