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.

The Mining of Christian Discontent

It’s never enough, never, never enough. Why is all that we have simply never enough?” Olivia Newton-John

To watch the news these days, you’d think that President Trump’s army of dissatisfied white Christian people is happily moving its agenda forward, but you’d be mistaken. Hundreds of the ear tickling promises made by Trump-the-candidate are off the table or have been brushed aside entirely by Trump-the-President, and people are having doubts about their man. This is most readily expressed in the social media discussions among friends. How long those people will cling to the guy can’t be known, but one important thing is being overlooked by the professional observers: the anger for a revolution against the status quo that Donald Trump originally tapped remains unsatisfied. This is only going to get worse. Victims of a film-flam man aren’t likely to buy in again, but that anger is still festering.

My father was a factory worker in the furniture industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He operated a router, cutting the same piece of wood for the same furniture over and over again as part of an assembly line. He was a working man and a Democrat of the Adlai Stevenson brand. My father simply could not vote for Republicans, because they represented the wealthy, including the boss, the owners, the managers, all those who got rich on the backs of others, especially labor.

At the annual company picnic, the children of employees were each given a silver dollar, and it was a big deal for all of us. They were heavy and big, and they made our eyes pop. However, those shiny coins were also emblematic of the reality that the people carrying the bags full of them were the overseers, and we, as recipients of their largess, were not. When you hold a big silver dollar in your little hand, the mind wanders to what it might be like to hold two. Or three. Or more.

“Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor.” Ecclesiastes 4:4 ESV

My father even disliked Gerald Ford, the local boy who became President in the wake of Watergate. Ford came from East Grand Rapids, considered the other side of the tracks from our modest means. The idea that the haves should govern the have-nots is straight out of the colonialist playbook, the outcome of which is only good for the conquerers. I think my father knew that, and it’s one of the things that drives me in my old age. I believe that the people can rule themselves and that the net makes this possible.

But amazingly, disgust with the rich is now gone from our culture. It’s been replaced by envy and the dangled carrot that liberals have robbed you of your chance at the good life through the tyranny of the minority. All you have to do, the carrot reminds, to get your share is vote against the troublemakers. This forms a fascinating paradox for the people who elected Donald Trump, because there simply aren’t enough bodies in the one percent to elect a candidate anywhere. You must have working class people included, and that remains the biggest mystery of the Trump phenomenon. How do you get people like my father to vote WITH those above you in every status measurement?

Television reality shows pay their stars well, so even “realities” like the Jersey Shore, a Louisiana swamp, or a small town in rural Georgia are skewed because everybody seems to have money. Then there are the Kardashians and other famous families, the Housewives of wherever, the Sharks, the Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and the bargain hunters who always seem to hit it big. Endorsement deals featuring reality show “celebrities” create a wannabe sub-culture that mimics the wealthy in ways that contribute to the envy of our neighbors. How much of the debt in our culture comes from young people trying to emulate those they see on TV or online? Johnny has that car, so why not me? This is the self-centered cultural core that we explored at The 700 Club to raise money and channel this discontent to the Republican Party. It’s all in my book, The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP.

Envy unsatisfied easily becomes stored anger.

And the problem with anger is that it can redirect energy away from truth. Resentments always color one’s existence, because the narrative can only present a skewed reality. Resentment also burns the insides. The revenge we seek by remembering, which we intend for the source of the resentment, has nowhere to go except inward. We end up beating ourselves with the two-by-four intended for someone else. We paint ourselves as victims who deserve better, but the best a victim can do is survive. Those willing to let go and embrace life, however, are free to win.

The paradox of prosperity is that discontent increases with opportunities for acting on it.

Despite the election of Donald Trump, that anger is still throbbing in the hearts of the working class, white Christian mid-Americans that supported him as an agent of change. What he’s changed mostly so far is to switch the welfare of the poor to the welfare of the rich, making rules that benefit the rich, so that they can be richer. The jobs won’t show up. The promises he made to that disgruntled heart of America won’t be fulfilled, and the real revolt lies just around the corner.

My hope is that somebody will come along someday with a message that points to the Bible’s categorization of the rich as “oppressors” and opens the minds of middle America to the possibility that perhaps God isn’t a Republican. The reason I’m not optimistic about this is that these people aren’t driven by reason; they’re driven by faith.

Any person who will dance and kick with arms raised in church, speak in tongues, fall to the floor “in the spirit,” lay hands on the sick for healing, and generally give themselves over to a public display of emotional worship can easily be convinced to step outside reason on matters of conscience. The mind is a fertile field when opened by extreme forms of worship, which is why it most often comes before the message in church. Sixties rock superstar Jimi Hendrix said in Life Magazine’s October 3, 1969 edition: “I can explain everything better through music. You hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state which is pure positive—like in childhood when you got natural highs. And when you get people at their weakest point, you can preach into the subconscious what we want to say.

The point is that the “personal relationship with Jesus” preached by the public face of Christianity has come to represent the gathering to one’s self for personal gain along with a Bible that’s used as a self-help manual from God Almighty. These Americans are not satisfied — nor will they ever be satisfied — as long as they are convinced that they deserve more due to their loyalty to Jesus. As George Carlin would say, they’re “out where the busses don’t run,” a place where reason is a mile wide and an inch deep. Donald Trump tapped their inner disillusion with promises he would never be able to keep, and that is only going to turn up the heat on their anger.

The press would be smart to understand that this battle has only just begun.

The real threat to the working class

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

My dad coming home from work at one of the big furniture factories in Grand Rapids circa 1959.

In the endless litany of analyses over why Donald Trump was elected president, the winner seems to be the cultural subgroup known as “the working class.” All the nostalgia over making America great again was targeted to this group, people who once participated in the American Dream but have lost out to foreign manufacturing, among other things. As a working class guy and a transplant to the South, I can tell you this is serious business down here. Textile mills that used to dot the landscape have moved where labor is cheaper, leaving behind a legion of good people without a way to provide a middle class lifestyle for their families.

Mr. Trump blamed trade agreements that allowed other countries to steal the manufacturing sector out from under us, but he did so without ever mentioning two important aspects of this: cheaper products produced by cheaper labor, which benefit us all, and dramatically increased profits that didn’t have to be shared with the cheaper labor. Assuming all of that was somehow brought back to the U.S., consumer prices would skyrocket, which would not please anybody. I mean, what’s the point of a “good” job, if it means inflation and higher prices for everything from housing to a pair of jeans?

But the bigger story is what’s ahead for the working class regardless of the extent to which nationalism grows as a practical matter. Technology isn’t just disrupting hierarchies and those whose value to the economy is based on protected knowledge; technology is also stripping away working class jobs and will continue to do so at an accelerating pace. By 2019, the Labor Department projects that 40% of the labor force will be self-employed, which doesn’t bode well for those who whose parents went to the office, the plant, the mine, or whatever. No amount of “Yea, America” is going to make corporations care about the lives of their employees beyond what they can do for the bottom line.

And that means the digitalization of the kinds of jobs once thought untouchable will continue. Today, it means little that a truck can transport goods without a driver, but what about tomorrow? Anybody who drives for a living can be replaced. Robotics continue to advance in all directions, as does artificial intelligence, holograms, virtual reality, advanced military weaponry, and many, many other areas. This has brought about serious discussion about the concept of “uniform basic income” or “guaranteed basic income,” in which the government would give everybody money whether they worked or not. The election of Donald Trump, some within the basic income movement argue, may jumpstart the idea, while others, according to a Business Insider article, disagree.

“The election of Trump as president is probably not good news for the basic income movement,” Rutger Bregman, Dutch basic income expert and author of “Utopia for Realists,” tells Business Insider.

And with millions of jobs set to get displaced by robotic automation in the coming decades, Bregman could be right. As Business Insider’s Josh Barro argued, Trump doesn’t seem too concerned about the lack of manufacturing jobs in the future. That lack of clarity has experts like Bregman worried. The president-elect seems unwilling to acknowledge that humans could get booted from entire industries in a matter of decades.

That’s precisely why Trump has every incentive to cozy up to basic income, Pugh says. His fan base has serious fears about the future of the economy.

“Enacting basic income would help to revitalize parts of the country hit hardest by outsourcing and automation by spurring entrepreneurship in those areas.” Or as writer and basic income advocate Scott Santens put it, “Basic income is good for business.”

The working class faces a very difficult future, which is why it’s probably a safe bet that young people will continue to leave rural communities for opportunities in the big city. There are still innovative opportunities available to anyone within the Great Horizontal, but such opportunities demand a different mindset than one based on nostalgia and making American great (again) by going back to an era buried in the sands of human progress. The irony is that rural versus urban is an artificial barrier, for we have achieved a degree of omnipresence never even considered by the planners of old.

Personally, I’ll take small town living with a good internet connection any day of the year.

Another postmodern signpost – banks

Here we go again.

A new Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions (GPS) report on how financial technology is disrupting banks provides another look for us into our rapidly ascending postmodern future. According to the report, mobile distribution will be the main channel of interaction between customers and the bank, which will mean a dramatically reduced need for bank branches. This will lead to the loss of 1.8 million employees between now and 2015, down a whopping 40-50% from its peak in 2007.

banks

An article in Business Insider referencing the report compares it to earlier projections:

That’s in line with former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins’ recent prediction that pressure from the tech industry “will compel banks to significantly automate their business” and “that the number of branches and people may decline by as much as 50% over the next years.”

The CITI report suggests that as more and more transactions move to mobile, there will be a “rebalancing of staff from transaction-based roles to advisory-based roles,” but I don’t believe such jobs will pay as much. As such, I’m not certain this “rebalancing” will make much difference for those out of work.

This is downside of the Great Horizontal, when it’s viewed from a strictly modernist, top-down perspective. These bank executives know that reduced expenses mean increased profits, so their concern about employees is disingenuous, at best. They will be surprised when faced with the granular investment opportunities that will occur along the bottom of their top-down paradigm, and then the real postmodern disruption of the banking institution will begin. A modernist culture requires banks, but I’m not convinced they will be at all relevant as the twenty-first century moves along.

One thing is absolutely certain: making a living will be completely redefined, and the time to start thinking about that is today.

Our addiction to formulas is killing us

pattersonFormulas are the greatest gift and yet the greatest curse of modernity. In a culture where the wheels of commerce are greased through mass marketing, there is no greater path to wealth than a successful formula. However, when formulas are used to stifle creativity, the whole culture stagnates and eventually is ripe for disruption. The United States of America is stagnating, because we’ve steadily embraced this obsession with road maps over the last century. Rather than elect leaders to take us forward, we choose managers who can show us bullet points, formulas, and a spread sheet. The result feels safe but is actually stagnating and deflating, because it has no imagination.

Formula addiction is especially useless for institutions during times when equilibrium is lost amid chaos. In the 21st Century, we are in one of those times.

But formulas can also become counterproductive value propositions when people manipulated by formulas gain their (formerly) secret knowledge. One, formulas then produce a boring and predictable sameness, and, two, anybody is free to take up the same formula, thereby destroying the value of its former uniqueness. Add to this the corporate greed of formula exploiters, and suddenly a formula that used to “work” becomes a net turn-off to its customers. This is where institutions fail the most, for modernist hierarchical groups can’t afford to talk with customers.

Star Wars, for example, is a very successful Hollywood formula. The rarity of its episodes (there have only been 7 in the last 40 years) doubtless contributed to that success, but we’re about to get one Christmastime movie a year (including spin-offs) from Disney, because they like the profits produced by the formula. This means other movies won’t be made, because why should a corporation that’s in it for profit take a chance when all they have to do is copy a known formula for success, right?

It’s the same way with publishing, which is why James Patterson is the only author you see in TV advertising. The man is one giant formula gone to seed. Formula addiction contributes to failures with media, with education, and every aspect of our society, even the arts.

Beancounters love to copy. It’s why nearly every client I’ve had in broadcasting – when offered my ideas – has responded with, “Who else is doing this?” The inference is a reticence to experiment rather than copy something that’s already been tried and proven a success elsewhere. The ability to show broadcasters what’s working elsewhere is the core competency of TV news consulting, so my iconoclastic approach didn’t win any business for my employer. My evidence didn’t matter. I could show clients the damaging pathway of their existing strategy, and it didn’t matter. I could appeal to reason and present clever images to spark their imaginations, but it didn’t matter. None of it mattered, because their profit was based on known formulas, and despite evidence that the formulas wouldn’t ever meet their digital expectations, they still cling to them today. It will be their downfall.

Christianity is another tired cultural formula that’s being picked apart today. The Emergent or “Emerging Church” movement exploded on the scene as a “postmodern” alternative to stagnating orthodoxy, but it has slowed down considerably in the wake of scandals and other mischief. As one who writes of postmodernism, I’ve always felt both kinship with and distance from the leaders of this group, for they were using the basics of postmodern thought and tools to create a new hierarchy (and sell books). This is quite absurd by default, for horizontal chaos is the authority in a postmodern culture, not hierarchies.

Keep this in mind as you go about your lives in this century, for it’s on display everywhere. The left brain thinking that has governed life in the West for so long is crumbling under the weight of its disrespect for imagination.

UPDATE: Independent Contractors for Media

I’ve been writing about the inevitability of media companies moving to independent contractors for over a decade, and the signs continue to point in that direction. As revenues slow, cost-cutting becomes the only way to maintain margins, and the one-to-many need to wrap employees into one super brand will become less important in the profit-driven minds of managers. Besides, the Net – which is where everything’s going – is more receptive to personal brands than those of industry. So-called “social” media is where you’ll find the people formerly known as the audience, and big brands don’t belong there.

INSEAD’s Knowledge blog uses the Dutch model to make the statement: The Future for Labour Is Self-Employment, validating the ideas expressed in an essay that I published five years ago.

nonemployerIn 2005, we crossed a milestone in this country when the number of people self-employed went over 20 million. Data from the Small Business Administration put that figure over 21 million in the latest year for which the information was reported, 2008. By now, we expect that number is approaching 23 million, as more and more people — especially older people — set up eBay stores or find other ways to support themselves and their families online. These people are well-educated in the ways of the Web and don’t spend their marketing money in traditional ways. This figure bears watching, for while they live and work in our communities and neighborhoods, the money they earn comes from everywhere. They are a part of a new subset of our economy, and…it’s actually growing.

The economy is better than it was in 2008, and much of that has been due to the continued rise of self-employment. A Business Week article in 2011 put the number at 40 million and offered the advice that “To boost the economy, help the self-employed.” As an optimist, I believe this is an issue that Congress will have to address sooner than later. The article notes “By 2019, the self-employed will account for 40 percent of all American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” How can such a staggering number not include reporters, photographers and other practitioners of “the news” downstream?

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics article  published last year offers the below graph. Note that writers and photographers are already two careers with high self-employment rates.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.18.49 AM