The past week demonstrates triumphantly that human ingenuity knows no bounds in finding fresh ways to invest in content and software marketplaces, with appetites apparently undaunted by the many examples available which show how hard it is to get growth in traditional media and how hard it is to get margins in the newer variety. Pearson’s results, despite positive underlying trends and signs of more normal market conditions in the US, failed to set investors alight. The mean machine at Amazon, trying to cope with the margin constriction of online retail while desperately seeking other sources of value add profits in logistics and AWS got a chilly response from markets. And yet, during the week, a number of unrelated deals demonstrated a continuing hunger for media and information marketplace assets that belies the difficulties and provides new exemplars of market reconstruction and consolidation at work.

We are all used of course to the cellular division process employed by McGraw Hill and News Corp to create a Good Bank/Bad Bank division of assets that enables the bit with prospects to be revalued and become a new growth point. This week we could call this the Murdoch Gambit, as Twentieth Century Fox, aka Good Assets, went after Time Warneur while the latter was in process of casting its Bad element, aka Time Inc, overboard. The acres of screenspace devoted to discussing this rather obscured remarkable goings-on in the wholly less glamourous but once far more profitable field of building and construction industry information. A few weeks ago McGraw announced that it was selling its properties in this area, clearly not relishing the build to a workflow-based BIM marketplace, with market players only slowly migrating to towards a new world of data handling. Last week Reed Elsevier went one further, by selling its RS Means building costs division to Warburg Pincus (who own the competitor, Gordian Group) and including 49% of Reed Construction in the deal. This demonstrates two interesting possibilities: Reed really are a portfolio player now, with a clear strategy on the rules of investment engagement and a determination to let others share the risk when retooling and re-investment becomes necessary; and private equity is becoming recognised again as a good place to go for those re-investment activities. Warburg Pincus in particular can point to their years of patient market and service development work at GlobalSpec, now a key element in the IHS positioning at the front of the Engineering information market.

And this was not the only interesting news from Reed Elsevier. For a start, it’s revenues are now 82% “digital”, a figure that only financial analysts seem to care about, long after the rest of us had assumed the figure was 100%! And for a moment midweek we could have been forgiven for thinking we were returning to the “Happy Families” consolidations of the 1990s as Reed (Lexis) sold its Polish law assets to Wolters Kluwer, who with equal solemnity sold their Canadian assets to Lexis. It all made perfect sense. Neither Thomson Reuters or Lexis ever made Germany work, yet WK did. Poland was the same, only smaller. Canada was much more comfortable for Lexis, which had considerable assets there already. One can only wonder why rationalisation sometimes takes so long. Whatever the answer, looking at the assets as a portfolio investment manager and not as a committed investor in certain markets and geographies certainly aids the thought process and clarifies the rules. One of Reed’s mantras in recent years has been reducing reliance on unstable advertising marketplaces. This week’s results indicated that advertising is now down to 2% of gross revenues. Mission accomplished then, since Reed are clearly not interested in the marketing services environments which will succeed old-style advertising, and which created what for me was Deal of the Week: the sale of Bizo to LinkedIn. When we look back for benchmarks of the recognition of marketing services online as a wholly new service concept, then Russell Glass’s company, itself a breakout from ZoomInfo, will be the measure.

So should we expect more weeks like this as the industry vertically restructures and consolidates? Will Wolters Kluwer seek a revaluation of its wonderful health portfolio by floating it separately from the less vibrant business, law and tax divisions. Informa, who recently announced a very logical and much more service-centric structure, could take a similar view, since the relationships between, for example, their academic research and their trade exhibitions businesses are pretty tenuous. My guess however is that the real control here will not be the investment savvy of the suits at head office, but market tolerance and utility. In markets where data availability inside workflow driven models becomes the expectation, and each offering must be content complete in order to compete, there will seldom be more than two competitors. The portfolio investor decision is the oldest on record: stick, or …twist.

These are meant to be the dog days of summer. Lazy interludes when half the media-eating world was so distracted by sun, sand and sea that a prime minister could assassinate a few long-serving colleagues or a presidential hopeful could explore prospects in autumn primaries without the full flood of critical commentary that you might expect in the hard light of western winter. But this is the Digital Age. It is remorseless and quite without shadow or shade. And having spent this week in bed throwing off a minor illness I am now as full of news and commentary as I am of medicine. The effect is overwhelming. Because I now know everything I realise I know nothing at all. I can’t wait to get back to normal-half-informed but deeply opinionated!

But from the ashes of the week I draw out three stories that seem to me at least to express some of what we are about at present. Rupert Murdoch’s attempt on Time Warner must clearly be one. The Elsevier deal with DCL to add value to the Scopus archive was another. And the court case in which Reed as Lexis and Thomson Reuters as Westlaw claimed that their appropriation of legal briefs filed by US litigators constituted “fair use” was the third. And what is the picture drawn here? It shows, in my view, a still content-dominated world where major players still think that the more you have the more powerful you are, where grabbing and re-using third party data can help to bolster failing content positions (even if you have to use the tools of the enemy to do so!), and where upgrading value becomes a necessity in a world where metadata is the currency of users who cannot afford the time to view content. Just like me with all this News.

So what do I think is really going on? Investors and Big Players are now deeply confused. The old maxim – “if in doubt make it bigger” – still seems to make sense, but can you trust Mr M, who seems to have dumped his slow growth media assets into Bad Bank (aka News) and is now readying another wonderful adventure in consolidation in which banks, analysts and advisors will earn prodigiously as well. But the game is not about Archive alone, surely? It’s about distribution and it’s about innovation and it’s about funding, and, step forward Netflix, most of the evidence seems to show that smaller, aggressively competitive players do these things better than media giants. Perhaps the best argument for Twentieth Century Time Warner may be that you will have to be that big to buy Netflix in an OK Corral shoot out with Google.

So then transfer the “commoditization of archive” argument over to Elsevier’s Scopus. In my view, developing Scopus was one of the bravest publishing decisions in STM in the last half century. It is a benchmark for quality and consistency, but as the abstracting pushed back prior to the 1996 start date, so citations were not broken up and separately tagged as they would be today. Redressing the past with a current standard approach using a DCL automated solution seems to be what the current deal accomplishes, and pretty vital it is too if today’s researchers are not to miss something through assuming that tags would be in place to show them. In the age when Scopus was built we had begun to assume that not all researchers would need the full text of articles all the time: we are beginning to see now that researchers do not always have time to check the abstract. This means that the metadata must be as high quality and consistent as possible. One day archive will not be for full text or abstract reading purposes but for audit and authentication purposes. Has anyone in Mr Murdoch’s team run an analysis of the valuations available on a video archive where the revenue model is “by the drink” but you have to keep updating the metadata to maintain the access expectations of users? Especially those who normally use illegal streamed content anyway!

I once had a client, havering about the costs and implications of going XML, who asked me to stop pestering him and come back when the ultimate value add had taken place, so he could adopt that. Sadly we will never reach that point, but in the Age of Data a very significant value has been added by associating third party data with our own. And we now have the platforms like MarkLogic and the semantic analysis to make this work. Law has always been a front runner, having text susceptible to taxonomic treatment and a superfluity of documentation to be searched. Fortunes were made here in the 1990s. Until the 2007 recession it looked as if this would always be a litigator research led market. We now know that law can decline in recession. And, ironically, we also know that those who have zealously protected their “ownership” of public documentation in the past are having to defend their right to use it in the present. West, before Thomson, famously sued Lexis for reproducing punctuation in state law reports added by West editors. Now we have the delightful picture of both companies defending themselves against lawyers by resort to fair use, long regarding as the librarian’s defence against them. But the point is not the irony: it is that no archive is ever quite big enough or quite tagged enough to satisfy users whose expectations, created by us, are simple. Answers and Solutions. Are you ready for this, Mr Murdoch? Delivered to my smartphone, please!