Monaco Media Forum Mulls an Iffy Future

Google and the like are challenging traditional media to change in big ways, said the participants at a Davos-style gathering

The setting of the Monaco Media Forum, a luxury seaside hotel in the ultra-wealthy monarchy of Monaco, hardly conveyed a sense of gloom, but the discussions were another matter. "We are facing the end of journalists as an elite," Michael Maier, CEO of German online newspaper Netzeitung, said in a statement that exemplified the fin de siècle mood. "This is very painful."

The first edition of the forum, an attempt by Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy and Prince Albert II of Monaco to create the media industry equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos, sometimes felt like a support group for people with business model issues. Google (GOOG) and News Corp.'s MySpace (NWS) have emerged as serious competitors to traditional media for audience and advertising, undercutting revenue, threatening the existence of some companies—and challenging the power of all.

The Forum brought together leaders from publishing, broadcasting, advertising, and music to try to figure out how to ride this "digital tsunami," to borrow from the title of one panel.

We're Still Here

For those hailing from traditional media, the discourse could be profoundly unsettling. "The classic media will have to change dramatically if they want to stay in the game," said Lévy. The question of how was not definitively answered in the course of the two-day gathering. But at least some participants were confident that the end of the media world, as we know it, is not yet nigh.

Several speakers maintained, for example, that Google is not as fearsome as it seems. While the search giant has siphoned advertising from traditional media, it still has less than 50% of the U.S. search market, said Jim Lanzone, CEO of competing search engine Ask.com (IACI). Sites such as Expedia.com (EXPE) or MapQuest (TWX) still dominate travel-related searches, he and others pointed out.

Lanzone drew an analogy to the Model T. In the early years of the auto age the Ford product was ubiquitous, but soon people wanted cars that were sportier or simply a different color. "The same thing will happen with search," he said, because competitors are getting better at producing more useful results. (Google was not represented at the forum.)

"Democracy Disappears"

Any media hound who wanted to get really depressed could attend one of the sessions on newspapers. Their very existence is threatened by the migration of classified advertising as well as readers to the Web. Raw news has become a commodity, several speakers agreed, but they insisted that newspapers still have a role providing analysis and context.

To survive, newspapers must exploit their reputations as trustworthy sources of information. "People can tell the difference between blogs and news," said Caroline Little, CEO of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. "The challenge is the business model and how we get there."

At times the discussion could sound downright apocalyptic. "If media disappear, democracy disappears," said French author and venture capitalist Jacques Attali. Warned Bob Guccione Jr., founder of Discover Media, which publishes science magazine Discover, "By the time this conference reconvenes, a lot of [print outlets] will be gone." But Guccione went on to defend the relevance of ink and paper. "Print media content is actually very, very valuable. What we do matters," he said.

Whiff of Euphoria

Established print outlets are still the only organizations able to send journalists to trouble spots or commit time to serious research and writing, conference participants agreed. Guccione echoed an Oct. 20 speech by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel at a dinner for conference participants hosted by Prince Albert. Author and Holocaust survivor Wiesel argued that the biggest threat to the world right now is indifference. "We are passion vs. indifference," Guccione said.

The bunker mentality was not as prevalent among traditional media people as it might sound, though. Luckily, young representatives of Internet startups also came to Monaco and injected some optimism into the proceedings, even a whiff of euphoria. Participants heard presentations from new companies such as vpod.tv, which allows companies or individuals to quickly set up their own Net broadcasting channels, or Netvibes, which helps people set up their own home pages with links to their favorite sites.

And there was talk of new technologies that could breathe life into old media. One example: mobile phones that read codes embedded in magazine ads. The technology, already widespread in Japan, might allow print publications to offer the same kind of direct online response that makes the Internet so appealing to advertisers.

Seeing the Potential

Like the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Monaco Media Forum was more than anything a chance for people with ideas and people with money to network. Entrepreneurs such as Eva Blaisdell, Polish-born founder of Los Angeles mobile advertising startup AngelMobile, prowled the corridors touting their business models. Blaisdell, who pronounced the conference "excellent," said she was glad that Web superpowers Google and Yahoo! (YHOO) weren't there. "That would change the chemistry of the event," she said.

In the end, some people were hopeful the media establishment will eventually prove to be big beneficiaries of the Web. Ultimately, the Internet taps huge new international audiences. "There is more than enough revenue," said Jack Klues, chairman of Publicis Groupe Media, the media-buying arm of Paris-based Publicis. "What we need in our business is someone who is open and flexible and who is able to see the potential of the new technologies."