Do media companies have the math smarts to take on Google?

Stephen Baker

Erick Schonfeld at Business 2.0 writes about the possibility of Time Warner spinning off his employer, Time Inc. The trouble, he says, quoting David Carr of the Times, is that the magazine division is viewed by Wall Street as neither a growth nor value play. The answer, he suggests, is to develop loads of "niche communities [of readers and viewers] under larger brand umbrellas." He says that media companies must develop data-swapping relationships with customers. Then, presumably, they can use those data to deliver customized ads and services--much like Google and Yahoo.

One big problem. Yahoo and Google are busy hiring some of the best mathematicians and computer scientists in the world to develop these next-gen services. I recently talked to Michael Sipser, head of the math department at MIT. He told me about a trip he had taken to Google, where he and other academic luminaries learned about the exciting math and comp sci research in the works. For his students, these data hot spots offer:

1) A chance to tackle some of the world's most challenging problems (ie. teaching machines to understand us and our behavior)
2) Communities of brilliant peers
3) Big bucks

How can Time Inc. and other media companies compete with that? Jeff Jarvis writes that they have--or had--the chance to build communities of readers. But even for media companies smart enough to do this, math will be a crucial battleground in years ahead. They have to dig into the mountain of data these communities spew, and mine it for connections and relationships. Then they have to come up with targeted products and services. This work requires technical smarts. Seems to me that to thrive in the coming order, the media companies will have to team up, one way or another, with the math powerhouses. I don't see how they can go it alone. Am I missing something?

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