The Pivot to Paid in Podcasting and Vulture Fund, Alden Global, Under Investigation

The front view of what once was the the USA Today/Gannett Building in McLean, Virginia. It still houses USAToday and Gannett, but also Tegna, the former broadcasting division of Gannett, which was spun off in 2015.

The front view of what once was the the USA Today/Gannett Building in McLean, Virginia. It still houses USAToday and Gannett, but also Tegna, the former broadcasting division of Gannett, which was spun off in 2015. Photo: Patrick Neil, Wikimedia Commons

Right, it’s been a busy day in my newsroom as we handle the release of the Mueller Report, redacted, but still full of interesting tidbits. If you want to get a searchable version, let me recommend going to The Bulwark, an interesting site and podcast from some Never Trump US conservatives.

Now back to what we do here: Filter out the daily news and noise and get to the international media intelligence that you need. On days like this, it is actually harder. (Tomorrow will be even more challenging, but I’ve already got some great reads queued up.) I have two top stories in today’s newsletter.

  1. What the pivot to paid content means for podcasting , Digiday
  2. And news that the vulture fund, Alden Global Capital, wanting to buy Gannett (a former employer) is under federal investigation for investing nearly $250 m of its newspaper employee money in its own funds. (WaPo $$)

In addition to my two top stories, we also have:

The science of why humans are so susceptible to misinformation. How anti-Muslim disinformation spread after the Notre Dame fire. Journalists have nothing to fear from AI in the newsroom. Chinese Android apps from big developer committed ad fraud.

If you spot a good story about the business of media, especially digital, feel free to send it to me @kevglobal on Twitter. If you don’t get my international media newsletter in your inbox, you can get a taste of it and subscribe here

Zuckerberg’s Magical Garden of Horrors Has Another Bad Day

The statue of a dinosaur eating a smaller dinosaur.A metaphor for yet another bad day at Facebook.

A dino has dinner. A metaphor for yet another bad day at Facebook. Photo by Mike Bird from Pexels

Pick your adjective or metaphor when it comes to Facebook’s current run of horrible, awful, no good press. And this isn’t just an optics or PR thing. Facebook is embattled because it has:

  1. Screwed up, repeatedly.
  2. Can’t or won’t, or a mix of both, seem to fix its problems.
  3. And is in a footrace with Trump’s West Wing in terms of a petty, backstabbing leakfest.

In the newsletter today, we highlight a couple of stories yesterday that make for yet another shitty day in Zucklandia. Wired dropped a story with 65 sources talking about “15 months of fresh hell” at the anti-social behaviour network. And NBC reported a leak of thousands of documents that show that Facebook used data to reward its friends and punish or at least kneecap potential competitors. The second story is the kind of stuff that would instantly see Facebook in anti-trust court if the US actually enforced anti-trust laws anymore. Oh Europe, where are you when the world needs you?

But that’s not all today, we also have:

Scandi publishing giant Schibsted joins complaint against Apple’s app dominance. Vox Media acquires publisher with history of turning journalism into movie deals. Publishers turn to ‘expert networks’. UX lessons still be learned from print.

If you spot a good story about the business of media, especially digital, feel free to send it to me @kevglobal on Twitter. If you don’t get my international media newsletter in your inbox, you can get a taste of it and subscribe here

 

Can US Public Media Buying News Startups Stem the Crisis in Local Journalism?

A mic with the NPR (National Public Radio) flag at their headquarters in Washington DC.

A mic with the NPR (National Public Radio) flag at their headquarters in Washington DC. by Ted Eytan, Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

I wrote about public media groups in the US buying digital local news sites last month for What’s New in Publishing last month after Colorado Public Radio bought Spirited Media’s Denverite. This isn’t really a new trend with St. Louis Public Radio buying the St. Louis Beacon more than five years ago, but we have more examples recently. And now with Philadelphia’s WHYY buying Spirited Media’s original site, Billy Penn, we have another example of this interesting effort by public media groups to scale their digital audiences and ambitions through acquisition.

In my international media newsletter today, we have a couple of pieces looking at the acquisition as well as this in a jam-packed edition:

What will journalists do with the 5G wireless? LSE research role to study AI and news. NYT CEO: Publishers can’t build business model on cuts. Drone journalism tips and more (including Vice’s latest sign of weakness and lack of focus).

If you spot a good story about the business of media, especially digital, feel free to send it to me @kevglobal on Twitter.

If you don’t get my international media newsletter in your inbox, you can get a taste of it and subscribe here

 

Why freelancers should start a podcast Plus networking or introverts

Shy Greek Sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago

Shy Greek Sculpture, by Alan Levine, from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

Good Monday morning! In my international media newsletter today, we hear from my friend Suchandrika Chakrabarti on 7 reasons a freelance journalist should start a podcast. I met her when I was doing consulting and training for her former employer, then Trinity-Mirror, now Reach in the UK. It’s a great post, and I think if you have love audio and have a niche that you’re passionate about, podcasts can be a great addition to a freelancer’s repertoire.

Apart from other industry news today, we also have another bit of sage, actionable advice: If you’re an introvert attending a media festival for the first time, this is for you. Janie Octia of Splice, which aims to become the Nieman Lab/Digiday of Southeast Asia, gives advice for how to get the most out of media conferences if you’re not an extroverted über-networker. I raise my hand to that. I’ve had to learn networking. It didn’t come naturally to me. I still struggle to break the ice, but once I do, I found that I best understand networking (or blogging) as sharing mutual professional passions.

If you don’t get my international media newsletter, you can get a taste of it and subscribe here

The State of Media: Blind Men Looking at an Elephant

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō, Public Domain, from Wikimedia

I’m slightly introspective and philosophical after putting together today’s newsletter, and I’m reminded about the old parable of blind men describing an elephant by touch. We all speak from our own limited experience and perspective, and that governs what we see.

Has the publishing industry got its mojo back – at least when it comes in pushing back against the big tech platforms – as Jason Kint of Digital Content Next argues? And is this going to lead to a media renaissance? Or is it depressing to be an investigative journalist in an era where crushing student debt limits limit who can operate in that space? And a number of experienced journalists have had to leave the field due to job cuts? Both things can be true. There are green shoots of optimism and growth, especially at national outlets, but in a lot of markets and especially at the local level, it’s tough to be a journalist, investigative or otherwise.

I hope you enjoy today’s dose of Hegelian dialectic. (There is a much longer story about that, but you’ll have to buy me a beer or wait for the book. Yes, there will be a book.) There is a couple of duelling views on the arrest of Julian Assange. And as VR hype cools at media groups, it is being replaced by AR hype.

To subscribe to the newsletter, it’s over here. Have a great weekend.

Austrian Publisher Finds Secret to Video Revenue

The homepage of Austria's Die PresseIn today’s newsletter, we look to Austria. Pivot to video became a much-maligned strategy, especially for digital pure plays that were focused on video as a way to grow organically on Facebook with the idea that they could somehow, some way monetise that audience. Nope. But now, Die Presse in Austria has found some new tricks that are at least driving revenue for their video efforts, Digiday reports. (I’m wary of saying something is profitable just because it earns money.) And that revenue came after six years of losses. Two of the tactics for the turnaround:

  • Autoplay but muted sound
  • They now add video to their own stories as well as licence it elsewhere using video platform Video Intelligence. That increased pre-roll impressions from 300,000 to 31 m.

In the rest of the newsletter, we have:

How Charleston paper grew subs by 250%. The best mobile journalism apps of 2019. The New York Times will sell ads based on the emotional response to an article. Facebook changes the News Feed in attempt to stop disinformation. What revenue streams work?

To get this directly in your inbox, subscribe here.

 

Newsletters are the “zero subscription”

The word newsletter on a page typed on an old typewriter. Photo by George Hodan, Public Domain

The word newsletter on a page typed on an old typewriter. Photo by George Hodan, Public Domain

At the risk of sounding repetitive, in today’s newsletter, I highlight newsletters. I am incredibly focused on this in my current role because of the overwhelming evidence that this is one of the best ways to growth subscriptions or membership. Today, we have another data point from Switzerland and NZZ. From a review of their efforts in Digiday:

The publisher has a data science team of nine people working on propensity models. A recent analysis looking at all registered users over the last eight months found that those who had signed up to two or more newsletters have the highest subscription conversion rate.

I was at the Google News Initiative Summit a couple of weeks ago, and one of their product managers called newsletters the “zero subscription” because their data has shown it is the most important first step that content companies can take in their efforts to grow subscribers and members. I’ll have more about that in my next piece for What’s New in Publishing.

And if you aren’t signed up for my newsletter, you can subscribe here.

Journalism 2019: A year of hard graft

Nic Newman was one of the three people who interviewed me for the role of the BBC News Online’s first overseas journalist based in Washington (a few liftetimes ago), and we have stayed in touch. I am one of the hundreds of digital leaders he reaches out to every year to inform his annual predictions. This is what I wrote to him in full albeit slightly edited for his 2019 edition of a look ahead to the year.

1.     What was the most significant development in 2018 in terms of digital media?

I think we’ve reached an end to this round of the innovation cycle with respect to digital media, the Rise of the Platforms. Let me explain. Gartner has its Hype Cycle, but over the years, I’ve begun to see an Innovation Cycle in terms of digital media. We see a period where a new idea or usually group of ideas emerges. It is tested, and then we see wider adoption until we start to explore the limits of that idea. After that adoption, we usually a lull before we see another flowering of ideas. Sometimes, the lull is down to an economic trough such as following the crash after the dot.com boom, and sometimes it is simply the playing out of an idea, such I think we’re seeing with platform-focused strategies in media, well as well as the strategies of the social media platforms themselves.

It’s more cost effective for Google and Facebook to reach billions than it is for news content companies to reach millions…

As an example, think about the metered paywall by the New York Times. Yes, it was pioneered by others, namely the Financial Times, but the New York Times won over sceptics who thought it only worked for financial publications. Then we saw wider adoption of the idea: The pivot to reader revenue.

Let me lay out a few epochs that I have seen:

• The dot.com boom. – Digital Media emerges

• The Web 2.0 era. – Networked Media emerges.

• The Rise of the Duopoly – Consolidation.  (I originally wrote The Rise of the Platforms, but it really is more about the rise of Facebook and Google.)

We’re coming to the end of the Rise of the Duopoly and what that means for media. Google and Facebook are globally dominant – apart from the Russo and Sino-spheres – when it comes to digital advertising, and I think pretty much everyone understands it. Everything that has happened is in some way a response to that. Of course, during this particular epoch, other things happened, but they have been driven by the rise of these platforms. Yes, print has declined or, in some countries – such at the US – one could say is in the process of collapse, but one of the challenges that they face in their efforts to transition to digital business models is down to the dominance of the Duopoly.

There has been a lot of focus on the consolidation in the VC-funded digital media start-up space, but that was bound to happen sometime. And that consolidation has been going on for two years, and again, that has been driven by the Rise of the Duopoly. VCs want growth. They demand scale. But those pursuing scale don’t understand that it’s more cost effective for Google and Facebook to reach billions than it is for news content companies to reach millions, and that’s just on the editorial side. On the advertising side, Google and Facebook have built technologies that are more efficient at reaching their billions than news content companies’ technology to reach millions.

I hope that the humbling of companies like Mic and Mashable, which sold for a fraction of their worth as reflected in their funding rounds, is a wake up call that the scale strategies that were fundamental to mass media in the 20th Century operate differently for original content companies in the 21st Century due to the differences in economics between platforms and content companies.

And this collapse of the scale strategies isn’t limited to startups but should be clear in the failed consolidation strategies in the US and UK for legacy publishers. These roll-ups haven’t delivering long-term sustainability but have only bought a little time to figure out a longer term strategy at best, or in the case of Alden Global been a way for a handful of hedge fund managers to enrich themselves at the cost of staff, communities and society. Legacy scale strategies are based on the idea that economies of scale wring out cost in a business, but if that new combined business cannot reverse revenue declines, that business will still fail. How many times have seen these combined businesses deliver and enterprise that is less than the sum of its parts, whether that was AOL-Time Warner or the large newspaper chains?

We know some strategies that work, largely around reader revenue, focusing on a small but lucrative niche – Skift focused on the business of travel or Penny Hoarder focused on millennials making less than $50,000 – or businesses focused on affiliate marketing, Penny Hoarder again or the Wirecutter.

In my idea of an innovation cycle, we will see companies fine tune their strategies and get their heads down on executing them. At some point in 2019, we’ll enter an economic downturn, and that is never a good time for media businesses. For those who have built out solid reader revenue strategies, they will have some insulation from the ravages of the economic cycle, but for others, there isn’t a lot of good news. You look at the Gannetts of the world, and they saw their profits dwindle this year even in arguably the best economy the US has seen since 1969. If they can’t grow aggressively in an up cycle, then it is sobering to think of what happens as the cycle reverses. We’re already seeing it as a majors in media and advertising – WPP, Reuters and others – are cutting staff now. That to me is the canary in the coal mine. The media business cycle is turning even before as many media companies struggle to right their businesses. 

2.     Any thoughts on one key development in 2019

2019 will be a year of optimising these business models and building out businesses. As we saw after the dot.com boom, there will be innovation, but it will be quiet as attention turns to survival for some of the big beasts.

We begin 2019 with a scepticism about social media that will open up opportunities for new spaces in media. Messaging has been and will be an interesting space to watch as more people turn away from open social networks to quieter, more closed spaces.

Just as with the beginning of the Web 2.0 era, the changes will initially fly under the radar, but when they come into the mainstream, they will drive the next round of innovation.

If I were watching one development, I would say it is around the development of the video market. Facebook continues to try to go after the multi-billion TV advertising market with video strategies. As I write this, they are again pulling back support for news on their Watch platform, and there are reports that they are in talks with HBO. Are they trying to recreate a cable network? I shake my head at the increasing desperation Facebook has with their video strategies.

But beyond Facebook and its flailing attempts to crack the video market, I think it will be interesting to watch what happens in the pay TV market in the US. What does this have to do with journalism? Most cities and towns in the US have three or four local TV stations, and as local newspapers continue to cut, more local news coverage falls on these local TV stations. The local TV stations or more to the point, the groups that own them, are flush with political advertising cash.

Journalism 2019: Don’t stop at hello

Hello … by Iain Farrell

A few years ago I spoke about Peak Content, the distortions that I saw in the Attention Economy. As I wrote then:

The democratisation of production brought by digital technology has made it easier than ever for people to create content, but it has also made it more difficult than ever to get paid to create it, both for individual creators and many companies. This cannot last.

When I wrote that two years ago, venture-capital funded digital media companies were ascendent, and with money flowing from VCs and the funds of legacy media companies, it seemed like we were set to see a new wave of truly digital native media companies unbound by legacy concerns.

Unfortunately, even at that time, it was clear that a digital shake-out was beginning, and it only accelerated in 2018. And sadly, for all of the money poured into these start-ups, I don’t think we’ve really moved the dial much. I mean, Buzzfeed has gone from native advertising pioneer to flogging tote bags in a half-baked membership scheme.

Where does that leave us?

I recently spoke with Emily Lowes with the Online Journalism Blog about the daily newsletter that I’ve been writing for the last six months or so. Refining what I said to Emily, my newsletter is grounded in my view that one of the things that is broken in the Attention Economy is the glut of content.

One of a journalist’s roles is to help people understand what to pay attention to. And in a world where there are so many things – many of them good, some of them excellent – to pay attention to, a trusted guide is invaluable.

Like the Nieman Lab piece which talks about blending algorithms and AI with traditional journalism skills (“growing hooves” as the author calls it) I have always sought ways to use technology to help me filter information, find patterns and, to be honest, cut out repetitive tasks. I’d rather robots do the robotic work so I can focus on the human part.

That’s why I use Nuzzel for my personal newsletter. It is the latest tool to use social media networks to filter content and pick out what’s relevant to my professional interests.

But no matter how sophisticated the technology, I have always found that I need to periodically retune my filters. At the moment I have to wade through more content than I would like because of all the noise generated out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that journalists share on Twitter. If I were starting from scratch with Nuzzel, I would create a very finely curated Twitter list with media business professionals who mostly tweeted about strategy and who did little media criticism.

Suw also tells me that Nuzzel has proven less effective for niche subjects, such as the women in STEM content that she’s looking for. She’s actually been having to search elsewhere for content to put into a daily Nuzzel newsletter but, with only 60 subscribers, she’s moving to a weekly schedule to cut down the time demands.

Learning How to Earn Attention

But the biggest challenge is that there are so many things vying for our attention that building an audience is one of the key challenges in the 21st Century for a content maker. A newsletter is a good place to learn lessons on how to earn attention and build that audience.

You can learn not only curation and reporting, but also how to build a voice and a brand. I didn’t learn this at journalism school, but I have learned them throughout my career not only as a journalist but also as a business owner.

Constantly Learning

The other point I was trying to make in my interview with Emily is that newsletters are also a good format for journalists to learn how to use data to learn how to better serve audiences. Nuzzel emails me every week to let me know the stories that my subscribers read, and it gives me subtle cues on what they are most interested in. As much as this might sound like a cliche, my readers seem to respond most to actionable intelligence, strategies that they can apply, and developments with respect to the social platforms.

Throughout my career, I have always been challenged by people who say that by taking the pulse of my audience like this that I’m pandering to the audience or veering towards producing clickbait.

It all depends on what you’re using the data to optimise for. I never lose sight of my public service mission. And for those who say using data to maximise impact I would say this: If you create a piece of journalism that no one watches, listens to or reads, have you actually committed an act of public service?

From Platforms to Personal Commitment

And that brings me to my final point. For the last few years, there was such an obsessive focus on platforms that we mistook ‘Hello’ for ‘I love you’. What I mean by that is that there were strategies that thought the platforms were the end goal. Instead, platforms should be considered the top of the conversion funnel – the hello, the introduction to our journalism and to our brands.

What we need to do is cement that relationship with our audience, our customers, our public, and newsletters are a good next step after the platform. For some businesses like The Skimm, the newsletters are so well done, the engagement strategies so effective, that they are a standalone product unto themselves.

For many other brands, like The New Yorker, newsletters are integral on the journey from hello to I love you, from casual consumer to subscriber. As the data scientists at The New Yorker found out, the single strongest predictor of whether someone will subscribe to The New Yorker is whether they first subscribe to one their newsletters.

Success depends upon developing strategies that invite a deeper connection to your journalism, from the casual user via social or search to a newsletter subscriber to an app user to a paying subscriber or a member. It takes determination, focus and patience. Here’s to beginning that journey.

Hire a journalist, you’ll get a lot of talent

As I walked in the door as a regional executive editor with Gannett in 2014, the features editor over the two newspapers I managed walked out the door, and so began the next 21 months during which only a couple of weeks I wasn’t recruiting. I wouldn’t have managed nearly as well as I did without a solid HR partner who helped me navigate the internal processes and also hone my skills as a manager. In the second year in the role, the recruiting crunch went to an entirely new level as I had nine open positions across four papers with a total headcount of 32. And of those nine open positions, three were for the four management positions at the papers.

I lost count how many resumes/CVs I looked at. For the entry-level reporting positions, many were people in other industries hoping to get a break or simply applying to meet an unemployment benefit requirement, but for the management positions, I saw a lot of resumes where the stories were fractured. These were not the tidy resumes of someone effortlessly climbing a career ladder. Some had left journalism for a time or drifted in and out of the industry. I remember interviewing one woman who was working in communications for the state of Minnesota and had read some of my blog posts and was excited about the opportunity of getting back into the industry and working together. Unfortunately, I knew that the position she was interviewing for would most likely be closed not long after we could have offered it to her. And I remember one person – who I eventually hired – and that one of my HR partners said had a resume that didn’t make sense. To which I replied, “Show me a mid-career journalist who has a resume that makes sense.”

Failing to impress the algorithms

Journalism – especially print journalism – was only one of many industries that took a beating in the Great Recession, but what a beating it took. As Pew recently reported, newsroom – digital, print and broadcast – employment has fallen by 23 per cent since 2008. In the same period, newspaper newsroom employment fell by a stomach-churning 45 per cent.

From October 2015 until February of this year, I held two full-time jobs. I was building a successful international digital media consultancy, and I was a job seeker, albeit most of my job search took the form of trying out future employers as clients. It was by far the oddest job search I have ever had. (I’ll detail all of the really odd behaviours in another post.) I hadn’t sent job applications out into the ether since my first job, but I can understand why many people became discouraged. You send them out into the great void rarely to hear anything back.

Do a search on resume algorithms or ATS and algorithms, and you’ll find that you’re not having to impress HR staff or hiring managers, you’re trying to catch the attention of algorithms or ATS – applicant tracking systems. As Muse says:

Undoubtedly, this saves HR managers the time and trouble of sorting through irrelevant, underprepared, and weak resumes to find the golden candidates. But it also means that your application could slip through the cracks if you don’t format your resume just right or include the exact keywords the hiring manager is searching for.

I broke one of Muse’s prime bits of advice, I stuffed my resume with keywords. No, that didn’t work. And I did feel as if I was flying blind at times as I applied for jobs in digital fields outside of journalism. I have to thank a couple of friends and a few recruiters who gave me advice on how to re-format my resume for non-journalism jobs. But I rarely was interviewed by employers outside of media, apart from a couple of times. Those times were usually due to extraordinary interventions by people in my network.

Journalists’ transferable skills

Fortunately, I didn’t have to transfer out of journalism or media, and I’m incredibly happy that I found not just a job but very much the right job for me in the right place. But there are so many journalists on the market right now, that many will have to complete a career pivot.

And this is my plea to hiring managers: Hire a journalist. Journalists, especially those with digital experience, are incredibly valuable employees. We’ve had to fight for customers (audiences) in a highly competitive market. We know how to work Google and social media to reach customers (audiences), and we know how to communicate. Many of us have run marketing campaigns on Facebook or possibly using Google AdWords. They work in highly data-driven businesses and have used digital analytics packages including Omniture, Google Analytics, Chartbeat or Parse.ly to grow their businesses. Many of us have great multimedia skills and know how to create videos that engage social media audiences.

I am quite happy in my new role, but there are a lot of other journalists, editors and multimedia producers out there like me. If you want to hire one of them, please get in touch. I know a few who are looking.