By paulgillin | March 21, 2018 - 1:29 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google, Paywalls

With the media world buzzing about the fake news engine that is Cambridge Analytica, news about a new Google initiative to support quality journalism might easily be overlooked. The multi-faceted investment covers everything from website analytics tuned to the needs of publishers to machine learning tools that identify potential subscribers.

Of particular note is Subscribe with Google, a service that enables readers to easily subscribe to a news source using their Google accounts, with payments handled automatically through Google’s established payment mechanisms. The search giant handles all of the back-end accounting securely and lets publishers handle all subscriptions in one place. The company is also applying machine learning to identify revenue opportunities for publisher with its Insights Engine Project, which delivers better ad targeting and peer comparisons for ad performance.

A particular interesting new dimension of Insights Engine is a feature that identifies readers who are likely to become subscribers and helps publishers to optimize offers when they are most likely to pay. With big papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post collectively boasting more than 4 million paying subscribers, this is an opportunity for small publishers to cash in on the paywall trend.

The problem Google hasn’t conquered yet is how to identify and elevate trustworthy information ahead of fake news. If it can figure that out, it can perform a much greater service than just identifying revenue opportunities for publishers; it can restore civility to our national conversations.

By wpps-support | May 27, 2010 - 2:44 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google

While Google is busy figuring out how to save journalism, some entrepreneurs are going ahead and doing it on their own using unconventional techniques that may make some traditionalists shudder. Writing in The New York Times magazine, Andrew Rice surveys the landscape of recent media startups that are confronting the reality of plummeting margins by crowdsourced news operations.

Lewis Dvorkin of True/Slant

They range from Demand Media, which generates assignment lists based entirely on search terms, to Global Post, which hopes to charge readers for direct access to its foreign correspondents. A few themes are apparent through many of the business models. One is their reliance upon search as both a guide and a source of revenue. New-age publishers see Google as the pulse of reader interest and have tuned their models to respond, in some cases, in near real-time. Another is that they pay very little for journalism.

Rice visits True/Slant, an operation that uses a digital speedometer to match content on its site to trending topics on Google and Twitter. Thousands of writers contribute to the service, which posts about 125 articles a day. Journalists are paid a fraction of what that would make at traditional media organizations, but at least there’s a little money in the work. True/Slant has only five full-time staff and about 300 contributors. “It’s not so much a unified publication as a loosely connected commune of bloggers, who generate a continual stream of content with minimal editorial intervention,” Rice writes.

The 125-story-per-day figure may sound like a lot, but it’s a pittance compared to the daily output of Huffington Post (500) or Examiner.com (3,000). These publishers produce news in the kind of volumes meant to serve picky advertisers, who only buy proximity to certain keywords. Since advertisers don’t have to waste money on audiences they don’t want any more, the publishing model being built by these new companies is to churn out huge quantities of content and serve lots of niche advertisers.

Everything is search-optimized and, in some cases, search drives the boat. Demand Media actually assigns stories based upon search popularity. Freelancers pick from a list of topics culled from popular search queries and turn out articles and video that post to sites like eHow, which has a revenue-sharing agreement with Demand. No story is assigned unless there’s a high probability it will pay for itself.  Demand “says these mathematically generated ideas are 4.9 times as valuable as those devised by mere human brainstorming,” Rice writes. Journalists get $15 to $20 per item and Demand Media booked $200 million in revenue last year.

The new economics of search-driven publishing have thrown open the question of how much journalism is worth. Contributors to many of the sites Rice describes are paid anywhere from $10 to $25 per contribution. Search advertising is such a low cost-commodity that one publisher estimates a journalist needs to attract 1.8 million monthly page views in order to earn a $60,000 annual salary.

If all of this makes you slightly nauseous, you’re not alone. Many of these emerging business models play to popularity as measured by search volume. Nor surprisingly, sex and sin sell. “Writers and editors know that click-driven Internet economics tend to reward lowbrow gimmickry. They have to decide whether to work around that or to embrace it as a fact of life,” Rice writes. Some new models play directly to the will of the crowd, such as Henry Blodget’s (yes, that Henry Blodget) gossipy Business Insider and Demand Media.  Other new operations, like GlobalPost, The Politico and Awl, are attempting to produce thoughtful journalism and make money at it, mostly through creative use of alternative funding sources.

The elephant in the corner is the rising interest of businesses in inserting themselves into the media stream. Nearly everyone Rice interviews agrees that the companies that pay the bills want – and deserve – a role in determining  content. True/Slant, which is run by 57-year-old former newspaperman Lewis Dvorkin, gives its advertisers the same tools to contribute to the news stream as its reporters. “It’s the way the world is moving,” Dvorkin says.

By wpps-support | May 17, 2010 - 7:53 am - Posted in Fake News

News executives who insist upon seeing Google as the Great Satan would do well to read James Fallows’ 9,000-word analysis in this month’s Atlantic. Fallows is well-equipped to write the story of Google’s tortured romance with the news industry. He is a veteran traditional journalist with a technology bent who is as comfortable writing for PC Magazine as for Atlantic.

There’s a lot to digest in this article but a few insights struck us as particularly important. One is that Google sees itself as having what one executive calls a “deeply symbiotic relationship” with news organizations. Second is that Google is devoting a lot of bright people and significant amounts of money to help news organizations reinvent themselves. The third is that Google believes advertising will become a lucrative and sustainable source of income for news organizations in the future, but only if they change their tactics.

Thief or Robin Hood?

Google is often pilloried by publishers for “stealing” content. This is despite the fact that Google lifts no more than a few characters from each story, doesn’t sell ads on its Google News service and is the number one source of traffic for most newspaper websites. The real reason Google is so despised is because it has accelerated the “unbundling” of news. This is at the root of the industry’s disruption. Newspapers traditionally have delivered their entire product in one package with advertising in lucrative sections like automotive and food subsidizing the stuff no one wants to pay for, like correspondents in Afghanistan. Search engines have blown apart this model by making it possible for online readers to navigate directly to the content they want. When each form of content is forced to justify its own existence, the world/national news, statehouse coverage and other staples lose out.

Fallows points out that Google and newspapers have a lot in common. Google’s well-being is tied to the availability of high-quality information online. One of the reasons its executives feel such urgency about helping the newspaper industry is that they fear that the loss of this content will diminish Google’s core value. Fallows also astutely points out that Google’s business model is itself a bundle: the company makes the vast majority of its profits from search, which enables it to fund loss leaders like News and Books.

Genuine Concern

Google CEO Eric SchmidtFallows spent a year interviewing Google executives and he portrays their concern about the news industry’s crisis as heartfelt and earnest. Certainly, no Internet company has been more visible in trying to engage with publishing executives. CEO Eric Schmidt addressed the American Society of News Editors last month and has been quoted many times despairing about the industry’s troubles. Of the other online companies that have taken their share of news industry flesh, only Craigslist’s Craig Newmark has shown any concern about the consequences.

Fallows’ piece is basically upbeat. Google executives express unequivocal confidence in the future of display advertising, a vehicle that has been widely written off as a dying intrusion on users’ reading experience. Advertising on the Internet is still in its infancy, executives assert, and advances in targeting will enable display ads to do for readers what Google’s AdWords technology has done: deliver relevant contextual offerings to readers based not only on the article in front of them but also on their self-described interests and recommendations of their friends. As advertising increasingly reflects a two-way dialogue between reader and publisher, “news operations will wonder why they worried so much about print display ads, since online display will be so much more attractive,” Fallows writes.

The company is applying technology to increase the yield of advertising in the same way that airlines adjust their pricing, planes and schedules to maximize revenues per mile. One innovation is an arbitrage system that enables publishers to adjust the allocation of premium priced advertising on a second-by-second basis. Another is Fast Flip, a Google experiment that seeks to mimic the print reading experience on a computer screen. Google has even adjusted its treasured search algorithm to accommodate complaints from individual publishers. There is little or no revenue in these efforts for Google; the company’s motivation appears to be giving publishers more options.

Rethinking News

However, Fallows also emphasizes that Google executives believe news organizations must take responsibility for their own health by rethinking their approach to the business. Krishna Bharat, a distinguished research scientist at Google and the driving force behind Google News, probably reads more newspaper content than most humans. He notes that duplication of effort saps the productive potential of the industry as a whole.

“You see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” Bharat says, referring to pack journalism. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” This repetition is a relic of the days when readers had limited sources of information and hundreds of reporters might cover the same event. Now this approach has become antiquated. Publishers would get more bang for the buck by pooling their efforts to provide the five Ws and devote more resources to “something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

Executives also emphasize that while they believe the ad picture is bright, a continued overreliance on display advertising will be the news industry’s undoing. Instead, they advise a “lots of small steps” approach based upon continuous experimentation and diversification of revenue streams. “The three most important things any newspaper can do now are experiment, experiment, and experiment,” says Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist.

Which, when you think of it, is how Google works.

Presentation by Google Chief Economist Hal Varian

By wpps-support | May 11, 2010 - 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 wpps-support | April 28, 2010 - 12:43 pm - Posted in Fake News

Bobbie Carlton of Mass Innovation NightsMeet Bobbie Carlton. She’s come up with an idea that every newspaper publisher in New England should have had but didn’t. Her success demonstrates how news publishers can reinvent themselves and survive – maybe even thrive – but only if they have completely rethink what they do.

Carlton isn’t a publisher. She’s a career public relations professional who set out a little more than a year ago to figure out a way to drum up new business in a dismal economy. She knew that there were still plenty of innovative companies in the area that were starved for visibility. Finding investors and customers in a crummy economy was a time-consuming, trial-and-error process. The few conferences that were available for such purposes were either expensive or subjected applicants to long and seemingly arbitrary approvals processes.

Carlton hit on the idea of a cheap, frictionless approach she called Mass Innovation Nights. The events would be free to everyone. Entrepreneurs could show their stuff and hope to catch a big break.

Carlton borrowed meeting space from a local museum.  She partnered with Dan Englander of High Rock Media to build a website and a Twitter account and started promoting Mass Innovation Nights entirely through online word of mouth.  There was no hype and no inflated expectations. If the event bombed, then attendees got what they paid for.

Only the event didn’t bomb. MassInno, as the affair is now known, is a raging success, with exhibitors now competing for limited space. The most recent meetup was tweeted more than 600 times and drew more than 400 attendees. Carlton is toying with the idea of syndicating the idea across the country.

Today, Carlton has so much business coming in from startups that were boosted by Mass Innovation Nights that she’s having to refer work elsewhere. That makes her a popular person in the depressed local PR economy. Partner High Rock is booming, too.

Why was one woman able to exploit a simple idea at almost no cost while media institutions with hundreds of employees stood by and watched? Because newspapers didn’t think it was their job. They believed they were in the advertising delivery business, not the business of growing the local economy. Newspapers that continue to think this way will shrivel and die over the next few years. But there is a path to salvation. It’s in doing what Bobbie Carlton is doing on a grand scale. But how many publishers are willing to make the sacrifices to seize that opportunity?

The Folly of Paywalls

Newspaper publishers are confronting their current business challenges in the wrong way. They’re trying to battle online competition by becoming more like their competitors, building massive online presences to serve global audiences when their advantage is inherently local. They’re also hyper-focused on a source of revenue – advertising – that will only become more competitive and less profitable in the future. They need to change the rules.

The eyes of the industry are currently trained on The New York Times, which is trying to re-bottle the evil genie it released 15 years ago when it elected to give away its content for free. The Times’ paywall experiment will be modestly successful because it is The New York Times. Publishers in Baltimore, Dallas, St. Louis and hundreds of other cities will be unable to exploit the idea, however, because they lack the Times’ brand and international reach. Paywalls are a waste of time.

Instead, publishers should concentrate on diversifying their revenue streams away from advertising and into local business services that promise stability, growth and a future. This is a market in which they have a natural advantage. Small business is the one great untapped revenue opportunity left in America, which is why giants like American Express and Bank of America are practically throwing money at the market. But these global companies lack the local connections and the feet on the street to truly become partners in small business success. Local newspapers have that advantage.

Most major metro dailies have long regarded local business advertising as the cherry on top of the sundae of display contracts from national advertisers and department stores.  Local businesses fueled the classified section, but counted for only a small part of the total revenue picture. Now national advertisers are marketing directly to customers, classified advertising has collapsed and local businesses are publishers’ only hope for a future.

The Local Opportunity

Look at the merchants in your local community. Most don’t know the first thing about marketing. Few are even very good at managing their businesses. Marketing is tough for little guys. They spend their dollars on a mishmash of coupons, flyers, Yellow Pages listings, classified ads and occasional radio and television.  Few of them track ROI or have any means to assess the performance of these investments. Online, they’re practically invisible. They know nothing about search marketing or customer relationship management (CRM). In short, the kinds of sophisticated analytics and tools that big companies use are out of reach to mom-and-pops. Lots of businesses want to market better, but they don’t have anyone to teach them how or give them a cost-effective platform to do so.

News organizations can be that platform. They can start by delivering a basic package of marketing and business services on a subscription basis and expand as local conditions dictate. They can potentially manage many of the overhead and backroom activities that sap small business owners’ time. Here are five ways news organizations can monetize this opportunity. There are plenty more where these come from:

Website Development – Few small businesses know anything about the Web.  Outside of restaurants and entertainment providers, most have websites that are little more than online brochures, if they have websites at all. Their sites aren’t optimized for search, don’t deliver calls to action and have no means to retain visitors as subscribers. Forget about analytics. If small business owners want to adopt new platforms like blogs or Twitter, they either pay outside consultants or figure out the tools through extensive trial and error.

This is a huge opportunity for news organizations. These companies have long-term relationships with business customers, local credibility and expertise in publishing. They can deliver advanced online features like e-commerce, e-mail marketing, search optimization and analytics at low cost by leveraging economies of scale. There is no reason why the local newspaper publisher can’t also be the dominant provider of online services to local businesses.

Affinity Programs – Every hotel, airline, national retailer and supermarket chain has a loyalty program these days.  The reason is simple: they work. Customers who carry affinity cards typically buy between 10% and 30% more product from the merchants who offer the programs than from those who don’t. Unfortunately, few small-business owners have the option of participating.  The administrative overhead is high and customers won’t carry cards for every merchant in their community. News organizations could set up these plans as cooperatives, allowing groups of noncompetitive businesses to participate at a modest cost.  Commercial grade analytics could be bought and scaled to provide reporting that demonstrates the return to business owners.  Revenue would come from the fees paid by the participants and potentially even subscribers to premium buyers clubs.

Events – Lots of small businesses would like to use event marketing to share their expertise and meet new prospects, but if you’ve ever tried to stage a promotional event, you know what an ordeal it is. The details and hidden costs can be overwhelming and few small businesses have the means to manage the leads that result.  Again, publishers can come to the rescue.  By building expertise at event management and applying it to different businesses within the community, publishers can provide targeted thematic events (for example, outdoor recreation or pet care) at a scale and cost that makes them affordable to local businesses. They can gather and manage leads that result and create marketing programs that optimize them for their customers. The news organization becomes a business partner and consultant, not just an outlet for advertising. There’s even the possibility of generating fees from event attendees in some cases.

Value-Added Advertising – Craigslist has won the war for the low end of the recruitment advertising market.  Publishers need to stop mourning the loss of this commodity business and move the bar higher. Christopher Ryan and Steve Outing published a manifesto for competing with Craigslist more than a year ago. Unfortunately, few publishers seemed to have noticed.  We won’t try to reinvent their wheel; ReinventingClassifieds.com has some great ideas publishers can apply to take advantage of their local reach and marginalize Craigslist.

For example, they can offer real estate agents or car dealers video walk-throughs of the products they sell. Or they can provide peer recommendations like Angie’s List (more than one million members at $35/year). They can tweet ads and push them to mobile phones. They can even provide transaction and fulfillment services that Craigslist can’t. In short, they can do all the things that Craigslist doesn’t do and build these features into a monthly subscription service that makes them all but invisible to the customer.

Transaction Fees – If you’ve ever used Ticketmaster, you’ve experienced the sticker shock of discovering that those $40 Nine Inch Nails tickets carry an eight dollar “convenience fee.” But you pay it because it’s easier than standing in line for two hours. Publishers can tap into that revenue stream.

The local garden show probably isn’t interested in ticket brokering. It may outsource the task to TicketMaster for the sake of convenience but it would really be interested in using a local organization that could combine fees with demographic marketing, behavioral targeting and amenities like e-commerce. Who better to deliver that experience than a service provider that knows the local community? Do you think restaurant or hair salon owners would like to have automated scheduling? The newspaper could provide that, too, with fees from the buyer, the seller or both.

Bottom Line

The five scenarios outlined above are just a sample of the opportunities available to local publishers once they stop thinking of themselves as advertising vessels and become partners in the success of local businesses. At their core, newspapers are marketing tools. Instead of simply providing advertising space, publishers can become marketing consultants, value-added resellers and service bureaus. They can offer the kind of expertise and analytics at a price that mom-and-pops can finally afford.

There are many more possibilities: Publishers could offer accounting, tax preparation, creative services, executive recruitment, business telephony, technical support, facilities management, order fulfillment and so on. Where they lack in-house expertise, they could partner with local providers under an approved-vendor program. Does this mean publishers might compete with their prospective advertisers? Sure, but how many of those companies are advertising now, anyway? Members of the approved-vendor program could potentially buy bigger schedules from the publishers who feed them business.

Back to the Future

Few publishers will choose to pursue the business model outlined here. It’s too hard. Departments such as circulation will need to be downsized or eliminated. Sales people must be retrained or released. Experts must be hired in new areas and partnership networks will have to be formed. New services will have to be created and priced, software licenses acquired and technology infrastructure put in place. These changes are painful, but reinvention isn’t pretty. It’s easier to sit and hope that paywalls will succeed in letting you do what you’ve always done.  Good luck with that.

If this transformation sounds radical or risky, consider that it’s already been done. More than 20 years ago, many computer companies faced the same kind of near-death experience that confronts newspaper publishers today. Their core hardware products, which generated 80% margins, were suddenly assaulted by cheap, standardized components. Many of these companies died or were acquired, but a few, like IBM and Hewlett-Packard, took the strong medicine that was necessary to transform themselves. Today, IBM derives more than half its revenue from services, a revenue stream that barely even existed 20 years ago. Its 2008 revenue was a record $103 billion. HP made the shift even earlier. Twenty years ago, it was less than one-fifth IBM’s size. In 2009, it was bigger than IBM.

Thanks for sticking with us through this long essay. Now tell us what you think. Are we off the wall or could business services be the prescription that nurses this dying industry back to health?

By wpps-support | April 12, 2010 - 9:58 am - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

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 wpps-support | April 5, 2010 - 9:49 am - Posted in Fake News, Paywalls

Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner throw some cold water on the iPad party, suggesting that e-readers could save the floundering magazine industry at the expense of journalistic standards. They point to research by the Columbia Journalism Review (which Navasky founded) that revealed  that magazine editors admit their practices are sloppier online than they are in print. Copy editing and fact-checking standards are looser and editors are more aware of the need to drive traffic to their work, which increases the temptation to sensationalize or invent. “Where advertising is based on traffic, and traffic is thought to depend on the speedy posting of new content, we’re seeing a gradual breakdown of [the ad/edit firewall] as journalistic standards become even more flexible to allow for greater and greater speed,” they write.

Apple iPadTheir oped  raises an important point about the influence of traffic on journalistic quality and the declining value of circulation. As we noted last September, circulation at some of the country’s largest magazines is down between 60% and 75% over the last eight years. This threatens the business models of these publications and the journalistic standards that they support. Here’s why.

Circulation is a complex and arcane discipline that is critical to the health of publications. Publishers manage circulation carefully, each seeking an ideal balance between subscription and newsstand sales. For consumer publishers, a high percentage of newsstand sales creates subscriber churn which delivers new blood that is desirable to their advertisers. For professional and trade publishers, many of which don’t distribute on newsstands, renewal rates signify reader loyalty, which their advertisers crave. In all cases, circulation quality is at least as important as circulation quantity.

All magazines have paid subscribers who contract to receive the publication for a defined period of time, regardless of whether they actually read it. Subscriptions provide a degree of security for publishers because they increase the likelihood that a reader’s perception of the product will be shaped over time rather than by one headline. One of the reasons newspapering has been such a stable business for so many years is that renewal rates for newspaper subscribers have been astronomically high. Subscriptions create incentive for publishers to produce information that has broad appeal to their target audience. While some would argue that this leads them to “dumb down” content, it also gives them the luxury to deliver information they believe readers need to have, even if they don’t want to have it.

Google Is the New Newsstand

Michael Jackson death on TMZOn the Web, of course, there is no circulation. While a few professional publishers do limit access to their content to paying subscribers, most rely upon search engines and referral links for the traffic that sustains their business. This severely disrupts their business models. When the luxury of subscribers is gone, publishers must compete for readers on every single story. This means that speed, sensationalism and search-friendly headlines like “Top 10 Tips for Whiter Laundry” become more important factors in delivering a volume of visitors that can be monetized (Consumer magazines honed this to a fine art years ago). It also creates an incentive to shortcut quality for timeliness. A notable example of this was the death of singer Michael Jackson last June, which was first reported by the celebrity gossip site TMZ. The Los Angeles Times reportedly had the story at the same time but held the news because of lack of verification. Quality lost out to speed.

The impact of the industry’s shift from subscriptions to search results and links is enormous. Publishers now have to compete on every single story, which means anything that doesn’t deliver a large audience is bad. You can imagine how this influences reporting on niche topics. It also creates an incentive to make stories bigger than they really are. The problem is compounded when editors are rewarded solely on the basis of page views. Balance gives way to expediency and errors are more easily excused when they can be quickly and quietly fixed online.

Navansky and Lerner implore people who care about journalistic quality to “take up the challenge of debating and discussing — and, we would add, codifying — the values, standards and practices that ought to prevail online.” It’s an admirable call to action but unlikely to result in any enforceable standards. As long as publishing success hangs on a thin thread like traffic, the temptation to practice bad journalism will remain strong. If publishers can come up with a persuasive way to sell the quality of their audiences, then the tide might begin to turn. Until then, we’re going to see a lot of articles on whiter laundry.


Speaking of the iPad, TechCrunch reports that Apple sold 300,000 units in the US as of midnight Saturday. That’s about 10% more than the total number of iPhones sold during that product’s first week on the market. However, it’s worth noting that when the iPhone went on sale, there was no iPhone to compare it against. In contrast, the iPad has the momentum of the iPhone’s popularity along with a substantial base of applications. On that note, the product’s opening week performance is notable. Apple said customers downloaded over 1 million applications and over 250,000 e-books.

By wpps-support | March 24, 2010 - 10:42 pm - Posted in Facebook, Fake News

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 wpps-support | March 16, 2010 - 2:35 pm - Posted in Fake News, Google

The Chaos Scenario on Newspaper Death WatchIn this video interview, Bob Garfield, the author of The Chaos Scenario discusses the changes being brought about by the collapse of the mass advertising model, and with it the mass media. While Garfield is fundamentally optimistic about the future, he compares the pain being experienced by media professionals and their organizations today to the dislocation that occurred when the craft/artisan economy gave way to the Industrial Revolution. In the long run, Garfield asserts, we’ll be better off for the democratization of media. But there’ll be a decade or two of chaos that precedes new models.

Garfield was interviewed at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, where the people who are incubating the changes he describes have gathered for their giant annual mind meld. Running time: 19:17.

Bob Garfield on Media in Chaos from Newspaper Death Watch on Vimeo.

By wpps-support | March 15, 2010 - 5:32 pm - Posted in Fake News

Tucked away in a corner at the Austin Convention Center this week is a tiny Hewlett-Packard subsidiary that could be a godsend for publishers and direct markets who are seeing their print businesses shrivel. But MagCloud may not see the opportunity before its own eyes.

Broadway Magazine, produced by MagCloudMagCloud is an experiment by HP, which is the world’s largest computer printer maker, to see if its technology can scale up into the micro-publishing market. The service uses laser printer technology to produce magazine-quality publications in volumes ranging from one to about 3,000 units, which is the threshold at which offset printing becomes more cost-efficient. A lot of companies provide similar services in the self-published book market, including Lulu, Issuu, Blurb and CreateSpace. However, MagCloud is alone in its market at the moment. The curious thing is that HP is targeting MagCloud at the wrong market. It’s selling the service to small-market publishers and missing the much bigger opportunity with major publishers and advertisers.

MagCloud offers some impressive benefits. Users upload PDF files and MagCloud publishes the contents as saddle-stitched magazines on a nice matte paper stock  The samples at the company’s South by Southwest booth, including Broadway (above) are beautiful. MagCloud also hosts a virtual newsstand where visitors can buy issues for shipment by US mail.

Publishers can charge whatever the market will bear for their work. MagCloud bills 20 cents per page with volume discounts. So a 48-page magazine comes in at a little under $10 quantity one. Publishers can keep the difference between what they charge and the production/shipping charges from MagCloud.

Small Market Focus

That’s fine, and a very small number of consumers will be willing to pay $15 or $20 for a custom-published magazine. The much bigger opportunity is to take advantage of the customization potential of digital printing to apply the technology to mainstream publishing and direct marketing:

  • Direct marketers could conduct A/B testing in small markets to identify their most effective messages before rolling out printed mailings on a large scale;
  • Publishers could produce targeted editorial supplements to small audiences, such as art or gourmet food enthusiasts, and sell premium-priced advertising against them;
  • Newspapers could produce customized coupon packages to address targeted segments. For example, subscribers could elect to receive bound circulars containing coupons  only for sporting goods in their immediate geographic area.

MagCloud should also be working to exploit the inherent advantages of digital printing to produce publications customized to individual subscribers. This could make print publishing exciting again. Imagine if consumers could:

  • Receive a monthly magazine with their name on the cover, profiles of their favorite sports stars in the pages and coupons from only the merchants they patronize in the ad well?
  • Get magazine customized with their names on the cover and photos of their kids in the center spread?
  • Receive annual calendars with the photos selected from their Flickr photostream?
  • Fill out a form to receive a quarterly food magazine with recipes tuned to their favorite ingredients?

This kind of customization is possible right now. The only issue is finding someone to pay to develop it on a large scale. Publishers have every incentive to find ways to get their advertising customers excited about print again. It seems that MagCloud could be an opportunity to do that. Will someone contact the people at HP and educate them about the opportunity they’re missing? Or perhaps MagCloud will contact us to tell why it doesn’t see an opportunity there.