Media mergers and hanging on

I need to step away from book promotion for a minute to make a comment the current state of local media. First, there’s the merger/sale this week between Sinclair Media and Tribune Media that will give Sinclair over 200 local stations in the American TV world. In that world (mass marketing/mass media), the bigger the footprint, the greater the profit, for the core competency of media companies is the ability to produce an audience for marketers. Secondly, an interesting article today in the Columbia Journalism Review about the fiscal health of Gannett and its future headlines this way: “Gannett and the last great local hope.”

Sinclair and Gannett will take their places in the halls of commerce as the last buggy whip makers for the mass media industries of television and newspapers, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with this, there’s a much bigger problem ahead for local communities, and that is the loss of local advertising. I’ve been harping on this for so many years that I’ve grown weary of the sound of my own voice, and while the prophecies of 15 years ago are now coming to pass, the industry still doesn’t understand what’s really taking place.

The old saw about business disruptions goes like this: “If the railroads had known what business they were really in, they would have owned all the early airline companies.” The railroads were in the transportation business, not “the railroad business,” and that was their Waterloo. In like manner, media companies are in the advertising industry, not the radio, television, or newspaper industries. Follow the disruptions in advertising, and you’ll see the downfalls in local media.

But it’s even worse than you think, for the ascending advertising giants are all digital ad exchanges and ad networks. They have the ability to serve ads to any and every browser anywhere and at any time, so the collection of data about those individual browsers (you don’t need a person’s name) has been the task of anyone wishing to remain relevant in the ad space. Local media companies have simply turned away from this most important task (“It’s not our business model.”).

One of the most significant obstacles that the net overcomes is geography, and so local advertisers – who used to spend their money with all sorts of local media companies – are now spending that money outside their markets with people who can do this browser-level targeting.

Gordon Borrell

Ask Gordon Borrell about how much money – real money – is moving from businesses in your community to advertising companies outside your market. You’ll be shocked, or you won’t believe it. These outside interests pay no taxes, support no community chests, employ no local people, and support no local organizations such as youth sports and so on. The money goes straight out of your community and into their pockets. It doesn’t pass go. It doesn’t collect $200. It just strips your community of a vital part of what makes it a community in the first place.

And yet, there is silence where there ought to be cries for help, because local media companies have badly failed the communities they used to serve by assuming that one can remain an analog mass marketing vehicle in the age of digital competition – not for the content they create (which is all we talk about) – but for the money that supports the production and creation of that content.

And so Sinclair grows and Gannett hangs on, both victims of their own corporate malfeasance. One thing they will never be able to say is that they weren’t warned.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Understanding “Alternative Facts”

Here’s a little perspective on the matter before us: Marketers have been lying to us since the days of the snake oil salesman. I’ve told the story before of the TV commercial I witnessed many years ago during the grapefruit diet fad. The ad was for so-called grapefruit pills that would help people lose weight. At least that was the assertion of the creator of the commercial. One scene featured a guy washing a horse who turned to the camera and actually said, “It’s so darned easy, it’s GOT to work!” If the FTC ever wanted to crack down on false advertising (they won’t), it would open the eyes of consumers everywhere.

There are many, many ways for marketers to lie. There’s lying by omission. When tissue companies, for example, sell the same sized box with fewer tissues inside for the same or slightly reduced price as before, they are lying to increase profits while giving the impression of holding the line on consumer costs. Welcome to the world of Madison Avenue and the secrets of mass marketing.

Well guess what? People are slowly catching on to these lies, and they’re sharing their knowledge with their families and friends, some of it via social media. It’s getting harder and harder to get away with such, even though there are still a substantial number of folks who’ll believe that it’s so darned easy it has to work. This is where we find ourselves today with all forms of mass media in the worlds of politics and news.

I have an ongoing study, for example, of events in the Middle East, thanks to my family living in Amman, Jordan. There are publications working to deconstruct the Zionist narrative that has been the public face of Israel since 1948. We all need to learn more about narratives, and especially those that undergird even our most basic assumptions of life, for very often these narratives are propaganda and very definitely false, at least to the point where they deserve regular review and often deconstruction.

All of this is to say that KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” is really a fruit of what’s been taking place for years, that is the struggle of those who need to maintain narrative control in a media environment that questions narrative as self-serving propaganda. This is the beauty of our newly connected universe, for it’s impossible now for an institution (and government is certainly an institution) to maintain its own version of truth at the expense of those at the receiving end of their “service.”

This is going to get much worse in our culture, until we all learn that such falsehoods begin with lying to ourselves. Shakespeare wrote: “This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as night the day, that thou canst not be false to any man.”

May that day come quickly.

Two major online news factors for young people

pew-readersNew Pew Research reveals that young people prefer to READ news online rather than watch it. This is being presented as a revelation (Younger adults prefer to get their news in text, not video, according to new data from Pew Research), but it’s really just another example of news organizations’ history of not paying attention to reality. The new report doesn’t tell the whys, and doesn’t even speculate. Please allow me to give you two important reasons why young people prefer reading news to watching it:

Over fifteen years ago, then J. Walter Thompson CEO Bob Jeffrey said, “Time is the new currency.” Many of us at the time applied the idea to online media, especially after we learned that viewers were using DVRs to avoid commercials, and the not-so-secret reason was that they “didn’t have time” for commercials. Therefore, the first reason young people would rather read news that watch it is you can do the former a whole lot faster. Don’t try to dazzle me with your storytelling genius; just give me the facts, so that I can determine (for myself) if I wish to explore further.

The reason media companies prefer video is the nice ROI on ads. Madison Avenue likes video, and that means media companies do, too. Unfortunately, nobody in either of those two chairs gives a ripple chip about what the audience might think and don’t think twice about irritating those viewers with pre-roll ads. Therefore, the second reason young people prefer reading to viewing is the annoyance and wasted time of advertising that is meant for a different medium.

All of this is doubly significant on mobile, which is THE go-to platform of young people (and beyond).

There are other factors. For example, prime time for news remains the hours at work, and the disruption to the office of someone watching a video is untenable.

Many of us have known for a very long time that news clips with attached (or detached) pre-rolls wouldn’t work to grow revenue, just like we knew that recorded newscasts on demand wouldn’t be a significant revenue source either. This is the Web, people, not TV. We’re not on a stage with a captive audience. We still need to get over ourselves and start honoring those eyeballs that we need so badly. And PLEASE can we stop feeding them ads that were created for TV, not the Web?

Another media disruption ahead

caitlindeweyCaitlin Dewey is a canary in the coal mine of the web, and she’s singing a warning to everyone. I sense what she’s saying, and I’ll bet you do, too. Profit through disruptive advertising and the damned reliance on platforms are slowly sucking the air out of our grand experiment in connectivity.

Caitlin is the digital culture critic for The Washington Post and one of the hippest web denizens around. She’s a brilliant and funny writer and also produces a weekly must-read newsletter (Links I Would Gchat You if We Were Friends) that I’ve been enjoying from the beginning. When she speaks, we need to listen, and here’s a part of what she wrote this week:

Friends, I am homeless. Not physically. I mean this in a virtual sense. I *write* about Internet culture, and I feel like I have no home base on the web. I tweeted about this last week in the context of Twitter, which I haven’t been on too much since. (Trust me, when you’re off Twitter, you miss n-o-t-h-i-n-g of significance.) But it also applies to Facebook, which I’ve never been too active on because it creeps me out. And Instagram, which I’ve tired of since the ads hit my account. Even Pinterest, which I unironically love and have long considered a form of relaxation on par with watching HGTV, is drowning in bad ads and “promoted” pins and other crap that ruins it for me.

I dunno, guys — am I getting old? Am I the world’s least-suited Internet writer? There has to be a place for people like me, but maybe it’s not yet on “THE CYBER.” I like Snapchat alright. Reddit is good. Idk, I have Goodreads? Like are the mainstream social networks all terrible now, or is this just me?!

It’s not just Caitlin, and it’s interesting that she’s seeing this and writing about it today, for the canary-in-the-coal-mine analogy is accurate. The Evolving User Paradigm is a relentless taskmaster that sits still for no one. Change is a constant online, but advertising based in the modernist mindset requires controllable equilibrium, and therein lies the rub. Closed platforms are required for what’s viewed as “success,” but as we learned as far back as AOL, they cannot sustain user interest forever. Chaos will win everytime when web denizens grow beyond the highly managed boundaries of platforms. Caitlin Dewey isn’t unique; she’s just way ahead of the curve in terms of use and understanding of the internet. Others will get there, too, and eventually everybody.

The first round of digital media innovation, which has created the commercial web that Caitlin is lamenting, is on the verge of collapsing, because the innovators have given away possibility in the name of old fashioned profit, and who could blame them? The problem is that the inevitable end of pouring new wine into old wineskins is explosive ruin, and that’s what’s been happening over the last twenty years.

Madison Avenue knows only mass marketing, which relies on basically two strategies:

  • Accompany content, which is the method of operation for print media.
  • Interrupt content, which is the method of operation for broadcasting (and increasingly the web).

So despite elaborate and sophisticated data used to create highly efficient targeting, advertisers still fall back on these two strategies, and it’s what’s destroying the experience to which Caitlin refers. Both are clumsy and the enemy of participation, and neither will sustain the status quo for long. It’s also what creates the addiction to platforms, a.k.a. apps, like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – she calls them the “mainstream social networks.” THE network can do so much better, and that will be the next level of innovation.

davewinerBlogging’s most original thinker Dave Winer has already figured out ways to build simple open source outliners and other tools that stand alone in a browser, and I always pay attention to Dave. Moreover, Dave is seeing the same thing Caitlin is suggesting, which adds to the weight of the prophecy above;

When Jerry (Garcia) died in 1995, I wrote:

Like the big tree that fell last March, the death of a huge human being like Jerry Garcia frees up a huge amount of space. Once there was a tree, now there are seedlings. After the sadness, there will be huge creativity.

Same would probably be true if Facebook ever relented and stopped stifling the web and embraced it instead. Then the growth could flow through them instead of around them. Ultimately I think the web will go on, treating Facebook like the outage that it has chosen to be.

In a comment to this post on Facebook, Dave also stated: “I have a BAD FEELING about Facebook because they are being such bad net citizens.”

My friends, the promise of a horizontal society available via the network will survive attempts to wrestle its chaotic nature to the capitalist ground. Investing in such attempts may produce results for a season, but none will be lasting, especially when growth is a necessary element of such. It’s not like IRL, where control is obtained from the top-down, and I’ll continue to keep my eyes on the visionaries of our time.

Where they inject reality and clueless people with money piss all over it, get your popcorn ready, because the show’s about to begin.

A birthday message for media

Today is my 70th birthday, and while I should be using the occasion to kick back and relax, I’m writing a birthday message to my old media pals.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.20.37 AM

The above image is my Google home page for the day. It’s a birthday greeting from Google served only to me and, I suppose, all the other people who have a Google account and were born on this day. The reason this is significant to media companies is it reveals the anachronistic, archaic nature of online mass marketing, which remains the only model that media companies know. They still sell their online “inventory” as if it had value against the purchase of advertising on individual browser screens. It doesn’t. Google not only recognizes my browser as me, but they can follow me virtually anywhere I go on the network. The giant ad exchanges can serve individualized ads to me directly; they don’t need Wanamaker’s “hope” to reach me in a crowd.

The question then becomes, why does an advertiser need your online mass if it can cull out only those it wishes to reach? The advertiser doesn’t, unless you happen to be a part of the ad exchange or network the advertiser is using. Geography is a simple matter when you have access to every browser anywhere. That is what media companies are up against. Media sites, mobile or otherwise, are just dots on somebody else’s detailed map, and it gets worse every single day. The extent to which media companies fight this is truly astonishing, because nothing they can do or offer can slow it down.

Meanwhile, as each day ticks by, another local advertiser wakes up to the realization that this can be done, and the value of your online mass sinks deeper into the abyss. The money drain from your community is far beyond what you realize, and so you’re doubly screwed.

Happy birthday to me.

Oh, media, why can’t you learn?

princeThe death of pop music savant Prince this week provided a very visible example of the difference between those who understand the era we’ve entered and those who don’t. The raw emotion that surrounded his passing was palpable, and the event greatly transcended the basics of who, what, why, where, and when. This made it the perfect news event to observe the behavior of everybody – the fans, the press, and the music industry – in how we all reacted.

The first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto states: “Markets are conversations.” This, of course, means nothing to those who refuse or are unable to board the train, like the folks who continue to run traditional media platforms. It’s so fundamental to new media that its simplicity confounds the money makers and baffles those attempting to reinvent themselves. Let’s look at it this way:

The difference is like communicating with people from a stage and communicating with people at a party or family gathering. In the former, people are there, because they want to see what’s on the stage. They’ve paid for the privilege through a ticket price or their time. With all eyes focused on the stage, the performers are able to sell the audience anything, simply by slipping in either a point-of-view or an actual commercial message. The fact that all the people are there in one place at one time is what gives the venue value. We call this mass marketing.

At the family gathering, however, it’s very different. The host doesn’t plaster the walls with commercial messages, nor do the guests come wearing advertising placards. And imagine what it would be like to walk up to Uncle Harry to offer condolences for the death of Aunt Alice and providing first a message from Coke about the latest packaging craze. You wouldn’t open your phone to share pictures of your kids but first force them to sit through an ad for adult diapers. Why not? They’d all walk away, because you were acting like a fool. Plus, you’d never be invited back. Think about it.

This is the reality of what’s happened over the past week with the death of Prince. This was personal for people who grew up with the guy or were otherwise influenced by him and his music. We all knew the guy was special, and we were grieving. Media companies got everything about the event’s importance, but they forgot this was a wake and not a theatrical performance. I was both incensed at times and embarrassed for those who can’t bring themselves to board the friggin’ Cluetrain.

Bandwagons in the new age are untoward and off-putting. Turning a tribute into an ad produces the opposite of its intended effect. Taking hurting and bewildered people to a comical ad for car insurance or otherwise filtering emotional information is a violation of human decency, and this must stop if we really hope for any relevancy in the future. Who do we think we are? Oh there were some wonderful tributes made available to people, but everyday software often got in the way, because media companies still think they’re in the content business. Social media was flooded with both good and bad, but even some of the good turned bad when people clicked on whatever link was provided only to be greeted by a clearly out-of-place ad.

When things like this happen in our world, normalcy must take a back seat to the uniqueness of the event. And every single one is different and demands attention. When people are in shock, the last thing they need is to be treated like mindless morons who’ll gladly waste precious minutes so that presenters can pretend they’re on a stage.

People dress in black at wakes for a reason.

It’s called respect.