Thursday, March 31, 2005

Online rescues top line for newspapers

Newspaper companies mainlined online revenues to add more than a full percentage point worth of growth to their sales in 2004, according to newly released research from Banc of America Securities.

Thanks to an average increase of 36.7% in sales from online operations, the publicly held newspaper corporations achieved an average 5.9% revenue growth last year. Absent the online contribution, revenues grew an average of 4.8%, according to an analysis of annual reports by John Janedis at Banc of America.

"We think online could be the long-term wildcard to meaningful profit growth in the years ahead," says John. "While newspaper ad growth in 2004 was generally below expectations, the online component for the group has been driving total ad growth."

As illustrated in the graph below, online revenues contributed to 47% of the increase in ad sales last year for both the New York Times and Knight Ridder. Online contributed more than 20% of sales gains for both Tribune and McClatchy.

The table below compares the velocity of growth in online vs print advertising, where online sales increased by an average of 36.% and print sales grew by 4.6% (compared with an average 6.3% increase for all media). As discussed earlier in this space, newspapers last year, just like in other recent years, lagged substantially behind television and outdoor in ad sales growth, whose gains were double and triple those achieved by newspapers.

Notwithstanding the significance of online sales to the top line of newspapers, many publishers, as previously reported here, are cutting back on their investments in new media. To quote the Project for Excellence in Journalism:
Our data suggest that news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media.... Where the investment has come, is in technology for processing information, not people to gather it.
What are publishers thinking?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Who's fit to print the news?

David Shaw, the esteemed media columnist of the Los Angeles Times, steamed a lot of people when he argued that bloggers ought to be drowned like so many surplus kittens in the interests of protecting real journalists like him.

"Bloggers require no journalistic experience," he huffed.

Bloggers "don't seem to worry much about being accurate," he puffed.

And then he blew down the house:
Given the explosive growth of the blogosphere, some judge is bound to rule on the question one day soon, and when he does, I hope he says the nation's estimated 8 million bloggers are not entitled to the same constitutional protection as traditional journalists.
David is right that open-tsoris journalism is, in fact, about as wild and wooly as it can be. But his reasoning couldn't be more perverse when he says that bloggers should be denied the same protection accorded journalists who are shielded by law in 31 states from being forced to identify their confidential sources.

If David had his way, the courts would get to determine which correspondents were entitled to journalistic protection. Having government decide who is -- or isn't -- a journalist is a terrible idea.

A freelance mom covering the PTA for a radio show in Peoria might be shielded, while a mighty media columnist for the L.A. Times -- who writes opinion pieces, not empirically factual news -- might not qualify. Someone covering soccer for a weekly in San Jose could be shielded because he works for a newspaper, while an analyst for MarketWatch is forced to name names or go to jail because she works for an online publication.

Arguing that bloggers operate outside the "institutional safeguards" observed by newspapers, magazines and broadcasting to ensure fairness and accuracy, David says, "I don't think the reporter's shield law should be available to anyone so quick to disseminate inaccurate information, with no editors to examine or restrain him."

If "institutional safeguards" become the standard for shielding journalists, then scratch the New York Times because of Jayson Blair, CBS News because of Memogate, the Washington Post because of Janet Cooke and the Los Angeles Times because of the Staples Center scandal that led to the jettisoning of the editor, publisher and CEO of the whole dang corporation. Radio and TV reporters never would qualify for shield protection, because live standups aren't vetted at all; it's just their lips to your ears.

"If the courts allow every Tom, Dick and Matt who wants to call himself a journalist to invoke the privilege to protect confidential sources, the public will become even less trusting than it already is of all journalists," says David. "I feel particularly strongly about this now, at a time when the Bush administration is hounding reporters in several cases to divulge their confidential sources or face prison for contempt...."

David is dead wrong on two counts.

First, it is conventional journalists themselves who have lost the public trust through the high-profile scandals mentioned above, as well as the hijinks of presumably legitimate reporters in the hire of the spin-savvy Bush administrations in Washington and Florida.

Second, it is precisely because President Bush is on a media witch hunt that journalists must close ranks to ensure the strongest protection of the right to unfettered inquiry and free expression. If respected writers like David Shaw leave the right-wing media bashers a sliver of daylight, they will drive a tank, or at least a luxuriously appointed Humvee, right through it.

David is absolutely correct that these are dangerous times for the media. But he can't possibly be serious about putting the government in the position of picking and choosing who is fit to print the news.

Strip-mining our newspapers to death

"The harvesting of the newspaper's monopoly position has apparently begun," writes our friend Jay Rosen in his thoughtful blog, Press Think. "The assisted suicide is under way."

Like several commentators, Jay believes newspapers are supersizing profits in a long, slow, going-out-of-business strategy. Jay and I would rather see publishers put a significant portion of their 20%-plus profits into building new audiences via the new media.

The subtle liquidation strategy is not being pursued "in every company, or every town, which kind of makes it interesting," says Jay. "The reasons are obvious why it will never be announced as such. Stated publicly, the laying down would be a scandal."

As Jay prepared his post, which you can read here, he fired me a couple of emails to solicit my perspective on his thesis. Here is what I told him:

Thomson sold all 60 of its newspapers in 2000-01 to focus strictly on electronic media. Scripps substantially has redeployed its assets into its cable channels and associated online media (see this).

Gannett, Tribune, Cox and Hearst all have significant broadcast and/or cable TV operations and I think Hearst has the most ABC affiliates of anyone. In addition, many family companies have sold their newspapers (Louisville Courier Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle) so they could allocate their assets among multiple generations of heirs.

Apart from the notable strategic decisions by Scripps and Thomson, however, I can't think of any major newspaper companies that have taken overt acts to exit the business. Further, I don't think many, if any, senior newspaper executives are consciously pursuing the sort of "liquidation" strategy you hypothesize.

Rather, I believe senior industry executives are responding rationally to compensation programs that reward them for delivering steady, predictable, near-term earnings growth that will support their target stock prices.

To quote myself: "In light of the significant competitive threats to the long-term health of their business, why would newspaper companies emphasize profit growth instead of further investment in building new audiences through new media? Because a company's success in the stock market, as Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay will tell you, is a significant factor -- maybe the significant factor -- in a senior executive's compensation package, as discussed previously here.

Unless compensation plans are changed, publishing companies will continue to prize short-term profits over the long-term health of their enterprises." Unless institutional investors change the incentive structure, the execs will continue to emphasize profits at the expense of the enterprises they manage.

If nothing changes, the business will be (unconsciously?) strip-mined to death and a vital public trust will be vitiated or destroyed.

Otherwise, everything is going real good.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Yahoo, what, where, when, why -- and how!

Yahoo blows away the competition as the firstest with the mostest news readers on the web.

Yahoo's reach of more than 12.4 million unique visitors for the week ended Feb. 20 puts it well ahead of its closest challengers, CNN, AOL and MSNBC, according to the latest rankings by Nielsen/NetRatings (illustrated below).

In yet another illustration of how newspaper companies are being beaten at their own game on the Internet, the New York Times was the only publisher to make it to the top five. At that, its traffic is scarcely better than a third of Yahoo's.

Interestingly, Google News (recently sued by Agence France Presse for violating its copyright) ranks No. 9, behind Gannett, including USA Today and a host of local dailies; the Internet Broadcasting Systems, a consortium of local TV web sites, and the combined Tribune properties, including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Newsday and Orlando Sentinel.

Yahoo, Google and many other web-only content aggregators build their traffic by continuously picking and choosing among thousands and thousands of news sources (including the newspapers) to make it easy for news junkies to mainline headlines and move on.

The web sites operated by newspapers and local TV outlets understandably and rightfully want to billboard their own stuff, which, though important to their respective markets, may not be as universally appealing as the tsunami or whether Paris Hilton's latest slip is showing.

Not only do web aggregators poach audience from the primary news sources, but they are doing it for proportionately much less money than a local news outlet spends on its site. Aggregators simply lash some indexing algorithms to a bunch of web spiders and they are good to go. Newspapers and TV stations -- until further notice, anyway -- actually have to hire people to report the news and post it to the web. Quaint, but costly.

As the online guys get bigger and sell more advertising, their cost of goods drops and their profits rise. This forces ugly decisions on the primary news sources as they struggle to maintain their pro rata share of audience and ad dollars: Do they (A) invest more money in their product or (B) cut costs to maintain an acceptable degree of profitability? The latest word is that they have chosen Plan B.

If publishers eventually right-sized reporting into extinction, would the day finally come when all the links were missing on the aggregator sites?

While it is in my enlightened self-interest as a poor country blogger to urge Google to battle strenuously in the courts to secure the broadest possible latitude for the fair use of copyrighted content on the Internet, there is a solution to the gross economic inequity that has arisen between the have-news and have-pageviews guys.

Web aggregators voluntarily should pay copyright fees to the primary news producers generously providing the meat and potatoes to their gravy train.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Net stomps newspapers, Yellow Pages

This may come as small comfort to the investors in eToys and Pets.Com, but the Internet today definitively has supplanted newspapers and the Yellow Pages as the place to let your fingers do the shopping.

In two separate studies, researchers found that 70% of U.S. households now commence their search for merchants and services on the Internet and that 76% of buyers consult the web when shopping for a new car.

The Internet's gain is a loss of share for the Yellow Pages and newspapers, says the Kelsey Group-ConStat, author of the first of the two new studies. Where 75% of consumers consulted the Yellow Pages before making a purchase in 2003, 62% use the phone book today. While 73% of people consulted the newspaper in 2003, 70% check it now. In the same period, as illustrated below, the Net has grabbed 10 more percentage points to tie with newspapers at 70% utilization.

"This puts the Internet on par with newspapers as a local shopping information resource, with the Internet likely to surpass the impact of newspapers in the very near future," says Neal Polachek, senior vice president of Kelsey. ?Traditional local advertising media must find ways to evolve or risk losing dollars to the new advertising options available to local and small businesses.?

In a separate study of consumes with access to the Internet, Keynote Customer Experience Research found that 76% of auto buyers visit a manufacturer's web site, 75% visit dealer web sites and 65% visit third-party sites like Kelley Blue Book, Cars.Com, Autobytel or Yahoo Auto. By contrast, only 53% of the wired respondents used newspapers, a formerly "traditional medium of research," in their quest for the ideal wheels.

The third-party auto sites are valued by consumers as independent and convenient sources of comparative information among competing models. Kelley Blue Book is rated tops by consumers and Cars.Com comes in second.

Interestingly, Cars.Com is owned by Classified Ventures, a consortium of six newspaper companies who wisely pooled their want-ads and other resources about 10 years ago in hopes of building a significant presence for themselves on the web. Classified Ventures also runs Apartments.Com and Homescape.

The appeal of Cars.Com is the wide inventory of vehicles available for sale, complete with detailed information about individual cars and trucks. The problem is that the extent of the inventory depends to a degree on the success of newspapers in selling want ads, a business that has been poached by everyone from Craig's List to eBay to Yahoo -- especially Craig's, which lets you run an ad of any length for absolutely free.

Like chicken soup, Cars.Com couldn't hurt. But it alone isn't going to save the newspaper industry's matzo balls.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why Topix was top pick for newsies


The acquisition of control in Topix.Net by three major newspaper companies could be the first step in an effort by the publishers to build a search colossus to compete with Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the rest of usual online suspects.

Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Tribune each bought 25% of Topix, which "continuously monitors breaking news from over 10,000 online sources [twice as many as Google News] and categorizes daily news content into over 300,000 topics, 24 hours a day."

(UPDATE: In the original post, we reported that MarketWatch said the three publishers invested the paltry sum of "less than" $5 million, but visitors to our site think the value is considerably larger. We are askng Topix to clarify.)

Topix neatly slices and dices the news into categories and -- a key capability for newspapers -- will tailor the news report directly to your Zip Code. Topix says it also has developed systems to target keywords more closely than Google to the content of a page.

For now, each of the newspapers will link to Topix on its web sites and Topix, presumably, will put a little extra English on listings from partner newspapers when it assembles its news summaries. In the fullness of time, Topix and the publishers will collaborate on ad sales, filling what everyone hopes will be an ever-growing inventory of page views.

The really intriguing possibility, however, is that Topix could develop a full-service search engine to compete with Google, et al. Topix already has done most of the heavy lifting required to scrape and index the web, so it would not be difficult to add the necessary front-end components.

With a prominent position on more than 140 newspaper web sites with nearly 30 million unique visitors monthly, the Topix search business could scale rapidly and inexpensively. Because Topix would know the location of the originating web site (right down to the Zip Code of the user), the search results -- and the accompanying ads -- would be tailored to the all-important dimension of proximity.

As ad volume builds, the publishers and Topix even could create their own keyword-ad network to compete with Google and Yahoo, just as Microsoft recently did.

Gannett, Knight-Ridder and Tribune previously teamed up to acquire controlling interests in Friendster, Shop Local and Career Builder. Add that traffic to the core newspaper network, and you have conceivably the most potent online initiative yet for the Fourth Estate.

The trick will be getting the publishers to play well together, a process that in the past has been similar to herding cats. But this group of publishers is small enough -- and scared enough -- that this just might work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

AFP case perils all online publishers

The suit filed against Google by Agence France Presse has enormous implications for everyone from the largest online media publisher to the most insignificant cyber-scribbler.

Though some knee-jerk commentators called the suit "frivolous," it is anything but. It could change dramatically the economics of online publishing and stop the lively open-source publishing movement in its tracks.

AFP has accused Google of violating its copyright by reproducing headlines, stories and photos in Google News. Charging that its copyright has been violated, AFP not only is demanding $17.5 million in damages but also removal of its content from Google News.

Underscoring the seriousness of this case, Google is dropping all AFP content from its News.

Those of us who wish AFP weren't so persnickety would like to argue that the "fair use" provision of the copyright law permits someone to publish quotes or extracts of copyrighted material for purposes of reporting or commenting on the news. But "fair use" is not a hard, fast or easily definable standard.

"The only way to get a definitive answer on whether a particular use is a fair use is to have it resolved in federal court," according to the superb briefing on the subject by Nolo Press on the website published by the Stanford University Libraries. "Fair use" is judged by four factors:

1. Was the original material copied verbatim or was it used to create something new? If the copyrighted material was used to create something new, it is considered "transformative," which is protected as fair use. It would be transformative to quote a passage from an article and then comment on it, even if you said unflattering things. It would not be transformative to simply cut a story from website A and paste into website B. If Google copies an AFP photo into Google News, what has been the transformative use?

2. What is the nature of the copyrighted work? You have a stronger case for fair use when the copied material is factual, as opposed to fiction. Google seems safe here, but passing only one of the four tests won't likely carry the day.

3. How much copyrighted material is used? The less copyrighted matter the user takes, the safer he will be; provided, however that he does not take what is judged to be the "heart" of the work. When Google reuses "only" the AFP headline and lead paragraph, is it taking the "heart" of the copyrighted material? If it reproduces a thumbnail of a picture, is it still publishing the "heart" of the image?

4. Does the use deprive the copyright-holder or income? If Google uses AFP's headlines or pictures to draw traffic to its site, where it sells ads, then it could be argued that Google is benefiting economically from the use of the copyrighted content. In fact, Google does not run ads on Google News. But it does run ads elsewhere on its interconnected sites. To the degree Google News helps build traffic elsewhere on the site, should AFP be compensated?

Even if online publishers assiduously endeavor to abide by the fair-use standards, the ambiguities of the law and the expanding capabilities of technology put them at continuous risk of being sued by a zealous owner of copyrighted content. (Once the first complaint is drafted, a lawyer can mail-merge a copy to a limitless number of defendants.)

If AFP and the other producers of copyrighted content push the issue, all online publishers either will be forced to pay copyright fees or run the risk of being sued into oblivion. The precendent for wholesale copyright licensing was established long ago by music producers and broadcasters. BMI conveniently has a licensing service in place for webcasters.

Reuters and the Associated Press, the two primary English-language news services, have begun adding prominent copyright warnings to the material they publish on the web. Remember, the AP is a co-operative venture owned by the very same traditional media companies whose interests are gravely threatened by the rise of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and the other online media behemoths.

It is only reasonable to wonder when the AP, New York Times, ABC News, USA Today, CNN, Business Week, Chicago Tribune and countless others will file suit to demand payment for -- or block the use of -- their content on other web sites.

Frivolous? I don't think so.

An embarrassment of bloggers

Hard-boiled city desk reporters in the days prior to professional political correctness sometimes derided sportswriters as “people who can’t write, who write about people who can’t talk, who have nothing to say.”

The put-down came to mind as I scanned the efforts of the several high-profile bloggers who were invited to “live blog” a webcast today at the Brookings Institution in which several other high-profile bloggers and a few "real" journalists discussed -- you guessed it -- the blogging phenomenon.

Among the valuable tidbits gleaned from the real-time blurbs, we learned that moderator E.J. Dionne wore a nice tie; that Wonkette Ana Marie Cox was wearing a green, not teal, T-shirt, and that blogger Andrew Sullivan raised $80k in donations when he was promoting the Iraq war but only $20k when he took issue with the botched occupation, thus proving empirically that it pays to be Right.

There also was this observation, which I trust was intended as irony, from Ruy Teixeria, author of the Emerging Democratic Majority Blog:

Do bloggers sometimes get it wrong? The consensus seems to be that that sometimes does happen. I am learning a lot!

For all the intellectual firepower brought to bear at the Brookings be-in, so far as I can tell, everyone seemed to miss the obesely pregnant elephant in the room: The Agence France Presse suit that threatens to throttle the whole shooting match.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Stupid publisher tricks

While the new media companies are busily building their bulging content portfolios, legacy publishers are going around shooting themselves in the feet.

It's only Monday, but we already have three great contenders in this week's Stupid Publisher Tricks Competition.

Stupid Publisher Trick No. 1

Agence France Presse is suing Google for $17.5 million for unauthorized use of its stories and photos in Google News. While everyone else in the world is desperate for higher rankings on Google, AFP has goaded Google into removing direct references to its service from its news listings.

The lawsuit, it should be noted, occurred nine years earlier than predicted in the terrific Googlezon video described earlier in this space. Steve Martin once noted that the French have a different word for everything. Wonder what they call "fair use"?

Stupid Publisher Trick No. 2

The Jersey Journal is hoping to solve its circulation slide by moving to a tabloid format from a broadsheet. Circulation of the 138-year-old newspaper today is barely a quarter of the 100,000 copies sold 30 years ago.

We hope it works, but, as we learned long ago at the Chicago Daily News, makeovers -- even extreme ones -- won't change the demographic and economic forces bearing down on traditional newspapers. Arguably, the people most devoted to the newspaper are the least likely to be impressed by the switch to a tab format.

Before the Journal runs out of readers altogether, management would be wiser to focus on developing relevant new products and services that can be delivered efficiently via new media.

Stupid Publisher Trick No. 3

The Wisconsin State Journal is selling access to its top editors to advertisers of a new monthly business journal that will start publishing in April in Madison.

Advertisers who pony up an additional $5,000 will get six guaranteed audiences per year with the publisher, senior managing editor, editor and business editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, according to the rival Capital Times.

"Doesn't smell right to me," said Jim Baughman, the chairman of the journalism department at the University of Wisconsin. "One wonders, where's the separation of church and state?"

Enough said.

Racing to out-Google Google

If you compare the way online guys and the old-media fogeys spent their day today, you can figure out all by yourself who is going to own the $1 trillion media business in a few years.

In the interests of trying to beat Google at its own game, here's what the Net set did before breakfast to build page views, ad sales and transactional revenues:

:: IAC/Interactive Corp. snagged AskJeeves for $1.9 billion to add a hefty search capability to a stable of online properties including Expedia, Hotels, Match, Ticketmaster and Lending Tree.

:: Yahoo bought the Flickr photo-sharing community to add to the Yahoo 360 blogging-community environment it launched last week. This will enable Yahoo to match rival Google's Blogger-Picasa combine and take a nip out of Friendster in the bargain.

:: AOL previewed its new Pinpoint Travel service to round out a fulsome offering of content from parent Time Warner and others.

After launching a new keyword advertising service last week for its new search engine and blogging environment, Microsoft had a well-deserved quiet day. Ditto, eBay, which started a Craig's List clone earlier this month in 50 cities around the world.

Google, who everyone else is chasing, spent the day cleansing itself of references to Agence France Presse. No word yet on whether their cafeteria still serves French fries.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Old news as new news is bad news

Insofar is it's due, you have to credit the Associated Press for finally recognizing that discerning newspaper readers are well aware of yesterday's news by the time they fish the fishwrap out of the bushes on the morning after the day that was.

Acting on this better-late-than-never insight, the AP is changing the way it writes stories. Not the way it reports stories, mind you. Just the way it writes them. This is a step in the write -- err, right -- direction, but, as will be discussed shortly, only a half-baked one.

Traditionally, a news story is written in the fashion illustrated by this example from the AP:
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) A suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners Thursday, splattering blood and body parts over rows of overturned white plastic chairs. The attack, which killed 47 and wounded more than 100, came as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad said they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government.
The above version is just the ticket for breaking news on radio, TV or the web, but it is pretty stale by the next morning for newspaper readers who have been keeping up with the news via the other media. In an effort to put a fresh spin on an old story for the next day, therefore, the AP now will be providing alternate ledes like this one:
MOSUL, Iraq (AP) Yet again, almost as if scripted, a day of hope for a new,democratic Iraq turned into a day of tears as a bloody insurgent attack undercut a political step forward. On Thursday, just as Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad were telling reporters that they overcame a major stumbling block to forming a new coalition government, a suicide attacker set off a bomb that tore through a funeral tent jammed with Shiite mourners in the northern city of Mosul.
While it is a positive step to recognize that newspapers no longer can get away with reporting day-old news as though it were fresh baked, it is not enough to simply reconstitute old news into new ledes. For newspapers to be successful over the long run, they have to add value by reporting fresh information, explaining the background, analyzing the consquences, predicting future developments and so forth. That is the strength and appeal of print.

Because most newspapers are thinning their staffs in the intersts of enhancing productivity (supersizing profits), they are turning to the AP, an industry-funded, newsgathering consortium, to help fill more column inches. Encumbered by budget limitations of its own, the AP is trying to solve the freshness problem by having rewrite persons slap a new top on the old news.

The problem is that newspaper readers, an increasingly rarefied segment of the population, won't be fooled by old news in new ledes. They'll just be insulted.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Big Brother keys in on our keywords

Like a cross between Big Brother and Santa Claus, Microsoft has been making a list and checking it twice, the better to target advertising to you.

Long conspicuous by its absence in the keyword ad war dominated to date by Google and Yahoo, Microsoft is launching its own version of the little ads arrayed around the results on its search pages. Until now, Microsoft has been displaying Yahoo ads on its pages, thus being forced to share revenues with one its it major rivals. First deployments over the next six months will be in France and Singapore.

What will be different about Microsoft's ads, apart from their tardy arrival in this $4 billion business, is that they will be targeted not only by the subject of your search but also by such individual characteristics as your gender, age, Zip Code and even the time of day you visit the web site. Further, Microsoft intends to extrapolate this data to estimate such things as your education and income.

Microsoft told the press it has gathered personal information by tracking users of Hotmail, Passport and other web sites. Once the ad program is in full swing, Microsoft will use computer addresses to track who's who, but "will not release names or other personally identifiable information," says VP Yusef Mehdi. Still, the company intends to provide detailed information to advertisers about the demographic characteristics and responses of the people who clicked on its ads.

Microsoft's announcement is bound to encourage Google, Yahoo and others to begin offering similar target-marketing systems. This has huge implications on a couple of levels. First, this represents a serious new challenge to our privacy. Second, it is a frontal assault on the classic mass-media paradigm.

With respect to privacy, everyone should be concerned with how data is captured, stored, sorted, shared and sold. With data leaks increasingly commonplace at schools, insurance companies, corporations, hospitals and financial institutions, few among us retains the illusion that our identities and personal information are secure. Still, this is an unsettling presumption on our privacy.

Rather than harvesting infromation from unsuspecting site visitors, Microsoft and the others who follow should alert users to the fact that their data is being gathered -- and request their affirmative permission to participate to such programs. Many users will not object and even more will comply if they are offered a modest incentive to do so. The point is: Users need to be informed up front.

From a commercial point of view, a widescale deployment of this form of targeted marketing may go down as one of the shots heard 'round the world for mass media advertising.

Targeted, or so-called "behavioral," marketing is the direct opposite of ye olde mass-media model, whereby an advertiser throws a certain amount of mud against the side of a barn in hopes of hitting a qualified, motivated prospect. Heretofore an arcane, somewhat touchy-feely form of online advertising, beahavioral marketing has proven its benefit in limited, carefully choreographed experiments.

Revenue Science, one of the early practitioners of the art, says it demonstrated the effectiveness of target marketing in a campaign for American Airlines that pinpointed frequent fliers at the Wall Street Journal web site. The advertising agency said ads popped on targeted pages were viewed by 145% more frequent fliers than ads placed randomly on the site. After correlating the costs of advertising and the response to it, the agency said the targeted program was 45% cheaper than the randomly placed ads.

This data is interesting in two ways. First, it makes a strong case that targeted advertisiing works. Second, it unambiguously informs advertisers that they no longer have to simply hope for the best when they buy mass quantities of print or on-air advertising.

As if on cue, a former advertising executive of the San Jose Mercury News wrote this note yesterday to Jim Romenesko, the Boswell of modern American journalism:

One of the essential facts that newspaper ad people never talk about is the inherent inefficiency in newspaper advertising and that this inefficiency is what drives profitability. In fact, not only did we try to keep this a secret, the old Newspaper Advertising Bureau created a clever marketing name for the phenomenon -- "The Thin Market Concept" -- and tried to use it to get customers to buy ads on more days.

Now that advertisers can measure where and how their dollars perform, the "Thin Market Concept" is going to start wearing, well, very thin.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Supersizing profits, squeezing the news

Amid dwindling circulation, receding advertising share and growing skepticism over credibility, newspapers took decisive action last year: They boosted profits twice as fast as they increased sales.

That's one of the findings in "The State of the News Media in 2005," a new, unvarnished study of the nitty-gritty economics of the news biz from the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

If you believe a healthy press is good for our democracy, then you won't find the report to be pleasant reading. But read it, anyway. Here is just some of what you'll learn:

Newspapers last year "increased their profits at double the rate (8%) that their revenues grew (less than 4%)," a "distinct sign of profit-taking," the study found. The emphasis on supersizing the bottom line produced average industry margins of 22.9% in 2004, according to Lauren Rich Fine of Merrill Lynch, a securities analyst.

The only way you can increase profits faster than sales is by cutting expenses, and the newsroom was a chief target. "At its annual meeting in April, the American Society of Newspaper Editors got the bad word that employment of full-time news professionals actually declined by 500 positions (about 1%) in 2003," said the study. "That more than wiped out modest gains of about 300 the year before. And that came after the deep cut of 2,000 jobs in 2001."

In addition to reducing newsroom headcount, stated the report, publications also squeezed more advertising into their pages, thereby cutting back "on the percentage of space devoted to news."

In light of the significant competitive threats to the long-term health of their business, why would newspaper companies emphasize profit growth instead of further investment in building new audiences through new media?

Because a company's success in the stock market, as Bernie Ebbers or Ken Lay will tell you, is a significant factor -- maybe the signficiant factor -- in a senior executive's compensation package, as discussed previously here. Unless compensation plans are changed, publishing companies will continue to prize short-term profts over the long-term health of their enterprises.

When it comes to raking in profits, newspapers can't hold a candle to local TV news. Margins of 45% to 50% are common in local outlets, where station revenues rose 10% in the first nine months of 2004, says the report. TV can get away with this behavior, because the semi-monopolistic local broadcast franchises are less vulnerable than print to new media.

Although the morning network news shows increased sales by 5% to 10% last year, business for the evening news programs went sideways. Profit-driven staff cutting slammed the beleaguered CBS news division. "The CBS Evening News had notably fewer correspondents than NBC or ABC (about 15% fewer) doing substantially more work in 2004," says the report.

Although sales gains ran between respectable and robust for the traditional mass media last year, the biggest proportional increases were in online media, where revenues grew some 30% in 2004 to approximately $10 billion.

Even though online sales today are modest in comparison to traditional newspaper, magazine, broadcast and cable TV ad revenues, you would think the dramatic online sales gains would inspire legacy media companies to invest heavily in this fast-growing business. Well, you would be wrong.

"There is more evidence than ever that the mainstream media are investing only cautiously in building new audiences," says the report. "That is true even online, where audiences are growing. Our data suggest that news organizations have imposed more cutbacks in their Internet operations than in their old media.... Where the investment has come, is in technology for processing information, not people to gather it."

At the moment, "traditional media brands still control most of where audiences go online for news, but that is already beginning to change," continues the report. "In 2004, Google News emerged as a major new player in online news, and the audience for bloggers grew by 58% in six months, to 32 million people."

In addition to Google, the word here in Silicon Valley is that Yahoo is revving up a major local news initiative. And Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, increasingly has been discussing his admiration for citizen journalism. "I really think a tipping point in journalism is happening, and I think it's time to get involved," says Craig.

Sum it all up, and here is what you have:

At a time when the dominant media companies should be strengthening their enviable franchises, they instead are pillaging them for profits. At the very moment media companies should be investing aggressively in new media, they instead are short-changing the initiatives most likely to produce significant, long-term growth.

That's the state of the news media in 2005, folks. And a sorry one it is.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Kill your kid's TV, PC, iPod, Xbox, phone...

The average American kid spends more time each day marinating in multiple media than he does in school, according to an alarming new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The heavy use of media by kids in this country is a significant public health issue, and people in the media business ought to worry about this. First, because it is the ethical and decent thing to do. Second, because almost everyone has kids, hopes to have kids or has a niece or nephew she loves.

In a comprehensive national study, the Kaiser Foundation found that the average youth between the age of 8 and 18 spends eight hours and 33 minutes per day, every day, exposed to media, including television, radio, computers, games, portable music players, etc. More than a quarter of that time is spent multi-tasking; that is, chatting on IM while listening to music or watching TV while reading a textbook.

As illustrated below, TV sucks up the most amount of time, averaging a bit more than three hours a day. Print brings up the rear at a meager 43 minutes a day. The only good news in the study is that over-all media time has stayed the same since a similar study was conducted in 1999.

Although the Kaiser Foundation did an excellent job of documenting media use, it left out another significant electronic distraction for kids: the mobile phone. Fully 44% of youths between the ages of 10 an 18 have cellphones, according to a new study from NOP World, a market research company. Cellphone adoption among adolescents has been torrid, rising to 40% of kids aged 12-14 from only 13% in 2002.

So, it is entirely possible that a kid will be talking on her cellphone, chatting on IM and "watching" TV all at the same time. And, oh yeah, doing homework, too.

What kids definitely are not doing when they are gorging on media is exercising.

The rate of obesity in children 6-11 has tripled in the last three decades, according to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. "More than a quarter of children aged 6-11 are obese," reports the University of Michigan Health System. "Among kids aged 12-17, 25% of girls and 18% of boys are obese."

Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, which is highly correlated with adolescent obesity, grew tenfold in between 1990 and 2000, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.

Obesity in children can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, skeletal problems, liver disease, early puberty and such potential adult health problems as high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the University of Michigan.

Heavy TV use contributes to obesity not only because it is a decidedly sedentary activity, but because commercials sell the worst possible food for children. "Commercials almost never give information about the foods children should eat to keep healthy," says the AAP. Instead, kids are fed a steady diet of ads for foods featuring dangerous quantities of salt, sugar and carbohydrates.

Pediatricians recommend an outright ban on TV for children under the age of two. "Too much television can negatively affect early brain development," says the AAP. "Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the AAP does not recommend television for children age two or younger. For older children, the Academy recommends no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs."

Some commentators believe there's no such things as "good" TV for kids. Joseph Chilton Pearce, a specialist in childhood development, says research shows that the radiant light of TV or computer monitor tends to cause a youngster's brain to effectively "close down," producing a hypnotic-like state. To counter this phenomenon and keep young viewers engaged, says Pearce, progammers introduce "startle effects" that trigger "the brain into thinking there might be an emergency."

Although the higher brain, or "neocortex," knows the images aren't real, the lower or "reptilian" brain reacts as though the emergency were authentic, triggering the production of cortisol, a potent hormone that prepares the body for fight or flight. When the the video "threat" passes, another hormone is released to relax the body once again.

"The trouble with current-day children's television programming is that there's never any letdown, and the brain of the average American child, who has watched 5,000 to 6,000 hours by the age of five of six, is suffering a great deal of confusion," says Pearce. "The massive over-stimulus from TV is causing the brain to maladapt in ways previously thought impossible. It is literally breaking down on all levels off neural development."

The risks to children who overdose on media go beyond the immediate threat to their physical health. It takes a toll on their emotional and -- yes, I am going to use the "M" word here -- moral development.

Television programs and movies not only push murder, mayhem, sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco use, but they are pushing the limits farther all the time. So do certain video games and such music genres as rock and hip-hop. Think about this staggering statistic from the AAP:

If your child watches three to four hours of noneducational TV per day, he will have seen about 8,000 murders on TV by the time he finishes grade school... Even if the "good guys" use violence, children may learn that it is OK to use force to handle aggression and settle disagreements.

When it comes to violence and gore, video games take a back seat to no one.

An 18-year-old kid is on trial for killing three Alabama policemen he shot in a real-life enactment of a scene from the popular Grand Theft Auto III game. "Life is a video game," the young man said as he was booked two years ago. "You've got to die sometime."

The families of the murdered officers are seeking an aggregate $600 million in damages from Take-Two Interactive, the publisher of the game; Sony, the manufacturer of the PlayStation2; Wal-Mart, which sold the box, and GameStop, which sold the games.

I hope they win. Maybe that's the kind of thing we need to stop the media's madness.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Ich bin ein Craig's List

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Craig Newmark, the founder of Craig's List must be very flattered indeed by the decision of his partner, eBay, to clone his concept in nearly 50 cities around the world.

The new eBay effort, which is called Kijiji, duplicates Craig's List in almost every respect, providing free listings for jobs, pets, housing and, of course, missed connections (Suche die schöne Blonde...). So far, Kijijis are open in Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Even though "kijiji" means village in Swahili, eBay hasn't set up shop in Africa.

Although eBay says its new service does not compete with Craig's List, in which it purchased a 25% stake last year, the Kijijis do overlap with Craig's existing listings in Berlin, Montreal, Paris, Rome and Tokyo. Whereas Craig's List seeks to cover a whole country with one or two listings in the largest cities, Kijiji breaks its listings into as many as 10 locations within a country. While entries on Craig's List are primarily in English, Kijiji uses the native language in every country. Thus, "Missed Connnections" becomes "Relazioni Interrotte da Lungo Tempo" or "Déménagement."

The big question is whether Kijiji will develop in the future by complementing or competing with Craig's List. Could this be the first act in a squeeze play to force Craig to sell to eBay?

Time will tell whether a major, profit-driven public corporation can comfortably co-exist with a private company closely held by an idealistic engineer who seems more motivated by public service than a bulking up his P&L.

This odd coupling was not Craig's idea. Remember, eBay acquired its stake in Craig's List when it purchased the shares of a former employee who decided to cash out. Two months ago, Craig told me eBay has been "a good partner [with a] similar moral compass," adding, "We're a community service, [and] had agreed that any equity in Craig's List had only symbolic value." He was too busy attending to customer-service issues today to discuss the latest developments.

The Kijiji launch comports with eBay's wise strategy to find new revenues to sustain its growth as the auction business inevitably flattens out. Earlier this year, eBay bought, a significant online destination for apartment seekers.

Kijiji initially will give free listings to build its audience, hijacking a significant amount of the paid classified advertising business in towns from Bordeaux to Zhengzhou. When Kijiji comes to scale, eBay likely will be far more aggressive than Craig in turning on the meter and charging for ads. This will put some balance back into the market between traditional publishers and Kijiji. But a great deal of damage will be done to print's paid ad business before then.

American publishers lost tens of millions of dollars in want-ad business because they dozed while Craig and eBay pillaged the highly profitabe business they once controlled with impunity. They may be blamed for taking too long to recognize or respond aggressively to the threat, but they may be forgiven, to a degree, for not knowing what they were looking at.

Publishers in Asia, Canada and Europe don't have that excuse. They have been duly warned.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Blog sweat and fears

My fellow bloggers and I are concerned that our budding (albeit impecunious) cottage industry will be turned into cottage cheese if we are not adjudged to be journalists in the eyes of the law.

Given the low esteem in which the general public holds journalists, I can't help but recall Groucho Marx saying he didn't want to be the member of any club that would have him. Had Groucho lived to see this day, however, he would have been tickled by the frank and full-throated, full-monty and sometimes just plain full-of-it discourse enabled by modern technology.

The very success of this potent, home-brewed medium has placed citizen journalists on a potential collision course with the law. Blogging is too new to fit into the classic media paradigms and standard legal boilerplate. And it is too noisy -- and nosey -- to ignore.

So, it was only a matter of time until we got to the point where we are today. A confluence of coincidental, unsettling developments rightfully has rocketed the Blogger Threat Level Index into the red zone. This is not a drill:

Threat Level One

Bradley Smith, a member of the Federal Election Commission suggested last week in a CNET interview that blogs may come under campaign-finance guidelines that, theoretically, could put a dollar value on every mention (even unfavorable) of a candidate's name by any blogger. If the campaign-finance cops at the FEC decided a blogger contributed more than his legal limit to a candidate's campaign, he would be in violation of the law.

Campaign-finance laws exempt newspapers, broadcasters, magazines and other "periodicals" from having their work counted as paid political contributions under the law, including any content they carry on their web sites. But Internet publishers not affiliated with the aforementioned exempt media are left out. Until recently the FEC explicitly exempted from enforcement unaffiliated Internet publishers, like bloggers. But a federal judge has told the FEC it did not have the authority to establish the exemption, so the FEC is tussling over what to do.

Theoretically, therefore, the FEC could force a blogger to (a) add up the cost of her computers, software and the electricity to run them, (b) divide the total operating costs by the number of minutes in a year used to write a particular item and (c) multiply the operating cost by the number of people who saw the blog. This sum would be the value of the blogger's "political contribution"; an excessive contribution would violate the campaign-finance law.

Apart from the chilling possibility that writers would be compelled to perform complex math calculations, this is also an appalling potential infringement on free speech, which, last time I checked, was still protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, viz:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Now, I am just a poor country boy who isn't even a six-figure constitutional lawyer, but I see blogs as being protected three or four ways by the above language, and even one more, if you happen to be writing about religion.

In the aftermath of the excitement engendered by Mr. Smith, another of the five FEC commissioners, Ellen Weintraub, offered some comfort in an op-ed at CNET. "I can't speak for my colleagues," she said. "But I'm not aware of anyone here who views this rulemaking as a vehicle for shutting down the right of any individual to use their electronic soapbox to voice their political views."

Grammatical errors aside, let's hope she's right.

Threat Level Two

The folks at Apple took valuable time away from picking new iPod colors to ask a court to require three blogs to provide the names of individuals who leaked proprietary data they published. The judge agreed with Apple, stating that "theft and use of trade secrets is a crime."

This case is alarming, because it seems to provide precedent and comfort to those who would thwart bloggers by making them reveal the sources of confidential information. Journalists working for conventional media generally -- but not always -- are shielded by law from having to reveal their sources.

The problem in the Apple case is that we don't know if the proprietary information was published (a) by employees who contractually were bound to protect the company's secrets; (b) bloggers who illegally pilfered Apple's dumpster, or (c) upstanding citizen journalists printing information gained in good faith from confidential sources.

In the first two scenarios, journalistic privilege doesn't apply. Theft, as the judge said, is theft. In the last scenario, bloggers deserve the same protections afforded to their sisters and brothers in broadcast and print. Come to think of it, even those protections are less than ironclad.

Even as we speak, the New York Times and Time magazine are being forced to defend their sources in the case in which some White House operative(s) evidently exposed a woman as a CIA undercover agent because her husband opposed the Iraq invasion. Revealing the name of a covert spy is a federal felony.

The special federal prosecutor trying to learn who blew the spook's cover has threatened to jail two reporters who may have been contacted by the folks peddling the story, but who, significantly never revealed the spy's name. One of them never even wrote a story.

With professional journalists nowadays as much at risk as citizen journalists, we all had better hang together. Or, as Benjamin Franklin said, assuredly we shall all hang separately.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Tail wags dog in newspaper ad sales

The vernal influx of yearend data illustrates how significantly online advertising is shoring up the desultory sales of the newspaper industry.

The good news is that online newspaper advertising grew at an average rate of 26.7% in 2004, according to the Newspaper Association of America, a trade group. The bad news is that the $1.5 billion in online advertising represented a scant 3% of the industry's over-all ad sales of $48.2 billion.

The aggregate gain of 4.5% in newspaper ad sales in 2004 falls well below the average 6.3% growth for all national media, as illustrated in the table below. For the record, this gives newspapers a bit better than an 18% share of all ad expendutures in the U.S. vs. 21% share as recently as 2000.

Because every publisher counts beans in its own way, it is hard to pin down the impact of online advertising on a given company's top line. But John Janedis at Banc of America Securities determined that nearly half of the 3.1% increase in Knight-Ridder's $2.35 billion in ad revenues came from online sales. If you subtract online revenues, therefore, KNI's ad sales grew by only 1.7% in 2004.

Elsewhere in the '04 ad wars, the biggest year-over-year percentage gain, predictably, was recorded in online advertising, where sales climbed 32% to an estimated $9.6 billion, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, a trade organization.

As illustrated in the table below, which is based mostly on data from Nielsen Media Research, the average sales increase across all ad categories was 6.3%, making for aggregate U.S. ad sales of $260 billion.

Respectable double-digit gains last year were notched, natch, by broadcast and cable television, the usual beneficiaries of the quadrennial spectacles known as the Olympics and the U.S. presidential election. Above-average increases were achieved in outdoor advertising and national magazines.

Below-average performance was recorded by spot radio and TV, Advo-type coupon operations and, as previously discussed, newspapers, where it looks like the tail really is starting to wag the dog.

Friday, March 04, 2005

So long again, Chicago Daily News

"It's fun being the publisher when things are going well," squeaked the young man who stumbled awkwardly to the top of a battered desk in the unusually silent newsroom of the Chicago Daily News. "But it's no fun today."

Swallowing a nervous giggle, Marshall Field V cleared his throat and read the assembled staff the short, typewritten death warrant of one of the most distinguished newspapers in American history.

An agonizing month later, on March 4, 1978, the Daily News signed off with the jaunty banner, "So long, Chicago!"

The line was written by the late nightside copy desk chief, Tom Gavagan, a chain-smoking, working-class Irishman who seemed to own only two shirts -- one in burnt orange, the other avocado green. The tears in Gav's eyes weren't from smoke.

Although it happened 27 years ago, the story is worth telling today, because many of the zany, brainy people who made that paper sing aren't here to talk about it any more. They were my mentors, comrades and friends, and I cherish their memories.

But this isn't just ancient history. It is a valuable reminder to today's media companies of what happens when you run out of readers, revenues and ideas all at the same time.

The Daily News, like most afternoon newspapers, succumbed at the age of 102 to a declining audience and rising expenses. Its readers had moved on. On to the suburbs, where delivery trucks couldn't reach them with a paper that didn't come off the press until afternoon. On to the sofa, where they favored Three's Company on the TV.

There were no home computers, no Internet, no iPods and no cellphones to get between our readers and us in 1978. Still, circulation dropped. The management was changed. Circulation dropped. We redesigned the paper. Circulation dropped. We tinkered with the product. Circulation dropped.

In the end, there was nothing left to do. Some 300 people lost their jobs, and Chicago lost a great newspaper.

The Daily News, in its best days, was a cutting-edge conscience in conservative Chicago, a husky, brawling town that wasn't always ready for reform. The paper stood fast against official incompetence and government corruption and stood tall for civil rights and the little guy. For years, the Daily News stubbornly held its price to a penny, so as to be affordable to laborers heading home from work.

It was one of the first newspapers to have foreign correspondents, to print photographs or to cover that new-fangled medium, radio. Its widely syndicated coverage won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, including three for meritorious public service.

The Daily News cultivated a limitless array of talent over a century, including Eugene Field, George Ade, Ben Hecht, Finley Peter Dunne, Carl Sandburg, Peter Lisagor, M.W. Newman, Lu Palmer, Lois Wille and our latter-day franchise player, Mike Royko.

The list is too long to print here. But the Daily News, in its classy way, printed the name of everyone working on the staff on the day the paper folded.

My name was on that list. It remains one of proudest, and saddest, moments of my life.

The angel among the devils

When the Chicago Daily News folded in 1978, Margaret Whitesides, the tiny, soft-spoken secretary on the city desk was just six months short of her 50th anniversary with the newspaper. The management let her take her ancient manual typewriter with her.

When she got home, she started writing a six-page, single-spaced newsletter that she faithfully mailed to every member of the 300-plus staff every month until she died 24 years later at age 92. Upon her death in 2002, the task was assumed immediately by Robert J. Herguth, a warm and witty former columnist, who continues publishing the newsletter to this day.

The news in the Daily News Newsletter nowadays is mostly about either grandchildren, medical problems or the loss of another comrade. But Bob publishes it faithfully for former staffers and, in some cases, their next of kin.

"Margaret Whitesides worked in the heart of the Chicago Daily News, then helped save its soul," said her obiturary in the Chicago Sun-Times. "She was an angel among the devils."

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Reality takes a holiday

First, we have a faked-up composite photo of Martha Stewart on the cover of Newsweek. Then, we have a Michael Jackson pretender on E! TV to re-enact pivotal moments of Jacko's trial.

Where will it end?

Will the White House use government money to surreptitiously pay commentators to tout its programs? Will the administration use federal funds to produce phony "news" clips featuring bought-and-paid-for actors posing as independent news correspondents?

When will the phony baloney end?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Perspiring minds want to know

Can we talk?

Rodney Dangerfield's widow hopes to clone him from a hankie full of frozen sweat...The beautiful and charming Carly Fiorina and the beautiful and charming Paul Wolfowitz are on the short list to head the World Bank....Mary-Kate Olsen (sans Ashley!) is working as a go-fer for A-list celebrity fotog Annie Leibovitz...An X-rated video of Limp Bizkit rocker Fred Durst is stinking up the Net.

That's the latest gossip. But that's not Earl, brother*.

Gossip, a fertile, often febrile, variant of journalism, evidently is being forsaken in the respectable press not for considerations of taste, but because some editors feel they can't sling slime at Internet speed.

The New York Times last weekend outed the Los Angeles Times for not publishing a gossip column since 1970. (Come to think of it, the NYT doesn't have one either.)

In the NYT tattler, Dean Baquet, managing editor of the L.A. Times, forthrightly copped to the gossip gap:
"We've never been opposed to it," he said. "They're just hard to do to the standards of a paper like The L.A. Times." He cited issues of taste and accuracy, and said that with the Internet, it has become harder for newspapers to stay on top of gossip.
You could understand the decision to 86 gossip, if papers were repulsed by its occasionally unseemly content. But it is silly for them to turn their backs on this rich, reader-pleasing franchise because they think they can't compete with the saucy cyber-upstarts.

Until further notice, newspapers have a heck of a lot more circulation than most web sites. If you were going to leak a juicy item, where would you rather see it? In black and white in the L.A. Times, which sells 925,135 newspapers a day? Or on the web in Defamer, the cheeky L.A. cousin to Wonkette that averages fewer than 103,000 visitors a day? I would go for the Times.

The Times, however, can take little comfort from the fact that its reach today is nine times greater than Defamer's. Since its launch in April, 2004, Defamer has gone from zero to 2.88 million visitors in February, 2005. This impressive growth suggests there's a big hole in Dean's otherwise excellent coverage.

Is the Times going to take action? Or are they just going to take a meeting?

Inquiring minds want to know.

* "That's Earl, brother" was the famous closing line of old-school N.Y. gossip columnist Earl Wilson, who died at age 79 in 1987. He deliciously defined gossip as "hearing something you like about someone you don't."

Craig's List goes cosmic

Postings on Craig's List soon will be beamed into outer space at no additional charge. Come to think if it, most of its terrestrial listings are free, too.

The out-of-this world opportunity became possible when Jim Buckmaster, the CEO of Craig's List, paid $1,225 in an eBay auction for the right to transmit the first private communication into deep space. Deep Space Communications Network will do the honors on or about May 15.

Accompanying the used-car listings and missed-connections sagas will be a video message from founder Craig Newmark and a clip from the documentary "24 Hours on Craig's List."

To send your listing heavenward, check the box on the site that says "OK to transmit this posting into outer space."

Craig, who is marking the 10th anniversary of the founding of the site where he styles himself as chief customer service rep, reminded readers of his blog today that "we can NOT retrieve or cancel Craig's List ads beamed into extrasolar space."

So, choose your words carefully.