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.

Just the facts

Dragnet’s Sgt. Joe Friday

The principal assumption of modernity – the human era governed by logic and reason – is that there is an attainable objectivity when it comes to facts, even when applied to historical narratives. This is arguably false, however, when the postmodern practice of deconstruction is applied to any event or occurrence involving multiple narratives. It is perhaps the single most disruptive force of the current era, for a networked citizenry is able to seek out, create, and approve its own narrative while rejecting that of any self-serving hierarchical authority. The election of Donald Trump as President in 2016 was, in part, a reflection of this, for Americans find themselves in a season of questioning facts presented by any group through one-to-many (mass) media, including that which is highly political. Even the top-down messaging from the President of the United States to the citizens of the nation is becoming less and less “factual” with the citizens’ ability to deconstruct any presented narrative.

I view this as a good thing; many others don’t. It would be quite foolish, of course, to assert there are no “facts” in life, but those that drive narrative establishment are fewer and father in-between than you might think.

The 2016 presidential campaign brought to light purveyors of “fake” news, those websites disguised as news websites with deliberately false reports designed to gain pageviews without a conscience. More than for purely economic gain, these sites exploited the zeal of mostly right wingers who were motivated to pass along their lies via social media. One can argue the degree to which such false information influenced the election, but it certainly wasn’t zero. The term “fake news,” however, was too catchy for conservative commentators to ignore, so – in a remarkable feat of doublespeak – they simply applied it to their long time straw man, the so-called “liberal press.” This is the most dangerous leftover from the feast that put Mr. Trump in the White House, and it threatens every single one of our liberties. Since the birth of the Fourth Estate in the French Revolution, the press has served as a check on power in Western Civilization. They did not become such by pleasing the status quo, and this was a given for many centuries. To successfully label the watchdogs as “fakes” through political hackery is a result that could only come from the strategic use of propaganda.

Liberal political bias so dominates the mainstream press, the thinking goes, that it requires a deliberate conservative balance. This is a clever lie that I was partially responsible for spreading during my work as executive producer of The 700 Club in the 1980s. It’s a lie, because it presupposes that whatever we’ve historically known as “the news” is, in fact, politically motivated at core and therefore requires – no, demands – a corrective or “balancing” political response. The mind that drives President Trump’s strategies, Steve Bannon, repeated his description of the press as “the opposing party” in his appearance at this week’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Committee) conference.

White House chief strategist Steve Bannon mocked the media for how it “portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition and now they’re portraying the administration,” saying “it’s “always wrong,” during Thursday’s speech at CPAC …

… Last month, Bannon told the New York Times, “The media here is the opposition party,” adding, “They don’t understand this country.” The former Breitbart executive and other Donald Trump surrogates have been combative with the media, often calling CNN “fake news.”

This is a political talking point and nothing more, The problem is that conservatives have hijacked the brand “liberal” and redefined it to suit their wishes, They’ve framed the press into an indefensible corner, a false hegemony that requires more than denial to escape.

The truth is that while “the news” may indeed cover politics, it cannot be political at core, for the proper word for that is propaganda, the toy of the public relations industry, not journalism. Granted, there has been a destructive blending of the two over the past 100 years, but there are a great many journalistic enterprises that remain untainted, and they are nearly all newspapers. Ethics matter in journalism, and I say that as a former ethics professor. The First Amendment, which gives the press a unique liberty, requires self-policing. Speech may be free, but consequences, economic or otherwise, are not, and no journalist in her right mind would dare venture beyond ethical protections. This is why newspapers created the editorial page, where leaders and members of the community could express political views based on “the news.” As one who has practiced journalism for over forty-five years, I can state emphatically that there is no liberal conspiracy or political slant to the news. By definition of the word “news,” what is considered news is, well, new, and by that measure, one could accurately state that “the news” is progressive by design. But that does not make it political, and therefore, a political response isn’t justified whatsoever. This is my beef with so-called “right wing news,” for it was created as a political response to the mainstream press, which makes it false by definition. There is no such thing. Its purveyors are living an illusion, and its followers are a mislead group, for the very best one can say about it is that it is propaganda disguised as “the news.”

As it exists today, this group has little regard for facts and has partially fueled the rise of the postmodern culture’s desperation to find, for themselves, order within the chaos that threatens their peace. The mainstream press is astonished at being labeled “fake” or Bannon’s “opposition party” and doesn’t yet have a strategy for fighting the label except to deny it. They cling to the long-established assumption of “objective historical facts,” while the social engineers on the right argue for alternative meanings. While I believe this is all quite necessary for our culture’s advancement, we’re going to have to eventually agree on this business of facts. Rather than addressing ignorance in productive ways, we’re hung up on yelling at each other, although I believe this will pass eventually.

Even arguing the opposite – a “distortion of objective historical facts” – is committing the same error of reason as relying on those same facts in one’s arguments. Those who do are trying to make a case for said facts without evidence. They are merely attempting to make an inarguable argument over often highly questionable assertions they are trying to prove, and it doesn’t work anymore, because people can make up their own minds with just a little research. The idea of objective facts has served our Western culture well, because modernity refined the concept of top-down rule based on this assumption. If the rulers said it was fact, it was fact. It doesn’t matter if the hierarchy is dictatorial or democratic, for both ultimately rely on the power to control narrative in matters of fact. When such hierarchies are revealed as self-serving, however, those on the lower rungs are free to question the narrative or narratives that gave the top its authority in the first place.

What Donald Trump represents is the figurehead of one of these deconstructions, which is reasonable and understandable. Many Americans view their current circumstances as the chaotic fruit of those despicable liberals in charge who always act in opposition to the best interests of their conservative thinking. This would be completely acceptable in a postmodern universe were it not for the false assumptions that created its propagandistic narrative in the first place. Postmodernity doesn’t “replace” modernity, and that’s the problem. One does not give up his ability to think and reason simply because participation and experience suggest otherwise.

The postmodernist may discard historical narratives in her quest for truth, but she must in the process investigate the facts that the authors used to create the narrative in the first place. This is the proper role of deconstruction, for one may reject the conclusions of her predecessors, but she may not do it at the expense of truth, whether objective, absolute, or chaotic.

Facts, we must always remember, do not exist solely to create order, for order, as Henry Adams so brilliantly put it, “is the dream of man,” while chaos is the reality of nature. Therefore, the postmodern mind embraces the idea of factual chaos, while the modern mind must consider such as functionally unreasonable. Thusly, the right wing narrative is as false as the left wing narrative, because neither represents the entirety of chaos. Time and chance do not suit the modernist mind, but these are part and parcel of the postmodern reality and beyond.

Upon consideration of the above, the modern mind will default to its versions of absolutism and especially the nature of expertise that is gleaned from an educational system designed to promote the hierarchy. This boxlike structure rejects anything outside as undesirable and attaches labels that dehumanize through mockery and disdain such people. This includes the “liberal” moniker, which has been defined over the last thirty years as anyone or anything that wants to take away what one has or prevent one from getting what they believe they deserve. It’s neat. It’s simple. And it’s also utterly self-serving, for the hierarchy must protect itself at all costs. Anything else is assumed chaotic, and chaos is never to be accepted in the governance of humans, even though John Wycliffe wrote upon completion of his common English language Bible, “This book shall make possible government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Wycliffe knew that an internal governor was preferable to an external governor, because humans are so easily drawn away through self-centeredness, especially those with power over others.

The real American dream is self-governance, and without it, there is only the nightmare of the bayonet.

Donald Trump is by no means the end of this cultural shifting, but he is quite likely the beginning. For those of us in the trenches of life, we must do three things that are quite necessary in order to assure a bright future for our progeny.

First, we must protect at all costs our ability to freely connect. The web is open, for example, but Facebook is not, and this will drive darknet and backbone development in the decades to come. Net neutrality is the most important issue facing our culture, but most people don’t even know about it, which will enable corporations to steal the net from us. This will favor the haves, and we will be worse off than before.

Two, our day-to-day activities must include the recognition of narrative in those with claims of truth, any truth. This will be a challenge, for the education must begin with children. It is, however, an opportunity for someone. The dream that if we just work hard and keep our noses clean, we will be rewarded is a self-driven illusion of the ruling class, the only ones who really reap the rewards of a satisfied, lower-class labor force.

Finally, we must prepare ourselves and our children for an era of work very different from our parents. They’ll probably work at home or a home office of sorts. That means space, tools, a stout internet connection, and privacy. I agree with Mark Cuban that creative expression – and especially the ability to interpret data and provide creative analysis – is the job skill that will be most coveted downstream and especially in the near future. If you’re going to opt for college, move basic liberal arts to the top of the degree list, but it would also be useful to consider options outside college that will stretch the creative mind.

In essence, I view all of this as a necessary evil that we must get beyond. My entire life has been lived in a growing slough of bull crap, and humanity – free humanity – will never reach its potential in such muck. Life is certainly hard enough without being forced to trudge through the senseless nonsense designed to trap us all forever at the bottom of order’s pyramid.

Let chaos reign, at least for awhile.

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?

The Emergent Movement’s big failure

dragonfly1Let us forever remember the words of Henry Adams, Chaos is the way of nature, but order is the dream of man.

As I’ve written over the last fifteen years, another word for chaos is change. Change is the norm for the twenty-first century, where equilibrium is a constantly moving target. Hence, we all must change, personally and professionally, in order to adapt, for the rules in a world of change are different from those in an ordered universe. The Internet is the backbone of postmodernity, the single most misunderstood and misapplied term of this century, and something about which I’ve been writing since the beginning. When Kevin Kelly wrote his seminal essay “We are the Web” in 2003, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. We – the people – ARE the Web.

I used to write about media and proclaimed that the original sin of newspapers – the one that led to the downfall of the whole bloody institution – was reinventing themselves for the Web in their own image. This was a dreadful and costly mistake, for the Internet is not an infrastructure for mass marketing. All the terms associated with the newspaper industry come from processes and systems created for the printing and selling of newspapers to a mass, including the advertising that sustained the whole thing. It is both understandable and reasonable to assume this was the mission when forced to face the disruptive nature of the Web, but it missed what’s really been taking place: a dramatic retooling of the levers of commerce that vastly outperform the two fundamentals of mass marketing: reach and frequency. This is a message that newspapers rejected without serious consideration.

As I shift my focus from media to religion, I’m finding this same dynamic – identically – occurring within the institution of religion – Christianity in particular.

The last fifteen years have seen a ton of books by authors representing a movement that’s called the emerging church. “Emergers” are those changelings – such as dragonflies and butterflies – that live half their lives in one world and then “emerge,” transform to creatures who live in another. The movement is a response by a group of people to what they identify as the failings of “the church” in a postmodern world. The view that the church has failed extends far beyond this group, but Emergents (a subset of the emerging church), led by Brian McLaren, are the most popular and organized.

Their view, however, of postmodernism as a cultural era is badly limited, and this opens the door for the same error that newspapers made: you cannot reinvent church for the postmodern era by doing so in the modern era format. The Emergent Movement has planted church buildings and created new hierarchies, neither of which belong in the same sentence with “postmodern.” Despite attempts at adjusting theology and rules that better fit diverse interests in the twenty-first century, they lock themselves into a top-down paradigm designed to serve an archaic model of western culture. This will be its downfall. In fact, a well-known New York literary expert told me a few weeks ago that publishers are already backing away from these books, because they aren’t selling as well as they once did.

Does a nymph emerge from the water as a new nymph? No, it’s a different creature. Does a caterpillar emerge from its chrysalis as a new caterpillar? No, it’s a butterfly. Both of these emergers can actually fly! There’s nothing even remotely similar to their former state. “No one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Many Christian writers will view the decline of the Emergent Movement simply as God “rejecting” heresy, but that is shallow and self-serving. There will be postmodern Christianity, but modernist Christianity – based on tradition – will continue also. One doesn’t “replace” the other; it simply modifies the old to better fit the culture. We’ll let culture figure out which one better fits.

So how does one reinvent church for postmodernity? It’s an important question that will take many years to better understand and adapt. It will likely happen long after I’m gone, but here are ten thoughts to begin the conversation:

  1. It will be horizontal, and God, the Holy Spirit will be our focus. This is, after all, the third branch of the Trinity and what Jesus departed to give us. It is a constant here, and a constant now, and it is spread out across the limitations of time and distance. The net facilitates this, just as it has disrupted or already transformed all of life in the twenty-first century.
  2. Community will be redefined. From the very beginning of the Christian church, assembling together has been geography-driven (“the church at Corinth,” etc.). The net overcomes geography, and communities of interest are springing up everywhere. In internet parlance, these are called “niche verticals,” and they are rewriting how and where we consume information. Facebook, for example, redefines community in many ways.
  3. Its mission will be “here and now” focused. The Holy Spirit isn’t confined to Sunday morning, and neither will be postmodern Christianity. This will require, for example, rethinking worship, for the chill bumps of Sunday morning contemporary worship are confined only to those in attendance. We’ll also have to rethink the Eucharist and how that can be administered to those gathered in a networked world.
  4. It will be participatory and self-governing. There can be no FORMAL hierarchical organizational structure, for it is the doorway to mischief and THE principle objection of modernity. It is sloppy thinking to believe that any postmodern “institution” can be top-down. God the Father still exists, but not as the be-all model for the church. This is why I always point to AA when people ask what a postmodern institution looks like. It shouldn’t function, according to traditional management theory, but it does.
  5. There will be no “rules;” a common need will drive us. Absent an enforcement authority, there can be no rules, but as noted above, that doesn’t necessarily mean chaos. The word chaos, as defined by modernist thinking, is abhorrent and cannot be permitted, but postmodernity sees past that and embraces the idea that common purpose and accompanying manifestos can keep us together.
  6. It will be collaborative and inclusive. No one can be dismissed based solely on those attributes that influence people coming together in the natural. It’s a lot harder for me to dismiss or dehumanize another person when I’m not sitting next to them, where they might “rub off” on me.
  7. It will be connected. It’s unlikely this connectivity will be universal, for there’s still that “birds of a feather” thing, even though the flocking together is no longer governed by vicinity. Obvious differences will still appear and have to be considered, but although people, like snowflakes, are all different, we’re still all human beings, and the ability to independently deal with our humanity will be our core motivator.
  8. Blogs will be more important than books. Think about it. If connectivity is our form, then the need for daily bread is part and parcel of that connection. Blogs were created by the network’s originators as the principal tool by which connected people (the Great Horizontal) pass along information. This innovation did away with the role of gatekeeper by displaying such information in reverse chronological order, putting new entries at the top of the distribution flow. The whole thing was designed for aggregation across a constantly moving timeline. Online information displays this way, including social media outlets. The postmodern church will be the same way.
  9. The task of members will be to be more human. This differs from the illusionary task of modernity’s church, which is to help people be more spiritual in order to gain a future goal. This, it turns out, is not the real challenge of Life, for the presence of the Holy Spirit assumes we are already spiritual, otherwise the connection would be impossible. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, not down the road somewhere. This alters the command and control mechanism of the modernist church’s hierarchy, because it no longer solely possesses the ability to determine and grant one’s eternity. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of that in the here and now.
  10. It will be culturally disruptive. Christianity’s ability to impact culture has always been through forcibly herding citizens into the pen of its laws and order. What we see in our world today is all the evidence we need to question the morality of such, and this, too, is one of the energies empowering postmodernism. The lasting way to influence culture is from the inside-out, and that will be the righteous consequence of postmodern Christianity. Joining our connected community will be based on the attraction it represents, not the mass marketing of some special lifestyle, guarantee of prosperity, or entryway into the gates of heaven. It will be knowledge that we are able to thrive physically, emotionally, and intellectually within the chaos of constant change.

We cannot overlook the development of new technologies, such as virtual reality and holograms, tools which will naturally advance the network and demand our continued willingness to adapt to postmodernity. Moreover, we must always consider the Evolving User Paradigm, because sophistication in the use of the Web grows with every day that a person uses it.

Please look at the above and think about what you might be able to add to it. Don’t be like the newspapers that rejected change, because they were so enamored with their existing model that they couldn’t imagine it would ever fall apart.

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

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.