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


Oct 13

The Equivalent of Google Analytics in 1928: Newspaper Readers Are Liars

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

Readers want “candy.” Do we give it to them?

Every so often, you’ll read a long, impassioned essay about how Americans are stupid, because they aren’t paying attention to world events, how we’re distracted by the latest tawdry celebrity scandals, fantasy sports leagues, or cute pictures of kittehs.

Which, of course we are. 

mcdonald's fry cook

Is this the future of the news business? Or has it always been this way, and we’ve been deluding ourselves to think otherwise? Gallup’s analysis in 1928 basically says, “Yup. Nobody has ever read those long investigative pieces.”

But it turns out that the same damn thing has been true all along. Check out this piece in the Atlantic about George Gallup (yes, that Gallup) who in the 20s, dared to actually study what people read in newspapers – as opposed to what people SAY they read.

Back then, they had tried various methods to track what people actually pay attention to, down to gathering the used newspapers off the floors of trolley cars and seeing what page they were left open to (and aren’t you glad you don’t have that job, back when people routinely chewed tobacco and spat?). Gallup came up with the novel idea of sending his researchers into people’s houses in Iowa and watching them read the paper (call it ur-Google Analytics).

His results:

  • People are liars. “The person who believes he has read all of the front page may not have read a fourth of it,” he wrote.

  • Nobody likes serious news nearly as much as they report on questionnaires. Gallup’s interviews reported that front-page stories were actually no more popular than small features in the back of the paper.

  • The most-read thing in the newspaper wasn’t news at all: It was the front-page cartoon by J. H. Darling, read by 90 percent of men compared with just 12 percent reading the day’s local government news.

  • For women, the most-read parts of the newspaper were “style and beauty pictures.”

This is very timely, as Wednesday’s class is going to be about using SEO and analytics to track what readers actually read – and the advisability of just giving them “fast food news”.

It’s led to the rise of what we in the biz are calling “hamster wheel” journalism. I talked last week to the editor of Metropolitan magazine, who said that he gets staffers from fairly reputable outlets, like Fast Company, where the reporters have an Excel spreadsheet with 200 stories that they are REQUIRED to do each month. These story “ideas” are generated by having bots track Google Trends to see what the target audience is clicking on, and then backwards-engineering that to have stories that will then fit those audience interests.
On the one hand: it makes sense to give your customers what they want. On the other hand: aren’t we supposed to be serving a slightly higher calling than the fry cook down at Mickey D’s? What does it mean when the news isn’t what you need to know to function in an increasingly complex and demanding world — but just the lowest-common-denominator pap that can be quickly shoveled out and morticed around the ads.
Seems to me that I wrote a book about this

Comments (0)



Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

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

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.

 

 

 

Comments (0)



Aug 18

Why newspapers are losing subscribers: “failure of the last mile”

Posted: under newspaper crisis, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

grinder throwing sparks

“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)

As newspapers increasingly set their sights on a “digital first” strategy (despite some notorious recent flameouts), it occurs to me that they are neglecting one of the most crucial, and overlooked departments in the entire organization: circulation. I got unpleasant evidence of this when I attempted to renew my subscription to the Times.


 

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.

Finally, I started doing “button mashing” which usually triggers a kickout script in the automated phone-tree software. Call centers have learned that when they have tortured consumers to the point where we start just randomly pushing buttons and screaming with frustrated rage, maybe it’s time for some human intervention.

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.

Waitaminute.

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.

Comments (0)



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.

 

 

Comments (0)



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…

Read More

Comments (0)



Mar 27

Saviors Rejected: How GM Refused to Change, and What Newspapers Can Learn From Their Example

Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Newspaper Deathwatch.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

GM’s NUMMI plant in Fremont was the solution to their crisis.      So why did they ignore its lessons?


I strongly urge you to listen to this great piece from This American Life about the NUMMI auto plant in Fremont.

They don't make 'em like this any more. Even so, the rear bumper had to be reattached.

It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”

…into a place where the workers actually looked forward to coming to work each day, and where the quality of the cars they turned out was so high, that even now, 22 years later, many of those cars are still on the road. NUMMI stands for “New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.” and there is an excellent Wikipedia entry about it, if you want to get a little more background.

The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch:

1. Starting in the 80s and going through the 90s, sales declined, as customers were turned off by the shoddy quality of the product


In the auto industry:
anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with.  I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…

In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.”  We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets.  Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.

2. The workers felt ignored and belittled, so they began to act out, and a “give a shit” attitude took over

In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how shitty the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the shitty cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.

In the news industry: a kind of rebellious fatalism took hold in newsrooms, both in print and TV. The reporters knew the bosses really didn’t give a shit about the news, they just wanted something that would get good ratings and not get them sued. Every TV producer I have ever met would, with little encouragement, go off about the corporate “suits” that were putting the vise on the newsrooms to “pop a number.” Reporters that dared to try to make suggestions about long-term changes (like less coverage of O.J. Simpson, and more of things like the erosion of middle-class opportunities) were ignored. Newsrooms have always been “simmering cesspools of cynicism,” but this morphed into outright nihilism and rage.

3. A temporary bubble allowed the industry to rack up easy profits and postpone change

In the auto industry: The Bush-Cheney “let’s consume as much oil as we can” faction pushed through a tax break in the early ’00s that meant that people who leased a “light truck over 6,000 pounds” could write off the cost of the car.  Free SUVs for Everyone! What this did was support the Big Three, despite their declining market share, because they were making so damn much money off producing big fat gas-guzzling SUVs and selling them for massive mark-ups.  The SUV was actually pretty cheap to make – but Detroit was able to charge about $10-$20,000 more for them. And, of course, when the tax break ran out — and gas prices skyrocketed — the end of the free cars on the taxpayer’s dime era left GM without a viable product to sell, as consumers looked for more efficient cars.

In the newspaper industry: the subprime mortgage/real-estate boom created a huge advertising windfall for newspapers. The Homes section of the LA Times was often larger than the rest of the newspaper combined.  Thousands of pages of expensive classified ads, paid for by realtors who were so awash in free money that they didn’t care what the cost was. Of course, the rest of the classified business was absolutely cratering at this time.  When the real-estate market imploded, and advertisers abandoned newspapers, looking for more efficient ways to sell their products, newspapers were also left without a viable product to sell. 

4. The industry blamed the people who were honestly pointing out the flaws

In the auto industry: the Detroit execs blamed Consumer Reports for pointing out that the cars they were inflicting on the American people were utterly without redeeming community value. They claimed that the Dirty F’n Hippies at Consumer Reports were biased towards the Japanese, were anti-American traitors, and were unfairly criticizing patriotic Americans. The U.S. cars were better, if only people would realize that.  The industry was in complete denial about how the auto-buying public had turned against it, after years of enduring an abusive and exploitative relationship, and how even Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who fondly remembered their high school days when they got their first muscle cars, were fed up with cars that broke down or rolled over, killing their families.

In the newspaper industry:
the newsrooms blamed the internet. They still blame the internet. They see the competition on the internet as being anti-American, that the public was deluded by web-based hucksters, and that imposing paywalls would make people realize how much they really needed to pay for news. No matter that the readers and advertisers have made their preferences clear – they must be MADE to come back and obey.

Comments (0)



Feb 09

Newspapers to TV, Movies: “We arrived in separate ships, but we’re in the same boat now”

Posted: under journalism, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , ,

Signs were there that DVD sales were about to implode; industry ignored all warnings

To anyone in the newspaper industry, the parallels are eerie. The disruptive technology is introduced, and people with the ability to look beyond this quarter’s P&L statement say, “Oh-oh. Something’s in the wind. We gotta take a look at this, maybe start shifting some resources into R&D, or we could blow up in a couple years.”

To which the guys at the top of the company, whose fat year-end bonuses are tied to keeping costs to a bare minimum, while sucking off as much spare cash as possible, say, “You’re out of your mind. Things are going great. You wanna break them? Siddown and shut up – we know what we’re doing – look at all the money we’re making. Instead, we’re going to double down on our bets, and buy up & consolidate our monopolistic position.”

And then the day arrives. The P&L shows a massive die-off in the one area that the whole house of cards depends on as a crucial revenue stream.

The guys at the top immediately point fingers at the internet & start screaming.

That day arrived last week at Sony Pictures, and The Media Wonk has a great write-up, running down all the relevant stats and the various time-wastes along the way.  He points fingers at Blu-Ray as a massive time, money & effort Black Hole that hasn’t stepped up to replace the revenues that are being lost via plain old DVD sales going bye-bye. Viz:

The need for a viable post-DVD digital strategy has been blindingly obvious for most of the past decade. But instead of focusing on that existential challenge, the industry wasted four years on Blu-ray, an absurd format that addressed no identifiable consumer demand that could not have been met years earlier, more cheaply and with less consumer confusion with readily available alternatives, like HD DVD or even red-laser DVDs.

The industry is still wasting time and resources trying to invent uses for Blu-ray to justify the time and cost sunk into it.

Hitting the snooze button when the alarm goes off doesn’t mean that what happens in the meantime is beyond your control. It means you’re asleep.

If I can extrapolate from the behavior I’ve witnessed in my friends, some of whom are the greatest TV & movie aficionados I’ve ever met; the type of people who can go one for an hour about how David Duchovny’s characterization of Fox Mulder owed more to John Wayne in The Searchers than, as is commonly (and erroneously) thought, the seminal Darren McGavin in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

When DVDs came out, they were such an improvement over the jittery, fragile VHS tapes that we loaded up on them. All the extras – the audio tracks, the Easter Eggs – oh, they were sah-weet. We’d have parties where we’d go through our favorite movies and break it all down – because now, when we freeze-framed, it was a perfect picture, not that damned bent image with static bars at the top & bottom, the way VHS shafted us.

And then something happened. We had a whole shelf – maybe a coupla shelves. Maybe even a whole room – full of DVDs.  Alphabetized, categorized.

And we didn’t watch them anymore.

Why should be drag out a DVD, fire up the player, switch the Video1 to Video2 – just to sit through something we’ve already seen … when the TiVo has something fresh & new?  There has to be a real dearth of new material that’s any good before we’ll go to the archives for some nostalgia.

The success of the studios & networks in setting up all these TV channels & alternative means of distribution of content has also been its undoing.  If I don’t have to shell out $24 for a movie – when I can just stream it over Netflix, or better yet, see something new on my DVR – then why would I spend my increasingly scarce hard-earneds?

Technology alone didn’t change consumer behavior. It wasn’t the internet’s fault. It’s just that when alternatives opened up – when true competition arrived on the market – all of a sudden, the old Walled Gardens, with their high price to enter and their restrictive DRM – those places became not so fun to hang out it. So we all left. Gradually, but in increasing numbers.

The crisis that newspapers have faced for the last 5-10 years — the TV and movie industry is about to fall into that same Black Hole, for the same reasons, and apparently is determined to attempt the same half-measures to turn the clock back to where it used to be.  Look for a lot of appeals to Congress for restrictive legislation, blaming “piracy” and “content thieves,” and then resorting to a death spiral of cutting costs and putting out shoddier products.

Comments (0)



Nov 30

This Week in Paid Content: Thanksgiving Week

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

In the spirit of the season, I hereby give thanks that there is such an open and vivid discussion about the core issue of monetizing online content.  If we’d had this kind of focus on actually taking the utopian dreams of “all content, everywhere, all the time” and making it work back when I was in my Web 1.0/dot-bomb startup days, we might not have cratered so spectacularly.

So this week, we’ve got a rising level of chatter about Murdoch’s media properties banning Google links in favor of getting paid by Microsoft’s Bing search engine, the BBC throws a wrench into paid content in England (and perhaps everywhere else), the idea of sprinkling porn onto newspaper websites to see what happens is floated, and what orcs and dwarves can teach newspapers.

Murdoch’s bluffing about Google to try to extract money from Microsoft’s deep pockets

This somewhat NSFW (lots of cussing) take on Murdoch is by someone familiar with the way that Murdoch papers like The Sun always seem to pick the winner of an electoral campaign.  Not because they’re so influential that the person they anoint goes on to win – but because Murdoch is canny at figuring out who the top dog in any fight is, and busies himself sucking up to them as soon as possible to maximize his profits. http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/11/28/rupert-murdoch-google-nsfw/

By convincing Bing that there’s a chance he might drop Google – for the right price – Murdoch suddenly has a new partner falling over itself to give him prominence in their search results, on his terms. Sure enough, Microsoft has just agreed to help fund the next-generation search crawling protocol, ACAP, which gives content owners like News Corp more control over how their news is indexed.

(snip) And that’s where we see Murdoch’s real genius: he has managed to use his illusion of influence to get all of these benefits without having to commit himself to anything, or expose himself in any way. There is no way in hell that News Corp content will vanish from Google and yet with every headline asking whether Google should be worried or suggesting that other companies might follow Murdoch’s lead, his image as a kingmaker is strengthened.

McClatchy starts sending out notices, but still claims paywalls are not imminent

Talk about mixed signals. The terms of services for its websites are all being changed, but that change doesn’t actually mean anything is changing. Except, of course, if it does. If they eventually decided to charge for content, they will clearly notify the readers, but in the meantime, please make coming to the site a habit and would it kill ya to click on the ads now & again? http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1004041770

A Perpetual Recession for Newspapers

Rick Edmonds, who writes The Biz Blog for Poynter, says that news organizations have lost $1.6 billion that was used to cover news, and that even when the economy recovers, newspapers won’t: http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/18/newspapers-advertising-rick-edmonds-poynter-business-media-edmonds.html So maybe we should all just learn from the porn industry – or maybe even start putting porn on our sites, to see if maybe that will get people to pay for our content.

The building of micropayment systems, like the one being developed by Steve Brill, is a hotly debated issue. Wouldn’t it be helpful for this kind of system to be established first with Web content that really drives users–say, pornography?

Sure, but that’s not an option for newspapers. There have been experiments with these kinds of systems in Denmark, where several companies tried it at the same time. The problem was that they couldn’t answer peoples’ security concerns. The experiments turned out to be a dud.

“Knock yourselves out,” Google yawns.

The head of newspaper industry bête noir Google News says in an interview that publishers are free to do whatever they want with their content.  Google is apparently willing to work with publishers to do whatever the publishers demand with their content – list it, ignore it, work with it to implement a paywall, whatever. http://searchengineland.com/josh-cohen-of-google-news-on-paywalls-partnerships-working-with-publishers-29881 The easy confidence that is displayed here is the result of Google’s near-monopoly position in the market

Removing News Would Have Negligible Effect on Google

This study by German research company TRG shows that even if all news was taken off Google, that would still leave about 95% of Google traffic intact for them to monetize. http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-research-removing-news-would-have-negligible-effect-on-google/

Financially, then, Google doesn’t depend on the publishers’ content. “In comparison, if you detracted Wikipedia from the results, 13 percent of the number-one results would be gone,” said Christoph Burseg, the CEO of TRG, the research company that ran the survey.

BBC: We won’t charge for online news

Now this has got to be raising Mr. Murdoch’s blood pressure a bit. Online news paywalls only work when the competition plays along too (see the case study I did on the disastrous experiment of El Tiempo in Spain, & how they lost their market share to a formerly laughable upstart).

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/nov/24/bbc-wont-charge-online-news A more interesting discussion is brewing, about what to do about content that is not just re-purposed BBC news, but that is specifically produced for the online editions. Viz:

However, Lyons also questioned the future of content created for online that is not directly related to specific BBC programmes, asking, “where should the boundary be drawn” between this and “the online expression or extension of BBC programming”?

Wall St. Journal’s price to go Bing-only: $15 million

There’s been an increasing amout of space devoted to what Murdoch is going to do to start moving all his content behind paywalls, and away from the hated Google “parasites.” Business Insider backwards-engineers the numbers that de-listing from Google would cost the WSJ, and comes up with $10-15 mill. http://www.businessinsider.com/microsoft-should-pay-up-for-exclusive-access-to-the-journal-2009-11

If Microsoft really wanted to induce Murdoch to ditch Google, it would therefore only cost $10 – $15 million. Maybe more if Murdoch wanted a premium. Considering Steve Ballmer said he’d spend $5.5 billion to $11 billion over the next five years on Bing, this is nothing.

More on the Murdoch-Google fight – seems the Denver Post and Dallas Morning News may follow in his footsteps

Interesting that Dean Singleton has come out and said that readers in Pennsylvania and California will get hit with paywalls starting next year, and the DMN is upgrading itself to a “definitely maybe” status. http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=aRVlZEzbmNu0 A further article from the Independent about what publishers in the UK are thinking on this issue http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/british-press-split-in-two-by-wappingrsquos-great-gamble-1825806.html and http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-has-the-times-got-it-right-with-its-online-charging-plan/

And finally, a meditation on whether Murdoch’s plan for paywalls will run afoul of anti-trust laws http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/nov/05/murdoch-pay-wall-anti-trust

“Not a cat’s chance in hell” of successfully charging for online content

The CEO of the Future Publishing Group said that there is no hope for paywalls for general news because of the ubiquity of free models, particularly in the UK market. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/nov/26/charging-mainstream-news-future-chief However, Future are experimenting with specialized and niche content to see what the market will bear.

The group has taken a bullish approach to pricing its print magazine titles, with an average cover price of £5, up from £4.70 this time last year.

She cited a promotion of the new album from former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, which is being exclusively attached to a special edition of Classic Rock magazine for £14.99.

Americans less willing to pay for online news

The New York Times finds that less than half the people in the U.S. are willing to pay for online news, and even at that, they will only shell out $3. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/business/media/16paywall.html?_r=2&ref=media Apparently, there’s some kind of fundamental disconnect going on at the NY Times, between top management hell-bent on charging for content, and the weary soldiers in the trenches, protesting that this will not work, has not worked, will never work, and producing article after article that seemingly is not read by their own bosses.

“Consumer willingness and intent to pay is related to the availability of a rich amount of free content,” said John Rose, a senior partner and head of the group’s global media practice. “There is more, better, richer free in the United States than anywhere else.”

If readers are willing to pay – they prefer micropayments and only pennies

The analysts at Continental Research found that 63% will not pay for news, leaving only 37% who will – and at that, only willing to pay about 10 cents per article. http://www.continentalresearch.com/media_centre/press_releases/?ID=149 More about this at http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-research-readers-favour-news-micropayments-but-theyll-only-pay-pennies/

James Myring, Head of Media at Continental Research says “The amounts may sound small, but it is better to get a lot of people making small one off payments, than virtually no-one paying a higher subscription. For a comparison, think of the mobile industry, profiting from lots of small payments for text messages.

London Times Editor says online paywalls are “fight of our lives”

There’s the by-now predictable bashing of Google and the other supposed “parasites,” but the one actual realization is buried at the end of the article. http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=44649&c=1

Harding said the Times wanted to improve its relationship with its loyal customers through home delivery and through its recently launched Times+ membership programme.

He said: “Historically, newspapers have treated their best customers worst and their worst customers best.

“We give the paper away to people who could not care less and we pay little or no attention to people who love it and read it every day.”

What newspapers can learn from orcs and dwarves

This is actually something that I’ve felt for the last year or so – if we’re going to try to get young people to try & buy, then we’re going to have to emulate the things that they are already comfortable doing so with. http://paidcontent.co.uk/article/419-the-wow-paywall-what-newspapers-can-learn-from-orcs-and-dwarves/#comment_63034 Basically, the World of Warcraft guys are minting about a billion a year from online content – and there are a bunch of key points to their service that newspapers should study, if they actually want to make money, as opposed to just slamming down paywalls and pretending that the rest of the world will care (or even notice).

News as gaming: Could newspapers similarly harness the human need for interaction and stimulation and sell not just boring text news but access to a shared experience? Sure, there’s MySun, MyTelegraph and “tell us what you think in the comments below”, but that’s a marketing ploy to drive page impressions and encourage more content consumption. The lesson from gaming is that people won’t pay for content they can’t help shape themselves—or project their own personal narrative onto.

Comments (0)



Nov 12

Newspapers’ Dying Swan Song: SF Chronicle Tries Glossy Paper, Splashy Color

Posted: under Digital Migration, infographic, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

SF Chronicle - Front Page Wraparound Ad

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.

Read More

Comments (0)



Oct 22

On the Way Home from Kazakhstan – Eagles and the Gobi Desert

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m done with my training sessions for journalists in Kazakhstan, and this trip really stretched the boundaries of my knowledge. These are the issues that I was asked to address:

1. DDoS attacks that rival anything else in the world, taking down any journalist who dares to challenge the government

2. How to use the web to help in investigative reporting

3. How to monetize web content

4. How to grow web audiences in a country where the internet penetration rate is below 20%, and the ad marketing is in its infancy

5. How to use social media to help publicize your web page – or to get the news out when your page is taken down (see #1 above)

6. How to start migrating video content from broadcast to the web

7. What kinds of changes will the future hold for traditional media

8. What skills do journalism students need to build to make themselves employable down the road

…and many more.

Hour after hour, what adventure authors writing for the 30s-era pulps I loved to read as a kind, described this kind of landscape as being the lair of lurid mustachio'd villains...

Hour after hour, what adventure authors writing for the 30s-era pulps I loved to read as a kind, described this kind of landscape as being the lair of lurid mustachio'd villains...

I was impressed by the enthusiasm and hope of the students that I met in my last stop – the ancient city of Almaty, nestled in a valley, surrounded by the foothills of the Himalayas. And I was also humbled by the courage being shown by the few remaining opposition journalists.

This was only a juvenile golden eagle, but he still weighed about 20something pounds. He seemed well-cared for; the guy who had him was petting him and feeding him, so I figured his life couldn't be too bad. Of course, I did want to just toss him in the air and see if he would fly away....

This was only a juvenile golden eagle, but he still weighed about 20something pounds. He seemed well-cared for; the guy who had him was petting him and feeding him, so I figured his life couldn't be too bad. Of course, I did want to just toss him in the air and see if he would fly away....

These people have been hounded from their jobs at newspapers and TV stations. The papers are being shut down – in fact, this morning, a famous journalist is being kept in jail – allegedly for murdering a man in a car accident. But everyone in the country pretty much knows the score.

It’s just that the government no longer really cares what anyone thinks about what they’re doing. They aren’t even making the effort to disguise the fact that they’re eliminating anyone who stands in the way of the runaway kleptocracy.

And that’s a really bad sign.

I will be writing much more about this issue in the weeks to come. I shot some amazing, shocking, heartbreaking videos of journalists begging for help. Our help. Any help.

Coming from the feeling of brotherhood that permeated the Online News Association conference a couple weeks ago, it was hard not to feel personally affronted by what is happening to our digital kin in Kazakhstan.

Comments (0)