Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How The Mainstream Media Gets Its Groove Back

"I get email. Some of them ask for cartoons. Like this one:

I wish to add your cartoon to a Powerpoint presentation.

OK. I write back:

Hey, that's great that you would like to use my cartoon. My fee is $20 per image, per presentation. I accept Paypal and credit cards.

Oops. That's not at all what this person had in mind:

Unfortunately I shall not use your cartoon if it means paying for it. I thought I would just try and do things by the copyright book. Thanks anyway."

-- cartoonist Mike Lynch

We seem to be turning into a society of "free" media. Music, movies, comics, news -- we are increasingly expecting to get these things, via Internet, for free. Like webcomics. I can't picture an arrangement in which significant masses of people pay for webcomics -- unless you got the best 2% of all webcomics on one site. Other than that, I don't see people dropping money for them, unless they make donations. It's not about quality. It's just that people expect to get these things for free. We've been trained this way.

Some say that advertising revenue will make the money. I am telling you from experience within the online media industry -- unless you have a HUGELY popular site/blog/content, you will not be able to support a company on this revenue. Hell, even Facebook is having problems doing this.

Then there is the idea that loyal fans of a webcomic or site will send in enough donations to support it. I believe that can happen, but can you support your family on it? Maybe, maybe not. Still not a solution for a media company.

Then there is the selling of hard-copies and various memorabilia. And/or utilizing the intellectual property in your free webcomic to inspire ventures in other media. These are awesome things. If they happen.

But what can the various traditional media outlets out there do as an overall game plan? What can the freelance cartoonist/comic book person do? How do you make money? Real money? Game-plan sort of money? Health insurance sort of money? Raising a child sort of money? Saving for retirement sort of money? Supporting five floors of employees sort of money?

Yes, it looks like the switch is on from paper to digital. But are people willing to pay for this digital media? For the most part -- no. People are not willing to pay for it, unless you give them a damn good reason to.

Damn Good Reasons To:

1) If I was DC or Marvel (or any other media company), I'd pinpoint what the top 5% webcomics are. Offer those web cartoonists competitive exclusive distribution deals that includes a health insurance component. Then make a subscription-based site offset by sales of hard copies and merchandise.

2) Want to compete with Wikipedia with a subscription-based model? Have a damn good online encyclopedia/reference center, with the top names in academics, punditry, etc. Stress the authoritativeness of your reference site. If I was giving advice to a company like Time Warner, News Corp, Microsoft, etc on how to make this model work, this authoritative aspect would have to be stressed -- because it's the only real selling point they would have versus a free model.

3) Authoritative vs. "Amateur" is the general crux of the mainstream media companies's (and professional writers's/cartoonists's/artists's) bid for pay-based content. It is the only way. I'm not defining "amateur." I'm not saying looking at things with this dichotomy is "right." I'm just playing devil's advocate and trending this out. Look at all the media you consume online -- news, TV, comics, blogs, etc. Now, figure out how much would you actually pay for if you had to.

4) The media companies are going to push "Authoritative" vs. "Amateur" within two years. Look for an all-out assault on the authority of blogs that are not connected with one media group or another. Look for the top-of-the-top independent blogs to get bought up by media companies. Look for an all-out assault on the credibility of Wikipedia.

5) Important point: in order for this plan by mainstream media to work, it is crucial that most of the popular webcomics, blogs, sites, news sources, social networks, services, etc be absorbed into the corporation. That may all sound as scary as shit. But it's likely that it's the way things are going to go down. The fire under everybody's asses in this economy will help it along.

6) And of course there is the whole net neutrality thingie-wingie. Look for the corporations to help move this along, to their advantage. Look for cable TV-like "packages" of web content that you pay for monthly.

Within five years, I think everything I've just wrote will come to pass. I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying it will or will not encourage creativity. I'm just saying this is likely the scenario. And if the mainstream media does not start thinking along these lines, or if they think they can survive long-term by providing nothing but free online content (when the market for paper shrinks more every day), they will collapse. And then we will be more a nation of independent contractors, mini-media moguls. Micro-payments, donations, T-shirts. Which may or may not be better.

And please don't think that when I talk about the best blogs being bought up by corporations, I think I should be on that list. I'm realistic. Believe me, if I have thought through this topic to the extent I have on this post, I have seen what my "place" is in this overall landscape. To keep the personal OS blog, sure. But I do not think this blog -- in its current form -- has the broad (excuse pun) appeal to be useful to a big media concern.

Now, the Occasional Superheroine character itself might -- and if I choose to do more with that, something good might come out of it. And I think I can transfer my blogging skills to a blog with more of a broad reach -- either by spearheading it or working behind-the-scenes.

The OS is not journalism. The OS is just a doorway to talk to you all. And that's enough.

But the idea of the mid-level to low-level blog on a certain topic that will GENERATE TONS OF AD REVENUE and so forth -- no.

The idea of a web-based concern that has lots of overhead but is generating no income but one day it will sometime in the future -- no.

Me, I'm looking into taking some solid journalism courses and brushing up on my grammar. Because in order to compete in online media within two years, that's what you're going to need.

***Comments now closed to prevent the inevitable pissing match that I don't have the time for. If you don't agree with me, fine. I'm totally okay with us meeting up in two years -- hell, ONE year -- and compare notes. I look forward to it.