Why media companies are hosed

I hate to keep pounding on this, but the essential problem for media companies is that we just aren’t special anymore. The Web views every site the same, and despite efforts by media companies to express their uniqueness, it just doesn’t work.

And the problem here is that advertisers don’t need media companies anymore. Take a look at Wal-Mart’s home page:

screenshot of walmart.com

Note the ads from Vonage and Chevrolet, but here’s where it gets really interesting. Below is data from Compete.com that shows that the Wal-Mart site crushes the New York Times and the Washington Post in terms of unique visitors.

Walmart's site does way more traffic that traditional media sites

The point is that Wal-Mart is a media site in that it sells its reach to advertisers, a reach that vastly exceeds two of the top newspaper sites in the world. This is why I keep harping on everybody that the future for local media companies lies beyond their own walled garden websites, and those who refuse to hear that (like, everybody) are sprinting to the tar pits.

The return of the pop-up ad (when will they ever learn?)

Behold, a rant.

I just “visited” an internal page on the website TVNewsday.com, the link of which came from the site’s newsletter. After reading the story, I decided to click on the site’s logo to navigate to the home page, rather than return to the newsletter. On its journey from the scroll bar to the logo, my mouse passed over the leaderboard ad for Sony at the top of the page. The ad was one of those time bombs that goes off with a mouseover, because some marketing guru thinks I’ve given it permission to do so by deliberately passing my mouse over the bloody ad.

Sony rollover ad

So the ad expanded like the pop-ups of old, only unlike the “the good old days,” I couldn’t reduce the thing by clicking on the “close” button. Nope. It just sat there yelling at me that I needed to buy Sony broadcast gear. I did what anybody would do. I closed the browser window and growled under my breath that this is not a site I want to visit with regularity.

It’s called the price of interaction, folks, and these kinds of ads fall into the category of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” The problem here is that the Web isn’t kind to “regular” display ads, and it abhors interruptions, because people like me would rather abandon the search for content than be insulted by technology in the wrong hands.

Now perhaps TVNewsday.com doesn’t think anybody’s going to move their mouse to their logo (or anything else above the ad), but this is just silly. Can anybody show me the obvious path to get to the logo without crossing the ad, which beckons goodies if I but pass my mouse over it? And why is this ad a rollover, when the other Sony ad on the page requires a click?

I’m sure that TVNewsday.com got a nice CPM for this ad and that some guy or gal at Sony’s agency is smiling, because, well, it’s just such a cool ad, eh? He or she is looking at metrics that include my mouseover and is passing that data along to another marketing guru at Sony that PROVES people are expanding the ad, because they want to play with it.

Do these people have a clue? I think not.

Online breaking news is the key for 2009

Continuous NewsThe ability of news organizations to focus on breaking news will increasingly determine their relevancy in 2009 and beyond. Just as cable news brought about the creation of the artificial news blockbuster, so will online news develop strategies and tactics that will focus on that which is breaking. I view this as a good thing.

At the time that I published “News is a Process, Not a Finished Product,” I had been thinking about the concept of what I call “Continuous News” for many months. Make no mistake — Continuous News (CN) IS the model for sustainable online news in the future. It is fresh and compelling; it meets the needs of the online audience for news (M-F 8am-5pm); and it’s sold by daypart. Nothing can compete with the concept.

Borrowing freely from my essay, the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Fifth Annual State of the News Media report captured the essence of the model:

News consumption has become continual, with news morphing from a “finished” product — a newspaper, a newscast, even a Web site — to a service that helps consumers “find what they are looking for [and] react to it.”

And what is CN, if not an ongoing series of breaking news events and stories?

I was with executives from IBS years ago, and the discussion was about why people use local websites for news. Their research (and other’s) revealed that people go online for breaking news and the weather. This should come as a surprise to no one.

So the operational mandate for local media companies is the publishing of breaking news, but here’s the key difference in new and old thinking. In the traditional media world, the term “breaking news” was reserved for big stories, those that, in the judgment of the editor(s), warranted the use of the term based on criteria that included such things as importance or impact on a large scale. In the new world, however, the people formerly known as the audience are in charge, and our job is to let them make the determination as to what is or isn’t important. Hence, everything is breaking news, and this is our online mission as journalists.

In the mass marketing world, the ultimate award goes to the blockbuster. This is true whether it’s Hollywood or a best seller. In the news business, blockbusters are major events, often disastrous and life-threatening and always significant in their appeal to a wide audience. Nothing beats a hurricane to drive ratings for the cable news channels.

Blockbusters don’t occur every day, and this is a problem for mass media, especially the cable nets. Over the years, we’ve developed marketing strategies and tactics to make everything appear to be a blockbuster, although we know good and well that they’re not. Hyperbole is the defining principle of manufactured blockbusters, and the audience is sick of it.

Turning a ribbon-cutting ceremony into a breaking news item, however, is not the artificial manufacturing of a breaking news event, for it is, to at least a portion of the community, an event that belongs in the ongoing chronicle of the day in the life of that community. There is nothing artificial about treating such an event as an item in a CN stream. In fact, such a mention delivers points for authenticity, because we’re letting people decide for themselves if they wish to read about it beyond a headline. Authenticity trumps editorial judgment in the online news world.

We’re at the dawn of the CN or “unfinished” news model, and I believe the extent to which local media companies embrace it will determine their place at the table in a “news as a conversation” paradigm.

Quote of the day

Slate’s Jack Shafer writes “Not Just Another Column About Blogging.”

If newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters don’t produce spectacular news coverage no blogger can match, they have no right to survive.

Amen to that, and I should add that this column is an extremely worthwhile read, an excellent summary of how personal media’s Gutenberg moment has disrupted the status quo of professional media.

It’s all in the price of gas

gas prices continue to fallOne of my Sunday errands yesterday was to get a fill-up at the neighborhood Chevron station, and it was one of those experiences in nostalgia. The price for a gallon of regular was $1.37. The total price for my tank of gas was $17.28, something I hadn’t seen in many, many years.

I remember writing about gas prices in July when a fill-up at this same station cost me $50, and the price-per-gallon was nearly $4. That’s when I said we were in a recession, although the government didn’t announce it until many months later. Stories on the price of gas dominated the news, and it impacted every segment of the economy. Airlines went into a panic and started charging fees for baggage to make up the losses they were experiencing. SUV sales sank. Any business that required fuel viewed the steadily rising price of gas as catastrophic.

And now, as if by magic, the price of a gallon of gas is so low that it’s taking me back to the 20th Century. And in just six months! A CNN story quotes AAA as saying the average price is at a 5-year low, but that’s $1.62. The story found the lowest price was $1.44 in Missouri, but that’s seven cents above my neighborhood in Grapevine, Texas.

I don’t know about you, but this puzzles me. I’m sure there are dozens of explanations and more than a few conspiracy theories, but if our economy is so driven by the price of fuel, how can this be a bad thing? I fill up twice a month, so I have $60 more in my pocket this month than I did just six months ago. I don’t “feel” recession’s pain like I did this summer, and this is multiplied by every person who owns a car in the U.S. What will people do with that extra cash? And when will that show up statistically?

We’ll hear reports about retail prices dropping and fears of deflation, but the truth is it’s all driven by the price of oil. Take that out of the equation, and everything looks different.

2009 looks remarkably different to me than it did a year ago, and I think we’re in for one of the most interesting years in the history of the West — a time of incredible opportunity for those who keep their eyes focused on the horizon and not on the waves that are buffeting our boat. Cowering from the waves is a habit of ours, driven by a media industry that’s very good at providing a magnifying glass for ripples.

In the 1980 film “The Formula,” George C. Scott plays a detective who uncovers a plot to kill anybody with knowledge of a secret Nazi formula for a synthetic fuel. The bad guy in the film is Adam Steiffel, the Chairman of Titan Oil, played by Marlon Brando. The two meet on Steiffel’s patio, where the oil mogul is enjoying breakfast, and the scene produces a couple of memorable lines in a case of art imitating life. “You’re not in the oil business; you’re in the oil shortage business,” Scott says to Brando. An aide to Brando’s character races to the table with news of price activity by the Arab states, to which Brando’s character responds, “You idiot, we ARE the Arabs!”

The price of gas at my neighborhood Chevron station is as real as it gets in determining my economic well-being, and it gives me pause at the end of 2008. What’s going on here?

Pew: young people signal an online news future

use of the web for news by young people doubles in one yearThis week’s stunning Pew Research report “Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source” is a wake-up call for the broadcast industry.

The Pew Research Center for the Public and the Press has been tracking media usage since the turn of the century, and for the first time ever, the Internet has surpassed newspapers as the main source of national and international news for people overall, but the big story, in my opinion, is what’s happening with young people.

According to Pew, as many people aged 18–29 cite the Internet as their main source of news as they do television. This is the canary in the coal mine for broadcasters, who, like newspapers, have been struggling with an aging mass audience for years. No longer is it a guess that the Web is the future for news and information (although it never really was a guess, the handwriting being obvious for over a decade).

television and the Web tie among young peopleNearly six-in-ten Americans younger than 30 (59%) say they get most of their national and international news online; an identical percentage cites television. In September 2007, twice as many young people said they relied mostly on television for news than mentioned the internet (68% vs. 34%).
Figure

The percentage of people younger than 30 citing television as a main news source has declined from 68% in September 2007 to 59% currently.

The spike in the use of the Web for news by young people is truly remarkable, and it mirrors a previous study by Pew during the Presidential campaign.

One caveat for this study is that it only looks at national and international news. Newspapers and television stations still dominate local news, but it would be foolish to assume safety in any mass marketing incumbent. There are plenty of online local news efforts underway, and it’s just a matter of time before the Web dominates at the local level as well.