Web-native companies strive to eliminate “transactional friction.” Newspapers? Not so much. I’ve been a subscriber to the LA Times for as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve watched as the big beast evolved from a gray morass of 100-inch stories to the biggest (and most profitable) paper in the U.S. in the late 90s. […] [...more]
Web-native companies strive to eliminate “transactional friction.” Newspapers? Not so much.
I’ve been a subscriber to the LA Times for as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve watched as the big beast evolved from a gray morass of 100-inch stories to the biggest (and most profitable) paper in the U.S. in the late 90s. Which has made the last decade and a half so very hard to watch. Still, I’ve stuck by Gray Lady West through some very tough times, and I have many friends who either work there now, or have in the recent past.
“Frictionless commerce” is what makes iTunes, Amazon, Google AdSense, Craigslist and so many other web titans so successful. It means that you make it as easy as possible for customers to actually buy something from you. (Image credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons)
First: a lesson in what “failure of the last mile” means: consider what goes into making a successful restaurant. You have to have a prime location. Decorate the exterior. Decorate the interior. Hire a great chef. Hire great kitchen assistant chefs. Come up with an innovative menu, with food that appeals to your core demographic. Procure the freshest ingredients. Ensure that the food prep space is clean and gets an “A” from the city inspectors. Advertise. Market. Give out coupons. Sweet-talk reviewers into coming and writing reviews. Have valet parking. And so much, much more that all leads up to the “last mile” – what the experience is like at the “touch point” where the customer actually engages with the product.
In a nutshell: all this effort in preparation to make a great restaurant counts for nothing if the waiter is snotty to the diners.
I’ve seen this in action again and again with the startups I’ve been involved with. Early on, we faced epic levels of “cart abandonment” when trying to coerce people into making a purchase, because (at the time) people were really, really reticent to type their credit card numbers, expiration dates and security codes into a browser window. Since then, we’ve obviously learned that data theft can pretty much happen anywhere. However, this hurdle was gradually overcome via the efforts of eBay, Amazon, iTunes and PayPal. All of which add layers of security, and money-back guarantees if your card gets hijacked and used to buy pallets of AK-47s in Cote d’Ivoire.
So here’s what trying to buy a subscription from the LA Times looks like. You dial a number. There’s a choppy, slow voicemail hell, with choices that really don’t seem to apply to what you want to do. There is no dedicated 800 number for renewing subscriptions – you just get dumped into the bin with people who want to report their paper getting stolen, or who want to turn it off while they go visit the grandkids. So that’s turnoff #1. Even as a dedicated subscriber, I wanted to hang up and just try the website to see if I could get a better experience. Still, I hung in there to see whether things would improve.
It took 3 steps and 2 minutes to get to a place where I could finally start to accomplish what I came for. Unfortunately, rather than talking with a human – I had to manually enter a credit card number over touch-tone. That’s Strike Two, folks. If you’re going to be giving up that kind of info, consumers kinda want to get rewarded with a human voice, particularly if they have any queries about what they’re buying and how much it costs. Which I did.
So I grimly stuck to it, even after entering my financial information, hoping to get someone on the phone to explain the rather complex choices on payment amounts and term of subscription that came on the paper bill I was mailed. Pressing the “0” button just kicked me back into the main menu. Somewhere along the line, as the frustration increased, I heard that I had to “Press 9 to Speak to a Representative.” Only, that kicked me back to the main menu as well.
Sure enough, there was a silent blip as the call was transferred to a call center. Not in India – the costs for call centers have gone up there. No, this one was to the new lowest-cost call center hub – in the Phillippines. The operator was friendly enough, but the problem started when I asked about the payment terms. Under the subscription plan they now offer, the LA Times gives me unlimited web access (which is mostly how I engage with their news product these days no surprise), and charges me about $12 every two months. But looking at the rate card I was mailed, it seemed as though they were trying to incentivize me to subscribe for 6 months or an entire year by offering price breaks for these longer-term commitments.
So sure. Maybe if you let me shave a few bucks off the bill, I’ll pay you the whole amount upfront and let you make some money off the “float” of having my entire wad of subscription money that you can earn interest on. It’s one of the ways that smart companies entice consumers into locking themselves into making a yearlong commitment.
Unfortunately, the call center operator had no earthly idea of the pricing structure for the product she was trying to sell.
After having to verify (for the 3rd time on this now 15-minute call) my phone number, address, name, credit card number, etc., just asking how much I was going to pay flummoxed this person. I was quoted three different prices for the subscription I now have. I corrected the operator a couple of times, and finally after teaching her about the product she was trying to sell, got to the bottom line.
I can pay $12 every two months for the next year. Or I can pay $83 up front to “lock in” the subscription price.
Let’s do the math here.
If I pay every two months, that’s six payments a year, right? Simple math: 6 payments x $12 = $72 a year.
And you want me to pay $83 upfront in one lump sum? How does that make financial sense? I’d be paying MORE for a yearlong subscription rather than saving a few bucks.
The operator stammered and then went back to the script of “locking in the subscription price.” Well, is the price going to go up then? No. I don’t know. Maybe.
By how much? I don’t know. When? I don’t know. But it might. Is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Not right now.
OK, at this point, I hung up. Deconstructing this entire experience, from a webconomics point of view, this is an absolute disaster. The LA Times has made it difficult and frustrating for existing subscribers to attempt to continue to be subscribers. They’ve cut costs in their circ department by outsourcing all the call center jobs to places where ill-trained people stumble over what should be easy points. And finally, their pricing structure makes no sense once you drill down and work the numbers for yourself. And the numbers are completely different on the web, in the mailers, according to the people on the phone. The price just keeps changing!
This makes it impossible for the end-user (i.e. subscriber) to trust the prices that we’re being given. Yeah, it’s only a few bucks, but come on, now. You guys know – or SHOULD KNOW – how consumers react when they start to suspect that someone else is getting a better deal.
I’ve written at length over the years about the migration from an ad-supported revenue model to a subscription-based model (AKA “paywalls”). The jury’s still out on how well this is going to work out for the newspaper industry; yes, the New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are often cited as success stories (although detractors point to weaknesses in their underlying dynamics). News organizations across the board are looking to ways that they can support themselves by charging subscriptions to access their material.
This only works when that transaction is quick, easy and painless.
The battle is against Putin's propaganda machine - basically, Russian TV and their associated army of hackers and online purity trolls - and they are having to fight on multiple fronts against the every-shifting narrative of manufactured outrage, faked provocations and deceptive spin that is coming out of the Kremlin. [...more]
This is why it is important to teach journalists how to use social media.
My friends and colleagues in Ukraine are fighting a protracted battle in the global court of public opinion, and they are using all the digital tools and techniques that I’ve been referencing/showing off/misusing during the last seven years that I’ve been teaching and training there. Read More
Russian ISPs openly brag about how much pirated content they have – it’s their market differentiator Years ago, working in Russia, back when the whole “Content Pirates” project was just the mere glimmering of an instinct, I was talking with the local techies about how the web works in Russia. At the time, we were […] [...more]
Russian ISPs openly brag about how much pirated content they have – it’s their market differentiator
Years ago, working in Russia, back when the whole “Content Pirates” project was just the mere glimmering of an instinct, I was talking with the local techies about how the web works in Russia. At the time, we were trying to implement an internet-centric business model for a publishing company, and were coming up against massive cultural differences in how to make money off of content.
This profile for vKontakte founder Pavel Durov is particularly ironic, since he just bailed out of the company, citing intense pressure from Kremlin-backed investors. The site has 143 million users worldwide, 88 million in Russia. They generate about $170 million a year in revenues, mostly from advertising. And the site is rife with pirated works.
Matty Yglesias says on Salon that online journalism means things have never been better! OK, there is some validity to his POV that access to unlimited sources of information has made the sophisticated news consumer (at least potentially) better-informed than ever before. Here’s Yggy on why things are so peachy-keen: American news media has never […] [...more]
OK, there is some validity to his POV that access to unlimited sources of information has made the sophisticated news consumer (at least potentially) better-informed than ever before. Here’s Yggy on why things are so peachy-keen:
Well. Yeah, that’s all true. If you’re looking for information on what is happening in Cyprus, and why this might melt down the Eurozone and start the dominos toppling the way they did back in the fall of ’08 again, there are certainly all manner of viewpoints, neat multimedia presentations, and interactive tools that will help you understand this big, glamorous, international story.
…as is the Economist.
Bloomberg and Business Week are all over this…
But where I start to have problems with his premise is down here on the local level. Now, trust me, I am very far from a newsroom curmudgeon. I don’t want things to go back to 1989. Hell, I make my living creating and refining digital content that is delivered across a wide variety of platforms (broadcast TV, desktop web, mobile web, native apps, online video, etc. etc.). And I am all to painfully aware of the problems inherent in making professionally produced content pay on digital platforms (see, well, pretty much the entire output of this blog for the past six years).
Here’s the deal: big international stories get lots of clicklove. The Cyprus meltdown could potentially affect billions of people. So that’s a huge potential audience right there. Many of those people are bankers, international businessmen, politicians, the investor class, etc. (READ: people who advertisers will pay to get their messages in front of.)
So the business model & incentives are there to produce all manner of content running this story to ground and microscoping all the possible permutations.
Only a handful of states have budgets bigger than Los Angeles County’s. NASA spends 25% less in a year. The county’s welfare and foster care departments serve the neediest, whose ranks will only grow as the economy staggers.
And the county’s purse strings are controlled by just five politicians, the Board of Supervisors, whose powerful incumbency means they almost never face serious reelection challenges.
But now just four reporters tend this turf anywhere close to full time: two for The Times, one for eight dailies controlled by newspaper baron William Dean Singleton, and one for City News Service, although that young reporter frequently gets pulled off for other duty.
Back in my day, as many as a dozen full-time reporters walked this beat, filling the row of cramped, glass-walled cubicles on the dimly lit fourth floor just above the supervisors meeting room. (The Times had at least half a dozen other reporters at its downtown mother ship, digging deep into city and county government.)
Yep, that’s right. Down here on the local level, those incentives that make it possible to provide such in-depth coverage for international stories are not (yet?) in existence. So we get things like the 2013 budget for LA County going through with barely a hiccup.
This is where $25 billion goes this year. I heard nothing about this – and I’m plugged-in!
That’s a lot of loot. But what really blows my mind is this other pie chart. It shows that this year, Los Angeles County gets almost half its budget – $10 BILLION – in assistance from the State and Feds.
Seriously, WTF? This county is home to an absolute massive amount of economic activity. We have the 2nd biggest port in the hemisphere. Hollywood, high tech, manufacturing, etc. And we still have to get about half our money as basically political welfare from the state and feds?
If those lifelines ever go away, this county will frickin’ implode.
What is the story with this? I’ve not seen it. It’s probably out there – but I have heard reams and reams about the fiscal cliff, the sequester, and yes, Cyprus. Not a whisper here in the LA market about a budget that has a far greater likelihood of actually devastating me and the community I live in.
I know the ’08 real estate meltdown devastated property taxes, but come on! This is unsustainable.
I know there are many, many proposed solutions to this problem. But I also know that none of them have gotten traction – yet.
I am working every week with my class of journalists at USC, to try to prepare them for gigs in the real world. It is my hope that they will not have to work at news outlets (and you know who you are) where they will have to use the skills I’m teaching them, to put together linkbait slideshows on celebrity sideboob. Or produce yet another think-piece on whither the Euro.
So yeah. In some situations, with some stories, things are really, really great. But down at the granular level, journalism is not in the greatest shape. Dismissing these problems as the fantasies of ill-tempered Luddites is not a path to a solution, Matty.
This was originally a comment to Robert Niles’ excellent piece on the Online Journalism Review, on whether or not the New York Times should be a “Truth Vigilante”. I’m republishing it here, because it looks like the commenting feature on OJR (always a little hinky) is b0rked again, and this issue is one that touches […] [...more]
I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge “facts” that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.
This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true.
Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?
It’s interesting to see this issue break out into the open like this. In retrospect, the only thing that’s surprising is that it’s taken this long. Consider: internet sites like Snopes & PolitiFact owe their very existence to the breakdown of trust in our existing news institutions on the part of the audience. We read stuff (often sent via e-mail from the semi-mythical disgruntled conspiracy theorist uncle). Checking our newspaper/TV/radio/whatever, there’s a he-said/she-said story. So we go elsewhere to figure out if what we were originally sent is true or not.
Can’t tell you the number of proposed startups that came through the Knight News Challenge in the last two years aimed at resolving this basic issue – how can we trust what we read? Many of them are seeking to assign some kind of a numeric “reliability score” to the source of the information. Which is interesting in theory – a published climate scientist getting a 99 score, for example, while a Big Oil-funded hack gets a 12.
But in practice, systems like this would probably fall prey to the same phenomenon that plagues Digg or other sites that rely on crowdsourcing to determine importance/credibility — the efforts of a committed radical few to rig the results in their favor. Still, it would be interesting to see a major media outlet start to offer little links in superscript next to attribution, that lead back to a page describing where that quote came from, who the person is, and what their history/agenda is.
We’re all struggling with the effects of the disintermediation taking place because of web technology – that much is evident to just about anybody working in media, advertising or marketing. The problem is that this is taking place at the end of a long, slow movement toward the utter blandification of content. The reasons for that are complex – some of them have to do with the influence of “risk management” thinking at media organizations, where the litigiousness of modern American society has driven deep-pocketed news organizations to water down stories out of fear, in order to evade expensive libel suits. The rest do have to do with the drumbeat these past 40 years of accusations of “liberal bias” in the press, and the attempts to defuse such accusations by applying the aforementioned “he-said/she-said” construction to stories, so that we can say, “Well, at least we gave them a chance to reply.”
The contradictory voices are there. They are presented by voices that mock & disagree with them - in much the same way that newspaper editors, radio hosts and TV anchors did back in the pure human filtration days - but the voices and bits of information are there.
I do agree that there is a serious problem in our society today that a large segment is seemingly living in its own reality, with its own set of facts an interpretations. But this has been true before in our history as well (See: Davis, Jefferson et al.). But this problem predates the web, and is attributable more to talk radio and the removal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time than anything else ... and to the failure of the American educational system to produce large swathes of the citizenry capable of critical thinking. [...more]
Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of allowing someone else to choose what you see/hear/feel
If I were a weaker man, I’d just fold up my tent and move on.
However, upon closer inspection, I find myself saying “Yahbut …” a lot throughout this FUD screed.
Norwegian company Norli Libris introduces nonsensical “eBook” publishing model Quick Hit: Saw this on BoingBoing, followed it over to Applied Abstractions, and just couldn’t resist commenting on it, for 1) the benefit of my international students, who might wonder WTF is up with this and 2) to keep me from yanking out my own hair […] [...more]
Norwegian company Norli Libris introduces nonsensical “eBook” publishing model
Quick Hit: Saw this on BoingBoing, followed it over to Applied Abstractions, and just couldn’t resist commenting on it, for 1) the benefit of my international students, who might wonder WTF is up with this and 2) to keep me from yanking out my own hair by the fistful. The idea is that consumers will have to buy digital books not as downloadable files, but on cards called Digi Short, which will be inserted into the back of customized (i.e. DRM’d to death) Kibano Digi Readers.
Apparently, the one advantage would be that said “books” would thus be exempt from VAT in Norway, although the list price will be the same as a download.
The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly
backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday
introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather
harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books
not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on
small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian].
This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop
using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to
their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment
of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net
(but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)
This is such an awful, awful, CueCat-level thinking approach to digital distribution. The whole point of having a mobile device like the iPad or Kindle or Nook is so that you can do instant purchases & consumption of content. You walk past a poster advertising the new blockbuster action movie, now available as a Blu-Ray or for download – you know you’re going to have an hour to kill on the commuter train on the way home, and you missed the movie in theaters, to you decide to splurge. Out comes the tablet, button is pushed, movie is set to download in the background as you continue walking to the train station/subway/hovercraft depot.
Hint: You want to ENCOURAGE your customers to make impulse buys of your content, rather than make it tougher for them & thus allow time for second thoughts to creep in.
Making the public buy, collect, sort & carry with them little plastic cards with books on them? Good God. It displays the desperate attempt to keep the content all within the walled garden; if we can’t sell dead-tree editions or shiny little discs (goes the thinking), well, maybe if we just shrink it all down to credit-card size, we can keep people having to pay us for physical objects. And as long as the Big Publishing controls distribution, pricing & availability of a physical object, well then, all the old rules still apply.
People will not carry around little cards with books as data on them, slotting them in and out of a tablet reader. And even if (via some alien mind-control ray that bathes the Earth in Luddite Stupidity) they do, a thriving business will soon spring up, dealing in the blank pieces of plastic that can then be filled with the data.
The media business is no longer, and never will again be about, the control of big belching factories that churn out physical copies of stuff that gets trucked from A to B and then put on shelves. It’s about paying attention to every other step that used to lead up to that point. You know, all the stuff that newspapers and TV stations and movie studios and record companies ignored, and is the reason so many of them are in trouble.
That is, concentrating on creating something wonderful. Useful. Delightful.
It makes me sad to see that so many companies are still thinking in terms of how to defeat the digital revolutions, rather than on how we can use the web to do so many totally new, amazing art forms.
UPDATE: The initial reports (see the fact that this was a “Quick Hit”) seemed to indicate that it was Digi.no that was doing this. It turns out that it is a company named Norli Libris, whose attempt at rolling the clock back has elicited comment from other bloggers, as well as the mighty EnGadget. I thus fixed the attribution & links at the top of this post, and added a graf explaining more about Norli Libris. Thanks to @sigvald for pointing this out via Twitter (and to Google Translate for helping me decipher the Norwegian story on this.)
Moran Cerf's work centers around the micro scale -- how on a personal level, we don't really know what we think we know. My life has been spent examining that effect on a more macro scale -- where, as a society, it doesn't matter what really happened, only what people think (and say) happened.
Reality is, indeed, what we make of it. Which is both exciting, and frightening. [...more]
I’ve already posted this to my Facebook profile, but the story put a hook into me, and deserves a more thorough reaction, comment & perhaps clarification.
This story struck a particular chord with me, because in my professional career, I’ve seen first-hand how a media meltdown can bend reality, even for the people who had first-hand knowledge of what really happened. If you haven’t already heard it, please click on the link above and listen to what happened to Moran when he blundered into the international media spotlight.
This really resonated for me because of something that happened more than 20 years ago, back when I was working as a paparazzi (yes, I was one of the unholy legions that race through the streets of Hollywood like the minions of The Humoungous in Road Warrior. It was fun for a while, and I wrote a book about it). The situation was that Madonna and Sean Penn were getting divorced. The bureau chief was struggling to find some new way to spin the story; it was widely suspected that Penn, who was, and is, notorious for his volatile temper, had freaked out over some of Madonna’s flirtatious behavior. But to say that Penn had smacked her around would be to accuse him of a felony in print — a real no-no in the journalism game, and one that can wind you in court for years, defending serious libel litigation.
What to do, what to do …
Well, the editor fabricated the story that Penn had pitched a fit over Christmas and tied Madonna to a chair. He used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”
Years later, I was going through the morgue (no, not the place where they store dead bodies, although I was actually in such places for stories at other times during my career — the “morgue” is what we used to call the battered filing cabinets full of clippings from old newspaper and magazine stories that we used for research). I was trying to find some background fact on Madonna, and I started to notice a pattern.
She even used the phrase “trussed up like a turkey.”
The story had been repeated so many times over the years, that even the people to whom it was supposed to have happened, who knew it to be untrue, had come around to believe that it had actually happened to them. Madonna had heard so many people talking about how she had been tied up, that she actually believed that it had happened to her. Her perceptions of reality had become unmoored … although many might say that this is a rather common condition in Hollywood.
This is the effect of the mass media on us these days. It is like an enormous, all-encompassing hypnotist, whispering in our ears wherever we go, flashing subliminal (or liminal) messages at us all the time.
Repetition has an effect on human consciousness. On perception. On memory. Why else do those damn radio ads for cheap car insurance chant their “Dial 1-800-blahblahblah” numbers at us over and over again? Why else do we train little kids how to say their alphabet and do their times tables with flash cards?
Moran Cerf’s work centers around the micro scale — how on a personal level, we don’t really know what we think we know. My life has been spent examining that effect on a more macro scale — where, as a society, it doesn’t matter what really happened, only what people think (and say) happened.
Reality is, indeed, what we make of it. Which is both exciting, and frightening.
Now watch this video of Moran talking about colonoscopies.
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 […] [...more]
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.
This is a strategy that is also being pursued in New York by NY Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who has invested more than he would like to admit to (millions? hundreds of millions?) into high-tech printing presses, capable of churning out massive print runs with razor-sharp color. The 15-tower, triple-width ultra-compact Commander CT press looks a lot like the last-generation Nikon F6 film camera. It was the apex of film technology, what many analysts recognized at the time as "the perfect camera" -- but that alas, was rolled out just as every working professional made the move to use digital. [...more]
Print die-hards claimed that all that was needed to reverse the audience migration to the internet was to make newspapers more “lively” in appearance. Early verdict: looks pretty, but the advertising still isn’t there, and that sound you heard was Mort Zuckerman puking and weeping over in the corner.
I’ve been in the Bay Area for a convention of “[fill in blank] for Dummies” authors and various business meetings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to scope out what the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing with its much-ballyhooed investment in glossy magazine-style paper for the front pages of its sections, and the use of high-quality color images.