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Media Biz Must Master the Mobile Web or Face the Guillotine

Variety covers changing ways of consuming entertainment as magazine changes too

Today you can carry your Daily Variety over to Starbucks and read it over a cappuccino. Starting Wednesday, the cappuccino and Variety’s daily news coverage will remain, but you’ll be reading it on your phone or tablet. It’ll be the end of an eight-decade era of print dailies covering Hollywood.

Variety is “evolving,” as our ads say, along with the businesses it covers. I’ve been thinking about how we got here and where we’re going — “we” being the entire media business, print, audio, video and more.

The conventional wisdom blames the Internet for much of the upheaval in the media business. I suspect Starbucks has become rich selling caffeine to executives and analysts pondering the Internet business model.

But I think cracking “the Internet” is a 2005 problem. The key going forward is cracking the mobile Web. Fast Internet may have ignited this media revolution but the ubiquitous Web will whip it into an inferno in the years to come.

And it’s ubiquitous fast web, and ubiquitous entertainment, that puts we media types in the position of either joining the rebels or risking the guillotine.
(Assuming, of course, that the rebels will spare us if we join them — an assumption not supported by history. But that’s a topic for another day.)

This all comes down to tech innovation and unintended consequences.

Some history: Variety ran its “Extra” edition trumpeting the arrival of sound pictures in 1926 when Warner Bros. threw a gala New York preem for “Don Juan.” Nobody called it a “talkie” because movies weren’t about talk in those days, they were pictures with music. The excitement that night was that filmgoers everywhere would hear the same glorious orchestra as the glitterati at the Loews State, not just whatever local musicians they could muster.

Only later did it become clear that dialogue, not music, would be the real sound revolution. In the years that followed, “talkies” temporarily boosted movie attendance even as the Great Depression set in, but by the early 1930s Broadway and the movie studios were all struggling. At that time, Variety was a New York weekly, hauled to the Coast by truck and train. It needed Hollywood’s ad money, but Hollywood preferred faster, more local coverage. Variety joined the revolution; it launched the Daily.

Decades later, the Internet was developed as a nuclear war-proof communications network for the military, government and academic labs. Nobody thought of it as a delivery system for catalogs and cat videos. The media business didn’t fully feel the consequences until the web became fast and mobile. MP3s and portable digital music players were a dagger through the heart of the record industry. The movie and TV businesses knew they were in danger, but had a reprieve as long as video was slow to download and had to be viewed on a PC. Meanwhile, for print content, paper had a great advantage: It was portable.

Then in 2007 came the iPhone, which was less a phone than a mobile web device, and the portability advantage flipped. Now you could have the entire Web in your pocket, in a package smaller than a paperback book. I doubt even Steve Jobs anticipated the consequences of mobile Internet for print media, given his enthusiastic support of News Corp.’s The Daily, which turned out to be just another publication that couldn’t crack the Internet. The popularity of web-connected smartphones and tablets in turn fueled demand for faster mobile connections. Now games, movies, TV series, books and news are all in your pocket along with email and, oh yeah, your telephone.

Variety’s evolution, in one respect, repeats history: The web is faster than print, just as a daily was faster than a weekly. How local we’ll be remains to be seen, because now any showbiz pro in the world with a Web connection can peruse Variety over cappuccino or chai or yerba mate, so our reach is greater.

The mobile Web revolution is also untethering audiences from the foundations of media business models: theater seats, living room couches, timeslots and commercial breaks. Like us, the businesses we cover will have to re-learn who their audience is and how to aggregate and monetize them. And we’ll be covering that revolution even as we take part in it, both on the web and, ironically, in our revamped print Weekly, which you’ll see on the 26th.

I don’t think anybody’s quite figured out yet exactly how the media business will thrive in a world where there are vast libraries of free content available everywhere, anytime, but I know a lot of very smart people are still gulping caffeine as they try to figure it out.

Which is probably good news for Starbucks, anyway, because unlike the morning news, coffee may be mobile but it’s still not free.

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