Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why publishers had to partner with Facebook

The natural order of the universe was disrupted yesterday when BuzzFeed, NBC News, the New York Times and a number of other prominent media companies shockingly ceded to Facebook the marketing and monetization of portions of their valuable content. 

The move, which represents a further step in the transfer of power from the media tribe to the technology tribe, means that some of the biggest names in media have conceded that they are neither large enough nor strong enough to thrive as independent digital publishers without the help of at least one of their fearsome frenemies in Silicon Valley. 

In addition to Facebook, the other frenemy, of course, is Google. Although the media companies like to think that the quality of their work speaks for itself, Facebook and Google referrals steer the preponderance of the traffic to almost every news site. 

The Facebook deal institutionalizes as never before this long-running dependency. In addition to the trio mentioned above, the other media companies who will be funneling content to Facebook are The Atlantic, BBC News, Bild, The Guardian, National Geographic and Spiegel Online. Fearful of being left behind, it is fair to assume additional media names in the not-too-distant future will feel obliged to join, too.  

Here’s how the deal works: 

The media companies will give full articles and videos to Facebook, so the social network can distribute them among its more than 1.4 billion usersPublishers can keep all the revenue from any ads they sell to accompany the content they allow Facebook to post. When Facebook sells ads against the content contributed by the media companies, both sides will split the proceeds equally. 

The choice to throw in with Facebook could not have been easy for the proud media companies. Historically, the last thing they wanted was to give their expensively produced content to another brand competing for the same eyeballs and ad dollars. But that was then and this is now. The media swallowed their pride because they know they lack the sort of massive global reach that only Facebook can provide.  

Difficult as the decision may have been, it was inevitable, given the several critical capabilities that Facebook has developed. These are its not-so-secret superpowers:

Superior mobile prowess. In addition to the sheer size of its audience, Facebook has mastered the art and science of mobile publishing better than almost anyone. In the first quarter of this year, the company reported, 65% of its traffic and 73% of its ad revenues came from such highly optimized mobile sites as its Paper app. 

Superior audience engagement. Based on the amount of time people spend on Facebook, it is fair to say its users are considerably more passionate about the service than the visitors to a typical news site. According to Alexa.Com, the average user spends 18.4 minutes per day on Facebook, as compared with 9.5 minutes at the New York Times, 6.4 minutes at NBC News and 5.4 minutes at BuzzFeed.  

Superior customer data. Because enthusiastic users frequently and liberally update the site with a plethora of personal data, Facebook knows more intimate and accurate details about more people than any company in the world. The information is updated dynamically in real time, as people report everything from their favorite new song to the jeans they want to buy to the fact they will have a baby in six months.  

Superior ad intelligence. Facebook enables advertisers to target messages with heretofore unprecedented precision, thanks not only to the rich information supplied by users but also by analyzing information captured from the friends in their networks.  The ad-intel is supplemented with location data acquired from Facebook’s popular mobile services. 

Superior content targeting. In the same way data is used to target commercial messages, Facebook has the capability to match the right content with the right user by monitoring her searches and media consumption. If Facebook sees that someone likes cooking Italian food, it can slip relevant recipes from the NYT food page into her news feed, paired conveniently with an ad for a pasta maker. When Facebook recognizes that a bride is planning a honeymoon in Florida, it can send her travel videos embedded with customized hotel offers. 

With everything Facebook brings to the party, the partnership ought to be a plus for the participating media brands. But some media partners are experiencing pangs of buyer’s remorse, because they fear Facebook may trim their split after they get hooked on this welcome new stream of  incremental revenue.  

It seems fair to conclude that the media companies who took the leap felt they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. In the end, however, this was an offer they couldn’t refuse.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The LAT and U-T merger: Double trouble?

The pending purchase of the San Diego U-T by the Los Angeles Times represents a synergy not of strength but of tsoris.  

Tsoris, for the uninitiated, is the Yiddish word for trouble. And woe – unlike readership and revenues – has been plentiful at both of these newspapers in the last decade.  

As illustrated in the graphic below, the upcoming merger combines a faltering pair of former publishing powerlifters whose businesses are sagging as much today as the pecs of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only governor in the history of California unable to correctly pronounce the name of the state (video). Here are the sobering metrics for the SoCal publishers:

Both newspapers lost more than half of their weekday print circulation between 2004 and 2014, dropping their respective market penetrations to 15.6% of the households in Los Angeles County and 17.8% of the homes in San Diego County. Circulation data comes from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry-funded group. 

In the same period, Sunday print circulation – which typically delivers half of the revenue and more than half of the profits at a newspaper – fell by 48.1% in Los Angeles and 45.6% in San Diego. 

While the financial performance of the two publications is not publicly available, it is possible to gauge the general health of the newspaper business by comparing the 10-year financial performance of Tribune Publishing Co., the parent of the LAT, with the publishing division of its predecessor company.  

The annual reports issued by the companies show that Tribune publishing revenues tumbled by 58.5% to $1.7 billion in 2014 from $4.1 billion in 2004.  In the same period, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) fell 63.6% to $260 million in 2014 from $730 million in 2004.

It must be emphasized that Tribune’s holdings were not identical over the 10 years, so this is not a strict apples-to-apples comparison.  The predecessor company, which was roiled by the Zellistsas and an epic bankruptcy before it jettisoned its newspapers, divested Newsday in 2008. The new standalone publishing spinoff has started making fill-in acquisitions in the Baltimore and Chicago markets. 

Notwithstanding the imprecision of the available financial data, it is fair to conclude that both of the once enviable SoCal publishing franchises have seen better days. Hence, the question: “Why would anyone want to put these two struggling companies together?” Here’s a plausible answer: 

Tribune announced last week that it will pay $85 million to buy the U-T with an eye to consolidating operations as much as possible between the two newspapers. Normally, this means moving to a single production facility, a single administrative infrastructure, a combined advertising staff and a streamlined newsroom that can share content across the various titles.   

In other words, Tribune instantly can cut expenses by cutting staff in a way that is not readily visible to readers and advertisers.  At the same time, there theoretically is a chance to boost revenue for the consolidated operation because the ad staff efficiently can offer both wider and more targeted regional coverage. 

Interestingly, the San Diego purchase could turn out to be only the first step in a multi-phase plan to consolidate all the major dailies from the Tehachapi Mountains at the north end of the Los Angeles basin to the Mexican border.  

After struggling under the erratic management of Aaron Kushner, it is entirely possible the Orange Country Register soon could be up for sale.  If LAT bought the Register, it would own the only major paper separating it from San Diego. 

In the meantime, a group of smaller dailies in markets like Long Beach, Van Nuys and Whittier are immediately up for grabs as part of the auction of Digital First Media, a coast-to-coast publishing company that is being dumped by the disenchanted private investors who own it.  
While bigger may be better in many things in life, this seldom is the case when it comes to compounding woes. And that’s what the LAT is doing in buying the U-T. 

Even when two businesses are humming along smoothly, a merger takes months – if not years – to complete.  A merger profoundly distracts the managers and employees in both companies, taking their eyes off the ball of their day-to-day jobs because each is wondering whether she will survive the inevitable game of musical chairs.

The challenge is compounded when the business is troubled, because the mechanics of the merger necessarily have to take a back seat to the immediate problem of shoring up sales and meeting demanding profit targets.  This is all happening, remember, amid recurring rounds of musical chairs. 

The challenge is most formidable of all when the reason the business is weak is because there is shrinking demand for your product in the marketplace. And this is precisely the problem that every newspaper faces. 

Without question, an ever-growing number of readers are shifting their attention to the digital media and an ever-growing number of brands are shifting their advertising budgets to pursue them.  That’s why newspaper circulation, sales and profits have dived precipitously in the last decade.  

A roll-up strategy would make sense if Tribune had a plan to pivot its troubled newspapers to viable business models that would flourish in the digital era. But no such plan is evident.  

While the digital traffic reported by the LAT and U-T in the accompanying table looks impressively large, a quick check of census data raises questions. The 35 million unique monthly visitors claimed by the LAT is fully three times greater than the population of its home county. That is a hefty number, even if you credit the paper with a certain degree of national and global appeal.  Similarly, the 3.4 million uniques reported at the U-T suggest that everyone in the county visits its digital sites at least once a month. That would be nice, if true.  

The nose-counting problem is common throughout the entire digital publishing industry and newspaper companies can’t be blamed for the limitations of the technology. But it’s important to keep these vagaries in perspective.    

There is no doubt, however, that Tribune, whose eroding top-line revenues faltered another 5.7% as recently as the first three months of this year, is underperforming its peers when it comes to digital revenue production. 

While the U.S. newspaper industry in 2013 generated an average of 16.5% of its ad revenues through the sale of digital advertising, digital media produced only 12% of Tribune’s sales in the first quarter of this year.  The industry-wide figure for 2013 is the latest information available from the Newspaper Association of America.  The Tribune’s performance is called out in its quarterly earnings statement, where the company promises little more than to do a better job of selling ads.  

So, there you have it: Falling readership, tumbling sales, shrinking profits and a questionable digital strategy.  It makes you wonder why Tribune wants to double its troubles.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

4 new media platforms demanding attention

As if the web, mobile and social media were not enough to worry about, four new digital platforms are emerging to challenge the legacy publishers and broadcasters struggling to preserve the audiences and ad dollars that made them mighty. 

To dispense with any further suspense, the emerging technologies are Next-Gen Messaging Platforms, Wearable Technology, the Internet of Things and Automated Automobiles.  

A case can be made for developing new content and advertising formats for each of these broad categories, which represent hundreds of products and endless permutations. I will make a qualified case for doing so in a minute. First, a reality check:  

How can broadcasters and publishers focused on tending their legacy businesses afford the time and resources to research, develop and market products for the new platforms?  The answer, of course is that they can’t.   

The good news is that, with one notable exception, they have time to observe the ways consumers interact with the still-maturing technologies. But make no mistake: These platforms are direct competitors for the time and attention that consumers spend with periodicals, television and radio. Meet the competition: 

Next-Gen Messaging Platforms 

The exceptions to the wait-and-see approach mentioned above are the new messaging apps that compete with the likes of Facebook, Twitter and the other platforms people used in  the Paleozoic era of social media. The next-gen social sites, which deserve the immediate attention of legacy media companies, include Instagram, WhatsApp, Vine, Snapchat and others likely to turn up after I hit the send button on this article. (It should be noted that Facebook and Twitter, who are decidedly hip to the caprice of their audiences, have purchased all but Snapchat.) To see how some legacy media companies already have adapted to Snapchat, look at the Discover section of its app (which can be accessed by a button on the upper right-hand corner of the screen). 

Wearable Technology

While the makers of Fitbit, Pebble and Google Glass have been pursuing widespread consumer acceptance over the years, the introduction of the Apple Watch in April is bound to rivet new attention on interactive wearable devices, thanks to the free publicity the media showered on the Apple launch. After attracting a fair share of ink in its own right, Google Glass faltered for want of technical polish and, even worse, for want of widespread consumer enthusiasm. While the Apple Watch also could prove to be a dud, the increasing appeal of intimate of personal technology – like undies that monitor your pecs, your posture and your perspiration – seems to suggest that selfies alone will not suffice to sate the narcissism of our species. 

Internet of Things

The Internet of Things seems like a joke when you can buy a wi-fi piggybank called a Porkfolio that counts quarters on a dedicated app. But Google’s eye-popping purchase of the Nest smart thermostat company for $3 billion got the attention of both the tech community and plenty of consumer product manufacturers. As a consequence, a serious race is well under way for leadership in a market that, according to Fortune Magazine, could generate between $7 trillion and $19 trillion in sales in a few short years. You may not be captivated by a $17 smart tray that knows you are running low on eggs, but think about the potential of a home-monitoring system that provides surveillance, conserves energy, starts your car on a cold morning, tracks neighborhood crime alerts and remembers the stuff you need at the hardware store. 

Automated Automobiles

The secret Apple car project should have come as no surprise to anyone when it was revealed earlier this year, because vehicles are the perfect environment for a company – like Apple – that sells gizmos and services enabling communications, entertainment, navigation, search and commerce.  The owners of automated autos will appreciate being relieved from the tedium of commuting and long road trips, but here's why advertisers will be enthralled: Whether individuals are sitting behind the wheel or being chauffeured by an autonomous system from Google, motorists represent highly captive and highly targetable audiences.  Knowing who and where motorists are, marketers will have unprecedented influence over what they might be persuaded to buy next. 

Where Does This Leave Legacy Media? 

As different as the four emerging platforms are, there are common denominators: 

:: They can come out of nowhere and gain popularity surprisingly fast. 

:: They are mobile, location-aware and visual, relying on minimal (if any) text to communicate.

:: They represent immediate opportunities to conduct transactions, incentivizing marketers to intercept consumers early and often in the interests of closing in-the-moment deals. 

In short, the four new platforms will be prized venues for media companies and advertisers who want to connect with not only Millennials but also with people of all ages who consume media in increasingly frenetic and purposeful bursts. If legacy companies want a share of the new value chains being created by these new platforms, they need to start paying attention.

© 2015, Editor & Publisher

Monday, May 11, 2015

Made in NYC: New business models for new media

Tattoos, tight jeans and three-day beards are “in,” while meaningless page clicks, paywalls and backfill banner ads are “out.” 
That's the state of the art among the hustling, bustling start-up companies who are innovating the new business models for digital publishing in New York. 
In a two-day tour that I organized last week for 50 senior global media executives on behalf of the International News Media Association, we visited with the leaders of B2C start-ups as varied as Vice and Food52, as well up-and-coming B2B ventures like Business Insider and Skift. We also met with the founders of five ventures aiming to put serious journalism, writing and ideas on the web: Atavist, Gothamist, Longform, Upworthy and Roads and Kingdoms. We also stopped by Complex Media, which has built a network of more than 100 owned and affiliated sites targeting twenty-something males.  
The offices of each of these young companies was literally hot as they are, as an early taste of summer settled over New York. That's because they operate in tight, B-grade spaces with generally minimal access to such amenities as air conditioning or enough chairs to accommodate four-dozen visitors. But tight, spartan quarters evidently are the ideal environment to incubate fresh ideas that can be rapidly prototyped, launched, analyzed and refined – and then fed or killed, as the marketplace dictates. 
Each of the companies is pursuing a different audience and a different business model. Although Vice has raised more than $500 million and has stated it will achieve close to $1 billion in sales this year, the rest of the ventures are small to middling at this point.  
Not all of them necessarily will cross the chasm, but each is helping to write the new rules for new media, which are distinctly different from the rules followed by most of the old media companies.  Old media companies would be well advised to pay attention to the newcomers. So, dudes, listen up: 
Rule 1.  Chose a large, well-defined and underserved vertical, whether it is the travel industry (Skift), sharing recipes among home cooks (Food 52) or the Millennial generation (Vice and Complex Media). 
Rule 2. Develop quality content with an authentic voice. You may not like everything you see on Vice, but you have to admit it is authentic. And here are three words of advice as to the content you should endeavor to generate: Video, video and video. 
Rule 3. Create community through active inter-activity.  Upworthy was founded to find emotionally and intellectually compelling material and then make it as viral as possible through the use of clever headlines, clever copy and extra emphasis – you may have heard this one before – on video. Longform does roughly the same thing by curating and sharing links to well reported, well written and, yes, long articles. Taking community-building to another level, Food 52 actually was started to crowdsource recipes for a cookbook. After the book was published, the community kept growing organically and its founders  –  two women who head a staff composed almost entirely of fellow female foodies – wisely decided to go along for the ride. 
Rule 4. Build quality traffic. As important as growing traffic is to proving the strength and viability of a nascent site, several entrepreneurs stressed that they are more concerned with the quality than the quantity of the page views they attract. To measure quality traffic, they monitor the types of stories their users select, the time they spend on site and the ways that they share content with others. Several publishers explicitly avoid running stories that could be construed as clickbait in favor of articles appealing to the readers they aim to attract.  “This doesn't mean we won't run stories about Mark Zuckerberg's dog,” said Henry Blodgett, the founder and chief executive of Business Insider. “It turns out that people who are interested in his dog are interested in serious business stories, too.”      
Rule 5. Diversify your revenue streams, as follows: 
Sponsored content. Most of the sites are doing sponsored content, paid advertising or whatever you want to call it.  Roads and Kingdoms, a site that melds travel tips and serious  journalism, is hired by brands to produce what they call “off-site” sponsored content that doesn’t usually run on its own site. 
Technology tools.  Atavist built a content-management system to create the great-looking longform articles it wanted to feature in its eMagazine. Now, platform licenses are a major revenue stream for the company.  
Content syndication. Vice has a video deal with HBO and is about to launch a new 24-hour cable channel with the Arts and Entertainment Network.  Meanwhile, Atavist in some months generates the largest proportion of its revenues by selling the movie rights to the original stories it runs. 
Memberships.  Because most sites are intent on growing traffic, they tend to avoid the paywalls so popular among legacy publishers. The start-ups see paywalls not as revenue opportunities but, instead, as barriers to acquiring new subscribers. However, they implement paid services when they feel they can deliver sufficient value to make them desirable. Skift is generating a third of its sales by selling access to specially produced monthly reports that provide deep insights to industry leaders. Other publishers are thinking about ways to create premium access opportunities but aren't in a hurry to do anything that might constrain their growth.  
Merchandising.  This opportunity runs the gamut from generating commissions on the sale of iTunes playlists to merchandise orders placed at Amazon.Com. A third of revenues at Food 52 comes from the sale of kitchen gear, including products like the handmade, wooden biscuit cutters that are available exclusively on its site.
Physical media.  A subset of merchandising is the sale of books, videos and other media produced by the digital site. The cookbook published by Food 52 is an example of this. Vice Magazine, the cornerstone of the global hip-hop empire, continues to be available in print, too. 
Events.  Companies like Skift and Business Insider conduct annual events to not only build revenues and community but also to position themselves as thought leaders in the verticals they hope to dominate.  “It is better to do one big event well than to try to do a lot of small ones,” advises Rafat Ali, the founder and CEO of Skift.   
Advertising.  Although some sites depend on advertising more than others, most of the new media entrepreneurs agree that banner advertising supplied by networks represents what one called “a race to the bottom” in terms of quality and yields.  The most successful sites – like Business Insider and Vice – sell most of their advertising directly at respectable, double-digit CPMs, as opposed to filling their inventory with network-generated advertising that yields low rates while often delivering spots that detract from the editorial environment they are seeking to maintain.  When sites do use network advertising, they exercise close controls on the quality of the ads and often insist on guaranteed minimums from network partners. 
Taken together, the diversity of the start-ups in this sampling demonstrates that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to levitating a new digital publishing venture. All of the entrepreneurs will tell you that it takes a lot of trial and error to find what works. But first and foremost, they say, you have to be willing to try.