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.

Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point

“(W)e’ve reached the end of the Golden Age of Advertising,” says pioneering media researcher Gordon Borrell in a new report that paints a very realistic picture of the state of local advertising. This report – Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point – is a 5-year follow-up to a report published in 2010 and tracks the opinions of 7,228 small and mid-size advertisers (SMBs).

While there is a lot of between-the-lines conclusions to be drawn, here are just a few of the report’s findings. Remember, these are advertisers speaking, or it would be more appropriate to call them “the people formerly known as the advertisers.”

  • 82% of SMBs have established their own media channel in the form of a website or social media page.
  • Since 2007, spending has skyrocketed to the point at which businesses last year spent 72% more on marketing services and promotions than they had spent 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, the annual expenditure on local advertising was 22% less than it was a decade ago.
    Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 12.41.44 PM
  • 72% of those are purchasing digital services to support those channels, spending far more on those efforts than on basic advertising.
  • By examining IRS tax records, Borrell concludes that “if businesses were devoting the same percentage of this year’s gross revenues to advertising as they were 10 years ago, the advertising economy would be $56 billion richer.”
  • Online media appeals to the largest percentage of local advertisers and takes the largest share of ad budgets of any other media. This is a pedestal newspapers have occupied for over 300 years! “Over the next 12 months, the gap will almost certainly widen to the point that all traditional advertising channels — print, broadcast, outdoor and mail — begin to look like niche support mechanisms to a local businesses’ digital marketing plan.”Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 12.33.49 PM
  • Traditional media has devolved into an option, selected by habit or by preference but certainly not by necessity.
  • Online is so strong that by 2020, Borrell projects that all traditional media will scramble to maintain a small set of advertisers who will spend small shares of their budgets with them.
  • Local businesses, on average, get 20% of their sales from online, versus 13% by the old standby, the telephone.
  • These businesses have just begun to become digitally savvy, according to a new metric from Borrell. 85% of SMBs fell short of a line considered “very active” in digital activity. What this means is that they are novices that somebody can teach and that the more savvy they become, the more disruptive they’ll likely be.
  • 82% of respondents maintain a social media page with an average of 2,123 followers, though 61% have fewer than 1,000. The report notes that growing their own audience base equates to real customers for SMBs, which is radically different than buying ads based on somebody else’s reach.
  • Native advertising (a.k.a. Content Marketing) is another area of satisfaction for SMBs, although its use is low. This equates to a growth opportunity for those providing a service.
  • Mobile is another BIG area of interest, although not in any traditional advertising sense. The projected spending categories for mobile relate almost entirely to SMBs own web franchises and include things like Responsive Design (mobile-friendly), search, SMS, proximity, apps and video.

With all Borrell research, it’s useful to take a step back and try to get a 30,000 foot view. What this report doesn’t say directly is that the levers of commerce in our world are shifting to the hands of businesses themselves due to the growth and development of a networked culture. The beauty (or evil, depending on your perspective) of the network is that it is a 3-way communications medium, which allows human beings to by-pass filters that the network deems inefficient and, frankly, now useless. This includes our entire cultural infrastructure of expertise divided into silos, the first of which is how we communicate. There will be others.

This Borrell report tracks empirically the shifts relating to the way money changes hands in the levers that grease of the skids used by businesses to reach customers and sell their wares. Those businesses are loudly telling us now – along with their customers – exactly how THEY want things done, and clearly that doesn’t include traditional forms of getting the word out. It’s too expensive. It’s too haphazard. It’s out of control in ways that we tend to disregard in the name of profit.

While I certainly respect the crisis that journalism may face in all of this, we’ve been our own worst enemies in the assumption that we could simply shift our model to the Web. It’s too late to effect any significant change in that strategic blunder, but it’s not too late to shift our focus to what we’re being given and away from what we want. That, I’m afraid, is the only logical path for the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Meanwhile, Gordon Borrell will continue to apply his fascinating research to helping us understanding not only what’s going on today but also where that’s all headed.

Free Range Content Consumption

flytvsmHere is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

Free Range Content

Facebook’s wish to put media content inside its own application is potentially self-destructive to those providing the content. Moreover, for Facebook, it smacks of the days of AOL. All of this would be irrelevant, if media could bring itself to release its content into the wild of the Net, but that appears more and more to be an impossible task.

To media companies, their competition is and always has been other media, which is an absurd proposition online. When a TV station, for example, behaves online only as it does in the linear world, it has already lost in the battle for relevance.

Local advertisers to increase online spending this year

In what is clearly yet another threat to the health of the traditional local media business, a new survey from Borrell Associates reveals that advertising’s shifting sands have made their way to the local level. In preliminary results (1,800 participants) from an ongoing survey of thousands of small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) around the country, the largest number – 57% – say they plan to increase online spending this year. That number is significantly higher than any other form of media in terms of increasing ad spending. According to Gordon Borrell, “If overall local ad budgets are increasing only about 10% in 2015, the high growth in digital is coming at the expense of other media choices – notably print.” Yellow Pages, newspapers, and magazines are the hardest hit media categories, with each being targeted for spending decreases of over 20% or more.

Click to Embiggen

Click to Embiggen

The most interesting aspect of this new Borrell’s survey is that the majority of those who advertise in traditional media channels say they’re in a holding pattern on those expenditures this year.  That is, 51% to 65% of them said their print, broadcast or outdoor ad budgets would probably remain the same in 2015.  

(NOTE:  These results come from surveying active advertisers in more than 100 markets across the U.S.  If you’d like to know how YOUR local advertisers compare with these results, the Borrell survey will remain open until April 15th.  To participate in Borrell’s massive SMB survey, contact Greg Harmon at gharmon@borrellassociates.com.)

VCs find value where traditional media can’t won’t

money2smThe venture capital research firm CB Insights reported this week that VCs are “Bullish on News: Funding to Media/Fat Content Startups Jumps 145% YoY.” Although it appears on the surface to have nothing to do with traditional media, that’s illusionary. VCs are always looking for problems to solve, and the problem here is where, how and through whom people everywhere get their news. And it’s really not so much about content as it is money, for the Net isn’t disrupting content, it’s taking money from local communities. That includes the pockets of traditional media.

According to CB Insights data, “digital news and media companies raised $813M in 2014. In 2013, startups in the space raised $331M.”

Investors appear bullish that the new wave of media startups relying on digital technologies can create sustainable (and hopefully lucrative) business models. One such investor, Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote after a $50M investment into Buzzfeed:

I believe the future of BuzzFeed – and the media industry more generally – will only get brighter as the number of people with internet-connected smartphones grows, and the internet solidifies its place as the central communication medium of our time.

That’s $813 million that traditional media companies didn’t wouldn’t spend on development, because, in part, they’re convinced their brands will always give them a seat at the marketplace table. Meanwhile, what’s really happening is that, unrestrained by competition, pureplay websites continue to siphon off millions of dollars from the neighborhoods of legacy media. This has been the constant caution of Borrell Associates research data for the past 15 years. Newspapers are dying, and local television is being artificially propped up by cable retransmission fees, while their corporate owners are unable to respond with anything other that defensive comments.

I believe this will continue unabated, until something like private local ownership of media is resurrected and stems the tide. I just don’t see it happening any other way.

 

Newspaper comeback? It’s all about the money

After years of complaining about disruptive forces hammering content, newspapers have finally begun focusing on the real problem, according to local online revenue expert Gordon Borrell. In a wide-ranging email interview about the topic this week, Borrell told me that attention in newspaper front offices has shifted from news content to protecting the one kind of content they have that others don’t. “Newspapers,” he said, “contain the only daily compendium of the Big Sales in a local market, and it’s that franchise that they’re worried about losing — not the local news franchise.”

“They’ve pretty much stopped hand-wringing,” he added, “over companies like Patch infringing on the low-value ‘community news’ turf and have drawn sharp focus on protecting that wildly valuable advertising franchise.”

It’s a good thing, because while the debate has raged about such irrelevant things as whether bloggers are journalists, mixing facts with opinion, hyperlocal news, and personal branding, pureplay Web companies have been decimating the business side of things. Look, the Web didn’t hurt newspapers by taking away their readers; they did so by taking away their money, and I’m happy to see a shift in the numbers this year.

For those of you who still believe it has anything to do with content, here’s an image I put together using data provided by Borrell. Pureplays have been taking local dollars out of the system since the earliest days of the Web, but newspapers were clearly the king. Now look what has happened:

market share by medium, 2002-2010

Borrell points to the slight drop in pureplay share and the uptick in newspaper share in 2010 as a sign that newspapers are really beginning to get it.

The big share losses for newspapers were the result of them being lulled into believing they didn’t need to hire extra staffing and that it was all about putting news online and selling ad adjacencies around it. It’s a niche medium where the other half of newspapers’ content — advertising — should be driving the boat. I think they’re well aware of that now, and I think you’re going to see more share growth as a result.

newspaper circulation and onlineThe drop in market share for newspapers has been precipitous during the past five years, and while there are those who would argue that declining circulation is the problem, the reality is that people consuming newspaper content online come close to making up the difference. Moreover, a direct correlation between newspaper circulation and revenue is assumptive, at best, for the only thing we really know for sure is that money has shifted dramatically within the local sphere. Given the realities of companies like Groupon, Facebook, Google and a myriad of others sucking cash from the marketplace, can we really assume that if newspaper circulations were where they used to be that advertising still wouldn’t have moved? I don’t think so.

This is why I’ve been harping so long on the truth that our “business” is actually advertising, not news content. Surrendering the idea that ads adjacent to scarce content is dying is perhaps the hardest thing for newspaper executives to accept, but that’s the reality. Money is money, and the people formerly known as the advertisers are finding highly efficient and effective online methods to spend theirs.

But all is not lost, and Borrell believes the evidence shows a newspaper comeback, of sorts, and he’s optimistic. “Instead of trying to managing everything under one umbrella,” he told me “they’re actually plowing additional resources into the Internet.”

“Their editors or print sales people are less in control,” he added, “allowing their Internet staffs to move more independently and aggressively.”

And, he notes that we shouldn’t forget to examine history, because newspapers can’t be easily written off.

When you look back on any new electronic media — like radio in the 1920s, TV in the 1950s and cable in the 1960s and ‘70s — you see that newspaper companies were among the first to seize the opportunities and make them their own. That’s why you have call letters like WCPO (Cincinnati Post), WBEN (Buffalo Evening Newspaper), and KMST (Minneapolis Star-Tribune). They have a lot at stake, and they leverage themselves into any new business that looks like a threat to their core business. I think you’re going to see newspapers — and perhaps TV stations — basically “own” the local Internet. They have local promotional capabilities to brand a new product, and the feet on the street to develop the content and sell advertising.

That’s a bold statement, and I certainly don’t disagree. The thing that’s different about the Local Web, however, is that it’s ability to generate revenue is outside the mass media box that newspaper companies know so well, and which is also the core business model of radio, television and cable. It’s taken awhile for papers to figure that out, but I agree with Gordon that a shift in the local online market share is at hand.

The Internet is a three-way communications medium. I don’t think anybody has figured out the killer app in terms of enabling commerce, but I’m betting on it happening first at the local level. Will it come from newspapers? I’m not sure, but if it does, it’ll only happen through independent thinkers, those who can separate the making of money from the creation of content.