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Media tremors--the earth is shifting

CNET's Harry Fuller says a tectonic shift is creating cracks in the media landscape that may never get paved over.

While our planet's tectonic plates move in geological time, the media landscape is now shifting in Internet time. Today's media giant is tomorrow's hollow shell. In 1999 there was the Viacom-CBS merger. That lasted six years. We're all old enough to remember that halcyon moment when AOL and Time-Warner merged to form what was at that time the biggest media company in the world. That's was back in January 2001.

Meanwhile, Google was still a private tech start-up in Silicon Valley. It didn't even go public until August 2004. On Wall Street, it's been a huge hit. But weaknesses are showing. Google is not winning in the world's largest Internet market, China.

Apparently, Rupert Murdoch is interested in owning Dow Jones. This is the same Dow Jones that just predicted a majority of its 2009 revenue will come from its digital services, not traditional print. And nobody wants AOL, so Time Warner is struggling to find a new business model for this Internet pioneer.

That brings us to a few things that have just happened or are about to happen.

Two Bay Area newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury-News, recently announced major layoffs. Yahoo just ditched its very expensive, media-savvy CEO. And in August, the Big Ten Network will launch.

Each of these three events carries its own seismic implications.

Newspaper layoffs are now like laptop battery recalls or poison chemicals from China. Yeah, so what's new? What's new is that there's no turning back.

Newspaper layoffs are now like laptop battery recalls or poison chemicals from China. Yeah, so what's new?

Print industry insiders now know this and admit it, sadly and privately. Craigslist gutted the newspapers' old business model by coming up with easy and efficient classified advertising. Now newspapers are stuck trying to sell content. Not an easy thing to do in the Internet Age. Many major dailies are still trying to figure out how to merge online and print staffs. Too little, way too late. I don't need a local paper for the movie listings anymore; it's more efficient to find them online. Suburban newspapers with sharp local focus may continue to do OK. But big metro dailies will become nonprofits like your local museum or opera company. Or they'll simply fade away, another relic.

Meanwhile, The New York Times, USA Today and The Washington Post endeavor to become national newspapers and Web sites. In that arena, they must compete with TV news networks, Yahoo News, Google News and the blogosphere.

Yahoo, like AOL, was an early powerhouse on the Internet. It outlived other search engines like Excite and Lycos. It became more inclusive than AOL, which foolishly assumed Internet users could be confined in a walled garden. But Yahoo lost the search battle to Google and then generally lost its way.

It didn't buy major league talent to compete with cable TV but pretended to be a content company. Yahoo has no Jon Stewart, no Sopranos. Yahoo didn't develop superior community sites, but it wanted to be a community center. It bought Flickr, one of the better photo-sharing services, but it has myriad competitors.

Yahoo is now a set of widely used tools: e-mail, IM, Flickr. Is it simply a tool company? Can Yahoo be rejuvenated? Does Yahoo go the way of Western Union, now pared down to simply wiring money around the globe? Can you even send a telegram now? Who cares?

Finally, there is the upcoming launch of the Big Ten Network, which will carry football games of some very popular Midwestern universities. Big Ten will also produce other sports and university-related programs, some of it to be delivered via the Internet. This pulls content from traditional TV channels.

Major League Baseball already offers a series of online subscription packages to bring fans games from cities where they don't live. Thus, major sports franchises and revenue sources become more and more independent. They no longer need traditional TV to deliver their content and skim off some of the huge ad revenue.

The aftershocks will reverberate across the media landscape. Revenue drains away from TV networks and stations, as well as from radio. And those TV folks lose one more way of promoting their other content to an increasingly elusive male demographic.

Smaller staffs at TV networks and stations will be the result, echoing newspaper cutbacks. Will Channel X ever convince some 30-year-old male to watch its programming if sports highlights are online, his favorite team is on his iPhone, and the weather forecast is on a thousand Web sites?

That's a rhetorical question, as we watch the continually shrinking ratings and clout of old-time media.

As these media quakes continue to hit--large or small, but inevitable--they are changing the media landscape as surely as the forces that lifted the Rockies. In the resulting environment, not every media critter will survive.