By paulgillin | February 20, 2018 - 12:13 pm - Posted in Facebook

“Research has shown that the downside of powerful, centralized networks is their susceptibility to being subverted and exploited,” writes The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims in a fascinating analysis of why social networks, which were supposed to challenge hierarchy, have reinforced it instead.
Delving into network theory, Mims explains why networks that start out with flat, distributed power structures ultimately, become vertical hierarchies. That was true in the Bolshevik revolutions of 1917, when a circle of insiders around Joseph Stalin created a hierarchy within the supposedly distributed network of citizens who overthrew the Czar.
It is also true in the 16th century, when the printing press and Martin Luther’s vernacular versions of the Bible, rather than democratizing access to information, led to nearly 200 years of civil war. The impact of the internet has often been compared to that of Gutenberg’s invention.
“Even when networks aren’t architected for this kind of control, they tend to organize themselves in ways that lead to disproportionate influence by a handful of their members,” Mims writes. “When any new person or entity joins a network, it is likely to attach to the most visible hubs, making them even more influential.”
Facebook magnified this effect by designing its algorithms to optimize for engagement rather than for truth. Russia understood this, and brilliantly exploited it to foster confusion and misinformation in the 2016 election.


Pro Publica is using fire to fight fire. Co. Design reports on the work that a team at the nonprofit news organization has been doing to employ the tools of big data to see if companies like Amazon and Facebook are living up to their own policies.
The team crowdsourced the process of identifying examples of people who felt their free-speech rights had been violated by Facebook, or that they had been denied information because of some arbitrary decision. Facebook publishes its censorship rules, but verifying compliance is nearly impossible. That’s what the big data team at Pro Publica figured out a way to do. It used a Facebook Messenger survey to gather input from the crowd and then combed through the most puzzling cases by hand. In the end, Facebook had to admit not following its own policies in 22 examples brought forth by members.
The Pro Public team’s next step will be to investigate how political ads work by using a browser plug-in that scrapes Facebook ads and analyzes them using machine learning. The team has already published some of its initial findings, including the fact that many political ads don’t carry the required disclaimers or candidate endorsements.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
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By paulgillin | October 19, 2017 - 12:21 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia


Despite a Pew Research study‘s finding last year that two-thirds of Facebook users rely on the site for news, the COO of the world’s largest social network insists that Facebook isn’t a media company.
“At our heart we’re a tech company… we don’t hire journalists,” Sheryl Sandberg told Axios. Although Sandberg admitted that her company made mistakes in allowing Russian organizations to buy ads to try to influence the 2016 U.S. election, her refusal to admit the much larger and more damaging role Facebook played by enabling the dissemination of fake news displays the kind of arrogance you only find in Silicon Valley. Since when does the people you hire define what you are?
According to Wikipedia’s definition of media as “the collective communication outlets or tools that are used to store and deliver information or data,” Facebook is as much a media company as NBC or The New York Times. The key word is “deliver.” Facebook is not only the world’s most powerful news delivery medium, but its algorithms are fine-tuned to give its members the information that interests them most. Isn’t that also what newspaper editors do?
Come to think of it, no. Newspaper editors attempt to present their readers with the information they think those readers need to know, regardless of whether they want to know it. Facebook feeds its members only stuff in which they’ve demonstrated an interest. The more defined your place on the political spectrum, the more Facebook will shovel material at you that conforms to your view of the world. News organizations seek to create an educated populace. Facebook creates echo chambers.
One solution might be to change those algorithms to give Facebook members a more balanced view of the world. But that isn’t in Facebook’s best interests. As long as it continues to deny its role in shaping public opinion, it can justify changing nothing. Because, you know, it’s a tech company.
This isn’t about algorithms; it’s about common sense. The social network now says it’s working on elegant technical solutions to flagging fake news, but a simpler solution last year would have been a banner at the top of every page saying, “Do not believe something just because you read it on Facebook.” Be skeptical, check facts and don’t share lies. And if you do, there will be consequences.
Curation existed long before the internet, but it was the Web that made it a legitimate form of media. Is Drudge Report not media because it lacks original content? The stories it chooses to curate, and the places it assigns them on the page, are a form of editorial because they help shape public opinion. The fact that Facebook uses code instead of human editors to make those decisions doesn’t change the outcome.

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By paulgillin | May 11, 2010 - 5:45 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

We were hit with a nasty new WordPress virus last week and have been in recovery mode for several days. The virus informs the visitor that the site presents a security threat and offers to download antivirus protection which you should never, ever do.

If you see this warning, don’t click anything except the “close window” button and get out of there. We would also appreciate it if you would drop us an e-mail if you see this threat. The site appears to be stable now but we want to be sure. Thanks.

By paulgillin | - 4:34 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

Hawaiians are preparing to be one newspaper poorer.

Gannett officially exited the Hawaiian market where it has played for nearly 40 years. The company signed over ownership of the Honolulu Advertiser to the owner of rival Honolulu Star-Bulletin, bringing an end to a brutally competitive battle. Analysts say Gannett was winning the war but chose to cash out rather than to fight a smaller competitor that simply wouldn’t go away.

The Star-Bulletin plans to merge the two papers into the Honolulu Star-Advertiser sometime in the next 60 days, cutting about 300 of jobs in the process. The combined papers will have a circulation of between 135,000 and 140,000.

This is a little confusing. You see, Gannett used to own the Star-Bulletin. Then it bought the Advertiser and tried to close down the Star-Bulletin. Antitrust regulators didn’t like that idea, so Gannett had to sell the Star-Bulletin to David Black, who is now the publishing brains behind Platinum Equity, the private firm that bought the San Diego Union Tribune last year. Black bought the Star-Bulletin in 2000 and settled in for a long battle, despite having less than half the circulation of the Advertiser.

It turned out to be a war of attrition. A series of bruising battles with labor unions in which union members at one point actually tried to discourage local businesses from doing business with the Advertiser left Gannett bruised and weakened. While the Advertiser maintained its circulation edge, it continued to lose money. Black told the Advertiser that the Star-Bulletin has lost more than $100 million since 2001. Since Black appeared to be in the race for the long haul, Gannett accepted an offer that the Star-Bulletin publisher characterized as “compelling.”

The bottom line is that Honolulu now becomes a one-paper town and the Advertiser becomes the newest addition to our R.I.P. list.

The Respite Arrives

It was about a year ago that Outsell analyst Ken Doctor (right) told us that the newspaper industry was in for an 18-month respite from its troubles beginning in late 2009. It turns out he was right on the money. Alan Mutter totes up recent financial results from six big publishers and reports that the four-year-long freefall in revenues appears to be slowing. Ad sales for the big six fell 10.2% in the first quarter of 2010 compared to drops of 28.3% last year and 12.8% in 2008. As the smoke clears, the extent of the wreckage becomes apparent, however. Overall newspaper revenues in the US are down more than 46% since 2006 and stand at the lowest level since 1986, Mutter says. But in inflation-adjusted figures, the industry is down an incredible 72% over the last 25 years.

Mutter quotes Gannett President Gracia C. Martore stating confidently that “We are very pleased with the momentum that we had coming out of last year.” It’s hard to believe any industry executive could use the word “pleased” in the context of this crisis. Doctor told us last year that news executives should use this short-term breather to make much-needed changes to their business model, diversify their revenue stream and investing in online properties. Little has happened since then outside of publishers rallying around the brain-dead notion of charging for existing content.

But perhaps they simply have no choice. In weighing in with his own characteristically astute analysis on Nieman Journalism Lab, Doctor notes that while some publishers that were hemorrhaging cash a year ago are now marginally profitable, market conditions provide precious few options for spending that pocket money. Doctor calls 2010 “a year crying out for investment in innovative mobile media product creation and marketing services/advertising infrastructure build-out,” but notes that once-mighty publishing companies must satisfy themselves with sitting on the sidelines and nursing their fragile profits while Google completes an acquisition every month.

The one glimmer of good news is that newspaper publishers are finally making a dent in the massive debt that has hobbled them for the last five years. But that still leaves them little room to do anything new. A year ago, Doctor also predicted that after the 18-month respite ends, the industry will enter another period of severe contraction. We think he’s gonna be right about that prediction, too.

Miscellany

There’s good news in Orange County, Calif., however, were Freedom Communications, which owns the Orange County Register along with 31 other dailies and eight TV stations, has emerged from Chapter 11 with $450 million less debt and new ownership by a private equity firm. Freedom entered a controlled bankruptcy last September while its new owners completed a restructuring plan. The founding Hoiles family had originally been granted a tiny 2% stake in the revitalized company, but they lost that in January, leaving Freedom entirely in the hands of the private equity owners. The company is looking for a full-time CEO, if you’re interested.


There isn’t much room in the market for newsweeklies any more, and the conventional wisdom has been that Time magazine will be the last man standing. Looks like conventional wisdom is right. The Washington Post Co. is reportedly looking to unload Newsweek after three straight years of losses and the likelihood of a fourth. “In the current climate, it might be a better fit elsewhere,” said Post CEO Donald Graham in a statement.

It appears that the Post Co. is not a good fit for the magazine business. Its magazine revenue plunged 27% in 2009 and its operating loss increased to nearly $30 million. The Post redesigned Newsweek and trimmed its circulation by over a million last year in a last-ditch attempt to focus on a narrower and more profitable niche. However, the magazine market is in dismal shape in general, and weeklies have almost no value proposition in an online-driven news world.

Analysts couldn’t even speculate on who might buy Newsweek, other than U.S. News & World Report owner Mortimer Zuckerman, who shows signs of being off his rocker. That may be just the kind of buyer Newsweek needs.


The Wall Street Journal’s campaign to slug it out with The New York Times for national daily supremacy appears to be taking its toll on at least some Journal staffers, who are grumbling about the paper’s failure to secure even a single nomination for a Pulitzer Prize this year. There are all kinds of theories about the snub, ranging from perceived institutional hatred for Rupert Murdoch at Columbia University to the Journal’s focus on breaking news at the expense of long-form journalism to the inherently biased and political process of awarding prizes for non-measurable things like journalism in the first place (our favorite).

One thing’s for sure: The Times is reveling in its three 2009 Pulitzers, as evidenced by this snub from a spokesman: “The readers and employees of the Wall Street Journal deserve much better than this type of juvenile behavior from its editor in chief.” The reference is to recently taunting of the Times by Journal editor Robert Thomson, who has criticized his cross-town rival for being insular and slow.


The publisher of Dan’s Papers, which is the largest-circulation local newspaper on eastern Long Island, filed for bankruptcy, citing the weak real estate advertising market. This is despite the fact that Dan’s Papers claims an average reader household income of $381,000. The real estate market must be really bad, or high-income people must not be reading newspapers or both. Owner Brown Publishing Co., owns 15 dailies, 32 weeklies, 11 business publications, 41 free publications and 51 newspapers or niche websites.


If you’re an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad user who really likes the idea of getting a newspaper look-and-feel in a digital package, you might want to check out PressReader from NewspaperDirect. “If you’ve ever wanted to experience unadulterated newspaper goodness on the iPad, this is it,” the company said in an e-mail. “Cover-to-cover newspaper browsing with one finger. Or two, if you like to zoom in.” Which we do. The company says it delivers more than 1,500 daily newspapers from 90 countries digitally in formats that can be viewed or printed. The iPhone reader is free, so what do you have to lose?

By paulgillin | May 7, 2010 - 4:29 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

We’ve been hit by the WordPress bug that’s been going around lately. The Death Watch will temporarily be redirected to this new location while we recover.

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By paulgillin | April 12, 2010 - 9:58 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local

McKinsey Quarterly has some good news for newspapers. It’s been looking at readership trends in the UK and sees growing interest in news from under 35-readers. In fact, daily time spent consuming news in the critical 25-to-34 age category is up 37% from three years ago (you have to register to read the report or you can download a PDF here). People in that age group prefer to consume the news on the Internet rather than in print, but the good news is that they trust newspapers more than any other source: “66 percent describe newspaper advertising as ‘informative and confidence inspiring,’ compared with only 44 percent for TV and 12 percent for the Web,” the report says.

The report is pessimistic on the chances that existing business models will ever transition successfully online. It notes that only one in seven UK news consumers declared a willingness to pay for content. However, the trust factor should embolden publishers to seek more innovative revenue models, including advertorials and transaction fees.

In our view, this is news organizations’ best shot. As the volume of online information grows by leaps and bounds, the need for trusted sources grows with it. Publishers need to discard their not-invented-here thinking and look for ways to aggregate information in ways that command a premium value. We also really like the transaction fee idea. We’ve been pushing that one for about a year.

Google CEO Brings Upbeat Message

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on hand Sunday night to speak to members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and tell them what they already knew: their content is valuable but their business model is broken. However, the executive had encouraging words. “There’s every reason to believe that eventually we’ll solve this,” he said, pointing to emerging but still unspecified subscription models that Google and others will develop. Schmidt later told reporters that he doesn’t know what the solution will look like, but it will probably be a combination of subscriptions and advertising.

Schmidt prodded the editors to focus on mobile devices like the Apple iPad and Google Android, noting that publishers will need to address all popular form factors and not simply look to the iPad or the Amazon Kindle as a cure-all. “When I say Internet first, I mean mobile first,” he said. He also asserted that new sites themselves will need to become smarter, not only habituating themselves to the interests of the readers but also presenting them with selected information they don’t necessarily choose to consume. In comments to Paidcontent.org, he reiterated his confidence: “This problem will be solved when newspapers are making bundles of money and the sooner we can make that happen …”

Miscellany

If you’re considering instituting a pay wall for your newspaper, you might want to head on over to Paidcontent.org, which has assembled a list of 26 newspapers that are now charging readers for online access. The subscription fees  are all over the map, ranging from less than $1 per month for online access bundled with print subscriptions at the Vineyard Gazette to $20 at Newsday. The chart doesn’t include The Wall Street Journal, which has been charging a subscription fee for years. Paidcontent.org says the list is about to expand by at least six other titles which have announced plans to erect pay walls but haven’t gone live yet.


The Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange conference is going on live in Orlando this week and the organization is providing some live video coverage as well as blogs and a Twitter feed. Five sessions will be webcast live between now and Wednesday, including one by the Director of Global Online Sales and Operations at Facebook and another Jeff Hayzlett, the Chief Marketing Officer at Kodak. The Kodak presentation could be particularly interesting, because that company faced a crisis that many newspapers can identify with: its core paper business was displaced by electrons years ago.


The founder of journalismjobs.com says he’s seeing some revival in the recruitment market for journalists. “Even with newspapers – which are supposed to be dead – I’m seeing a good number of traditional openings being advertised as well as online jobs,” said Dan Rohn. He pointed to The Wall Street Journal’s plans to hire 35 reporters and editors to cover New York as well as new postings at small papers like the Green Bay Press-Gazette, York (Pa.) Daily Record and Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune. That’s just a sampling, Rohn said, implying that journalists would be well served by going to his website for more opportunities.


Tribune Co. has reached a deal to emerge from bankruptcy protection later this year, apparently with its existing management intact. The deal was negotiated by a group of the bankrupt publishers senior lenders, who will control 91% of the stock of the reorganized company. It’s been challenged by a group of junior stakeholders who say they were excluded from the negotiations. Tribune filed for bankruptcy 16 months ago and has sold its stake in the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field in an effort to pare down more than $8 billion in debt. The creditor committee was vague on how the proposed reorganization will permit Tribune to emerge with sufficient operating capital to remain liquid.

By paulgillin | March 24, 2010 - 10:42 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Hyper-local

Perhaps it’s because we were headed down to Long Island for a day-long visit to a journalism school today, but an opinion piece in the Loyola student newspaper got us riled up about the state of journalism education when we came across it yesterday.

Michael GiustiIn it, Loyola journalism professor Michael Giusti (right) makes a misguided assumption that the print media model is going to be just fine, basing his conclusions on the assumption that the worst is over, advertising activity is starting to pick up again and that his own reading habits can be projected out to the general population. We hope this isn’t what he’s teaching his students, but we suspect otherwise.

Giusti does have some interesting figures from Lee Enterprises to support his point. They show a 50% drop in classified advertising revenue compared between 2006 and 2009, compared to just a 20% decline in display advertising. Giusti finds reason for optimism in this fact, based on the assumption that a recovering economy will stimulate the latter category while the worst is over in the former. Even better, newspaper publishers have largely completed their cost-cutting initiatives and will learn to make due with smaller staffs.

“With their leaner personnel roles, newsrooms can continue operating within their tighter post-Craigslist budgets. Most publicly traded newspapers are now posting positive numbers, and many are even on track to post profits for the first quarter of this year.”

This conclusion appears to assume that nothing will change in the future, but evidence indicates otherwise. The Internet  recently became the world’s largest advertising market and it’s going nowhere but up in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, newspapers who  have lost the young audience are focused mainly on milking whatever revenue they can out of an aging reader base while doing little to prepare for a digital future other than trying to charge for the content they now give away. This is not a healthy state of affairs.

It’s disturbing to see such blind optimism from someone who is supposed to shape young minds. For starters, the core problem for newspapers isn’t Craiglist but efficiency. Advertisers now have vastly more leverage in the way they invest their dollars than they did a few years ago. What’s more, the online competitors that newspapers face operate far more efficiently than print publishers do. The cost of advertising is only going to decline further in the future. Publishers are enjoying a respite right now because of the slowly recovering economy and the benefits of cost-cutting over the last two years, but to believe that the worst is over and the future is bright is to take a dangerously optimistic point of view. The business model is anything but “solid;” it is on very shaky ground.

Also, Mr. Giusti’s statement that “I plan to read my newspaper in its paper edition long into the future” demonstrates that he is out of step with his students. We addressed a class of public relations seniors at a major university last week and asked our usual question: How many of you have read a print newspaper in the last week? Out of a room of 25 students, one hand went up. This is par for the course in our experience with young communicators and it indicates that while Mr. Giusti may plan to read his newspaper far into the future, very few of his students will.

Online News Readers are Tech-Savvy

Alan Mutter quotes new research demonstrating that visitors to newspaper websites are more technologically savvy than many of us would believe. The research by Greg Harmon found that online newspaper readers are about the same age as their print-focused counterparts but are 1.5 times more likely to own a smart phone. He also quotes Harmon characterizing as “stunning” the finding that 30% of these readers are hungry to buy an Apple iPad.

It seems that the usual pattern in consumer gadget purchase is that about twice as many people plan to buy a gizmo at any give time as actually own it at that moment. But Harmon discovered that in the case of the iPad, five times as many online newspapers readers plan to buy it or some other kind of e-reader as currently own one.  This suggests that newspaper enthusiasts are keen to embrace the new technologies, a finding that should encourage news executives to get off the mushrooms on which they’ve been sitting since late January and start figuring out how to turn these loyalists into e-reader subscribers.

Sadly, the whole newspaper industry has been gloomily silent in that time. Perhaps they’re waiting for the population of iPads to reach critical mass – by which time someone else will have captured the market – or maybe they don’t know how to offer a differentiated product on a portable digital platform. Here’s an idea: regional aggregation. And there’s more where that came from if you’d care to give us a call.

Miscellany

The Financial Times must be thinking it has figured out the paywall model. The British business daily has completely eliminated free access to its content, except for readers who arrive from Google. Previously, FT.com visitors got five articles per month for free and 25 if they filled out a free registration form. Now those thresholds have been reduced to 0 and 10 stories, respectively. Annual subscriptions cost as much as $550.


Gannett's Craig Dubow, Newspaper Death WatchCurrent and former employees of Gannett Co, who aren’t known for reticence with their opinions, are likely to be royally steamed to learn that CEO Craig Dubow took home a $4.7 million paycheck last year even as revenue declined 22%, the company laid off 6,000 people and shut down the Tucson Citizen. However, those employees should keep in mind that the market capitalization of Gannett increasedby about $3 billion during the year. As far as shareholders are concerned, Dubow’s bonus is cheap.


Only 544 newspaper employees were laid off in the first two months of 2010, says the blog News Cycle. indicating that the blood flow may be slowing. That compares to more than 30,000 newspaper jobs that were lost between 2008 and 2009, according to Erica Smith. Smith’s 2010 numbers are less optimistic than News Cycle’s: she  counts more than 1,650 lost newspaper jobs this year, but that may include the 600 people at the Honolulu Advertiser who have yet to receive their formal termination notices. We’re inclined to trust Erica, who has documented this trend with unerring discipline for more than three years.


Speaking of Erica Smith, her latest blog entry is about Paper Haters, a blog that documents the more outrageous and ignorant complaints that newspaper editors get from readers. “The blog is intended to point out the irrationality and sometimes utter ignorance of newspaper readers and their often misplaced anger,” blogger Maggie Jenkins tells Smith. “It’s all at once funny and frustrating.”

A scan of the site reveals that readers do complain vociferously about seemingly ridiculous things. Jenkins, who fields reader letters as part of her job, estimates that only about 1% of communications from readers are positive. The most common complaints: alleged favoritism toward a particular restaurant/school/candidate and the classic “You’re just a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals” accusation. She invites you to submit your own favorites, whether from print, broadcast or online.

And Finally…

Reporters are editors disagree all the time, but rarely do you see their differences erupt in the way they did between these two TV newsmen in a recent exchange. We assume these guys don’t often go out for beers after the evening newscast.

By paulgillin | March 9, 2010 - 1:32 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News, Paywalls

TechCrunch has an interview with Marc Andreessen in which the Internet boy wonder advises media companies to “burn the boats,” an analogy to the instructions Cortés supposedly gave his army upon landing in Mexico nearly 500 years ago in order to insure that the soldiers pressed on.

Print newspapers and magazines will never get [to new online business models], he argues, until they burn the boats and shut down their print operations. Yes, there are still a lot of people and money in those boats—billions of dollars in revenue in some cases. “At risk is 80% of revenues and headcount,” Andreessen acknowledges, “but shift happens.”

Andreessen has a point that it makes senses to abandon failing models in the long term, but setting fire to profitable print operations is the wrong strategy at the moment. After years of fretting over declining circulation and trying desperately to rejuvenate a dying business, newspaper publishers are finally adopting an intelligent strategy. They’re milking all they can from their profitable business while trying to manage it down to a level that new models can take over. It won’t be easy.

The strategy that most publishers have recently adopted has three parts:

  • Raise subscription rates in order to milk as much revenue as possible out of an aging but loyal reader base;
  • Manage costs downward in a manner that preserves profitability without alienating traditional readers;
  • Invest in growth markets that can preserve the brand and generate new profits.

The New York Times reported last year that its second-quarter subscription revenues nearly matched its advertising revenue. Aggressive price increases, combined with a substantial reduction in discounted circulation, are turning paying subscribers into a profit engine. Other publishers are adopting this approach, which is why the seemingly catastrophic declines in circulation of the last couple of years aren’t as devastating as they seem. Many businesses have legacy customers that generate a small but profitable business. Successful long-term franchises, however, also have the skills to move on.

A Successful Online Model

New media news entities have demonstrated that they can earn a profit with about 20% of the revenues of print organizations. That’s because their operating expenses are about 90% lower. These organizations are profitable, but a lot smaller than print publishers.

In their most recent round of earnings reports, most publishers stated that they are now deriving between 12% and 16% of their revenue from online advertising. Most of them have also not done nearly as much as they can to monetize other sources such as events, transaction fees and value-added and classified advertising. Once publishers reach the threshold of 20% online revenue, they can conceivably shutter their print operations while sustaining the business and the brand. They’re trying to get to that threshold gracefully, though. Lots of money can still be made in print if publishers can manage that asset down steadily while reducing costs in lockstep.

That’s a tricky process. If publishers cut costs too deeply, they risk losing loyal print subscribers and circulation revenue could enter a free-fall. They also don’t have the luxury of much time to complete the transition.

Even harder is the third bullet point. The people who run newspapers are skilled at operations and asset management, not visionary investments in emerging markets. In the TechCrunch interview, Andreessen correctly points out that technology companies are adept at dealing with constant disruption to their markets, a situation that faces Microsoft right now. Successful technology companies manage this challenge through a kind of creative destruction process. Successful executives are experts at learning to identify new opportunities and quickly discarding old product lines without looking back.

However, technology companies don’t have the luxury of a loyal legacy base that newspaper publishers have. The audience of committed daily readers may still buy the newspaper industry another 10 years of life in print, although that business will eventually become unsustainable. It isn’t crazy for publishers to want to milk the cash cow for a few more years. The hard part is finding new opportunities and having the stomach to invest in them in the face of inevitable shareholder demands for greater profits.

Burning the boats isn’t a wise strategy at the moment. But it’s a good idea to start collecting firewood.


Newspaper executives and their largest advertisers will gather next month in Orlando to discuss the transition to a digital media world. Advertisers in attendance include Staples Inc., Walgreens, Best Buy,  Home Depot, RadioShack, Target and many other print media veterans.

It’s good to see the industry tackling its challenges head on, but we have to wonder if this is the right crowd to do it. Nearly every person in the room will have a career and a business built on a crumbling advertising model. It seems unlikely that much innovation will flourish in that atmosphere. And if you believe what people like Mark Potts and Steve Outing are saying, then the future of these companies is about diversifying revenue and cultivating local advertisers, not finding new ways to squeeze more blood from the display advertising stone.. Meanwhile, the agenda is packed with speakers from the newspaper industry. We trust Huffington Post wasn’t invited.


Meanwhile, Outsell has a new report predicting that US companies will spend more on digital marketing than print for the first time ever this year. Of the $368 billion that Outsell expects US advertisers to spend this year, roughly $120 billion will be spent online and $111 in print. Of the total online spending, 53% will be on company websites. Outsell expects print newspaper ad spending to drop 8.2% to $27 billion. The report costs $1,295. More here.

And Finally…

The folks who brought you the wonderful Fail Blog have aggregated some of their best media miscues into Probably Bad News, a site whose tagline is “News Fails, because journalism isn’t dying fast enough.”You can upload your own favorite typos, double entendres and acts of sheer stupidity for others to vote upon. Many of the examples are computers gone haywire, which lack the sheer hilarity of printed mistakes, in our view. But there’s some good stuff there, anyway.


Dan Bloom has been pushing the idea of renaming newspapers “snailpapers.” He’s put the cause to music. It’s six-and-a-half-minutes of countrified banjo-picking. Watch it if you can.

By paulgillin | February 19, 2010 - 12:22 pm - Posted in Facebook, Google, Hyper-local

This week’s sorry tale of a New York Times reporter being forced to resign for plagiarizing content from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources, apparently over a long period of time, raises questions about how traditional practices can survive the pressures of the online age.

Zachery Kouwe (right) walked the plank after editors at the Wall Street Journal complained that passages in a post on the Times’ DealBook blog substantially duplicated material published in the Journal a couple of hours earlier. The Times published a correction and later suspended Kouwe. He resigned on Tuesday.

In an interview with The New York Observer, Kouwe apologize for the transgression but explained that it was an honest mistake brought on by the need to respond to a rival’s story combined with the relentless pressure to produce weekly output of about 7,000 words. “I was stupid and careless and fucked up and thought it was my own stuff, or it somehow slipped in there. I think that’s what probably happened,” he said.

There’s never an excuse for plagiarism, but an understanding of the environment in which young reporters like Kouwe work can at least explain his acts, if not excuse them.

Deadlines in Minutes

It wasn’t long ago that reporters at a big paper like the Times had the luxury of turning out a story a day or even less. Print deadlines measured in hours offered an opportunity to check sources and rewrite notes in a timeframe that seems positively leisurely today. A few skilled professionals, mostly wire reporters, excelled at deadline reporting. Their expertise in synthesizing and contextualizing large amounts of information, often in chaotic environments, was the product of years of experience.

Today, everyone who writes news online is a wire service reporter. Deadlines are measured in minutes and anyone who wants to compete has to put speed at the top of the agenda. Not everyone is good at working under that kind of pressure, so it’s not surprising that the quality of deadline news reporting is becoming more erratic. Budget cuts at newspapers have also forced a lot of young, relatively unseasoned reporters to the front lines where their work nevertheless carries the moniker of a 150-year-old trusted brand. Such was clearly the case with Kouwe who, at 31, has developed his journalism skills inside the culture and pressure of the Internet.

The craft of note-taking has also changed. In today’s cut-and-paste world, journalists assemble background information from snippets published elsewhere. Notes are typed rather than hand written. In a document made up of first-person interview notes mashed together with clips from other sources, it’s not surprising that the origins of information can become confused. That’s not an excuse for shoddy note-taking, but it is an explanation for how errors can happen.

Changing Views on Copyright

The standards of intellectual property ownership that have been broadly accepted for so long are also growing fuzzier. Many bloggers don’t even post copyright information on their sites or they choose from one of an assortment of Creative Commons licenses that can themselves be confusing. The nonprofit culture of the blogosphere largely looks the other way when people lift content from each other. Many people use blogs as essentially online notepads, posting everything up to and including their shopping lists. Even if they cared about plagiarism, it’s difficult to spot violations and usually not worth the trouble of chasing the offenders. This works okay in the blogosphere because few bloggers practice their craft for money. In some cases, theft of content is actually considered a compliment to the author.

Then there are the proliferating forms that online communications take. Are Twitter messages copyrightable? If so, then isn’t the coveted retweet a form of copyright infringement? Google Voice has a feature that transcribes phone messages and makes it easy to embed those transcriptions in websites. Is that also a legal problem?

Finally, software tools now enable  someone to republish entire articles on multiple sites without even copying and pasting. Posterous is just one that makes this process automatic. A person using this feature may be violating someone else’s intellectual property without even knowing it.

This is not an excuse for Kouwe’s transgressions. A professional reporter should understand the fundamentals of the craft. However, the freewheeling nature of the democratized information landscape creates all sorts of gray areas. Journalism schools and editors need to do a better job of giving young journalist the tools to living with the growing pressures of deadlines and information overload without violating basic principles of ownership.

New Image Protection

Photographers have a particularly difficult time tracking copyright violations. Search engines don’t index images and the content embedded within tags gets lost as pictures are copied and redisplayed around the web. Watermarking affords some protection, but it also can make the image unattractive to potential publishers.

PicScout is trying to do something about this. Founded in 2002 to market an image recognition and classification technology, the company has a new platform that analyzes images and stores ownership information in a registry. That information travels with the image wherever it’s reproduced, thanks to technology that is capable of recognizing certain patterns within the bitstream. With one click, a potential user of the image can be connected to the license holder to work out terms.

License holders can upload their images to PicScout for indexing. The service then continually scans the Web looking for reuse of that content. License holders get a regular report on potential violations, along with company name and a screen capture. Users can download a free plug-in that alerts them to images that are listed in the PicScout database. The company just signed a partnership deal with PhotoShelter, a website for professional photographers and enthusiasts, that will automatically include PhotoShelter images in the PicScout registry.

Miscellany

If you think the demise of newspapers has killed good journalism, take a look at the list of the 13 winners of George Polk Awards for 2009. The awards, which have been administered by Long Island University for more than 60 years, cover a wide range of national and international accomplishments, ranging the New York Times reporter who documented his seven-month captivity by the Taliban to a ProPublica journalist who reported on the dangers of a natural gas-drilling process that yields carcinogenic byproducts. While the honorees include the usual lineup of mainstream media sources, a few surprises crept into the group this year. They include a team of Stars and Stripes reporters that unearthed a Pentagon campaign that profiled journalists in order to steer them toward positive coverage of the war in Afghanistan and a group of Bloomberg reporters who documented abuses of the government’s bank bailout program.


The Phoenix-area East Valley Tribune just won’t die. Owner Freedom Communications filed a motion with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court this week seeking approval to sell its Phoenix-area publications — including the Tribune — to 1013 Communications LLC. The purchase price is reportedly just $2.05 million. Freedom has been in bankruptcy protection since September and has been trying to unload the Tribune for more than a year. It had earlier announced plans to shut down the paper at the end of 2009, but is keeping the lights on in hopes of finding a buyer.


Growth of digital coupons is outpacing growth of newspaper coupons by a factor of 10 to 1, according to a company that has a stake in the digital market. Coupons.com reports that more than 45 million American consumers are now using online coupons, a nearly 20% increase from the 38 million who used them in 2008. “Of that number, nearly a third (13.1 million) don’t clip coupons from their Sunday paper, a 140% increase over 9.4 million in 2008,” said Coupons.com. If anyone can explain how the difference between 9.4 million and 13.1 million comes out to 140%, we’d like to hear it.


Questions are already being raised about Apple’s iPad licensing terms and whether its policy of keeping subscriber data close to the vest is a deal-killer. The Financial Times reports that the generous royalty model that Apple uses with book publishers (they get to keep 70% of the take) doesn’t work so well in subscription models.  It’s particularly bad in light of Apple’s practice of gathering all subscriber information and sharing nothing with its publisher or developer partners except download and sales totals.  “Is it a dealbreaker? It’s pretty damn close,” says one senior US media executive. Here’s another opportunity for Amazon. Publishers appear to prefer the Kindle platform for a number of reasons, but Amazon’s licensing terms grant them too little of the subscription revenue. If Amazon would loosen up quickly, it could grab most-favored-reader status in this important market. So far, though, Amazon shows little inclination of changing anything.

And Finally…

“There is nothing more frustrating than having a perfect comment for a conversation the two strangers in front of you are having.”

“It’s never more important to me to look my best than when I’m gonna be around someone I can’t stand.”

“I don’t understand the purpose of the line, ‘I don’t need to drink to have fun.’ No one does. But why start a fire with flint and sticks when they’ve invented the lighter?”

Those are just three of the gems from Ruminations, a website that accepts short, funny, original observations or anecdotes and then encourages its members to vote them up or down the popularity scale.

Reading Ruminations is like listening to a nonstop Steven Wright standup routine. Many of the contributions are hilarious, but some of them make you ponder the odd, illogical and bizarre things that humans do. “How many times is it appropriate to say ‘What?’ before you just nod and smile because you still didn’t hear what they said?” asks one contributor. The site was started by author and comedian Aaron Karo (above), who has a newsletter by the same name.

By paulgillin | February 12, 2010 - 11:45 am - Posted in Facebook, Hyper-local, Paywalls

During fourth-quarter earnings calls, several newspaper executives tried to put a positive spin on their financial situation, noting that the rate of decline in advertising revenues has slowed. That’s true, says Martin Langeveld, but it’s still a dismal situation overall. Langeveld totes up the numbers from the five publishers who have reported earnings so far and forecasts that the US industry as a whole will show a decline of 16% for the quarter. That’s better than the average 28% decline of the first three quarters of last year, but the overall trend is still in the wrong direction. It’s even uglier when you look at the last five years in aggregate: Total revenues for 2009 will come to about $28.4 billion, compared to $49.4 billion in the boom year of 2005. That’s a decline of 43%.

Langeveld analyzes the earnings announcement so far and finds scant reason for optimism. Publishers are talking of “stability” rather than growth, which means that their dramatic cost cuts of the last year are finally generating some profits. The good news is that this will enable them to finally pay down some of their huge debt burdens, but any growth into new areas still seems a long way off given that most publishers still derive less than 15% of their revenue from online advertising. The sole bright spot was Media General, which reported that total revenues in December “were essentially even with December 2008.” Langeveld takes that to mean that they were only down in the single digits. Still, any stability is a good thing. There’s much more on the Nieman site.

In other good business news, McClatchy’s debt ratings were upgraded by two major credit ratings agencies. While the upgrades were small, they moved McClatchy out of the “highly speculative” category. The company just concluded a sale of $875 million of senior secured notes that pays off impending loans and stretches maturities out to 2017, giving it some breathing room.

Things are getting worse at the Boston Globe, though. The newspaper, which failed to sell for a reported asking price of $25 million last year, suffered a 20.3% drop in advertising revenues in the fourth quarter. Full-year revenue was down nearly 16%. The only glimmer of good news was an increase in circulation revenue, but the Globe, which has been frantically slashing costs since its near-death experience a year ago, continues to sink while it’s much smaller crosstown rival, the Herald, is reportedly earning a small profit.

Optimize Socially

“The old gatekeepers are disappearing. We’ve become our own and one another’s editors.” That’s one of the gems from Ken Doctor’s post this week on Nieman Journalism Lab in which he weighs in on Google Buzz and the rapid socialization of the Web. Noting that the bit.ly URL shortening service, which is one of about a dozen on the Internet, is now processing about 2 billion link referrals a month, Doctor suggests that news organizations must tap into the link-sharing patterns of social networks to identify new readers. “Are Facebook users of a certain kind more likely to convert to become regular users of NYTimes.com (or Dallasnews.com or VoiceofSanDiego.org) than Twitter users?” he asks, citing one example.

It’s an excellent point. Social network practitioners who frequently refer their friends and followers to content from the same source should, in theory, be more likely to become paying subscribers to that source. The tricky part is how to find these people. Amid the deafening social cacophony of the Internet, pinpointing fans can make the task of searching for a needle in a haystack look trivial.

Doctor cites an emerging discipline called “social media optimization,” that is about making content more appealing to people who like to share. This goes beyond packaging or optimizing headlines for search; it’s also about making stuff easily shareable and getting the content producers embedded into the networks that grow around their products.

The Death Watch on Facebook

Our day job is helping businesses understand and adapt to the social Web, so it seems only natural that the Death Watch should go up on Facebook. Well, here we are. We’ll use this platform to point to the many stories we read but don’t get  a chance to summarize in our occasional blog entries. We’ll also post some discussion topics and would like to hear your comments on the choices we make. Fan us! It’s hot in here.

Miscellany

Gerald Posner resigned from the Daily Beast this week amid a swirl of charges of serial plagiarism. In a post on his blog, Posner admitted that he had copied material from the Miami Herald, among other sources, but insisted that the plagiarism was inadvertent. Posner’s shame highlights a risk of the copy-and-paste nature of Web publishing, in which original information quickly becomes intermingled with notes lifted from other sources. While that’s not an excuse, it’s an explanation of how the need for speed, combined with the portability of printed words, can be a recipe for disaster. When in doubt, select the text and copy it into Google. You’ll quickly see if you’ve violated someone else’s property.


The Berkeley Daily Planet, which isn’t daily, will cease print publication and go online only, although the owners held out the possibility of a return to the newsstands. Distribution was only one of several problems the paper faced. The city of San Francisco’s recent ban on freestanding newspaper stands hurt distribution, and the Daily Planet’s often critical reporting on local businesses didn’t help with advertising sales. The newspaper also suffered from a campaign by a group of East Bay Zionists to dissuade businesses from advertising because of editorials that criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

And Finally…

Two amusing closing items today:

The funny folks at 10,000 Words are back with their collection of Valentines for journalists. Although vaguely suggestive, they’re mostly G-rated and should be good for a laugh if your beloved happens to end his or her love letters with “-30-.”


It was 113 years ago yesterday that the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the front page of The New York Times. The phrase was actually being used in marketing and advertising prior to that date and had assumed a modest place on the Times’ editorial page, but it was a slogan contest organized in late 1896 by publisher Adolph Ochs that catapulted the now-famous slogan to the banner. W. Joseph Campbell, whose 2006 book entitled The Year That Defined American Journalism documented the momentous events of 1897, recounts some of the entries that didn’t win the contest and its $100 prize.  They include:

  • Always decent; never dull;
  • The news of the day; not the rubbish;
  • A decent newspaper for decent people;
  • All the world’s news, but not a school for scandal.

We think Ochs made a good choice, though his choice of words probably didn’t anticipate the Internet.


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