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.

1968 just called, wants its mood back

Puppet masters are at work online

Puppet masters are at work online

As Donald Trump continues his effort to seize the law and order position in the wake of continuing violence on America’s streets (“Make America Safe Again”), the whole mood of the country is reminding me more and more of 1968. Prophecies of anarchy were the news back then, as the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King triggered violence in the streets. But the riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere were just a part of the overall scenario, which included Vietnam – with its Tet Offensive and My Lai massacre and campus protests. The sitting president, LBJ, decided not to run. Chicago police overreacted to demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Internationally, there was “Bloody Monday” in Paris, demonstrators were slaughtered in Mexico City, and the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

The end result was the election of Richard Nixon who ran on the position of ending the chaos by restoring law and order. Of course, he then went on to resign his presidency for maintaining a slush fund through which he financed illegal operations against his political enemies. So much for law and order.

Today feels very familiar to me and apparently others who lived through 1968. It’s an election year, and the news is filled with nastiness with each candidate proclaiming the other to be crooked or moronic. Violence in the streets has everybody panicked. Police are killing blacks. Police are being killed. Muslims are under attack. Terror is winning the war for the minds of free people, and mostly, there’s a sense that a rigged political and financial system is public enemy number one. “What’s the use?” is the overarching dark cloud that governs the hearts of Americans today.

The American dream, it turns out, is not wealth, but the appearance of wealth that can be obtained through debt. Television shows us that possessions equal happiness and that we can have them before we pay for them. Hard work and dedication means allegiance to the rigged system, for “the rich man writes the book of laws that the poor man must defend.”

But 2016 isn’t 1968, and while the similarities may be striking, there’s something at work today that wasn’t even imaginable back then. I’m talking about The Great Horizontal and the disruption of culture by the advent of the digital network. Culture’s bottom – you and me – are connected and can communicate without going through one of the information filters of top-to-bottom communications. This makes the situation in real life both worse and better, but regardless, it’s here to stay. Of course, the day could come when “the authorities” decide it’s just too dangerous for them, and they’ll move to disconnect us in the name of our own safety. They will somehow shift the blame to “incitement,” which is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s favorite weapon against those who would dare to lift a finger against his expansionist efforts. If it can happen there, it can happen here.

You see, people have always known the system was rigged, but postmodernism and its practices allows people now to better understand the hows of the rigged system, and they’re angry over it. We’re all angry about it – some of it is pretty absurd – and we’re demanding change. Most importantly, we have the power today to do something about it long after the noise of 2016 is over. When I wrote “The Evolving User Paradigm,” I was looking through this lens. The network will never stand still and not just because technology keeps evolving. We’re evolving with it, as more and more people learn how to use it.

Freud’s theories, which ultimately led to the manipulation of the people through the industries of public relations and professional journalism, are at the bottom of much of our angst, and this can only be overcome through knowledge. The problem is that those who benefit from this knowledge are the last people to ever teach us, which is why fact-checking is such an important industry for tomorrow. I used to ask why Snopes became the authority on this until I began to realize that media companies want nothing to do with the business of separating fact from fiction. Driven by the human need to climb the cultural ladder, journalists today rub elbows with those they cover and, whether consciously or not, participate with those who have much to lose by disturbing the status quo. This is why I continue to proclaim that straightening the crooked path is the duty of everyone who participates in bottom to bottom communications.

Instead, we’re using the bottom to bottom path to pass along the rantings of those who still exploit the emotions of everyday people to meet their special interests. The production of outrageous Facebook and Twitter memes that are purely propaganda are a throwback to the methods of Edward Bernays and those who learned from him how to manage public opinion with whatever tool they could find. We’re taking messages from the top and passing them along the bottom, so nothing has really changed just yet, although the evolving user paradigm suggests hope for the future. Only the people can stop this, but it’s going to take the knowledge of being duped by special interests, including religion, which is a very, very big task.

To my friends who regularly place outrageous, false, and nasty memes in front of me, regardless of political position, please think about what you’re doing. You are being used, no matter how strongly you feel, for it is those feelings that are being tapped to manipulate you and everyone in your path. You’re angry, and we all get that, but you are also very much a part of a very old problem.

BONUS LINK: Tom Brokaw’s 1968 (YouTube)

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.

@ESPN doesn’t care, so why should I?

Screen Shot 2015-09-16 at 2.32.41 PMMany times I have informed ESPN.com of a Facebook fraud. I’ve done this over the past three months, and yet the practice continues, so I’m giving up. But not without first informing all of you. Ads like the one on the right appear every day on Facebook. All reference ESPN, and all point to bogus ESPN pages, like the one below.

The text is all about a product, PowerTestro, the apparent sponsor of the ads. The copy of the ad to the right contains the link, if you want to see for yourselves. It’s some muscle performance enhancer that, for whatever reason, gets away with false advertising, copyright violations, and whatever they wish in the name of selling their product.

ESPN and Facebook “seem” to welcome feedback, but they really don’t. At least not from peons like me.

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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.)