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All The News That’s Fit To Stream, And Fits The Stream

As Peak TV ascends ever-higher altitudes, with new streaming challengers and incumbents doubling down on their multi-billion-dollar programming investments, less noticed is the herd of new (or newly acquired and invigorated) players piling into the online news sector.

It’s getting as crowded in news as in scripted TV, with some of the same challenges in finding, attracting and keeping fickle audiences who have endless choices and short attention spans. Competition, generally speaking, is great in the short term for the practice of journalism, but pretty rough on the business of journalism, and thus on the kinds of journalism that are pursued. We’ll see who has the money, time and stomach for quality journalism, but for now, at least, all the new players will make for a very interesting show.

The very newest player arrived this week, sort of.

NBCUniversal announced a new streaming video service, NBC News Signal, featuring little overlap with the company’s existing NBC and MSNBC operations, though it will use some of their crews and talent to make original content. The service will expand a show anchored by Simone Boyce to five days week, and add morning and afternoon shows and hourly news updates. Signal is targeting younger audiences who are “hungry for news” but “want to consume it in a different way,” an NBC News exec said.

And though the service doesn’t launch until mid-2019, Signal programming is already available on NBCNews.com, in NBC News apps for mobile and OTT devices, on Pluto.TV and through YouTube and Twitter. That’s pretty good distribution already.  The service will need all the reach it can cobble together, given all the online competition, even from its broadcast brethren.

CBS News has CBSN, which it’s rolling out with local versions for major markets. And earlier this year, CBS All Access, its streaming-video service, arrived with original programming such as a new Star Trek series and Strange Angels, as well as a national feed and local affiliate content.

ABC News has ABC News Live, which focuses on breaking live news in a way that the 24-hour cable news channels don’t do much anymore. And Fox News said it will launch a subscription-video service called Fox Nation, the better to compete with ultra-conservative upstarts such as Blaze TV, Breitbart and InfoWars. Given the advanced age of the average Fox News viewer, it’ll be interesting to see how many of them can figure out how to use the service.

The hottest sub-sector of the business might be for local, online video news, much as CBSN is attempting.

Beginning in November, the Spectrum unit of Charter Communications will try to duplicate its popular NY1 news channel in Los Angeles. It’s hiring 125 people to staff the L.A. operation. The cable company already has local news operations in four Texas and Florida markets, as well as NY1’s big local-only footprint in New York City.

At the NAB NY show last week, Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO Chris Ripley dropped word about STIRR, an ad-supported OTT service he said would combine digital entertainment content, national news and syndicated talk shows, its local affiliates’ news and sports programming.

“What we see happening is the big tech companies are turning entertainment programming into a negative margin business,” Ripley said. “We see that as being a sea of blood. It’s going to be a very difficult space for a lot of players, including the biggest media players. We’re concentrating on spaces where we can create scarcity value: sports, local news.”
“Scarcity value” will be tough to create in an era of programming plenitude, but it seems to me Ripley is smart to focus Sinclair on what it can do well (if controversially).

In a less sturdy position these days is long-time liberal politics gabfest The Young Turks, which over the summer laid off two long-time hosts and 25 other staffers while shutting three non-news shows. They’re not the only news organization already facing challenges.

Verizon bought into the news business when it acquired AOL, Huffington Post and Yahoo and later combined them into Oath. Its news-focused units include Yahoo Finance and Yahoo Sports, plus whatever you call the output of the HuffPost meat grinder in these post-Arianna days. The combination, powered with lots of ad-tech and Verizon’s subscriber reach, was supposed to reach a $10 billion revenue target by 2020.

But even as Verizon’s wireless revenue was up 6.5 percent in this week’s quarterly earnings announcement, Oath revenue dropped 6.9 percent, and Oath is unlikely to reach that 2020 target. WIth new CEO Hans Vestberg focused on building out Verizon’s 5G mobile network, you have to wonder how long Verizon will hold onto Oath.

At the same time, would-be media barons keep buying in from many other sectors, typically acquiring struggling print publications that still command an audience, if one that is aging and shrinking. Over the long term, you have to expect all these units will double down on their local advantages and more aggressively create video, audio, live events and other content they can market around their mothership brand.

It’s already happened at the New York Times and the Washington Post, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos bought in 2013 for $250 million. Bezos called in his Amazon tech ninjas to make over the Post’s e-commerce and back-office operations to drive online subscriptions and additional revenue sources. By all accounts, it’s working.

Other instant media barons can’t bring the resources of Amazon to their new playtoys, but at least many of them are bringing an admirable attitude.

Biomedical billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong spent a whopping $500 million early this year for the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, a price he acknowledges was very high. But the Times now is adding numerous reporter and editor positions, moving to fancy new offices near L.A. International Airport (close to Spectrum’s new LA1 newsroom) and otherwise trying to recover from years of less-than-benign neglect by previous owner Tronc.

Last month, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and wife Lynne bought Time magazine from Meredith, which had acquired the Time Inc. magazine group. A month earlier, Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, bought a majority stake in The Atlantic magazine and its thriving online presence.

Now comes word that Meredith likely will sell Sports Illustrated, another former Time Inc. jewel, to  Ulysses “Junior” Bridgeman, who made a fortune in fast-food restaurants and soft-drink distribution. It’s worth noting that Bridgeman also has a serious sports background, spending 12 seasons as a valued sixth man for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks.

Now the New York Post says Bridgeman is likely to beat out a consortium that includes Hollywood producer and Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber, Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and motivational speaker Tony Robbins. That latter group also is trying to buy Fortune and Money magazines from Meredith.

Both Time’s Benioff and the L.A. Times’ Soon-Shiong say their acquisitions are a matter of keeping a public trust in a storied news brand. It’s an admirable sentiment, one I strongly endorse, though I’m painfully conscious of how difficult it will be to sustain in an already stuffed-full news business. I hope Benioff and Soon-Shiong both live long and continue to prosper wildly.