Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Jun 21

Whither Digital Advertising, Mid-2017 Edition: NYTimes Take; Analytics to the Rescue!

Posted: under adsense clickfraud, advertising, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Are we about to see advertisers “flee to quality”?

And would a complete overhaul of digital advertising be good for journalists and netizens who produce honest, high-quality content (and more importantly, bad for Fake News)? Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times (a publication that now is the poster child for abandoning advertising in favor of subscription revenue), unloaded on the complex ad-delivery technology that’s arisen in the past 10 years, pointing out all the flaws that have been glaringly evident to anyone who has paid attention to the space. Do a quick search for “clickfraud” and count backwards to when the articles started appearing – hell, I’ve been yammering about it on this blog for at least 5 years myself.

ad clickfraud search results june 2017 digital advertising

Not just the sheer number of results – check out the related searches as well. Right out there in the open: tools for you to launch your very own online fraud business.

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Oct 19

12 Steps to Media Sobriety: the Storify is the First Step (sorta)

Posted: under journalism, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Politics & New Media.
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OK, this is going to need a bit more work to turn into something that rivals the Cluetrain Manifesto, but there is definitely something here. (Photo below added because so many Chrome users are seeing only blanks on this page, and you should know at least what you’re clicking into when you follow the link to Storify.)

trump 12 steps media sobriety storify with vince gonzales usc journalism professor

(Note: If you see only a blank space here, you need to disable any blockers you have operating in your browser. Or you can go directly to the Storify I built about this under my Dave LaFontaine profile.)

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Feb 20

Should Local News Be Marketed as “Infrastructure”?

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Ken Doctor at Neiman’s “Newsonomics” points out that the “self-asphyxiation” cycle is nearing endgame

I cross-posted a response to this on Facebook, so if you’ve already seen it there from me, my apologies.

pile of newspapers on fire

Fahrenheit 451 should not have been a documentary of what the future was going to be like.

But I’ve been watching the gradual descent of local news for most of the past 20 years, and the latest round-up by Doctor basically sums up everything that I’ve been fearing. A sampling:

While national/global news companies have cut their newsrooms, they have still maintained sufficient capacity to make their news brands valuable in the digital age. It’s not just the numbers of journalists: It’s a good mix of veteran experienced journalists who know their beats deeply and younger journalists, still early in their careers but natively more digitally inclined.

At the local press, it’s a different picture. As newsrooms have halved, older, experienced journalists have been disproportionately made to feel redundant, and then made sent off. The main reason: money. Older journalists earn more of it, and their cutting makes short-term financial sense.

The result: a disaster whose death spiral seems to be accelerating. When I’ve given talks, I’ve gotten a lot of nods from people in the industry when I show one single slide: A two-liter bottle of Coke selling for $1 next to a one-liter bottle priced at $2. That’s essentially what local publishers have done in product and pricing of print over the last five years, doubled the price and halved the product, a halving that, of course, carries through to their digital offerings.

Any company that disrespects its own products, and those who produce them, probably deserves its eventual fate.

(snip)

Yes, money matters, but it’s that beating heart of the business — creating news that local citizens need to run their governments and better their lives — that still has to be an antidote to the single-minded financial view of local news. (If “the market” won’t support local news, many have said to me, than maybe it isn’t needed. I ask them: If the same were true of education, the arts, or even roads, where would our struggling democracy be?) [Ed. note: emphasis mine.]

Where is the moral center of the local news industry — a moral center that long rested, if sometimes uncomfortably, alongside the demands of running a successful business?

While I agree with all the points Ken makes, there is one bit that jumped out: his equating of the news with schools, roads, bridges, etc. Yes, we all agree that we need a group societal effort to build & maintain these things, and that as a result, we all benefit from their existence. Thing is: the average citizen can SEE the roads/schools decaying, and is motivated to action. Lack of local news coverage only becomes a crisis when suddenly we wake up to lead in our water. The news industry, if it is going to transition from ad-supported to a more direct “charge the readers” model, is going to have to get on the stick and market itself better; make a case to the readers that they NEED local news coverage as a form of insurance policy.

Because meanwhile, over at the Shorenstein Center, we’ve got Walter V. Robinson talking about the “Spotlight” movie about the Catholic Church’s coverup of sex predator priests, and how the erosion of business models has particularly devastated investigative reporting. And yes, full disclosure, I started my career as an investigative journalist before going over to the digital zoo, so I have perhaps a skewed view of how important enterprise/watchdog/investigative journalism is to the health of a democracy. Still:

Unfortunately, investigative reporting is threatened in many cities, said Robinson. Although the Globe has partnered with Participant Media and other funders to offer a new investigative reporting fellowship, many local newspapers will no longer invest the time and resources required for stories that can take months of reporting, said Robinson.

“The prevailing view among editors is ‘investigative reporting is a luxury we can no longer afford’…The fact is, investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.” Robinson said that in the face of declining revenue in the past decade, cutting investigative reporting was a “fundamental mistake.” Readers “almost always” rank investigative reporting highly in surveys, said Robinson.

“The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000,” he said. “In many communities even city hall doesn’t get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in city hall has no one to go to…that’s a really serious problem for our democracy right now.”

So here’s my thought: what would be the best way for journalists and news organizations to start making a case for themselves? We’ve seen how well fear-mongering via news outlets works for moving the public to devote spectacular amounts of time, money and energy into heading off perceived threats. The Iraq war, Ebola, the wall at the border with Mexico, the gold standard, handgun seizures … all “crises” driven by media coverage that spurred Americans to either demand the government spend billions (trillion?) to kieep them safe, or got them to reach into their pockets, pull out their wallets, and spend a sizable percentage of their disposable income on something that would Keep Them Safe.

I don’t think we should get as crude and manipulative as many of these campaigns have been. But could there – should there – be a reminder in the middle of each news broadcast/article/infographic, making it explicit that this coverage just saved ordinary Americans from “X” and that to continue to do so, we need you the viewers/listeners/readers to support us in this manner.

And then lay out what might happen if the audience does not. Make it explicit, in the way that a collapsed bridge, or gradeschool on fire, or highway full of potholes does for the average, distracted American, who only has time to respond to direct threats to his/her existence.

Our audience is starved for time, and thousands (millions?) of new digital experiences are screaming for their attention (and money). News is too often marketed as “cod-liver oil” – it tastes like shit, but it’s good for you. I think we need to revisit that paradigm, and start figuring out better ways to make people appreciate what the news, and aggressive, honest local news coverage, does for them.

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Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
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Mediapart in France is profitable because it gives readers what they are willing to pay for.

Imagine that.

mediapart.fr front page

The Mediapart organization makes its living by doing hard-hitting investigative journalism that its audience is willing to support. They also make a point of including lots of video on their pages.

Quick hit here for my students, who are increasingly upset about their job prospects after graduation.

I shared an article from Neiman about the upheaval in the newspaper business in France. Apparently, the same problems that plague the French economy at large are at work, writ small & exceedingly acerbic, at the major newspapers. They are tech-phobic, rely on business models that no longer fully function, and react angrily to anyone threatening the promise of a cushy work situation with guaranteed employment and 1/4 of the year spent on vacation.

Can’t imagine why that can’t cut it in a world increasingly dominated by the internet work ethic of, “If you eat lunch … you ARE lunch.” Somehow, I don’t think this will fit in with a languid afternoon at a sidewalk cafe with a nice burgundy and a baguette slathered with brie. With accordion music wafting in the background.

But about 2/3 of the way down the article, there appeared these grafs, which I am going to excerpt here, although I do urge you to go to the Neiman site & give them some traffic-love, ’cause @petergumbel did a damn good job with this write-up:

Edwy Plenel, for one, is incensed by the conflicts of interest inherent in the French press. But then that’s not entirely surprising, since outrage is Plenel’s mojo.

He has come a long way since his revolutionary youth, which he wrote about in a 2001 memoir. He made his mark as an investigative journalist at Le Monde; one of his most celebrated scoops was uncovering the role of French intelligence in the 1985 sinking in New Zealand of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. He made the Elysée so nervous that it illegally bugged his phone during the presidency of François Mitterrand. He spent a total of 25 years at Le Monde, including a stint as editor in chief, but he left in 2005 during one of its sporadic crises, after attacks on his management style.

He launched Mediapart as a subscription site in December 2007. Three years later it was at break-even. Today, it’s racing toward 100,000 subscribers, each paying the equivalent of about $12 per month. This year he expects the site to make about $2 million net profit on just over $10 million in revenue. It has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are journalists. It now outsells Libération, which has almost six times as many staff members. [Emphasis mine – dlf]

The secret: a laser focus on exclusive news, especially revelations of high-level political and financial skullduggery. Mediapart’s subscriptions soared in 2010, the year it broke the story about a convoluted political and financial scandal involving France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. They leaped again in 2013, after it revealed that the then-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, whose job included fighting tax evasion, himself had an undeclared Swiss bank account and had transferred funds to Singapore. After denying the allegations for months, Cahuzac eventually resigned, acknowledging that he had lied to parliament and to President François Hollande.

Work the numbers, folks. $10 mill in revenue-$2M profil = $8M in expenses. $8M/50 employees = $160K/yr per employee. Figure about 40% of that per-employee allocation is insurance, pension, and building/maintaining the site & gathering news costs, and you still get a salary of $64K/yr on average. For a journalist, that ain’t bad. Plus you’ve got a warchest of $2M that you can throw at a big story, should one come up, and to use to build out the site & extend its reach.

So. There’s a lot going on here. I’ve written in the past about how I disagree with the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, who called for exactly the kinds of government subsidies for newspapers that are allowing them to continue to try to deny reality, and live in a fantasy-bubble. At the time, I was reacting to what I’ve seen in Latin America, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other places where allowing the government to get its hands on the revenue stream is akin to letting criminals loop a choke-chain around your throat. They can lead you around by it, and if you start getting out of line, all they need to do is give it a quick, sharp yank, and you fall back in line, suitably docile.

I’ve seen that happen. First-hand. In Venezuela, when I was a very young editor.

Government subsidies are kinda like this. Nothing really sticks until you try to do something that the person holding the leash doesn’t like.

The solution that Mediapart has come up with here may not last. It may not work everywhere. But it’s something that makes a lot more sense to me than journalism that exists as a kind of state-supported performance art piece. Because I’ve seen that as well: journalists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their audience, sporting paternalistic, condescending attitudes, producing self-indulgent “investigations” that nobody really reads, and that don’t really threaten the people who give them checks each month.

So when I see that Mediapart is actually making a pretty nice profit, running with a lean staff, and dedicating itself to serving the interests of its audience, it pretty much makes my day, particularly in light of the grim news out of the LA Register, NBC news, and pretty much every other traditional media outlet recently.

Look, I am not hooting and hanging on the rim here, delighting in the travails of people still stuck in jobs at tottering media empires, hanging on for dear life through ownership changes, strategy changes, and promises that melt away like morning dew.

Long-term, market forces are going to prevail. If journalists produce a product that people want, and give them a means by which to support/purchase/share it, then that audience will fight to ensure that this important part of their lives is still there. The very first case study I ever did was centered around that fact. It makes me sad to see so many journalists, who base their entire journalistic ethos on pushing people and institutions to change, to adapt to the times, to leave behind (even if painful) the habits & traditions of the past … ignoring their own best advice.

Liberation may not be a cafe. But it may also not be an outlet for journalism much longer either.

 

 

 

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May 29

Economic Crisis Forces Spain’s Newspapers into Digital Migration

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Unemployment over 50% – banking system collapse – political instability – newspapers run out of options

When asked what are the enduring lessons of the last five years for newspapers, various pundits have opined “Don’t enter an economic recession massively over-leveraged and dependent on fragile business models.”

One by one, newspapers are falling behind.

In Spain, the problems that we are experiencing in the U.S. are even more severe. The advertising base was even more reliant on crazy real-estate bubble advertising than it was here. Anyone who has flown into, say, Barcelona, and seen 20 MILES of empty housing developments, half-built apartment blocks, and gradually eroding graded hillsides, can quite easily judge what kind of devastation was left behind when that bubble burst.

But now comes the news that digital media has overtaken print in Spain. 

There is some disagreement over just how many digital news outlets have sprung up in the past couple years:

Ahora desde la AEEPP (Asociación Española de Editoriales de Publicaciones Periódicas) reconocen que tienen 763 publicaciones digitales asociadas aunque, Carlos Astiz, secretario general de la Asociación, estima que puede haber 3.000 medios digitales.

…and exactly what constitutes a regular news publication (such as when its edition are funded via crowdfunding:

En medio de la crisis que afecta a los medios tradicionales, han surgido en los últimos meses un gran número de medios digitales con fórmulas diferentes para conseguir la rentabilidad. Desde la existencia de socios que por un módico precio acceden antes a los contenidos como en diario.es o infolibre.es a proyectos financiados por crowdfunding como la revista FronteraD.

But the trend seems to be that digital-only publications have been designed from the ground-up to be profitable on this new platform. The publishers, operating on a shoestring, find an audience, find ways to monetize that audience, and then start to methodically try to scale up.

The opposite is in action with the traditional media. They have their audience – but it is shrinking.

They have their revenue streams – but they are evaporating.

So they are engaged in a massive scale-down. Cutting coverage, cutting staff, and according to the Difusion story, only weeks/months away from re-erecting the infamous paywall around El Pais that was widely credited with destroying the paper’s digital operations before they had even gotten a chance to find their footing. I wrote an entire case study about it (and El Tiempo’s desperate attempts to re-connect with the young audience that they had alienated & lost) for the NAA. 

El Pais Spain front page

Soon to run back behind the paywall. Maybe it will work this time. Then again, with so much new competition in the digital marketplace, and with the brand discredited & distrusted by younger readers … maybe it won’t.

Meanwhile, over in the digital-only world, site owners are waking up to the trend of “native advertising” – i.e. putting posts into the middle of the flow that look a lot LIKE the news stories that readers are there to check out … but that contain sponsored content, written in a way that doesn’t conflict with the rest of the content on the site.

Check out what John Battelle has to say about this evolution of monetization: 

The reason native works is because the advertising is treated as a unit of content on the platform where it lives. That may seem obvious, but it’s an important observation. When a brands’s content competes on equal footing alongside a publisher’s content, everyone wins. Those search ads – they win if they are contextually relevant and add value to the consumer’s search results. Those promoted tweets only get promoted if people respond to them – a signal of relevance and value.  The same is true for all truly “native” ad products. If the native ad content is good, it will get engagement. The industry is evolving toward rewarding advertising that doesn’t interrupt and is relevant and value additive. That’s a good thing.

 

 

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Apr 17

The Great Digital Migration: A Long, Featureless Trudge Into … What, Exactly?

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch.
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27 Print Dollars for $1 Digital; Social News; Papers in Trouble; Kodak v. Fuji

I posted this picture via Twitpic earlier today, and my digital brethren quickly chimed in on how much they felt like this in their daily lives. And I get it. Working in the media industry these days is far, far different from the way it was when the journalists of my generation got into the biz. Looking back at recordings from the early 90s, I am struck by how much free time we all seem to have had back then – these days, you feel like you can’t take your eyes off your Twitter feed for even a second, lest you miss the Next Big Meme and are thus branded as a digital troglodyte who “just doesn’t get it.”

people walk across sand dunes in a vast desert

Strung out and exhausted, journalists are wondering when this migration ends, or even when they might run across a handy signpost telling them which way to go. (click to embiggen)

So yeah, if you feel like you’re lost in the desert and that the only future involves your bones bleaching in the sun next to a steer skull … well, maybe it’s because most newsrooms these days evoke the feeling you get when wandering through any of the weathered ghost towns that dot the arid landscape in Arizona and Nevada, left behind when the seams of gold and silver petered out.

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Aug 19

The LA Times: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Posted: under Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , ,

The eulogies for the newspaper industry are starting to become almost commonplace, as the generation that matured and worked during the Salad Days of the 70s and 80s totters off into the sunset. Mark Heisler, the NBA beat writer at the LA Times, has weighed in with a long piece at TruthDig about what the last couple years under Tribune and Zell have been like.

The last round of layoffs at the LA Times was described as particularly hard to handle, as writers and editors who had devoted their lives to the industry were unceremoniously disposed of … reminds me of a scene I saw early in my career as a paparazzi here in L.A., where the workers at Cedars-Sinai hospital played H-O-R-S-E with sacks of squelchy “medical waste” that used to be parts of living human beings, tossing the greasy, bloody offal into the incinerator bin. Something about the blithe way that these people went about their day was just revolting and compelling at the same time.

If that seems a little stomach-churning to you, then you won’t want to read Heisler’s account of how the past two decades have gone at what used to be one of the world’s great newspapers. The waves of clueless management that have run the place into the ground have made the few newsroom survivors pretty much inured to whatever comes next. There used to be outrage, dire warnings of what the future would hold … that because fewer people were out there trying to report The Truth, society would start to disintegrate.

These days, the outrage has fizzled out; the flame wars that used to be de rigueur on all the “Inside the Newsroom” type blogs, defeated by the realization that Nothing Matters, Nothing Works, and Doom Is Certain. Most journalists leave these days, trying to appear chirpy and optimistic about all the exciting new opportunities in store for them at whatever cutrate Content Farm accepts their resume, while the pressroom guys watch their icebergs melt as well…

Heisler’s take is a little less sanguine, and benefits from his decades of experience, watching the entire industry implode:

It shouldn’t be a surprise that bad things
happen when an industry has been under the gun year after year, decade
after decade, century after century.

At 67, one NBA season from retirement (I
thought), the rising tide of BS was enough to prompt me (and, I’m sure,
half of the building, including bosses) to muse about throwing the job
in their faces.

One of the things that Heisler manages to do is to separate out the death of American newspapers from the growth of the internet, which is commendable and rare. Heisler has the perspective of 40-some-odd years in the industry, so he’s seen that things were not exactly going swimmingly, even before we all started installing second phone lines back in the late 90s, to hear the “SQUEEE-chirr-[white noise]” as we connected to AOL/CompuServe/NetZero.

I guess what struck me most was the tone of resignation. Every quarter, newsrooms will be cut. Valuable people will have their lives destroyed. Society will get worse. Dog bites man. What else ya got…?

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Aug 07

CNN International segment on Murdoch, phone-hacking & tabloid tactics

Posted: under New Marketing, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers, television.
Tags: , , , , ,

The good folks at CNN asked me to appear on Backstory” to talk about the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal.

I tried to oblige them with some insights onto why this kind of scandal keeps happening, and why. You can see the results of the interview in the segment below:

More on why the news business keeps getting hit with privacy scandals like this, and why it won’t stop after the jump…

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Oct 17

Where is the media heading?

Posted: under advertising, Digital Migration, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

First in a series of videos taken during a panel discussion for PR Newswire at the LA Times building. 

 

On the panel with me, the delightfully funny and plainspoken Serena Ehrlich, who knows more about how to handle media in the digital age than the last three Presidential Press Secretaries put together. Although there is a marked resemblance there to C.J Craig of the late, lamented Bartlett administration. 

Anyway, this is a bit of an intro to what the conditions are like for the media, and what the big forces shaping the future are going to look like. 

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Sep 14

From Zell to Eisner as Tribune Chief: Is This Supposed to be an Improvement?

Posted: under newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch.
Tags: , ,

The Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers used to represent the sinewy, beating heart of American journalism. Then they got run into the ground, bought up by Tribune dorks who were more interested in playing out their boyhood “I wanna play right field for the Cubs!” fantasies, and then sold to the “grave dancer,” Sam Zell.


Zell’s many, many misdeeds, missteps and misstatements these past three years are probably filling many venemous former Timesmen’s memoirs even as I type. But while the wheels of corporate justice grind slow … well, in those cases in current America, where the wheels grind at all … where there are even regulators and prosecutors employed & willing to throw a shoulder to the wheels … OK, enough with that by-now-Abu Ghraib’d metaphor.  The point is that the more we learn about the circumstances under which Zell was allowed to buy the Tribune Corp & the LA Times, the more shady, unethical and perhaps even criminal the deal smells.

Now that the Tribune creditors seem to have grown a pair, and are starting to openly murmur about where all their money might have gone – in stark contrast to so many investors who have complacently plodded through the zigzagging pens of modern American Capitalism towards where the Bernie Madoffs, Angelo Mozilos & Magnetars of this world wield their blood-soaked financial sledgehammers – the word is out that Zell has reached the end of the plank.

So now what?

The villagers gathered around the moat look at each other blankly, their torches sputtering, pitchforks starting to droop. There is muttering in the ranks, a strange sense of deflation. What to do now that the monster has abandoned them?

Perhaps some new savior will arise. One who can lead them out of the bottomless cycle of self-asphyxiation and learned helplessness. A man who has “vision,” and who (with just the right sort of spineless boot-licking understanding board of directors) can restore the kingdom to its past glory. Maybe … maybe … yes. Yes! That’s it!

This shall be the image of serious news-gathering and investigative reporting in America.

We’ve earned it.

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