News business finds itself riding the next big wave

The upper hand seems to belong to the upstarts as an era of all change comes crashing in with the Daily Beast, the Daily and The Huffington Post all hitting the headlines

Mergers come in waves. A sector can seem flat as a pond with nothing on the horizon.

Then, just as surfers (or, in this case, investors) despair of catching the next Big One, a set will roll in that carries all before it and leaves behind a world changed.

That is what is happening in the news business right now.

It has been a grim time for years as the internet has undercut business models, sent print newspapers and broadcasters into turmoil, and changed time-honoured methods of collecting and disseminating news and information. The long-term story has been one of decline, decline, decline.

But now a "set" of big mergers is sweeping through the industry that is not just destroying what has gone before. They are forging something brand new by marrying some of the oldest names in news with some of the newest.

The first wave to crash through was the alliance of "old media" warhorse Newsweek magazine and the upstart Daily Beast website. The marriage of two loss-making operations raised eyebrows, but the merged creature, nicknamed News Beast by many, is a real company now and has the redoubtable Tina Brown - journalist, magazine editor and columnist - at its head.

Then came the alliance between News Corp and Apple to launch The Daily: a newspaper for the iPad. That unexpected wedding saw Rupert Murdoch - an old-time press baron - hook up with Steve Jobs, a man whose products have given a white, modernist shape to our computerised age.

Last week, the third big wave hit. Out of the blue broke news that AOL, which basically counts as old media in these fast-changing times, was snapping up The Huffington Post, probably the most successful brand name in new media.

It was final confirmation of the fresh dynamic. The old story of new media undermining the existing giants has fundamentally changed. Now they are merging together and making a different order.

What to make of it all? It is Ms Brown who helms the merged Newsweek and Daily Beast, not someone from the print magazine. At AOL-Huffington Post it is Arianna Huffington who is going to be the queen of all media. Her company may be the one being bought, but she is the one wielding the influence as a sort of editor-in-chief of a vastly expanded empire.

With The Daily, the power lies with the iPad not with the content, which is little different from hundreds of other news providers. For The Daily the iPad medium is the message, not the other way round.

The wave of alliances also signals just how fast the media world is changing. Mr Murdoch, who presented the launch of The Daily in person, has invested a sizeable chunk of his reputation in the product. Yet the iPad only hit the shelves last year. The Daily Beast was born only in October 2008. Now it has taken over one of the best-known names in world journalism.

The new deals also reveal one other truth: normal rules of business have been suspended.

The Daily Beast runs at a loss, so surely buying an even more loss-making operation is a bad idea. Meanwhile, the majority of the Huffington Post's comment is available free yet Ms Huffington still made a sale worth more than US$300 million(Dh1.1 billion).

To say the jury is still out on all these exciting developments is to vastly understate the case. Mr Murdoch's gamble on The Daily is just that: a gigantic bet on an untested business model. Ms Huffington's deal with AOL has also been greeted with suspicion by some who suspect an opportunistic sell-out at the top of the market. Few people also know exactly what to make of the Daily Beast-Newsweek merger or where it is going.

Yet there remain some fundamental home truths. The first is that - without a doubt - a new media order is being born, blending the new and the old into a hybrid.

The second is that mistakes will be made. The thing about waves is they look magnificent as you watch them churn by. You admire their size and strength and their ability to carry all before them. You feel their power. Then you watch them slam into the beach and disintegrate.

Published: February 13, 2011 04:00 AM


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