06 January 2007

David Geffen and The Future of Media

Rumors suggest that David Geffen might buy the LA Times. [http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?menuID=2&subID=1078] If he does, he could bring to it much more than his net worth of $4.4 billion. He could bring a proven model into a new arena, transforming the world of news media for the better.

Who is David Geffen? Geffen dropped out of college and eventually got a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. Legend has it that he got his start rather ignominiously. He applied for a promotion to agent and included on his resume mention of his degree from the University of Texas at Austin. When the letter stating that he'd dropped out came through the mail room, he intercepted it, changed it, and was soon hired as an agent. He later formed Asylum Records in 1971 and signed greats like Jackson Browne and Linda Rondstadt. He since co-founded Dreamworks with Spielberg and Katzenberg.

During his career in music, he has signed artists like John Lennon, Nirvana, Neil Young, and Weezer. As a music nerd, I envy this proximity to genius more than I envy his ability to buy and sell art pieces for $140 million. And in this role, Geffen may have defined a model that the news media desperately needs.

Fewer people have heard of Geffen Records than have heard of John Lennon or Nirvana, Cher or Aerosmith. Yet if you bought an album by these artists, you bought from David Geffen. (Okay, not all of their albums, but the point is the same.) By contrast, in the old model of the newspaper business you buy a copy of the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. You don't buy an article from investigative reporter Seymour Hersh or opinion piece by Paul Krugman. These are two very different models and if Geffen applies his old music industry model to this new era of newspapers, he could transform the media for good.

Think about a music industry model similar to the model for newspapers. Everyday, everyone listens to the same music - whatever is broadcast by the daily paper, er, I mean daily music. Think about how bland the music would necessarily be if it were forced to appeal to a broad and diverse group. Many people would conclude, listening to the elevator music that regularly gets played, that they just didn't like music.

One of the reasons that we love music is that it comes in such variety. Los Lobos plays music and so does Glen Gould and Theolonius Monk and The Roots. But the music they create is very different. And the consumption of music is not consumption of, say, Warner Brothers or Geffen Records. That is incidental. People have a passion for the music of, say, Van Morrison or Emmylou Harris and may not even know what label represents them. They don't buy the label - they buy the artist. Taking this perspective could make a huge difference for the news media.

There are two fundamental forces that would be at Geffen's back should he move in this direction. One is the force of diversity. Malcolm Gladwell has a great piece (look at talks at ted.com) about pasta sauce. His point? As long as Ragu and Prego clung to the model of one perfect pasta sauce, they were missing a huge market. Once Prego realized that there were different schools of great pasta sauce (chunky or cheesy or traditional or garlic perhaps being akin to rock, soft jazz, calypso, or rap), and made a variety of sauces, Prego's sales grew by $600 million! The other force is the force of the Internet. It is now possible for media to create and present forms of music, or news and opinion that appeal to different markets for relatively little. Publishing costs have plummeted via the Internet, suggesting that the marginal cost of increased diversity is dropping rapidly (ala Chris Anderson's argument in The Long Tail). It is perhaps this that the blogosphere has most signaled with its plethora of strong opinions and niche discussion groups.

The diversity of products that the LA Times could create may be centered on particular news personalities like Paul Krugman, Michael Kinsley, Greg Easterbrook or Barbara Ehrenreich. There is, obviously, quite a bit of this kind of thing going on already in media. The other thing that the LA Times could do is recognize that the "news" is based less on facts than the interpretation of them - and that interpretation is a function of culture and worldview. If this point has not already been made by the diversity of magazines, it must surely be clear from the diversity of blogs and websites. Not even facts are generic - worldview determines both the how the news gets reported and, more importantly, what news gets reported. If the LA Times could do the equivalent of what Prego did and identify various cultures, creating a different product for each one (the equivalent of LA Times Chunky in the form of LA Times Americana or LA Times Beatnik or LA Times Whole Earth or LA Times Family), they could easily reverse the erosion in newspaper sales and create a base from which to launch a multimedia conglomerate that spilled across the web, newsstands, TV, radio, and magazine racks.

Finally, I have to confess that I'm inclined to be impressed by anything done by a guy who said this, one of my favorite quotes:

“I think we are all figments of our own imagination. We invent ourselves. We have a vision of ourselves and its takes us where it will take us. There may be a normal course for doing ordinary things, but there’s no normal course for doing extraordinary things. Very often your destiny is beyond your ability to imagine it.”
- David Geffen

When you think like that, it's easy to belive that you might transform an industry.
P. S. - the bid is no longer rumored - Geffen has reportedly bid $2 billion for the LA Times. The rumor has become real - it'll take a bit longer to see whether the analysis will.

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