The Great Man theory is in full effect these days ever since Jeff Bezos scooped up The Washington Post.
The Old Media literati herald Bezos as the Great Savior of print journalism. The notion of heroes shaping history, advanced by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, appears to be validated in this epoch of tech billionaires.
But it hardly began with Bezos.
For many months, the trickling of the Great Men of Mt. Palo Alto into earthly places like Washington, D.C., has become a political story. Silicon Valley needs something from Washington–and Washington sure loves the succor of hi-tech money.
The zeitgeist is that anyone with designer jeans, a sports car, and a few billion has the right stuff to reboot the tired East Coast systems, politics, and businesses. It’s all an Idealism versus Goliath swagger that plays well at the Big Sur wedding scene, yet feels totally alien to the humanoids inhabiting the Beltway.
Enter Chris Hughes. At 29, he is a leading man in this freshly minted generation of wunderkinds. The Harvard roommate of Mark Zuckerberg, Hughes–rich and literary–deployed his fortune in March 2012 to buy . . . well, a musty artifact of old media, The New Republic. When he writes last week on the Bezos/Wapo deal, that Palo Alto zeal comes through:
I’m guessing that Bezos understands an old truism: brands matter. The wonder and magic of institutions like the Post or The New Republic is their history–their stories track the American story. . . . In fact, brands matter more now than when Don Graham’s grandfather bought the Post nearly a hundred years ago . . .
I’m rooting for Hughes to restore The New Republic to its former glory. On this point, however, I am afraid he is wrong. Brands today are far more at risk of failing–and failing fast–than they ever were a hundred years ago, especially media brands.
Once upon a time, brands were stalwarts: your grandfather bought General Motors stock, it steadily climbed in value, and he eventually retired on it. Heck, my 107-year-old great grandfather still lives off the pension he earned when he retired 48 years ago!
This might be the stuff of legend in this digital age. The staying power of brands is an evanescent, fragile thing. Business exists now in a perpetual state of disruption. That Darwinian disruption puts every brand on notice.
Hughes should know better. Don Graham, the Posts’ now former owner, notoriously turned down the opportunity to be an early investor in Mr. Hughes’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s little venture called Facebook. The Washington Post has been a depreciating asset ever since, a case study in failure to change with the times.
Indeed, Bezos bought a venerable brand. But reputation hardly guarantees future profitability.
For newspapers, the future belongs to crowdsourcers–the Mighty Millennials. And they aren’t like the rest of us. A cup of Maxwell House, a shave, and the pages of the Post were enough for most folks in D.C. 20 years ago. But their offspring? These double soy latte habitués are skimming Mashable at Starbucks, earbuds dangling.
Millennials’ radically unique consumptive habits are going to wreak havoc on newspapers in coming years. According to the Pew Research Center, from 2010 to 2012, the percentage of 18-24-year-olds reading news on social media websites increased from 12% to 34%. Not surprisingly, fewer than 13% picked up a print newspaper in 2012.
For a generation that speaks in hashtags and posts “selfies” with impunity, I expect that even with a little more time in the oven of life, print news will seem as contemporary of a communication medium as Morse code.
Amid perpetual business disruption and Millennials, the brand is not an immune system to ensure a company’s survival.
For the remaining brands that still have their wits about them:
- Realize that your future profits will come from these Millennials.
- Know that their children–let’s call them Nanolennials–will seem even more unusual to you and me. Prepare for radical change in consumptive habits.
- Preemptively disrupt your disruptors. Email killed the Postal Service. 3-D printing could hurt Amazon.com. What are the mega trends that pose mortal threats to your business model?
- Appoint a full-time chief innovation officer whose job it is to see around corners, spot trends, and build strategic plans to reach the next generation of consumers.
Innovation is evolution. To stay relevant, media brands must reinvent themselves with technology. Raised on social media, Millennials want to engage, and not simply be passive readers.
So how might The Washington Post launch micro campaigns to publish local photography from readers using Instagram? Would a daring newspaper ever consider breaking news through a video on its website? Could NPR and Spotify collaborate to reach younger audiences?
If heroes shape history, then the brand messiahs of the future will be cliff-diving risk takers, mashup artists, and unabashed change agents. Whether they will hail from Mountain View or Mississippi is anybody’s guess.