NEW YORK -- Mathew Ingram, a senior writer for the tech website GigaOM, perfectly set the tone for the paidContent Live conference and at the same time summed up where we are in the media business right now.
"Disruption creates a lot of carnage," Ingram said, "but it also creates a lot of opportunity."
If ever an industry has been thoroughly disrupted, it's the media business. The advent of the Internet and the digital era has completely turned it upside down.
For legacy media institutions such as newspapers and magazines and broadcast networks, disruption has meant the painful challenge of adaptation and reinvention in a radically different landscape.
But for innovators and entrepreneurs, it has created a matchless opportunity to try new things, to experiment, to build far-reaching new enterprises virtually overnight.
The paidContent Live event in New York City last week, sponsored by GigaOM, featured speakers and attendees from the latter world.
The mood was summed up by Chet Kanojia, the founder and CEO of Aereo, who said he started his incredibly disruptive business "because man's got to make a living (so he) might as well do it interestingly, right?"
Kanojia is certainly walking the walk. His brash start-up is taking on the established television networks head on. Aereo is an Internet-based TV service that streams local broadcast networks. It's available in New York for $12 a month, and will launch in Boston on May 15. The networks have taken to the courts in an effort to shut it down, so far unsuccessfully.
One of the featured speakers was Kenneth Lerer, a venture capitalist with an impressive track record when it comes to launching exciting new-media companies. Lerer was a co-founder of The Huffington Post and is an investor in BuzzFeed (he's the quirky and innovative website's chairman), and he has helped start numerous other sites, including the highly regarded new Web service RebelMouse.
Lerer said that the pendulum is now swinging from distribution to content, and that this is the best time in the last eight years to invest in it. "You're going to have to fill those pipes ... with content," he said, adding, "I think content is king now."
How do you get Lerer to bankroll your brilliant idea? Come up with something original - "copycats ... are not particularly interesting." And work on that handshake. "So, you have to kind of take the measure of the person and say, 'Am I going to have fun working with this person over the next four or five years, and what do I see when I look in their eyes?' "
As for long-form journalism, something close to my heart, Lerer says it still has to find its place online. And while it will some day, and while there are more and more venues where you can create it and consume it, Lerer is not yet at the point that he would invest in a long-form start-up.
(But, as Evan Ratliff, founder and CEO of Atavist, which publishes long-form non-fiction journalism, said on another panel: "I'm not sure it's the best judge of whether ... something should exist in the world -- whether or not ... a VC wants to invest in it.")
Also on the scene was David Karp, founder and CEO of the microblogging and social-media site Tumblr. Karp launched the site six years ago, when he was 20. The fast-growing start-up rapidly made its mark. Today, Karp said, Tumblr receives 90 million posts a day. Tens of billions of minutes are spent on it each month. And the average length of a visit is 14 minutes.
Now Karp faces the familiar Internet challenge of transforming a phenomenon into a business. He's betting on high-end advertising, ads that would make the Mad Men crowd happy. They haven't had a home on the Web so far, and Tumblr is trying to provide them with one.
Tumblr isn't profitable yet, but Karp said he has no doubts that profits are in his creation's future. He anticipates it will be "a big, big business in the long run."
One critical issue that popped up on a number of panels was the notion of charging for digital content. Once considered anathema, it has played a significant role in the past couple of years in brightening somewhat the financial picture for newspapers.
Many speakers seemed to agree that it makes sense to include the cash register as part of the mix. "I think the solution will be multiple revenue streams," said Justin Smith, president of Atlantic Media, who said his company would soon be launching a paid product. "We must try everything."
Said Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the British newspaper The Guardian, which has resisted paywalls, "The more people try different models, the better it is."
While charging for digital content is generally the territory of established news outlets rather than start-ups, an experiment by one new player is being closely watched. Andrew Sullivan, a widely read blogger, attracted attention in January when he announced that he was leaving his secure perch at The Daily Beast and going out on his own. Sullivan's blog, The Dish, would not be subsidized by a large company, and the site would not accept advertising. He would ask the readers to pay
Sullivan, with a staff of eight, said he would need $900,000 the first year to stay afloat. While visitors would be able to see a number of articles each month for free, subscribers would be asked to pay $19.99 a year, or more if they were so moved.
Sullivan rapidly attracted a third of what he needed. But it has been a grind since then. He said he now has about $672,000, and isn't sure how he'll get the rest. But he is determined to establish a model that others can follow. He is, he said, trying to figure out a way "to save journalism online from its predators, which are currently digesting it."
Recent years have brought us a plethora of media initiatives that would have been unimaginable not that long ago. And that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.
As John Borthwick, the CEO of betaworks, which describes itself as a "company that builds companies," put it: "What was science fiction is becoming reality incredibly fast."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)