Unsolicited advice to Gannett, from a shareholder

Shark
Shark by Brian Shamblen from Flickr

Before offering this advice, I should disclose that I am a Gannett shareholder as a result of being a former Gannett employee. My position with Gannett as an executive editor over a few of its small papers in Wisconsin was eliminated a little more than a year ago in a round of budget cuts. I’ve actually come out of that really well despite the position disappearing sooner than I anticipated, but as a shareholder by default of their 401K plan, I have legitimate concerns about Gannett’s expansion strategy.

Here is my advice not only as a shareholder but as someone who makes pretty good money giving such advice to media companies:

  1. Your USA Today Network strategy makes sense. Your local-to-national strategy does not. Your acquisition strategy makes less than no sense. Your Q3 results show that while you’re buying scale and adding revenue, you’re also adding costs at an unsustainable rate, especially with the double-digit quarterly decline in print advertising. If Wolfgang Blau of Conde Nast says the “war for scale” is over, why do you think your business is different?
  2. Look at your advertising base. You leave a lot of money on the table locally because you can’t afford to chase it on your cost base. The cost of acquisition for small local businesses’ ads in many small markets is too high for you. Your ad base is regional and national, not local in any meaningful way below a certain floor. That’s your business, and you need to build your content strategy off of that. (It’s also the reality of much of the media market in 2016.)
  3. On that assumption that you have a regional-to-national business rather than a local-to-national business, you should sell off the vast majority of what I’d call your hyperlocal properties, small sites like those I used to manage. Believing that the number of print properties you have translates into reach in 2016 is outdated print thinking that you need to jettison. You’re looking at consolidation through the wrong lens: Lots of properties != profit. If newspaper scale based on property count was the solution, it would have worked long ago. It hasn’t. Moreover, as Ken Doctor points out, the Street doesn’t believe you can wring out as much as savings as you think you can. Keep some local staff around the state, but be strategic about it. Look at your numbers, how often is there a story from these small sites that grabs national attention?
  4. Use the proceeds of these sales to buy a tent-pole property in as many states as makes sense. That’s the basis of a regional-to-national strategy, one that is built on  sensible cost basis. It gives you scale without the costs, tightly focused execution and dramatically fewer print properties to try to manage. You have been so focused on cost cutting at a ridiculous number of properties that the product and your focus on execution have suffered. Regional products will be stronger and more sustainable than local or hyperlocal.
  5. In states where you don’t have a property or it’s uneconomic to buy one, launch digital regional properties. It’s more cost effective, and it gives you a good place to experiment without print legacy costs or thinking. Or partner and invest in properties like the Texas Tribune. A national expansion strategy will have to be creative and use different tactics based on the realities of different markets and regions across the country. This is guerrilla warfare for your future. Be creative and nimble, not corporatist and monolithic in your approach.
  6. Get deadly serious about your customer data. I know that is part of your strategy, but if you want respect from the Street again, you need to put that front and centre. You’re still drowning in the red ocean of print and struggling in the red ocean of digital advertising where Google and Facebook, with their superior ad tech and mountains of data, are the Great White Sharks gobbling up the market and leaving little but scraps for the rest. The media companies that come out the end of this Great Disruption will be focused on their content and commercial customers. This is the Bletchley Park Project for media. Crack the code of data or resign yourself to annihilation.

Let me end with this question: Did a Last Dead Man Walking strategy in print ever make any sense considering the swoon in print advertising over the past decade? Do you want to be a consolidator in a business sector in decline or a disruptor of your own business and others so you might have a future?*

* My day rates are well within your budget.

US newspapers lost advertising revenue found

And why the answer to the problem is not about scale. 

Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook.
Thomas Baekdal compares the decline of advertising revenue for US newspapers with the rising ad revenue of Google and Facebook. Full post at http://bit.ly/2cLUkYb

Everyone in media in the US saw the graph a couple of years ago showing the cliff that the newspaper industry has fallen off with respect to advertising revenue since the beginning of the first decade of the 21st Century thanks to a simple bit of graphing by Mark J. Perry.

Now, media watchers have added the numbers and shown where that money went. Ben Thompson of the Stratechery blog added in Facebook’s revenue rise to show one reason why newspapers in the US are facing even greater headwinds, even as the US economy starts to show a little more life. Thomas Baekdal took it one step further, adding in Google’s revenue. It almost mirrors the decline of newspaper advertising, although Google’s rise seems a bit steeper.

I want to make an important point, though: Google didn’t actually kill the newspaper advertising market. Google replaced it with an entirely different market. It’s the same money, but Google isn’t in the same market as the newspapers. It instead created its own market and brands decided that was a better place to be.

I would also say that Google, via its Android mobile OS, also shifted its advertising model deftly to mobile. When you combine this graph with Mary Meeker’s graph about the attention minutes that people spend, you see why Google’s growth continues.

Mary Meeker's 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO
Mary Meeker’s 2016 comparison between the percentage of time that people in the US spend with their mobile devices and the difference in mobile ad spending. Full presentation available here http://bit.ly/2dE9vUO

In the US alone, Meeker estimates that there is a $22 b opportunity in the difference between the amount of attention that people are spending with their mobile devices and mobile advertising spend.

But it is not all doom-and-gloom. Baekdal also points out:

This is an incredibly important distinction to understand. Google isn’t winning because it’s big or that it has so much more scale. It’s winning because it created a way for people to have high-intent moments, which brands can reach with their ads.

We have shifted from having a single advertising market (all based on low-intent exposure), to having two different advertising markets… and the media only fits into one of them.

I would counter that the old print mass media fit into the scale model. However, there are many other media businesses that were never about scale, and if you look at some of the models that are showing success, they are about finding a committed niche, whether geographical or topical and serving it well. That might be B2B media, such as Rafat Ali’s travel business focused Skift, which just announced a new vertical to tackle, Chefs & Tech. In Tulsa Oklahoma, The Frontier has 500 subscribers, as of April, willing to pay $30 a month for local investigative journalism. De Correspondent in the Netherlands broke 40,000 subscribers last December.

Of course, this is all about reader revenue, not necessarily how to replace the fat revenue that advertising used to deliver to local newspapers. I don’t think that ad revenue will ever come back so we need to find a new model for local news and information, and I don’t think the answer is scale. Media cannot scale cost effectively to compete with Google and Facebook.

As for new models, maybe we already have one in the US, TV, but that isn’t going to go as deeply local as newspapers once did. But I think we’ll see more experimentation in local news media over the coming years supported by truly local entrepreneurs. But sometimes it’s good to know what isn’t working so you can move on to try other things.

The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.

My interview on TRT about Arianna Huffington stepping down from the Huffington Post

TRT World in Turkey interviewed me about the legacy of Arrianna Huffington as she stepped down as editor-in-chief from the ground-breaking site that bears her name. I will count myself as one of the sceptics when the site was launched, but I was happy to have been proven wrong.

The Huffington Post did create a new model for content in the digital era. On the plus side, it is good to see something that has worked, but on the downside, I see that model as creating as much content as possible for as cheaply as possible, which negatively impacts those who try to make a living from their creative efforts. It’s alumni also have made their mark, especially Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed.

When I was asked why she stepped down, I alluded to talk about her influence being diluted after Verizon bought Yahoo, which had bought the Huffington Post. But I also see another reason. In 2016, general news and comment sites like the Huffington Post are a lot more difficult to build into a successful media company, but the focused sites like the health site that she will now focus on are seeing much greater success.