CBS Buying CNET; So Does Old Media Understand The Web? (No) - InformationWeek

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5/15/2008
10:59 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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CBS Buying CNET; So Does Old Media Understand The Web? (No)

I suppose it makes perfect sense that the network perceived as the favorite of old folks that advertisers no longer covet would attempt to leapfrog its competition by making a big splash in online. However, in moving to acquire CNET Networks for $1.8 billion, just what exactly is CBS getting? A new-age media company at the cutting edge, or a leader of the Web 1.0 world which lately has been slow to adapt?

I suppose it makes perfect sense that the network perceived as the favorite of old folks that advertisers no longer covet would attempt to leapfrog its competition by making a big splash in online. However, in moving to acquire CNET Networks for $1.8 billion, just what exactly is CBS getting? A new-age media company at the cutting edge, or a leader of the Web 1.0 world which lately has been slow to adapt?I'd argue it's the latter. CNET clearly was the ne plus ultra of the early online journalism era -- say, 1994 until the past few years -- consistently at the head of the pack in churning out great coverage on news.com and on CNET's gaggle of reviews and downloads sites.

More recently, though, two big developments have thrown a monkey wrench into the old online-content model. First off, it's not clear whether readers really want a steady diet of text-based news and reviews when they now have at their disposal video, images, and -- most important -- social-networking sites where they can essentially "chat" with their friends about stuff, as opposed to sitting in front of their laptops reading long streams of text.

The second, and perhaps more ominous (for my pocketbook, anyway) change is that it's no longer evident that online media companies can support the high costs of creating content (i.e., stories) for the Web. I explored this dynamic in detail in my post, Digital Pennies From Analog Dollars Are Web Content Conundrum.

I realize the average person thinks most journalists are liberal layabouts who knock off their tabloid crap between drinking sessions with the Washington elite. (OK, I'm conflating Damon Runyon-era reporters with modern latte sippers, but you get the idea.) In fact, creating interesting stories -- especially about arcane technological developments -- is hard work. Perhaps this blog post is the exception that proves the rule.

Anyway, so the point is that the CBS acquisition won't solve CNET's main problem, which is the same problem all quality tech sites have. Namely, it's too friggin' expensive to create this stuff, especially when you're competing against blog sites which glom off that expensively created content for no money down. (They comment on it and get lots of traffic.)

I'm not sure the old-media CBS suits who no doubt will soon be running CNET quite get that. But I bet the CNET folks do. Here's hoping that Katie Couric's employers listen to them.

P.S. Someone pointed out to me that I failed to take note of CBS Sportsline, which kind of blows out my argument that CBS is completely lacking in Web successes. So perhaps the Sportsline folk will have some input into CNET's direction.

For a related take, please check out yet another previous post of mine: Web 2.0 Manifesto: Nobody Knows Anything."

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