Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Robots could do better than some journalists

When the Associated Press announced plans to use computers to write corporate earnings stories, a number of journalists asked me if I was as horrified by the prospect as they were.  In fact, I think robots could do better than some reporters.
With all respect and affection for my fellow journalists, I have concluded that a well-programmed set of algorithms can be far more analytic and precise than the sorts of harried, math-averse humans who are widely employed to write about complex business matters. Here is a case in point:
Poynter.Org led a story today about Gannett’s second-quarter earnings with a headline saying “Circulation Revenue Rises at Gannett Local Papers.” The problem with the headline is that the press release and the accompanying financial tables provided by the company showed unambiguously that circulation revenues actually FELL in both the first and second quarters of the year.
For the record, as reported in the press release, circulation revenue at Gannett’s newspapers for the first half of the year was down 1%, ad sales revenue was down 5.3% and “all other publishing” revenue was down 2.4%. 
So, how did the Poynter reporter get it wrong?  Because, in his haste to crank out a story, the author evidently relied on the bafflegab in Gannett’s press release, instead of looking at the several pages of detailed financial tables appended to it. In fairness the writer, who was alerted to this issue but so far has not amended his article, what human wouldn’t be confused by the following statement from the company:
“Circulation revenues were $277.9 million, down just 0.6 percent from $279.7 million in the second quarter in 2013. An increase in circulation revenue at Newsquest [GCI’s division in the United Kingdom] was offset by circulation revenue declines at domestic publishing operations. At local domestic publishing sites, home delivery circulation revenue was up in the quarter due, in part, to strategic pricing actions associated with enhanced content.”
You can’t blame Gannett for trying to put the best face on the umpteenth weak quarter in a row for its publishing operation. And you can sort of see, sort of, how a time-constrained journalist fell into the PR trap by seizing his lede from a fragment of the third sentence in the sixteenth paragraph of the press release. But a well-programmed computer could have done better.  
A half-decent, natural-language engine could have assimilated, organized and analyzed the facts and figures provided by the company in far less time that an ordinary human could read, much less unpack the meaning of, the document.
The robot would organize the data into normalized tables for instant publication and then drop the key information into templates designed to produce concise and understandable narratives. Knowing in advance the Wall Street consensus on a company's upcoming earnings, the robot could determine whether the company beat or failed to meet investor expectations. Templates would be pre-programmed with dictionaries that would know a drop in revenue from 2013 to 2014 was, depending on the degree of decline, a dip, a slip, a tumble or a plunge.
Because the variables in the realms of financial and sporting news are largely standardized and predictable, robots for the most part can be quicker and more accurate than humans, freeing time for journalists to dig deeper and more analytically into stories.  While it is highly unlikely that a robot would have caught the massive Enron accounting fraud, it actually took a long time before one smart human, Bethany McLean, figured it out, too.
So, bring on robo-journalism.  Like chicken soup, it couldnt hurt.  And it probably will help

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The newspaper crisis, by the numbers

Roughly a decade after the commercial debut of the Internet, America’s newspapers posted record high advertising sales of $49.4 billion in 2005, leading many publishers to think their businesses would not be seriously affected by the digital revolution. But they were wrong.  

Since hitting that high note in 2005, the industry has undergone a dramatic and traumatic contraction, losing nearly half of its print readership and more than a third of its revenues. With the pre-tax profits of the publicly held publishers cut by 39% since 2003, newsroom staffing has dropped to a historically low level. In spite of the declared determination of most publishers to pivot from print to pixels, the industry's share of the digital advertising market has plunged by more than 50%.   

As illustrated in the following roundup of key performance indicators, it is clear that publishers have failed for the better part of a decade to adequately respond to the new ways that consumers get information and that advertisers want to reach them. 

Because it is easy to become inured to the drip, drip, drip of bad news about newspapers, this quick compendium is offered as a reminder that one of our most valuable journalistic institutions is engaged in a grave, ongoing and so far unresolved crisis. Brace yourself. 

Combined print and digital advertising revenues at the 1,300-plus newspapers in the nation tumbled 55% from $46.2 billion in 2003 to $20.7 billion in 2013, according to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA). Classified print advertising was hit the worst in the 10-year period, plunging by 74% to $4.1 billion in 2013. National print advertising dropped 61% in the decade to not quite $3.1 billion in 2013 and retail print advertising fell 53% to $10.1 billion in 2013. 

Notwithstanding the professed embrace of digital publishing at most newspapers, the industry’s share of the interactive advertising market dropped by 52% in the last decade. While the industry’s collective digital ad revenues rose 181% from $1.2 billion in 2003 to $3.4 billion in 2013, the total digital ad sales in the United States soared 494% from $7.3 billion in 2003 to $42.8 billion in 2013. Accordingly, the newspaper share of the digital advertising market dropped from 16.4% in 2003 to 7.9% in 2013. Newspaper sales figures were provided by the NAA and over-all digital data are from the Interactive Advertising Bureau. 

While newspaper publishers are continuing to gain audience at their web and mobile sites, their interactive efforts typically trail the level of engagement achieved by many native digital media. Here is an example: The NAA reported that a collective 161 million unique individuals visited the digital media of all the newspapers in the land in March, a number equal to two-thirds of American adults. By contrast, Facebook alone attracts 166.5 million uniques per month. Here is the big difference: While the typical visitor spends 1.1 minutes at a newspaper site, the average dwell time at Facebook, the super-sticky social network, is nearly half an hour. 
Weekday print circulation dropped 47% from an average of 54.6 million papers a day in 2004 to an average of 29.1 million papers per day in 2014, according to my analysis of a random sample of data from the Alliance for Audited Media. Sunday circulation in the same period fared somewhat better, sliding 40% to an average of 34.7 million papers per week in the period ended in March, 2014. The circulation decline means that only a quarter of the nation’s 115.2 million households today consume a weekday paper and only 30% of households take Sunday papers. Ten years ago, household penetration was more than 1.6 times higher than it is today. 

NAA data show that the industry’s total advertising and audience revenues across all categories shrank 35% in the last decade, wilting from $57.4 billion in 2003 to $37.6 billion in 2013. The drop occurred even though many publishers sought to offset declines in print advertising and circulation volume by boosting prices for their print products and/or putting paywalls on their digital media. Despite the heavy emphasis most publishers have put on increasing audience revenues, even this category slipped by 3% from $11.2 billion in 2003 to $10.9 billion in 2013.

In spite of effusive efforts by the industry to reduce expenses in the face of plummeting revenues, pre-tax profits of the publicly held newspaper companies fell by 37% in the last 10 years. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization slid from an average of 25.8% in 2003 to 16.3% in the last 12 months, which still compares favorably to the pre-tax margins of 4.9% at Amazon and 9.4% at Walmart. The International News Marketing Association provided the historical data and I compiled the current data at Yahoo Finance. 

One major consequence of the industry-wide contraction is that newsroom staffing dived by 31% from 54,700 journalists in 2002 to 38,000 in 2012, the lowest number since the American Society of News Editors conducted its first newsroom census in 1978. Given additional newsroom reductions at many publications since the ASNE survey, it is fair to assume that staffing is even lower today. In a measure of how coverage has diminished, the number of newspaper reporters covering the nation’s statehouses fell 35% to 470 individuals between 2003 and 2014, according to a survey released last week by the Pew Research Center. 

A newspaper executive told me a few days ago that some people in the industry hate my continuing coverage of the challenges facing newspapers. For the record, I don’t enjoy writing this stuff any more than newspaper people like reading it. But I do it because I am trying to remind them of the urgent and formidable challenges they face in not just protecting their individual businesses but also in preserving the irreplaceable public trust that newspapers represent.  

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Newspapers can’t merely dabble at digital

The New York Times wrote the story in 1853 about how Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery, but Gawker got most of the page views by publicizing the archived article when “12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for best picture in 2014. 

This example of how the Times fails to capitalize on its rich content to build digital readership, relevance and revenues came to light in the leak this spring of a candid, unsettling and must-read assessment of the newspaper’s less than elegant effort to pivot from print to pixels. 

Given the size of its staff, the sweep of its ambition and its stature as house organ to the world’s political, economic, academic and cultural elites, the Times is something of a unique case among newspapers. But its struggle to achieve scale and economic sustainability as a full-on digital publisher – as opposed to a legacy newspaper producing digitized renditions of an increasingly superannuated print product – is directly relevant to nearly every newsroom on the globe. 

If you work at a newspaper – or simply care about the health of these important institutions – then you need to read the 90-plus page internal report about how the Times is trying, with less than dazzling success, to retool its culture and business model. The report, which illustrates why digital must be an obsession and not a hobby, is here

The document, which never was meant for public disclosure, first was published in May by BuzzFeed – another of the digital interlopers who knows how to generate more page views with a Times story than the Times – on the day after Jill Abramson was ousted as editor of the newspaper. Commissioned by Abramson some months before her exit, the report was written by a crew of journalists headed by no less than A.G. Sulzberger, the son and presumptive successor of publisher Arthur Sulzberger, the head of the family that controls the paper. 

The report details an alarming number of occasions that the Times, like most other newspapers, was out-thought, out-promoted and otherwise out-gunned by the growing phalanx of digital publishers. 

In one painful example, a Huffington Post editor told the Times team that their newspaper was “crushed” by the amount of traffic captured by his site when it repurposed NYT coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. “I was queasy watching the numbers,” said the unidentified editor quoted in the report. “I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition. You should defend the digital pickpockets from stealing your stuff with better headlines, better social.” 

In another example of digital tone-deafness cited in the report, the author of the sprawling Dasani series on a homeless family trapped in horrific public housing did not get around to tweeting about her own story until two days after the first installment ran. Curiously, noted the report, the newsroom controls the Twitter account but the “business side” runs the Facebook page. 

The barrier to nimble and effective digital publishing at the Times is, as is the case at most other papers, its entrenched print tradition. 

The workflow in the newsroom throughout the day is focused heavily on the print edition, including rewriting the summaries – not the articles themselves – of stories being pitched for the next morning’s front page. “The vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest in the morning,” said the report. “We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are the slowest online.” 

Because people who distinguished themselves as writers and editors for the print product hold the senior jobs in the newsroom, they lack the skills, the sensibilities and, frankly, the sass that make for successful digital publishing in an age when readers want their news to be as amusing as it is informative. Because masters of the print universe dominate the top newsroom jobs, many young, digital-savvy staffers depart in despair of ever advancing in the organization. 

While the internal Times report recommends many ways to tinker with priorities, process and personnel, the real problem it identifies – without offering any solution – is the lack of commitment to changing the culture of the institution. In part, the inertia comes from the respect and affection that most of us share for the honorable tradition of print. But it also comes from not understanding that the Times, like all newspapers, has to be willing to aggressively disrupt and reinvent itself before readers and advertisers move on without it.  

Everyone at the Times – and at most other newspapers – has the smarts to do this. But the first step to change is acknowledging that you have a problem. Until there is an inalterable conviction at the Times and other newspapers that they need to overhaul their cultures at Internet speed, they will continue dabbling at digital while fierce and well-financed digital competitors peck them silly. Dabbling won’t be enough.

© 2014 Editor & Publisher

Monday, June 23, 2014

An intriguing ‘publishing platform for readers’

An unprecedented collaboration between two leading newspapers and the non-profit Mozilla tech community aims to build a “publishing platform for readers” that could go a long way toward revolutionizing the way we get and give news.  

Inasmuch as the undertaking was announced only last week by the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mozilla and the Knight Foundation, there’s no way of knowing how ambitious the project will be – or how well it will be executed.  

But the project offers the tantalizing prospect of perhaps the best system yet to combine the values, discipline and skills of professional journalism with the equally formidable energy, insights and skills of everyone else.  

As discussed in a moment, the project also could help the legacy media catch up to the native digital publishers that have siphoned readers and revenues away from newspapers and magazines. First, the background: 

Starting with little more than a general idea of the path they will travel together, the New York Times and Washington Post are joining with Mozilla, the non-profit global technology community that created the popular Firefox browser, to build a system to enable the creation, sharing and monitoring of comments, articles, media and other citizen-generated content.  The two-year effort is being funded with a $3.9 million grant from the Knight Foundation to a non-profit entity called Knight-Mozilla OpenNews

“With the platform, publishers will be able to easily include reader contributions in their content cycle, manage their communities and gather valuable user data,” said a press release from the NYT. “The platform will also use reputation scores, self-policing and other tools to make it easier for news organizations to monitor comments.”

The platform, which will be shared at no cost with participating publishers, “isn’t another commenting platform,” said Greg Barber of the Washington Post in the press release. “It is a publishing platform for readers.” 

If OpenNews lives up to its mission statement, we could be on the way to seeing a platform that expands the scope and scale of traditional journalism by enfranchising, encouraging and empowering the voice of anyone who wants to contribute to the public discourse. At the same time, the project could well advance the quantity, quality and credibility of content generated by non-professional contributors.   

Because it would be easier for citizens to contribute to media sites, the number and caliber of contributions would increase. Because multiple media sites would use the platform, citizen contributions would gain wider audiences at the same time the media sites were able to host fuller discussions than generally available today. With more opportunities for their contributions to be seen and heard, more citizens would take the time to post them. 

While boosting the interactivity of mainstream media sites undoubtedly will lead to unpleasant kerfuffles from time to time, the platform could well offer the cleanest and best-lit place yet for constructive and sustainable community journalism. 

But wait, there could be more: 

If the initial incarnation of the platform were successful, it could be the basis for solving some of the most pressing (pun slightly intended) problems facing the legacy media. 

Because most media companies lack the financial resources and technical chops to build state-of-the-art digital publishing systems, their sites and apps pale (and typically trail) in comparison to those powered by the superior engagement tools and analytics enjoyed by well-heeled digital natives like Vox Media, Bleacher Report, BuzzFeed, Upworthy and others.  (Fun fact: The more than 130 million monthly unique visitors at BuzzFeed are almost as great in number as the collective 161 million uniques visiting all the 1,300-plus newspaper websites in the land.) 

If the initial phase of OpenNews were successful, here’s how it could further help the technically-straggling legacy media:

:: Content management – Assuming OpenNews were architected to responsively display all manner of media across all known and likely platforms (and it's hard to imagine it won’t be), the system could be extended to not just manage comments but also to become a default content-management system for publishers great and small. As such, it would house all media assets in one place for ease in discovery, editing and publication across platforms ranging from smartphones to smart crockpots.

:: Content curation – Because the future of digital publishing requires nearly all comers to augment their own offerings with relevant content aggregated from elsewhere, the process of discovering and curating material could be made more efficient – and more effective – if the content from multiple publishers were archived in a single, readily searchable, cloud-based system.  

:: Content promotion – With publishers easily mixing and matching content with one another, each will help to vastly expand the audience for all their work.  This would provide broader content for publishers, a better experience for readers and more premium advertising opportunities.  

:: Content personalization – If the activities and interests of readers could be tracked across the many sites and apps that they visit, the user experience could be taken to the next level by customizing content to suit an individual’s particular needs. This feature would require privacy safeguards and, ideally, a provision requiring consumers to opt-in to such a service. Assuming safeguards are in place, think how slick it would be to click a button to personalize your Firefox browser by linking it to your contacts, calendar, stock portfolio and Amazon wish list.

:: Content merchandising – If the platform were built to protect copyrighted content, it could serve as the basis for an intra-publisher payment system to allocate syndication fees among the originators of premium content wherever their work appears on the web. The system could enable not only paywalls but also newsletters, special reports, databases, multimedia packages and more.   

With the above functions capturing detailed data about individual users as they traffic participating sites, legacy publishers finally could become serious digital competitors at a time that marketers increasingly are using segmentation algorithms and exacting analytics to deliver individually crafted messages to precisely targeted consumers. (Another fun fact: Procter & Gamble aims to buy 70%-plus of its advertising this year through data-centric, real-time bidding systems.)   

Even though granular customer data unquestionably has become the Holy Grail of modern digital marketing and advertising, most legacy media are ill equipped to compete with the native digital publishing and advertising services that are pecking away at them. 

Unfortunately, publishers for the most part have a poor track record for collaborating in their own best interests. Because they absolutely must have a modern, nimble, holistic and multi-brand platform to compete successfully with the well-heeled masters of the digital universe, they really need to coalesce around OpenNews – or something awfully similar to it.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Digital publishing metrics: What’s real?

The ecstasy of digital publishing is that it enables the granular measurement of everything from traffic to ad clicks. The agony is trying to figure out which metrics matter. That’s the vexing issue we’re going to tackle today, but, first, let’s get real:  

There are more questions than answers and more opinions than facts. Given ongoing advances in technology and analytics, best practices for audience measurement not only will continue to evolve but also to provoke ongoing and vigorous debate. The latest thinking on audience measurement is described below, but you can be sure it won’t be the last word. 

As messy as this topic is, it behooves publishers to pay attention to improving audience measurement so they can effectively and strategically manage their businesses in an ever more demanding business environment. 

With that said, here’s what we know about the state of the art – and I do mean art, because audience measurement is anything but an exact science. 

Unique visitors

The most basic metric in measuring traffic is the number of individuals who frequent a digital destination, but the raw number captured by the typical server is deceptively high. The reason uniques are overstated is that most servers count a user as one person when she uses the Firefox browser to access a given site on her laptop, as a second person when she goes back to the same site on the Safari browser on her smartphone and as a third user when she visits the site from the Explorer browser at her office. If the user clears the cookies on one or more of her browsers, she can be counted as a new unique all over again.  

Given the number of devices that most of us use, the raw figures collected on internal servers are “probably more than five times too high,” says Andrew Lipsman, a vice president of comScore, which sells a widely used service that aims to deliver a more accurate count. Combining data on the actual web activities of 1 million volunteers with additional data and analysis, comScore says it can give a truer count of unique individuals across all digital platforms than is possible by using only raw server data. While comScore’s data is widely accepted in the publishing and advertising industries, it is important to note that its tallies are no more than projections based on a statistical construct. ComScore numbers are more like a public opinion poll taken prior to an election than the actual ballot count itself. As we all know, pre-election polls aren’t always right.

Page views 

The most unambiguous way to measure traffic is by counting the number of pages served to consumers. This metric draws perhaps the most relentless focus from digital publishers seeking to maximize revenue from the ads they embed in each page. A direct carryover from the volume-driven way that the legacy print and broadcast media have sold advertising since time immemorial, page views can be lofted legitimately by posting valuable new content or artificially through all manner of gimmickry. 

The problem with concentrating on page views, as discussed more fully below, is that neither publishers, nor advertisers, can be sure that a page served to a consumer actually was viewed by her – or that she paid any heed to the content or ads presented on it.  

Social-media shares

In the age of social media, many publishers and marketers put a high priority on increasing not only the number of friends and followers tallied on their Facebook and Twitter pages but also in maximizing pass-along readership. 

While word-of-mouth generally is considered to be the most valuable form of endorsement for an article or product, Tony Haile, the CEO of Chartbeat, a traffic-analytics company, took to Twitter earlier this year to say that his research found that there is “effectively no correlation between social shares and people actually reading” the article they tweet. On the other hand, Upworthy, a digital publisher that has elevated the viral distribution of grabby articles to a science, reports that people who read to the bottom of an article are more likely to share it than those who scan just the top of it. 

Summing up the kerfuffle over the value of sharing, The Verge, a tech blog, tartly observed: “So if you see someone tweet an article, it likely means they either didn’t really read it, or they read every word.”

Ad clickthrough  

The most crucial measure for marketers – and the publishers who depend on their patronage – is whether their ads are working. And the chief way ad effectiveness has been measured in the short but intense history of the web is the frequency with which they are clicked.  Unfortunately, there’s plenty of controversy about the accuracy of this widely followed metric.

Solve Media, a company selling anti-fraud technology to advertisers, reported that up to 61% of the ad clicks on the web in the final quarter of 2013 were “suspicious,” a sharp advance from the 51% rate of questionable clicks it detected in the third quarter.  While there is no way of knowing if this assertion is too extreme, tech companies and ad networks widely acknowledge that they are in a never-ending battle with clickthrough bandits. 

The number of questionable clicks appears to be formidable on mobile devices, too. GoldSpot Media, an ad-tech company, issued a Fat Finger Report in 2012 stating that up to 38% of static banners were clicked accidentally on mobile devices. The Fat Finger study has not been replicated since companies like Google, a dominant player in the ad serving business, acted to reduce the susceptibility of mobile ads to inadvertent clicks. So, the number of Fat Finger episodes today may be higher or lower today than it was in 2012. 

Meantime, comScore advises publishers and advertiser’s not to worry about weak or errant clickthrough rates. Saying that banner ads enhance brand awareness and prompt subsequent on- and off-line purchases, comScore asserted in a recent presentation that “the click is a misleading measure of a campaign’s effectiveness.” 

Time on site

Medium, the long-form web publisher also known as Matter, believes that the amount of time an individual stays engaged with its articles is, by far, the most important metric. This also is one of the key metrics monitored at Alexa.Com, an analytics service owned by Amazon, which reports that the average time spent on Facebook is 30 minutes per session vs. 3 minutes or less at the typical newspaper site. 

Medium measures “every interaction with every post” by tracking how users scroll through stories, explains the publisher in its blog.  “We pipe this data into our data warehouse, where offline processing aggregates the time spent reading (or our best guess of it): we infer when a reader starts reading, when they paused and when they stopped altogether. This methodology allows us to correct for periods of inactivity (such as having a post open in a different tab, walking the dog, checking your phone).”  

The issue with this methodology, as Medium admits, it that it requires a certain amount of inference and statistical massaging. Upcoming advances in technology may improve the prospects and outcomes for this type of analysis.  Samsung and other smartphone companies are working on screens that will actively track user eye movements to see where they go on a page – and how long they stay.       

Total attention measurement

To overcome the inherent limitations of the various individual methodologies discussed above, a small but growing number of digital publishers and technology companies are mixing and matching metrics to develop what they hope will be more authentic views of their audience. 

Chartbeat, a company selling next-generation analytics systems, has created a dashboard that dynamically graphs site activity so editors can see which stories are driving traffic – and why. For a look at how the system is used at the Journal Record in White Plains, NY, see this.  

Going beyond the simple aggregation of metrics, Upworthy closely measures and analyzes such behaviors as where a user moves her mouse, how far she scrolls into an article and how long she sticks with a video. Illustrating the concept in this recent blog post, Upworthy said different articles attracting a similar number of page views drew wildly disparate amounts of actual and measurable attention. 

As publishers accumulate ever more user data, the most enlightened among them are sharing the information widely with their staffs in the belief that audience engagement is everyone’s job. And they are right to do so. Because it is.  

© 2014 Editor & Publisher

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

All the news that’s fit to Facebook

In launching a mobile app that enables users to graphically view the latest news of their friends, their puppies and the world, Facebook has emerged as one of the most powerful contenders yet in the rapidly expanding cadre of digital news purveyors. 

Newspapers and other traditional media companies need to pay attention to this revolutionary platform because it represents the sort of compelling and personalized digital experience that modern consumers crave. We’ll discuss the urgency of updating the traditional publishing paradigm in a moment. First, here’s what Facebook is up to: 

Introduced on the tenth birthday of the reigning champion of social networks, the cunningly named Paper app elegantly combines content from a user’s Facebook community with dozens of other sources of news and entertainment ranging from photography and sports to food and TED lectures. With the flick of a fingertip, users can choose from brand-name outlets like the New York Times and the Atlantic to customize feeds delivering all the news that’s precisely fit for them. 

The value proposition is spelled out in a promotional video (embedded below) paper featuring such fetchingly retro scenes as a pair of twenty-something hipsters reading (gasp!) a newspaper. The money quote in the video is: “Share the stories that matter the most – your own.”

Thanks to the unimaginable trove of self-published personal information that Facebook aggregates around the clock and around the world, the Paper app for smartphones has the unprecedented and unmatchable power to become the ultimate personal news source for the growing number of consumers leveraging the power of mobile and social media to individualize the media they get – and give. 

Thus, Paper has the potential to emerge as a one-stop smartphone destination for many of the 1.2 billion users of the Facebook ecosystem – an audience that would make Facebook the third largest country in the world, if it were a country. 

So, where does that leave traditional publishers? 

Behind.  

Even though newspapers and most other legacy media companies launched their first websites well before Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hit puberty, the senior citizens of digital publishing never thought, nor sought, to create the sort of personal engagement that makes Facebook the stickiest destination on the Internet. While consumers spend an average of 30 minutes in every Facebook session, the typical visit to a newspaper website is 3 minutes or less, according to Alexa.Com. 

Further, and more frightening, newspapers have failed to connect with consumers under the age of 45. Researcher Greg Harmon of Borrell Associates says the average age of a print newspaper reader is 57 and the average newspaper web visitor is 51.  Saying the industry’s aging demographics ought to have “everyone’s hair on fire,” Harmon notes that newspaper readers have been getting a year older every year for more than a decade.  

To be sure, one of the reasons younger readers don’t connect with newspapers is that the so-called Millennial generation is broadly disconnected with many traditional institutions.  After years of researching the Millennials, the Pew Research Center found the under-40 set to be less religious, more politically independent, less patriotic, more socially liberal and less economically secure than the generations preceding them.

At the same time Millennials have turned away from traditional institutions, Pew found that they have embraced digital technology as a way to express themselves, build community, share information and arrange transactions ranging from dating to car sharing. While the average Millennial has 250 friends on Facebook, Pew says the typical Baby Boomer has 98.  Although 55% of Millennials have shared selfies, Pew reports that only 9% of Boomers have done so.  

“Online social networks are the building blocks of social interaction for many young adults,” concluded Pew in a study released in March. “These tools have enabled them to create wide-ranging networks of ‘friends.’” 

The unprecedented use of social media to enable and execute a full array of social and commercial interactions is one of the most significant ways that the digitally native generations are differentiated from their elders. Facebook’s Paper app is but one of many emerging platforms that facilitate the sort of individualized, if not to say intimate, experiences that modern consumers expect – and respond to. 

The lesson that legacy media companies can, and must, take from Paper is that their products have to be far more personal, social and, yes, emotionally engaging, than they historically have been. 

Newspapers cannot, and should not, carry stories about everyone’s new puppy. But editors can look for stories with powerful emotional appeal, can tell them in compelling human terms and then can engage the community in reacting to them.  

If the legacy media can’t make authentic and sustainable emotional connections with younger readers, they will lose them. It’s just that simple. 

© 2014 Editor & Publisher

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Average visit at newspaper site: 1.1 minutes

Even though two-thirds of American adults visit the digital media published by newspaper companies, the average time spent in each session is an anemic 1.1 minutes per day – notably below the engagement enjoyed by competing media.   

The good news for publishers, as reported this week by the Newspaper Association of America, is that the number of unique visitors accessing newspaper websites grew to a record 161 million in March.  This represents a 19% increase in unique visitors over the prior year and 66.6% of all adults in the United States, according to data provided to the industry organization by the comScore analytics service.  

The bad news for publishers is that the average visitor in March spent only 1.1 minutes per day at a digital newspaper venue, according to supplementary data supplied to Newsosaur by comScore.  The data show that the engagement rate at newspapers falls well under the time spent at competing digital destinations.

In comparison to the 1.1 minutes spent daily at newspaper sites, the average time spent on social media is 33 minutes per day and the average time spent at search sites is 3.6 minutes per day, said Andrew Lipsman, a vice president of comScore.  

Engagement at newspapers is weaker than the dwell time at other news sites, too.  In a group of dozens of sites tracked by comScore that includes the likes of Yahoo News, NBC News, BuzzFeed and CNN, the average visit is 3.8 minutes per day. As illustrated below, even weather sites do better than newspapers, hanging on to visitors an average of 1.5 minutes per day. 

Lipsman said the number of unique visitors reported across all categories includes anyone who accesses a digital venue at any time in a month.  “All someone has to do is read the news at some point in the course of the month to qualify as a unique visitor,” said Lipsman.  “The time on site will vary a lot depending on the person. Some read every day. Some visit once a month. And a lot of people are in between.”

Commenting on the disparity in engagement across media types, Lipsman noted that lots of newspaper content is consumed at portals like Google News and other aggregation services.  “There is a lot more consumption of general news content at those sites than there are for specific papers,” he said in a telephone interview. “And, remember, newspapers are read offline, as well.”

The popularity of newspaper articles at aggregation sites doesn’t generate revenues for publishers. This may be one reason that digital advertising sales at newspapers advanced 1.5% in 2013 while over-all digital sales grew by 17%.   

Although there is little newspapers can do about aggregators usurping some unknown chunk of their traffic, publishers should not be content with merely celebrating the year-to-year lift in unique individuals visiting their sites.  

Now that newspapers are attracting the attention – at least once a month – of two-thirds of the country, publishers need to encourage the visitors to stick around with compelling content, robust utility and the passionate community engagement that rivets users to the social media. 




Monday, April 21, 2014

The plight of newspapers in a single chart

The following chart is all you need to know about the breathtaking contraction of the newspaper industry that coincided with the explosive growth of digital advertising in recent years. Take a look and I will tell you what it means. 


The reason the above chart starts in 2005 is because that is the year that advertising at the nation’s newspapers hit an all-time high of $49.4 billion, according to the Newspaper Association of America, an industry-funded trade group.  

That’s right.  Fully a decade after us mere mortals became aware of the Internet, ad sales continued to surge at newspapers, leading publishers to believe this upstart medium was no challenge to the power, prestige and enviable profitability of their brands.  

At the same time newspaper revenues peaked in 2005, digital advertising hit a record of its own, surging to $12.5 billion after literally coming from nowhere in a decade, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, a trade group.

In the intervening years, as we all know, audiences and advertisers increasingly shifted their attention and patronage to the digital media, abetted by improving connectivity, generally falling costs and, most recently, a host of addictive mobile devices.  

So, it probably comes as no surprise that digital advertising surged 17% to a record $42.8 billion in 2013, surpassing for the first time the $40.1 billion spent on broadcast television advertising. 

At the same time digital ad sales advanced to a new record, print and digital ad sales at newspapers fell 7.1% in 2013 to a bit under $21 billion, according to figures released on Good Friday by the NAA. 

As detailed here, print advertising at newspapers last year fell 8.6% to $17.3 billion, representing the lowest level since 1982.  Thus, the volume of print advertising, the primary revenue stream for the nation’s newspapers, is barely a third today of the record $47.4 billion in print ads sold in 2005.  

Almost as alarming to behold as the ongoing decline in print advertising is how little digital advertising grew at newspapers in the last 12 months in spite of the professed commitment of most publishers to pivot vigorously to the new medium. Digital advertising rose a mere 1.5% to $3.4 billion in 2013 at the same time that digital sales surged 17% across all digital categories in the United States. 

The weakness in digital ad sales last year is consistent with the industry’s performance in the last decade.

Between 2003 and 2013, digital ad revenue at newspapers grew from $1.2 billion to $3.4 billion, making for a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of a seemingly respectable 28%. In the same period, however, industry-wide digital advertising spurted from $7.3 billion in 2003 to $42.8 billion in 2013, representing a CAGR of 59%. 

In other words, the over-all digital ad market has expanded twice as fast as the category has grown at newspapers. And heres why that matters:  

Back in 2003, newspapers had a 14% share of the national digital advertising market.  In 2013, they had barely 8% of the market. 

At a time that growth and scale mean everything to the success of a digital publishing enterprise, the ongoing inability of newspapers to compete effectively in this emerging marketplace may be an even bigger problem than the traumatic collapse in print advertising that they have suffered over the last eight years. 

FOOTNOTE:  Some sharp-eyed readers inquired as to why I say that newspaper print and digital advertising totaled $21 billion in 2013 vs. the $23.6 billion figure used by the NAA in its annual revenue report. The reason I used $21 billion is that the number maps exactly to the way newspaper ad revenues have been reported by the industry for the last decade. The additional revenue cited in the NAA report includes the sale of marketing services and revenues from niche publications. While publishers are benefitting from the addition of these new revenue streams, the apples-to-apples comparison of current and historical performance discussed in this post required the new revenue streams to be left out of the mix. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Print ads fell 8.6% at papers in 2013: NAA

In the eighth consecutive year of decline, print advertising at the nations newspapers fell 8.6% to $17.3 billion in 2013, according to statistics released today by the Newspaper Association of America. 

This means the primary revenue stream for the nation’s publishers now is barely a third of the record $47.4 billion achieved as recently as 2005. 

The 2013 print revenues are the lowest level since 1982, when the industry produced sales of $17.7 billion in revenues, which in today’s dollars would be worth $43.4 billion.

In another key metric released prior to the holiday weekend by the industry trade group, digital ad sales gained 1.5% last year to $3.4 billion.  

The increase in digital sales at newspapers compares with the 17% surge in total U.S. digital ad revenues reported recently by the Internet Advertising Bureau. 

The IAB, an industry marketing organization, said that total digital ad sales in 2013 reached $42.3 billion, surpassing even the $40.1 billion spent on broadcast television advertising in 2013. 

In issuing its annual revenue summary for newspapers, the NAA included not only advertising sales but also the revenues that newspapers are reaping from audience fees, niche publications, marketing services and the production of live events. 

Taking all revenue categories into account, the NAA said the industry produced $37.6 billion in revenue in 2013, or a 2.6% decline from the prior year.  

Saying that the industry’s business model is “evolving,” the NAA said the industry is taking advantage of developments in technology, consumer behavior, and advertiser interest, to grow audience and diversify its revenue stream.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A thoroughly modern digital publisher

When Rafat Ali launched Paid Content in 2002, he created one of the earliest successful digital publishing businesses by, quite cleverly, covering the emerging digital publishing business.  

Today, Ali is helping to revolutionize digital publishing again with a new venture that pioneers the use of data to not only develop high-profile, brand-burnishing stories but also to generate fresh, recurring and defensible revenue streams. 

In the process, Ali has architected a thoroughly modern digital publishing business. Legacy and digital publishers would be wise to study – and perhaps emulate – it. Here’s the story:

Shortly after selling Paid Content to Guardian News & Media for some $30 million in 2010, Ali took a world tour to dream up his next big idea. As he traipsed from plane to hotel and hotel to plane, Ali realized that the information available to the 260 million people working in the $6.5 trillion global tourism industry was fragmentary, fragmented and hard to find. 

So, he launched www.Skift.Com in early 2012 to solve the problem – and, in the absence of significant competition, quickly became a leading news source for the travel industry. Unencumbered by a paywall, Skift sells high-CPM advertising and provides content to the likes of CNN, NBC, Quartz and Business Insider. Positioning itself as an industry thought leader, Skift also publishes two premium research reports each month, which it sells in a $99 package. 

Ali isn’t stopping with these well-established revenue streams. He now is embarked on gathering, analyzing and selling data about his readers – so he can sell it back to them through a product called SkiftIQ, which also costs $99 a month.  

In the first of what Ali says will be a growing array of datasets, he counted Twitter followers, Facebook likes, YouTube views and Instagram shares to quantify the marketing prowess of dozens of travel brands on the social media. Thus, Skift earlier this year determined that KLM was a more effective social marketer than American Airlines and Amtrak. 

While travelers may not care about the social-media mojo of their hotels, the information means a great deal to Marriott, Expedia, Lonely Planet, Airbnb, Norwegian Cruise Lines and all the other brands competing for mind- and market-share in a highly competitive and price-sensitive industry. 

Skift’s approach to gathering, crunching and selling data is not unique. It is but one of a growing number of next-generation digital publishers who understand that rich and granular data is the key to (a) personalizing content for busy consumers who only want to know what they need to know and (b) targeting ads for marketers who only want to pursue well-qualified prospects. 

Thoroughly modern digital publishers use data to identify and report stories; to understand and build audience; to improve reader loyalty and dwell time; to place targeted, high-value advertising, and to create products, like SkiftIQ, that they can sell to readers, advertisers or third-party services aiming to analyze consumer trends. 

Although Skift is a business-to-business publisher, consumer-facing media companies like newspapers and local broadcasters also can gather and disseminate data that is useful to their readers and advertisers. 

Zillow, which has gobbled up a chunk of the real estate readership and revenue that newspapers have lost in recent years, illustrates the allure of rich local data:

∷ From the consumer point of view, Zillow updates home and rental values on a granular, almost-daily basis. It ranks the schools adjacent to each home.  It estimates mortgage payments and property taxes.  It even has developed a Walkability score that gauges how often you are likely to need a car to access supermarkets, parks and cafes. 

∷ From the commercial point of view, Zillow has tons of pictures and data about homes in a neighborhood, which real estate agents (and consumers) can use to prospect for listings and develop price comparisons.  In addition to selling display ads, Zillow sells listings that enable agents to promote themselves in the areas they serve. 

With so many datasets available on the web and so many tools available to analyze the information, why couldn’t newspapers combine demographics, crime data, home prices, school scores, air pollution readings and other data to create neighborhood livability indexes? For inspiration (and free tools), take a look at the data-centric reports that ProPublica has developed to explore education quality, dialysis mortality and much more. 

With the help of the Census Bureau, local business associations and  companies like Pulse Research, publishers can capture data about commercial activity in their markets to track everything from the frequency of chiropractor visits to the volume of lawnmower sales. Beyond using this information to prod individual merchants to buy advertising, publishers or broadcasters can create trend reports that will appeal to consumers and businesses alike. 

To the extent local media companies become the leading data repositories in their communities, they will become indispensable to their readers and advertisers. That’s got to be good for their long-term franchise value.  

© 2014 Editor & Publisher

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Lessons from the Digital First implosion

Schadenfreude broke out among some publishers today when Digital First Media killed an ambitious interactive publishing initiative and commenced layoffs to bolster the bottom lines of its newspapers in a reported plan to groom them for sale.  

But no one should be happy that Digital First hit the wall. All this episode proves is that digital publishing – which remains the only imaginable way forward for newspapers and other legacy media – is even harder than we think.  

Digital matters, because modern consumers – even those over the age of 55 – prefer to ingest news on a panoply of platforms including computers, smartphones, tablets and smart televisions. Even the American Press Institute, an arm of the Newspaper Association of America, recently concurred that “the majority of Americans across generations now combine a mix of sources and technologies to get their news each week.”

The problem with digital news publishing, as discussed here, is that few, if any, organizations have developed models that come close to successfully emulating the scale and profitability achieved in the best of times by the traditional publishing and broadcasting media. 

Sustainable revenues and profitability have eluded digital natives of all sizes, including both for-profit and not-for-profit ventures. And it most certainly has eluded legacy publishers, with newspaper companies like Digital First Media trying to crack the digital publishing code while battling an advertising collapse that has seen their collective revenues plunge by more than 50% since peaking at $49 billion in 2005.  

If digital publishing is so tough, then why are so many new entrants coming out of the woodwork?  The answer, quite simply, is that content has become a hot area for venture investing. To name but a few examples, Vice Media has raised $70 million, Vox Media has raised $60 million and BuzzFeed has raised $46 million, according to Tech Crunch, which raised $25 million itself.  This is not to mention Facebook, the biggest publishing platform of them all with $13 billion in cash, $7.9 billion in sales and a 37% operating margin. The magic of Facebook, of course, is that all the content is generated for free by its users.

Because venture investors favor exponential growth in audience and page views over such traditional metrics as revenue and profitability, they are content to underwrite these new digital ventures in the hopes that they will grow to the point they will merit an IPO or be acquired by a well-heeled player.  

Unfortunately for self-styled publishing visionary John Paton, the chief executive of Digital First, he picked the wrong vehicle and the wrong financial backers to pursue his digital quest. 

Until he nuked the ambitious Thunderdome interactive publishing effort, Paton enjoyed telling fellow publishers to stop grousing about the decline in print advertising dollars and to start “stacking digital dimes.” Although Paton’s privately held company does not report its financial results, his actions clearly suggest that the dimes did not accumulate as fast as dollars flowed out of the print side of his business, which even in its dissipated state demands attention because it continues to produce the preponderance of revenues and profits for his company. (This, of course, is also the case at every other newspaper.) 

Paton ran out of time and resources to pursue his vision because he had the wrong financial backers. Digital First Media is a collection of dozens of newspapers, including the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News, that had been bought in bankruptcy by Alden Global Capital, a distressed-debt specialist looking to buy properties on the cheap that it could fix and flip for a quick profit at the earliest opportunity. 

In other words, the objectives of the Digital First investors were the antithesis of the patience – and multimillion-dollar commitment – required in the slog to identify successful interactive publishing models, whatever they eventually may turn out to be. 

It would be a mistake to view the failure at Digital First as a failure of digital publishing or a reason to stop trying to get it right.   

The only thing this sad chapter proves is that the pivot from legacy to digital publishing is going to be harder than we imagined. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

State of the news: Shakier than you think

Excuse me for not cheering the renaissance of journalism in the digital era, which I would be pleased to toast if there were one. 
But the reality is that the businesses that historically have funded local journalism are cutting coverage at the same time that most of the hundreds of new digital entrants are struggling to achieve financial sustainability. 
We know this – and much more – from the annual State of the News report from the Pew Research Center, which was released last week. The key findings in this report are must-reading for anyone who worries about who in the future will produce comprehensive, consistent local coverage and rigorous public-interest journalism.  
Here are the most salient, and sobering, points in Pew’s data-rich report:
Fully 93% of the 70,000 journalists in this country actually continue to be employed by newspapers and local TV stations, not the digital newcomers. All but a handful of large and well-funded digital news start-ups have no more than four overworked and under- or un-paid employees. (Pew did not count radio journalists, though the Radio Television News Directors Association reports that the average is one newsperson per station.) Here’s where most American journalists work: 
With newspaper advertising revenues plunging by more than 50% since hitting a record $49 billion in 2005, newsroom staffing at the chief industry employing journalists has dropped by a third from its peak in 1990. Because the remaining reporters are required to tweet, blog, take pictures, make videos and more – sometimes even held to demanding productivity quotas like these at the Portland Oregonian – there is less time than ever to mind beats and chase enterprise projects. As you can see from the annual newsroom employment census conducted by the American Society of News Editors since 1978, the ranks today are at a historic low:  
Although Pew reports that network news divisions have been trimmed by nearly half in recent years, staffing has remained flat at local TV stations, which employ the second greatest number of journalists after newspapers. But local station owners have thinned the gruel by increasing the number of daily hours they broadcast news by an average of 46% since 2003 without increasing news-gathering resources. As illustrated below, 235 of the 952 of local TV stations – fully 25% of them – have no news staff at all, preferring to fill their air with recycled coverage provided by other broadcasters in their markets. The number of outsourced newscasts is likely to rise in the wake of $8 billion in consolidations last year that saw more than 300 TV stations purchased by companies who in many cases already operate a competing channel in the market served by the new acquisition. Pew says the number of outsourced newscasts “has grown exponentially in just the past two years.” Stay tuned for more.      
Pew reports that most digital news start-ups, including the likes of the Huffington Post and Global Post, have yet to figure out sustainable, profitable business models. This is especially true, as discussed here, in the case of non-profit ventures. As an indication of how far digital news organizations have to go to approximate the economic strength of the  traditional media, digital news outlets have captured barely $5 billion, or 7%, of the $60 billion in annual advertising and subscription revenues generated by news organizations. Here’s the breakdown: 
Noting that “many native digital outlets are still unprofitable,” Pew concludes that “the question of whether digital news outlets can ultimately replenish the loss of legacy jobs and reporting resources hinges on creating the kind of successful business model or models that have proved elusive…. Most analysts say this growing investment in digital news does not mean the industry has figured out a consistent formula for monetizing that news.”
Amen to that.   
While the digital revolution has created unprecedented capabilities for everyone to publish and promote content (which may or may not qualify as journalism), we are a long way from the point that the newcomers are strong enough to replace the traditional media whose businesses are being challenged by said revolution. 
So, the State of the News at the moment is, at the very least, shaky. If not a little scary. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Get ready for the Internet of Everything

What do smart smoke detectors, interactive underwear and electronic toll tags have in common? 

They, and a growing number of sensors in myriad places, are linked to the Internet, creating vast new sources of real-time and individualized data that can be sliced and diced in ways that, for good or evil, will change information consumption and commerce – and roil the media business all over again. 

By most accounts, the Internet of Everything, Everywhere, All the Time and Almost Everyone is coming soon. 

The number of Internet-connected sensors on inanimate devices (like milk-expiration apps in refrigerators) and living creatures (like ovulation monitors implanted in cows) is expected to quintuple to 50 billion by 2020, according to Cisco Systems (video), one of the many companies counting on the next turn of technology to help sell all sorts of new hardware for homes and business.  

Sensors that passively record the air quality in your home, your heart rate at the gym and the moment you cross the Tappan Zee Bridge will capture an unprecedentedly “holistic picture” of your behavior and your environment, says Shawn G. DuBravac, the chief economist of the Consumer Electronics Association.  

“While one sensor might tell us something we want to know, multiple sensors deployed in conjunction might be able to tell us something previously unobserved,” writes DuBravac in this whitepaper. “Recommendations derived from these sensor arrays can become more than the sum of their parts.” 

Although the brewing tsunami of holistic information may be valuable to individuals and businesses, it also could turn out to be invasive and creepy. Only time will tell. 

But Google left little doubt that ubiquitous tracking is on the way – in a big way – when it purchased a company called Nest for a nifty $3.2 billion in the opening days of the year.  Nest makes Internet-connected thermostats and smoke detectors that continuously monitor the environment in your home to turn down the heat if you sleep late on Sunday or ping your smartphone when the toast burns. One appealing feature of the $130 smoke detector is that it can be silenced by a flick on your phone or a wave of your arm. 

While the price Google paid for Nest represents less than 6% of the ample cash in its coffers, the transaction raised eyebrows – and some hackles – because it was another step in the tech giant’s growing ability to meticulously monitor our movements. 

Google already has the capability to learn the location of our smartphones, the pattern of our searches, the contents of our emails, the engagements on our calendars, the names in our address books, our activity on Google+, the media we consume and a good deal about how we shop and spend our money (as mobile payment technology rolls out, Google will know even more).

With the acquisition of Nest and the additional home-security products (baby monitors, burglar alarms, electronic door locks, etc.) that undoubtedly are on its roadmap, Google will have the theoretical capability – which it so far says it will not use – to seamlessly monitor your activities while you are in the comfort of your home. If and when Google perfects the self-driving car, the company also will be able to track your movements when you are on the go.   

Although everyone loves the idea of a smoke detector that can silenced without fetching a ladder, the Internet of Everything – as suggested in the cart0on below – means our lives will be monitored, measured, managed and potentially manipulated in ways we cannot fully appreciate today.  

With respect to the media business, we already are well into the early days of data-driven content presentation and consumption: 

∷ When you search “weather” on Google, Bing or Yahoo, you get the forecast for your precise location. 

∷ Once you select a few songs to launch a custom Pandora channel, the site learns from your ongoing behavior the sort of music you like. 

∷ Based on the movies you watch, Netflix suggests additional programs you might want to see.  

Going further, Amazon long since has mastered the art of using data capture and predictive analytics to make the cash register ring. As you contemplate a buying a book or power drill at Amazon, the site skillfully points you to additional products that “customers like you” have bought. The recommendations are almost always spot on. 

The good news is that the Internet of Everything creates new opportunities for media companies and the marketers who buy advertising from them. The bad news is that it creates new threats for media companies and their advertisers. The challenge is figuring out which is which.  

Although the full implications and opportunities of the Internet of Everything remain to be revealed, it needs to be on everyone’s personal and professional radar. Ladies and gentlemen, start your sensors.  

© 2014 Editor & Publisher