Let’s Get Started. The Future Is Our’s To Make

Anybody out there want to get something started?  This is a call to anyone and everyone interested in exploring some of the possibilities of the new emerging media landscape.

For a long time now, we’ve been saddled with a somewhat ineffective and unresponsive media more concerned with its own ability to generate nice working margins for its corporate masters than any particular use or value to us, the people who buy, read and pay to advertise in their products.  I’ll be the first to tell you that the last five years have been brutal for traditional media.  In the past, I’ve mentioned how this half-decade has seen the industry itself contract to the tune of nearly half its size.  And with that, we’ve seen deeper and deeper cuts to the very elements that attracted us to them in the first place.  And let me ask, how many of you were satisfied with the performance of these publications before this happened?

I can recall hearing complaints about some of our local print entities for as long as I’ve been able to read.  At this point, how much legitimate long-term value do they still have?  And how much longer will they be able to maintain even that lessened state at the current and still-ongoing rate of loss?  Even the most optimistic projections are expecting quarterly losses well into the double digits for at least the rest of this year, and probably longer if some magic pill doesn’t arrive and fix our ailing economy and somehow manages to re-sell everyone on print advertising at the previous rate structure that has lost so much of its luster due to new, different, much more efficient and significantly cheaper alternatives.

Like it or not, our newspaper and publication industry is nearly entirely dependent on advertising to support its high cost structure, and advertising and marketing opportunities and getting more plentiful every day, and that pressure is driving the pricing structure consistently downward.  Even if the ads return, which is far from guaranteed, they won’t be at the prices they had been in the past, which means even more salespeople will need to be hired, even more ads will need to be sold, even more pages printed and distributed, and even deeper cutbacks in non-direct revenue generating areas like content necessary just to stay in business.  This is the very definition of a death spiral, ladies and gentlemen, and barring some great unforeseen savior, such as the sudden ability to print reams of material completely free of charge, there’s no stopping it.

And make no mistake, the reason why these large publishers haven’t already migrated to more mobile, internet dependent formats is because they can’t.  The costs are far too divergent for any kind of transition to be practical.  Basically, it would be more useful to shut the place down, sell off anything not nailed down, and start over than to do any kind of effective migration.  These are business people, after all.  If they could have pulled this off, they already would have.  How many industries have you seen lose half of its business inside of five years and not respond in any meaningful way other than cut expenses and try to wait it out?  Well, industries that didn’t ultimately end up shuttering the doors, anyway?  To me, it’s like standing on the deck of a sinking boat and hooking up a bilge pump, hoping it can pump the water out faster than its pouring into the massive gash in the bottom of the hull.  It may hold out for a while, but eventually, that pump will burn up and down you go.

So, as a community, we’re left with a choice of continuing to support fading institutions or doing something about it.  Me, I’m on the side of doing something.  Which is why I’m looking for anyone who might be interested in joining in.  And by anyone, I mean anyone.  Writers, artists, graphic designers, photographers, videographers, musicians, salespeople, financial backers, businesses, civic groups, government organizations;  anyone, professional or otherwise.  All that’s needed is some enthusiasm, a desire to explore what’s coming next, and a belief that you can bring something useful to the table.

For a long time, the local paper has done its best to represent the community, sometimes more successfully than others.  But in the past couple of decades, there have been some unfortunate occurrences for publishing that have left many of us without a key element in our lives, or at least the leftover remnants of what once was.  The first was the trend of media consolidation that gobbled up so many of our local institutions, turning them from unique, responsible members of our communities into cookie-cutter money-makers for the giant corporate entity that owned them.  And these large monsters didn’t just buy up one or two papers, they bought up papers throughout entire regions, controlling the main means of communication for millions of people without even the slightest thought to us other than the revenue we could generate for them, revenue sapped from our local communities to the corporate office sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The second problem is the emergence of the internet as a direct competitor for communication.  Certainly, not everyone is wired in yet, but the possibilities are virtually boundless.  And much like previous technologies such as telephone and electricity service, high-speed internet is quickly becoming a utility in its own right, soon available to all, and very likely soon without the massive infrastructure in wires linking everyone.  This has changed the entire ballgame.  And unless we want the coverage and information of our communities to disappear along with the newspapers when their failing business model finally dies, and the giant corporate institutions discard them and move on to the next industry to rape and pillage for profit, now is the time to do something about it.

I don’t like seeing newspapers reach this point anymore that you do.  I have been a dedicated reader for years.  I used to stop at the small convenience store in my neighborhood growing up to buy a paper every morning before going to school.  It’s why I started working in the field I did; I was so proud the first time my name was on a byline in an actual printed publication.  But even I can’t leave the blinders on any longer.  As much as I would like for newspapers to reclaim their positions of the past, I can’t ignore reality.  They are obsolete, becoming more so with each passing day and improvement in technology.  And what’s worse, they’re expensive to produce, and almost solely dependent on a revenue source that itself is moving on to other ways of doing things.  We can either climb aboard the sinking vessel and pointlessly help them bail, or build a better boat.

So, think about it.  If you are a creative sort of person, the possibilities for things that can now be done must excite you.  If you are a business, the possibilities to better promote what you do has to be attractive, especially with declining ready cash to pay for expensive print ads that are producing less and less value for your money.  If you are someone who simply wants to know about the things going on in your community, the possibility of a genuinely open and engaging world of information must seem like a dream come true.  So many things have changed lately, and so many more are yet to come.  If we don’t want to be left behind, we have to build the future for ourselves.  Lord knows the government’s not going to do it, the corporate publishers aren’t going to do it, no one is going to do it if we don’t step up.

So drop me a line to watershedchronicle@yahoo.com.  The future is just waiting for those who want to take it.  Otherwise, all we’ll be left with is the hollowed out shells of what used to work yesterday.  Think about it, and let me know.  All are welcome.

Published in: on March 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Value of Higher Education

Today, I’d like to engage in an activity that I take no pleasure in.  Well, okay, I do take a little pleasure in it, but I feel kinda guilty about it.  I’m going to be taking to task comments from an ardent print supporter.  First off, read this. It’s kind of fitting that it appears on a website called The Maroon.  According to the Urban Dictionary, maroon is defined as “A term of derision often uttered by Bugs Bunny when referring to an interaction with a dopey adversary.”  Yup, that about covers it.  The truly frightening part is that this guy isn’t just a reporter or some other such hard-line  print fan. Then I could excuse his obvious ignorance of reality, but he actually teaches journalism at Loyola University.  You know the line; Those who can do,those who can’t, etc, etc.

First off, I appreciate his support for an industry that I’ve earned a few bucks working for over the years, but his logic here is fatally flawed.  Let’s just hit a few of the high spots.  I’ll begin with the notion that the physical costs of production for the industry aren’t an increasing problem.  Here’s a quote:

“In a typical newspaper, the actual paper and ink accounts for less than 15 percent of total expenses. The real cost is the people, the journalists who gather and deliver the news day in and day out.

Setting your focus on the ink and paper is short sighted and shows a lack of understanding in how the news industry operates.”

Upon reading this, I immediately had to wonder if this guy had been hanging out on campus for too long. Where exactly has he been working that the writers are the primary expense?  No place I’ve ever experienced.  Sure at one of the few major metro dailies that used to employ newsrooms of hundreds or even thousands, maybe that expense is a major payout, but at the vast majority of publications, the amounts spent on writers and content is far, far from the primary expense.  In fact it’s pretty low on the ladder.  I’ve worked in places where there are more sales managers than reporters.

Not to beat a dead horse, but when objectively looking at the competition for audience, how exactly is the massive expense in paper and ink not a problem when your competitors have none of that?  I have to wonder if he’s just including literally only paper and ink in his 15% calculation, as well.  Because then there’s the costs of operating and maintaining the printing press, the costs of employing all of the people who work in the press room, the cost of actually physically distributing all of those papers, etc, etc.  It’s the very print-centric infrastructure that is the primary thing that makes publishing such an expensive business in the first place, not the writers.

He goes on to blame Craigslist for the print industry’s woes.  Here’s another quote:

“From a consumer’s standpoint, Craigslist is great. It offers free classifieds — something that used to cost money for the typical landlord, or potential employer, or seller of used dishwashers. And how could getting that service for free be a bad thing?

Well, from the news industry’s perspective, those $30 ads used to add up to big money. They used to pay the top salaries for the experienced and best reporters — journalists who are now losing their jobs.”

Have you bought a print help wanted ad lately?  I did not that long ago, and I gotta tell you, I would have been thrilled if it was a $30 ad.  To get the smallest possible ad in the local paper for three days in just one week, the cost was more like $400-$500.  And I’m not even in a major metro area.  One reason why Craigslist became so popular so fast was because the publishers were openly and unapologetically screwing us on the rates.  They knew there were no other viable alternatives for help wanted ads and they systematically soaked those of us who needed it.  In fact, the last bastion of classified revenue left to publishers is legal ads, and just check out the rates on those things.  It won’t be long before the laws that require them to be in print go away, saving municipalities all over the country tons and tons of money they’ve been pouring into their only option, the local paper.

And really, all of that insane profit from classifieds and you honestly think that was what was paying for reporters and not getting sucked upstairs into cushy executive salaries?  Sure, when that money went away, the reporters were the ones who took the fall, but let me ask you, when legal ad revenue disappears a year or two from now, who’re they gonna cut this time?

Of course, he goes on to explain how all those cuts are actually a good thing.  Funny, I don’t think all of those students going into debt paying the exorbitant tuition that pay your salary are going to think it’s such a good thing when they’re working at Starbucks because there are no jobs to speak of in the industry you’re training them to go into, despite your positivity.  And I quote:

“Classifieds and traditional advertising fell a combined 30 percent over three years. In response, newspapers had to cut their expenses accordingly and slashed their staffs by a similar number.

By any measure, it hurts to see veteran news reporters leave their longtime posts. There is no denying that. But, with the dominance of Craigslist, there was also no avoiding it.

The reality, however, is that, far from being an ominous sign, those cuts are actually a healthy move for the industry.

With their leaner personnel roles, newsrooms can continue operating within their tighter post-Craigslist budgets.”

To begin, I would argue the 30% figure.  Industry revenue dropped nearly 30% last year alone, and that was well after Craigslist had already gutted classified revenue.  I have yet to fully understand how eliminating the very people you use to create the products you make money on can be deemed a healthy move, dumping more and more work on a smaller, lower paid group of survivors.  If anything, it’s these very deep cuts in content production that will further expedite their fall.  The internet is quickly making content the only marketable thing they have left.  Advertising and distribution are falling steadily by leaps and bounds, yet publishers are behaving as if this is a temporary blip instead of the major, world-alterting change that it is.  He’s correct in saying that classified revenue isn’t coming back, but the assumption that advertising revenue will come back is simply flat wrong.  The cost of advertising is shrinking by the day, there are more outlets than ever before to promote anything anyone’s heart desires completely independent of print advertising and that’s a problem that’s just going to get worse for publishers.

I’ve saved the best for last.  Here’s another quote:

“And the best news is that advertising traditionally follows the overall economy, and both the economy and advertising are looking up for this year.”

Really?  Again, where are you living?  The only reason there are any positive economic indicators at all are because some businesses are getting a temporary bounce from massive expense cuts and huge government bailouts.  Revenue is flat to negative in virtually all sectors.  The job market is non-existent, and the salaries being paid to the available jobs out there are far from sustainable living wages.  And the notion that advertising is looking up for this year is flat-out wrong.   Read this collection of stats from Alan Mutter, who does a great job compiling data on the industry’s performance.

He suggests that we’re likely looking at drop-offs in the mid-teens so far this year.  Sure, that’s not as bad as last year, but keep in mind, these are year-to-year stats.  We’re talking about a mid-teen drop-off in the first quarter after a 28% decline in the same quarter last year.  If that’s what passes for looking up, I’m glad I’m not a pessimist.  By the way, according to Mutter, since 2005, we’re actually looking at an industry-wide drop of 43% of total business, including 36% in retail advertising and 44% in national advertising.  That’s more than a little bit worse than the 30% quoted by this guy.

Sure, it’s great that he’s being positive, and that he plans to keep reading his print newspaper far into the future.  Of course, that’s assuming anyone can still afford to print one for very much longer.  I understand where here’s coming from, but let’s not be naive.  Print is in serious trouble, and it’s getting worse every day.  If someone who’s supposed to be preparing the next generation of journalists for the future is spewing this unrealistic, rose-colored point of view, that’s just setting some folks up to be seriously disappointed, not to mention perpetually broke.

I’ll end this with one final quote, this one from Paul Gillin, who operates Newspapaer Death Watch, where I ran across this guy’s article in the first place:

“We addressed a class of public relations seniors at a major university last week and asked our usual question: How many of you have read a print newspaper in the last week? Out of a room of 25 students, one hand went up. This is par for the course in our experience with young communicators…”

Out of touch, out of mind, I suppose.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Transitionary Rant: Stuck In A Loop

So I’ve spent the past week thinking things through.  This is a transitionary period for me.  I’ve been working in print for so long that I’ve become too comfortable with it.  Unfortunately, the industry itself isn’t cooperating.  It would be nice to be able to go out and find another job within my comfort zone; something that takes advantage of my skills in ways that I’m used to.  One that pays well would be nice, too, or at least as well as I used to get paid.  Well, those jobs just don’t exist anymore.  Sure, there’s publishing work out there, but it’s few and far between, and getting fewer and even farther between with each passing day.  Plus, there are much safer choices than me out there for companies looking to hire.  To put it somewhat mildly, I can be difficult.  But I’m well worth it.  Besides, the safe choice is almost never the correct one.  Unless you happen to be one of those useless management types who eat up space and resources all the while standing between genuinely good people and the work they believe in.  The safe choice is the only one for them.  They get where they are by being constitutionally unable to stake their reputations, and jobs, on a risk.  In those cases, I’m a pain in the ass, as I’m sure there are a handful of people who can tell you.  If I don’t respect the people I work for, that will eventually show through, try as I might to mask my contempt.  Somewhere, subconsciously, I’ll find the buttons to push that I know will piss you off.  And by now, I’ve learned that I do that kind of stuff on purpose.  I just can’t stand stagnation, and I especially can’t stand people with authority who are useless as tits on a bull.

Unfortunately for me, and the industry itself, publishing is over-populated with useless people in authority.  It used to be that you could avoid those folks, or at the very least mitigate their negative impacts, but that’s become more and more difficult as revenue has continued to fall, and those authority types interject themselves more and more into areas where they have no business being; namely anything to do with actual work.  Just do everyone a favor, stay in your cushy office, file your pointless reports, and get the hell out of everyone else’s way.  There’s real work out here to be done.  But not anymore.  Far too many of these folks have transitioned from occasional oversight to absurd micro-management, and the work has suffered for it across the entire spectrum of publishing.  But for some reason, these people never get fired.  Maybe it’s because they don’t have the gravitas to actually tell the people that deserve it to kiss their ass regardless of the consequences.  Maybe it’s because keeping the paycheck at all costs is more important than the work itself.  Maybe it’s because sucking up really is the best way to get to the top.  Whatever the reason, these people never seem to go away.  They’re like herpes; sure you can go a while without having a problem, but inevitably, those sores will flare up again at the worst possible moment.  This isn’t a problem limited to publishing, either.  Rare is the person who hasn’t encountered one or more or these folks at various places they’ve worked over the years.  I think they’re actually self-perpetuating.  If you run into one of these people somewhere along the way and you don’t speak up or walk out, you eventually become one of them.  I’ve always considered them to be a test of sorts.  Do I really want to compromise myself, my work or my reputation conforming to the demands of someone I wouldn’t trust to clean my toilets?  As long as I’m still able to answer that question with an emphatic “No!” then I figure I’m doing all right, bank account be damned.

So, what’s next?  Well, there’s always the internet.  In fact, you’re only reading this right now because of the web’s amazing ability to allow virtually anyone to do anything their heart desires at little or no cost.  In fact, right this moment, I’m perched in a recliner in my living room, smoking some fine hand-rolled American Spirit tobacco jamming to a little Robert Randolph while writing.  I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I gotta tell you, if that man were to show up at a local Baptist church with his pedal steel, I’d be right there in the front pew bouncing around like I found the Lord.  He’s good.  But my point is that the manner in which we all communicate is very different from what it was when I first started working in publishing, and those differences have not only undermined the industry’s ability to sustain itself financially, but many other industries as well.  It’s a tectonic shift in the way we go about our lives, and we haven’t even begun to fully grasp how things have changed and will continue to change.  The only problem with internet versions of publishing is that there’s no money in it.

Of course, there’s very little money in anything at the moment.  Except health insurance.  The health insurance industry isn’t going to be hurting for cash any time soon thanks to the “reform” bill we’ve all been saddled with.  Thanks a lot, Mr. President.  We weren’t quite broke enough.  I think we just misunderstood his campaign slogan.  When he talked about change, we just assumed he meant doing things differently.  Actually, he meant change as in spare change as in all that we’ll have left over after we finish cashing the checks he’s been writing in our names.  But somehow, I don’t think I’m cut out to work in insurance.  It just seems a tad distasteful to me to earn my living eating up the savings of the sick and dying.

The sad part is that I genuinely love print.  It’s a great medium.  I love working in it, I love reading it, just about everything about it.  Well, except the before-mentioned useless folks, but I already covered that.  I’ve been talking to a lot of people this week, inside publishing and out, casting lines out there looking for work, or at the very least, trying to get a feel for what other people are thinking.  In the process, I came to a rather startling conclusion.  For the past few years of print work, I’ve been ripping people off.  Not literally, of course, but at least unknowingly complicit.  Let me explain.  I had a conversation with a salesman friend of mine the other day who will remain nameless.  He told me a little story.  He was in one of his long-time customer’s stores a few weeks back, trying to sell him an ad when the guy says, “We’ve gotten more feedback and response in two months from our Facebook page than the past two years of advertising.  We set up the Facebook page in an hour and it was free.  In the last two years, we’ve spent eight grand with you.”  My friend looked up at me and said, “How am I supposed to respond to that?”  I just shook my head and he went on: “I went through all the things I was supposed to say about the benefits of our paper, about the exposure, about how he could do things to track his response to the ads better like putting in a coupon, or a different phone line and track the calls to that number.  The whole time I was saying it, it just really felt like bullshit.”  Finally, I asked him, did the guy buy an ad?  “No, he didn’t.  He said ‘Can’t do it this time, try me again next week.”  Now I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that’s customer-speak for ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  And get the hell out.’  My friend knew it, too, which probably explains why he was drinking his third double scotch neat for lunch on a Tuesday.

But there lies the root of the problem.  I’ve always believed that we in publishing had a responsibility to the advertisers to try as hard as we could to make sure they were getting a return on the money they spent with us.  I hadn’t really been aware of it, but this creeping notion that we had, somewhere along the way, changed from selling an actual useful service to selling over-priced snake oil full of empty promises had been growing in me.  It didn’t stop me from collecting a paycheck, but it was there, nonetheless.  And most of the businesses the publications I’ve worked for sold to were of the small variety; the kind of people to whom a couple thousand dollar payout in advertising in a year was the difference in making mortgage payments or not.  They’re the kind of people who absolutely need to get positive response for their money.  I’ve always been aware that there are those in publishing who couldn’t give a rat’s ass if the advertisers got any response so long as we got their check, but I was never one of those.  Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, it began to dawn on me that we weren’t really a good buy for these people anymore, especially as expensive as print is and with money tight as it is today.  When my friend ran through his list of reasons why his customer should buy, a list that I’ve largely used myself in the past to justify what we as an industry do, I really did understand where he was coming from, seeing it clearly for perhaps the first time.  It was bullshit.  And his now-former customer knew it, too.

I had spent at least the past half-decade earning a living, paying my bills, enjoying my lifestyle helping to push a product that had, in general, slowly become a hollow shell of what it was five or ten years ago, without even really noticing.  The prices hadn’t come down any, but the effectiveness of what we were providing had certainly been tainted, alternately by increasing competition for audience with the internet, many more free or low-cost alternatives for businesses to promote themselves and self-inflicted cutbacks to staff, content and readership to protect our own financial houses.  But we had all been so focused on saving our own bacon that any thoughts about the service we were actually providing and whether or not our advertisers were still getting their money’s worth hadn’t even really been considered.  Well, I’m sure as hell considering it now because if they aren’t getting a return on their payouts, then I’m just another parasite sucking away their increasingly hard-earned life-blood.  And as just about everyone knows now, the world is chock full of parasites.  Whatever I choose to do from this point forward, I’m going to have to be certain that the sales pitch is the real deal, that the people paying for what I’m producing have at least a reasonable expectation of getting something useful in return.

No one can guarantee that any ads will provide a direct dollar figure in sales, but we should, at the very least, be acutely aware that when most of the folks ultimately paying our salaries cut us checks, they’re not giving us that money because they’re feeling generous.  They’re taking a risk when they buy an ad; a risk that they’re not wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere; a risk with resources that could be the difference between staying in business and losing everything; a risk that we’re providing the exposure we promise to the audience we claim we can deliver.  We need to respect that risk, appreciate that they chose to take it with us.  They’re not just account numbers on a ledger sheet, they’re people trying to make their lives all they can be.  The least we can do is everything we can to back up our claims, to see that they get a useful return.  And sadly, at this point in time, I’m not convinced print still has that capacity at the prices we have to charge.  How can we ask businesses to take that risk with us when we’re not willing to take any risks ourselves to make the products work as they should?  I may have been a bit willfully blind for a while there, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.

That’s not to say that print advertising is a complete waste of money, just that it’s effectiveness for the price has fallen to the point that it really doesn’t make sense for some of the folks we’ve been suckering into buying ads.  If the cost of the ads were to come down to account for the loss of audience, the declining ad sizes due to paper size cutbacks that are pretty prevalent nowadays (publishers everywhere have been trimming inches like a fat guy stranded in the desert with no donuts) declining page counts, less copies on the street, etc, etc, then maybe I would feel better.  But the dirty little not-so-secret is that we can’t drop the prices appreciably.  Publishing is expensive and most publishers have enormous infrastructures of manpower and equipment to maintain just to be able to stay in business.

“Print is a luxury,” another friend of mine said to me last week.  I think she meant that in comparison to reading on the internet (longer form material versus short snippets, for instance) but the thought holds any way.  It’s a luxury to be able to produce a magazine or a newspaper these days; a luxury to earn a comfortable living working for one; a luxury to be able to afford to advertise in one, but it’s never going to be cheap and quite frequently, as with all things, you end up paying a premium for life’s little luxuries.  And one other trait all luxuries have in common, they’re very rarely necessities.  Print advertising used to be a necessity if you wanted to promote your company on a wide-spread basis.  Not so much anymore as there are many other, infinitely cheaper alternatives that may actually work just as well or better.  How exactly do you go about selling a $500 ad that has an effective life of a week or so to a small business struggling to make ends meet when Facebook and like are infinite and free, and from a direct, tangible feedback point of view, at least appear similarly useful if not more so?  Until we can answer that question adequately enough that it doesn’t come off as bullshit, print’s got an increasingly serious problem.

So what to do?  The problem is that I don’t really know.  No one does, otherwise publishers wouldn’t still be charging head-long after the same shrinking pool of revenue.  I have lots and lots of ideas, but ultimately, I keep coming back to money.  Sure, I can pour all kinds of time and effort into producing material in any number of possible areas of coverage, but how do I get paid for it on a scale that makes sense and accounts even reasonably for those efforts?  It’s a conundrum wrapped up in a mystery.  And as eloquently as I can explain the problem, the people I owe money to aren’t terribly interested in well-thought out and presented excuses that don’t involve fat checks.  So a week’s worth of thinking and self-debate have led me right back where I was last week and the week before that and the week before that.

This is a transitionary period for me.  I’ve been working in print for so long that I’ve become too comfortable with it.  Unfortunately, the industry itself isn’t cooperating.  It would be nice to be able to go out and find another job within my comfort zone; something that takes advantage of my skills in ways that I’m used to.  One that pays well would be nice, too, or at least as well as I used to get paid.  Well, those jobs just don’t exist anymore.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 3:52 pm  Comments (5)  
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Paywalls Are The Answer To A Question Readers Don’t Want Asked

So publishers, upset over dramatically declining ad revenue, have decided to dive back into a largely failed practice of locking up online content behind paywalls to try and siphon some extra money out of their audience.  How is the audience responding to these efforts, you might ask?  Here’s one way. Breakthe paywall.com is a simple browser plugin that deletes cookies from news websites.  This completely undermines the ability of publishers to use programs which allow a limited number of free articles to be read before striking the paywall.  Without the cookies, the websites have no way of tracking how many times, or how many articles a reader has accessed.  Why isn’t this illegal, you may ask?  Well, all the program does is delete cookies.  Anyone with even a modest amount of internet experience can do that on their own with no problem.  Still, I’m sure publishers will have something to say about this at some point.

Last week, I wrote a little about the limited financial  success most publishers have found online. One of my points was that the holy grail of newspaper website paywalls, the Wall Street Journal, was more a result of an audience with ready cash and no desire to circumvent their paywall.  Here’ what I said:

Well, the Wall Street Journal makes money online, you say.  That’s true, but it’s with very specialized information targeted to a key demographic, that being very well-off people who have tons of discretionary income.  That income guarantees that they will take the path of least resistance, i.e. paying for a subscription to the Journal online, rather than find an end-around to their soft paywall to get the stuff for free.  The Journal is only making the money it is because there audience can afford to pay for it and have no reason to circumvent that.  If they did, you can bet they would, and the Journal’s online revenue would plummet accordingly.

Things like Break the Paywall.com  support my assertion that people simply won’t pay for something they don’t really want to, no matter how difficult or locked down publishers try to make their content.  And that’s a losing game in and of itself.  The more publishers sequester their stuff online away from the open internet to support subscription models and paywalls, the less exposure they get, and ultimately, far fewer eyeballs to potentially entice some paying customers.  And that says nothing about declining traffic and how that will impact online ad revenue.

So what’s a publisher to do?  How about the age-old practice of actually providing a product people will willingly pay for? It’s a novel suggestion, I know, but taking the audience for granted has become commonplace in the industry.  Things like this show pretty clearly that the audience may accept that to a point, but when it begins to hit their wallet, they either find an end-around or move on to somewhere else to get their information.  So much for 2010 being the year of the paywall.

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I Got Canned! A Farewell to The Mariner and Chesapeake Bay Boating

So, after nearly a year, I will no longer be the editor of The Mariner.  On the one hand, I’m a little sad that the promise I began with last April went unfulfilled, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty big relief to be away from a situation that anyone around me knew had become mostly untenable for me quite a while ago.  One of the Mariner writers, Jean Moser, will be taking over as editor as of the next issue, and I wish her all the best.

I went back this week and looked through all the issues I had done over the past year, issues that I had actually done not just some writing, but also all of the page design and even some end-stage production for the last few, and I am very proud of what I did manage to accomplish.  Over these issues, despite scheduling problems, deadlines that were constantly shifting and a nightmare in terms of the sales effort, I completely restructured The Mariner from a dry-as-toast newspaper-type format with little or no visual design element, overly-reliant on slightly repackaged press releases into one that put the unique and original writers we had at the forefront, taking the available space and using that to present a stylish visual component to go along with the words.  Hell, I even got to write an entire crossword puzzle with clues about Clint Eastwood movies.  What does that have to do with boating, you might ask?  Well, nothing, but it was a lot of fun, and after struggling with various unnamed issues (and people) for almost a year, I felt I deserved a little self-gratification.

The Mariner will be changing again, beginning in April, and I wish them well.  I strongly recommend picking up an issue to see how they do.  I’m sure it will be great.  (more…)

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 7:56 pm  Comments (5)  
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The More Things Change…

So, if you’re a publisher these days, your world has come to an end.  Advertising, which is you principal source of funds, is in the toilet and continuing to swirl further down the bowl each passing day.  The internet, which has revolutionized communication and information availability, has also had the unfortunate side effect of gutting your influence and control over the community’s dialogue.  Worst of all, you and your peers are coming to the much-too-late realization that your early attempts to siphon money in the easiest way possible out of the then-emerging website craze actually helped condition the very people who used to regularly buy your wares that information wants to be free, making it all the more difficult to start charging for it.  That about sum it up?

So what’s a beleaguered publisher to do, rather than continue to pile up some sand bags to keep away the Tsunami?  Well, here’s one idea, burn the boats a la Cortes.  According to get-rich-quick internet maven Marc Andreessen, publisher’s should shut down their print business altogether and focus solely on emerging media.  Now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the industry adapt some suicidal practices (it’s happened before) but this is too much for even me to swallow.  You don’t walk away from what’s still a business producing tens of billions in revenues to pursue a model that nobody, and I mean nobody, is making any money on.  Sure, Google is raking it in with its ad network, but that has nothing to do with content.  Take newspapers out of the mix and it wouldn’t make a blip on Google’s radar.  Their ad network business is all about quantity, not quality of content.  So long as there are virtually infinite websites with free content, regardless of how good it is, Google will make money.  And publishers simply don’t have the access to the boatloads of people that Google does through its insanely popular search engine.

Well, the Wall Street Journal makes money online, you say.  That’s true, but it’s with very specialized information targeted to a key demographic, that being very well-off people who have tons of discretionary income.  That income guarantees that they will take the path of least resistance, i.e. paying for a subscription to the Journal online, rather than find an end-around to their soft paywall to get the stuff for free.  The Journal is only making the money it is because there audience can afford to pay for it and have no reason to circumvent that.  If they did, you can bet they would, and the Journal’s online revenue would plummet accordingly.

I’ve heard tell that the poster-child for news aggregation (at least in the U.S.) The Huffington Post makes its fair share of coin, as well.  But with this, we’re talking about a content dependent website that flat refuses to pay anyone for creating the content that it monetizes.  That may seem all well and good now, but trust me, that type of model will quickly turn into lowest-common-denominator material from people who don’t need to earn a living, a personal agenda-driven platform for the views of folks not looking for cash or outright exploitation of other people’s material after the well of “sure, I’ll write that for free” professionals dries up, especially if the publishers of the site start raking in real bucks.

And there may be a few more out there who bring in some dollars in online revenue, but they are small-time peanuts compared to the revenue walking away from print.  To be certain, print publishing is heading toward being unsustainable, and there will come a time, sooner than later, that burning the boats may make sense, but that day is certainly not today.  Andreessen, if you recall, was the creator of the Netscape web browser.  Netscape had a thriving little business going until Microsoft decided to kill it by proliferating free versions of Internet Explorer everywhere.  He was fortunate enough to convince AOL (the bastion of early-internet-age bad business decisions) to buy his operation, setting him up for life while Netscape died a slow and painful death, with AOL eating it all the way.  A smart business decision by Andreessen, to be sure, but certainly not the resume to be spouting off about sustainable long-term business models.

In the past, when faced with emerging technologies as new competition, newspapers expanded their operations, and their products to compensate, to much success.  But that won’t work anymore.  As newspapers got ever-broader in size and scope, the society around us changed. We no longer have the time or the desire to sift through super-sized collections of printed material, no matter how much additional advertising revenue it generates for the publisher.  After all, when you can get the specific information you are looking for at the touch of a few buttons on your phone, or a few mouse clicks on your computer, who is still buying the five-pound pile of pulp paper every week to sift through to find that same info?  This time, adding some special sections won’t get the job done.

But there’s this new thing called the iPad that’s coming out in a few weeks, and that will make things all better, you tell yourself.  It’s just the platform we’re looking for, to be able to sell actual subscriptions to our material, and a whole new basis to attract the advertisers back again.  Okay, it definitely has potential as a medium for information, but with a rather large caveat.  In order to capitalize on this, you’re going to have to produce very high quality content and market it to an audience that is very different from that which you are used to.  The prevailing talk amongst publishers is like this emerging possibility is simply an extension of what they have always done.  Didn’t we already go down this road with newspaper websites?  And if there is any advertising base to this, how long do you think it will be before others are offering material on these things for free, putting you in the same position you are now, competing with free alternatives for an audience that is very fickle about where they spend their increasingly hard-earned dollars?

But rather than dive in after this possibility, promising as it may be, publishers are–none too surprisingly–talking big while not acting and getting into pissing contests over control of meaningless data.  The latter part is the least surprising as it shows, in no uncertain terms, that advertising is still the primary focus of any effort publishers engage in.  Despite the fact that ad rates, both in print and online, are continuing to plummet, publishers still can’t see past the profits of yesterday.  Ad efficiency, which is a big buzzword nowadays thanks to online ad networks that claim highly targeted tracking data to bring in advertisers, has consistently driven the price of advertising downward.  That’s okay if you’re Google or someone else operating an enormous, bulk ad network, but for a newspaper, this is a losing play.  Just look at the point of view from the higher-ups at the New York Times.  According to them, letting Apple control subscriber data causes them to lose access to valuable information about reader habits.  In other words, valuable information they believe they can use to entice advertisers.  It’s still not about selling a top-quality product to the consumers, it’s about using those consumers to sell a product to the advertisers.

That’s not to say that the iPad is going to be some great game-changing thing.  It’s not a helluva lot different, other than a bigger screen, from options already out there.  Still, it could be a step toward truly mobile platforms that change people’s information consumption habits. Or it could be a waste of time.  As interesting as the iPad, Amazon Kindle, Sony eReader or any of the other current tablets may be, there’s already other, more interesting alternatives coming on quickly.  How about fold-able electronic paper that can have content updating all day long? That’s the next step, and it’ll likely be available just a few months after the iPad hits stores.

The problem has long been that publishing is an industry that is slow to accept change.  In the past, change would come in small bumps with lots of time in between to adapt.  Today, change comes in massive shifts only months, and sometimes weeks, apart.  The industry doesn’t have time to sit, reflect and argue about what happened yesterday.  They have to figure out what’s coming tomorrow, because, when that does come, someone else will be readying what’s coming the next day, and the day after that and the day after that.  Publishing is already ten steps behind the technology wave, and with each day that we still argue these same, worn-out points, they lose another step.  The industry’s strength is in its content.  Even scaled back, they still have the greatest collection of creative minds going.  The platforms people are looking to are constantly changing, but the information is the same.  We have mobile devices capable of presenting anything and everything to people in ways never before conceived.  And what is the big game-plan for many publishers in 2010?  Paywalls on their websites.  If this was still 2004, then that might make sense.  But today, a quarter of the way into 2010, it is way too little, way too late.  And by the time they figure this out, that declining print ad revenue may have fallen far enough that burning the boats is the only option left.

Published in: on March 13, 2010 at 6:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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Tell Us What You Don’t Like About Yourself

I was a late-comer to Nip/Tuck. I have to admit, I’d heard of the show but I always thought it was a documentary type thing about actual plastic surgery.  I didn’t realize it was actually a real television show and not some odd reality TV thing.  Recently, a friend of mine gave me the DVDs of the first season to check out.  At first, I wasn’t all that excited, but then I started watching and couldn’t stop.  I ended up going through the entire series in a matter of just a couple months.  Last week, the show wrapped up its run with its 100th and final episode.  Unlike some other series I can mention (Battlestar Galactica, anyone?) I wasn’t left totally disgusted by the series conclusion.

First off, if you haven’t seen the series but are planning to, or if you got behind and wanted to catch up, you may not want to read on.  I’m going to be discussing some stuff that may be better if you didn’t know so as not to kill the shock value as it happens.  And trust me, there’s definitely some  shock value. (more…)

Published in: on March 12, 2010 at 10:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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More Questionable Science and Reporting

Quite a while back, I wrote about the manipulation of scientific evidence to support anti-smoking legislation. Well, today I ran across this article claiming a direct link between long-term marijuana use and psychosis.  Apparently, people who regularly toke up for six years or more have a massively increased rate of “psychotic outcomes” including delusions and hallucinations.  The medical evidence seems to suggest that pot causes folks to go crazy.

While the headline of the article does use some terms like “may” and “more likely” instead of definites, there is little doubt that the point being made is that pot causes this stuff.  Interestingly, however, there is a small paragraph early in the piece that seems to create a pretty clearly mitigating factor in the study, as well as call into question the conclusions.  It reads like this:  “The study also suggests that more research is needed to determine whether people who are predisposed to psychosis might be more likely to smoke marijuana earlier in life and for longer periods.” In other words, while we’re busy telling you that pot causes the crazies, we don’t really know if these results mean what we say they do or if they came about because people pre-disposed to this kind of issue turn to pot to deal with it.  That’s a pretty big if, don’t you think?

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to find out if that was the case before you release to the press your “evidence” that pot makes you psychotic?  Of course, then, it might be a little more difficult to jump on the demonizing bandwagon that research science has become.  If, in fact, marijuana isn’t causing this, but instead is being used by people with delusions to their aid, that kind of undermines the whole “pot in completely evil” line we’ve been taught since birth to support the prohibition and the counter-productive and massively profitable war on drugs.

To me, this is reminiscent of the gateway drug myth.  It was a long-held belief that marijuana use led directly to harder drug use, and this has been one of the leading points made to support the criminalization.  This was illustrated most commonly by a 1991 study that purported to show pot smokers 85 times more likely to move on to cocaine.  This study was cited and referenced by just about every drug policy organization going for years before finally falling to the wayside.  Today, only vague references are made to the gateway effect, with a corresponding note that researchers are still looking into it, as we see here on the National Institute of Drug Abuse website. But, even though much anti-pot policy was based on the gateway effect, the study in question showed no such thing.  In fact, it showed just the opposite, that 83% of marijuana users never moved on to harder drugs.  The 85 times more likely number came from, you guessed it, a distortion of facts that basically showed cocaine users liked the reefer.  Here is a pretty good refutation of the point.

Just as with the smoking debate, no one is arguing that these behaviors are healthy, but that we as supposed free people should be allowed to make up our own minds.  This kind of junk science makes those choices more difficult as they cloud actual facts with slanted, agenda-driven statistics and points of view designed to support ends that have nothing to do with reality.  As for the reporting of these kinds of studies, shouldn’t the author have asked some important questions about the three-ton elephant in the room, namely the glaring hole in the study that could completely blow up the hypothesis?  Of course, that would require some actual reporting rather than simply rewriting a press release.

Much has been made about the downfall in journalism currently being suffered due to massive declines in the industry.  I’ve made the point before, and I’ll make it again here, that journalism was in full-on decline a long time ago and it’s only now that there is much more information and many more voices out there that we can see how glaringly bad it’s become.  Somewhere along the way, our reporters have lost the ability to ask difficult questions, and turned to presenting slanted PR with a byline as all the news that’s fit to print (or download).  That can be particularly damning as “scientific evidence” is often used to support new law or enhance current law and our politicians have shown that, no matter how questionable the study, if there’s some numbers in there they can spin to their advantage, they will only too readily do so.

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Digital Economy Bill or How We Can Save Content Industries From Themselves

I’ve long held that before all is said and done, the greatest threat to the potential of the internet will be government regulation and legislative intervention spurred on by the dying embers of the industries it has left in ruins.  I’ve touched on the issue numerous times, most directly here, and here, here, here, here and here, to name a few.  England is currently embroiled in an effort to pass somethings called the Digital Economy Bill, which is a fancy title for saying, “we’re going to let corporate dollars dictate people’s rights online.”  This is a piece of legislation so obviously transparent as to be insulting.  The British movie and music industries have pushed exceptionally hard for this, including a couple particularly onerous passages.

One is that anyone’s internet access can be shut off after receiving three allegations of copyright infringing activity.  Not three proven instances, mind you, but three allegations.  And that means that if it’s one person in a household of five that is accused of infringing, all five lose internet access.  Even worse, there’s a provision in the bill that allows Britain’s Secretary of State the right to essentially amend copyright law by himself without parliamentary approval.  Needless to say, just about no one who doesn’t work in the music and film industry supports this measure at all.  Even James Bond is against it. It’s yet to be seen if this will pass, but it is yet another example of industries that were caught napping on the internet’s ability to change the dynamics of sales and distribution desperately trying to cling onto their out-dated and soon to be useless business models by bribing the government.  We’ve had a little experience with that over here in the colonies with a little thing called the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

This will be one of many attempts to morph the open internet into the playground of the corporations to all of our detriment.  We haven’t yet seen a bill of this magnitude hitting the floor of Congress, but you can bet it’s coming, especially if the Digital Economy Bill actually gets approval in England.  And we will all suffer for it.  These companies haven’t adjusted to the new realities, and they seem more willing to throw lawyers at their problems than come up with rational business models for the future.

The music industry as a whole is not declining, it is, in fact, growing.  It’s just that the top tier labels are losing their stranglehold on the business.  The film industry is the same, and so is publishing.  These guys have lots of money, but no matter the costs, they won’t win in the long run without adapting.  Whatever the rules, new companies will spring up to service customers the way they want, not the way the major industry players want.  And fewer and fewer high-quality artists are signing up to be taken advantage of.  Especially now that the recording industry has moved beyond rights to artists’ music into demanding a cut of every dollar for everything they do up front in their contracts.

And why all this?  Because businesses that built their stock and trade by marketing content to the masses missed the boat on the greatest revolution in communication, marketing and distribution of content ever created by man.  Why, oh why should we bail out their incompetence with regulation when they were in full position to dominate the internet market from the word jump and chose to turn a blind eye to its possibilities until it was too late?  This is going to be a long, drawn out battle.  We’ll win some, we’ll lose some, but ultimately these guys will lose because they are defending a sinking island by putting up sandbags.  Eventually, they’ll all sink.

And one last thing, here’s an interesting discussion on the proliferation and possible affects of file-sharing by two people on both sides of the issue.

Getting a Degree in Endentured Servitude

With the massive losses in the publishing industry over the past several years, to the tune of 40% or so of overall business, we’ve seen a massive down-sizing in the number of writers actually earning gainful employment getting their names in print.  But at the same time, we’ve also seen massive numbers of new students enrolling in expensive journalism schools, evidently paying top dollar to be trained in a field that’s quickly disappearing.  Who ever said higher education made you smarter?

Now, as newsrooms continue to shrink, we have the emergence of this unholy alliance between publishers and journalism schools. Basically, the article focuses on an increasing trend where newspapers are soliciting work from j-school students for no pay to supplement their operations, make up for the loss of actual paid professionals they’ve cut out of the budgets, and even opening new hyper-local (publisher buzzword of the year) avenues of coverage for their business.  And the institutions of higher learning are only too happy to help out.

It’s a win-win for everyone.  Well, except the students.  By accepting this kind of work, young students are helping publishers continue to cut corners on their content, as well as compensate for eliminating paid staff of the very type they’re going to school to become, trading an actual possible future for a few unpaid bylines in the New York Times.  That may play for an energetic 21 or 22 year old just starting out, but by the time they get to be an indebted 27 or 28 year old living in Mom and Dad’s basement and driving a 1989 Toyota with no muffler, trust me, the “prestige” of that byline won’t quite seem so shiny.

The schools should be ashamed of themselves.  Not only are they willingly sucking these kids (and their parents) dry, preparing them for work in a field that has none, they are setting themselves up as pimps for idealistic twenty-somethings as a constantly revolving door of unpaid labor to the newspaper industry.  Of course, why should we be surprised?  College, after all, is the most impressive money racket ever conceived, and it has been done in concert with industry, providing a steady stream of fresh meat for the corporate grinder for decades now.  We’re even telling our youngest children that college is the path to the future.  Sure, if that future includes crushing debt at age 25, and a diploma that will look good hanging on the wall at the Starbucks most of you will end up working for.

Just imagine it:  give these kids the skills, set them up at an impressionable age to do work for “credibility” or “attention” and not expect to be paid, and fill their young heads full of delusions of higher callings and the civic responsibility of journalism so they will be prepared to do the job for little or no money.  It’s a sweet racket, if you can get it.  The publishers get all the free or low-paid labor they could hope for, the schools get boatloads in tuition fees, and the students get the honor of being a journalist.  In a few years, they’ll be teaching courses directing students to take a journalist’s vow of poverty.  Just you wait.

Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 3:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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