All this time has passed and we are still in the “sheep v goats” definition stages of online market development. My easily irritated duodenum flared on this in this morning’s MediaGuardian (never to be taken in any case without antacid);” Facebook is absolutely not an AOP  (Association of Online Publishers) member. We wouldn’t recognize Facebook as a content producer and they would not define themselves as one”. (Lee Baker, Director of AOP, MediaGuardian, 27 September 2010). Since AOP also excludes the BBC, but includes News International (and thus My Space as well) it could be defined as the Society for the Protection of Old Media against Intrusive Business models (SPOONFED). But for my current purposes the issue is not quite that: why, I want to ask, is it permissable for “old” media to be given time, and often protection, in order to rebuild their businesses for a networked world, when that time and investment have largely been used for strategies of ill-informed diversification by acquisition as a hedge against change. Or for market strategies designed to slow change and push the market, largely unsuccessfully, towards halfway houses in which the format to be protected is prefaced “e” in the hope that this will prevent a strike of lightning. Thus, eNewspapers a la Murdoch, eMagazines and eJournals … and, alas, eBooks. All doomed halfway houses.

So what is to be done? It has now been clear for a decade that the media needs to re-invent itself in terms of network grounded communications. Adaptation has to flow from a real understanding of how virtual users behave, and that this behaviour is crucially different from that of the same individual in a real world environment. Publishing platforms that create and hold content must be neutral to end use, and marketing has an enhanced editorial role in defining those usages. We need to recognize that the word publisher may have lost its utility, that anyone and everyone who creates content in the network may be one, and that to exclude the world’s largest networker of user-generated content  from the definition of an online publisher is sublime. Jonathan Swift would have been proud to own that fantasy. It belongs in an imagination that could envisage two nations fighting over whether it is correct to open a hard-boiled egg at the sharp or the rounded end.

In consumer publishing it is really hard to find examples of players once great in print who are now able to operate in network terms with a similar facility. But in broadly-defined B2B and professional information activities some players are beginning to turn their whole culture around towards the network  in ways which underscore what needs to be done. I would have said that this was harder for the bigger players, but the example given by Thomson Reuters (http://thomsonreuters.com/content/press_room/tlr/tlr_legal/621902) last week contradicts that prejudice. This, the largest player in the market, demonstrates real committment to the networked user by redefining its focus in a critical area from Financial Services v Law, Tax and Regulatory to Governance, Regulation and Compliance. Why is this important? Because it is saying that the ancestral divisionalization of this huge company must also be subject to the client bases of both sectors being utilized to satisfy an appetite for horizontal information to inform the workflow of compliance officers and a great number of managers who have regulatory responsibilities but who are not lawyers.

How do we know that this is serious and not window dressing? When the group’s chief strategy officer steps down to run the new business unit. And the acquisitions of recent years (Paisley, Complinet) which represent a response to these market developments, are built into the foundations of the new division. This sends messages throughout the organization, for while Reuters was always, in its post news agency years, a trading environment in an electronic world, the esprit developed in its titanic struggle with Bloomberg might have produced insularity. And Thomson Legal’s roots lie in eighteenth century law books at Sweet and Maxwell, and mid-nineteenth century law reporting in the US at West. These two outfits, when they came together, were also placed with an ancestry in portfolio brand ownership. The old Thomson view that interconnecting group holdings was wrong if it went to a point where elements might grow together (and thus be harder to sell separately) has certainly gone into retreat with this announcement.

I expect many of Thomson Reuters’ competitors to look at this announcement and then at their own portfolio holdings and wonder about current strategies. I also feel that the portfolio days of B2B have drawn to a close. Investing in disparate service elements in niche markets no longer adds sufficient value to be justified, and if the future really is around workflow emulation, as this column has been suggesting, then the niche positions do not cut it without a great deal more content and software. That content and software will most often come through third party deals and alliances, which also means that the industry must drop its long term aversion to strategic alliances. That is the problem with change: it changes everything.

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