The Race for the Start: Where Will You Place Your Attention?

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h1 Mrs. Robinson, do you think we could say a few words to each other first this time?

The Graduate

How do you get your media every day? Think about it. If you were born in the 70's or earlier, you probably read the local paper in the morning, listened to drive time radio during your commute, watched TV in the evening. Magazines would have offered on-demand access to the topics and point of view you were passionate about. You had established relationships with trusted media outlets - you had a routine. I suspect these relationships were quite stable.

To state the obvious, we are in the middle of a fundamental reshaping of media distribution systems. When I wake up today, I have routines, just like before, but my content sources are very different. Most often I start with email. I pick through Jason Hirshhorn's exemplary Media ReDEFined for interesting stories of the day. I scan Dave Pell's NextDraft. Next I check Twitter to see what is bubbling up on the webs. Increasingly I use social content aggregator news.me to see what content is resonating across my personal network. I also subscribe to the WSJ on my iPad, but I find it and The New York Times more of a weekend pursuit. I want higher signal to noise during the week. Like the magazine newsstand, I have trusted anchor publications that I turn to daily or weekly. For me, it's things like tech and media pubs, design blogs etc. You might start with Flipboard or the Yahoo home page or Facebook. My son always turns to YouTube (more on this important youth phenomenon in a different post). More and more often I use a tablet or phone to get this content.

The starting points are changing fast. And it matters because the start is incredibly valuable in an atomicized media world. I call starting points media spines. They are the connective tissue in the new media ecosystem and they determine how and where you allocate your attention. The natural instinct for spines is to control more of your time and engagement simply because when they do they are able to realize more of the media value - which is why we are seeing a lot of tension between these platforms and the content creators dependent on them. Remember, this was much less an issue in TV. The starting positions were consolidated across a handful of large media companies who generated a lot of cash to split with content creators. Inside the digital landscape, there are far more hands grasping for a smaller pot. The next generation of spines will need to control more of the user's time if they're going to create a scaled position in the brand advertising market.

This battle is heating up, and Twitter is at the front lines. On Twitter's efforts play a little bigger role in your media consumption diet, BetaWorks' John Bothwick points out:

The grain of Twitter moves with the grain of the Web; it's similar to Google in that it's a discovery platform that pushes you out. Now they've said: "We're going to be a media company"— but the grain of that moves in the opposite direction, to try and keep people in one place, to almost create a walled garden.

Or as Dave Winer puts it: News guys, Twitter is not your friend.

Here are some things to remember about the next generation of starting points.

Personal, curated social streams: They will be hyper personal, tailoring a content stream based on your social connections and granular content consumption preferences. Curation trumps content here. A new curatorial layer is emerging, like the service Jason Hirschhorn offers, bringing real insight and POV to a focused list of daily reads.

Media tools: They are tools and media destinations, combining communication, and community with content. Twitter, Facebook, even HuffPo aren't waiting for you to drop by. They are messaging systems that pull you back every day.

Mobile first: New thinking around user experience and content delivery on small devices will be a huge advantage in the early stages of this transition.

The new race for the start presents a huge challenge for incumbent media brands that will have to become spines, or figure out reliable ways of building a presence inside of them. If not, traffic mechanics become far too difficult to build a predictable media business.

For established digital media companies like Yahoo and AOL, that evolution is well underway. With their communication platforms slipping away, they have no choice but to becoming more sophisticated programmers and marketers of content, magnets for talent and purveyors of mobile media experiences. The media community is dying to see how Marissa Mayer will decide to navigate this platform/content equation at Yahoo. Establishing the pole position - owning the distribution positions from hardware and operating system - will be an option for Apple, Google and Microsoft but few others.

Think about your starting points and how they influence where you spend time. I'll bet you have half a dozen at best. They won't change many times in your life. And the race is on to cement the next generation. The winners will find right balance of connecting you to the things you love and keeping you around long enough to make it pay.

Troy Young is the president of SAY Media.