Category Archives: Media

Native Ads and the Media Industry

There was a discussion on the future of native advertising in the always-worthwhile Exponent podcast that I found interesting.

James Allworth, one of the co-hosts, was concerned that having journalists (BuzzFeed staffers, specifically) working on native ads on behalf of advertisers will corrupt their integrity. This is a valid concern; however, it is also likely to be transitory.

Back in the 1990s, many newspapers were building websites and wanted ads on them. So they built in-house agencies that would craft the banner ads on behalf of the client. These in-house agencies soon realized that the ad needed to go somewhere when clicked upon. So they helped their clients build actual websites. That’s right, many newspapers had entire in-house for-hire web design firms operating inside of them. Many print papers did this back in the day as well with print ads. Some local and community papers surely still do it.

Once the web matured as a medium, and digital agencies arrived in the late 90s and 2000s, the papers no longer needed to provide website and banner building services.

It will be the same way with native ads. Within a few years, undergraduate marketing and communications majors will be well-versed in content marketing and storytelling and such and they will go to work for agencies and brands writing listicles and charts and GIFs.  And then the BuzzFeed journalists won’t have to do it anymore.

Measuring Journalistic Success

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram on Andrew Sullivan’s decision to erect a paywall and start charing for content:

Despite his following, however, it is far from clear that Sullivan will be able to make the transition work — yet if he does, he could become the first real success story of the post-industrial journalism era. [emphasis added]

I have a problem with this quote.  I don’t mean to pick on Ingram, who I think is a good writer, but rather an overall trend I see when people write about paywalls. There’s an implicit assumption that financial solvency equals success.

The truth, I think, is more complicated.  One of the great things about the Internet when it comes to journalism is that it has explicitly decoupled financial renumeration from success. There are plenty of people blogging and writing for no money whatsoever, either because they think it will further their professional career or they just plain like having a venue in which to spout off (like me).

Even if we assume that being able to make a living as a writer/journalist is the end goal, then it’s far from clear that all financial models are created equal.  Presumably many writer/blogger/journalists are in the game to influence the debate.  They want to have an impact, have their ideas get out there and change the world. If that’s the case, then, an ad-supported model is clearly superior, all else being equal.  If you can make $100k/year from a member-supported site that reaches 10,000 readers or an ad-supported site that reaches 1,000,000 readers, doesn’t the latter have the potential to make a greater impact?

Of course, there are all sorts of caveats here.  For one, it may not actually be possible to make an equal amount of revenue. Ad-supported journalism online is a really hard game to play.  HuffPo does it better than most and they need millions of pageviews and lots of crappy content to make it pencil. Alternatively, those 10,000 readers could theoretically be incredibly influential policymakers and therefore have a lot more impact than a million schmucks like me reading your writing.  Finally, I don’t know the particulars of Sullivan’s paywall but I imagine it will have some porousness for allowing links from social media or other sources so as to maintain some broad appeal.

All of which is to say it’s not a clear cut case one way or the other.  So when we talk about “success” in journalism, there’s a lot more at work these days than whether you can pay the rent.

The Future of the Music Industry

Matt Yglesias on the death of recorded music:

This is one reason why I would discourage bands from trying to underprice tickets at their own shows as a reward to fans. Since digital copies of recordings are non-rival and basically free to make, any non-zero sale price entails some deadweight loss. And since concert tickets are necessarily scarce, any sub-market price entails some deadweight loss. The optimal strategy for a popular band that wants to do something nice is market pricing for concert tickets, plus free recordings. Or even better, you could release your records into the public domain.

This is in the context of Matt’s ongoing efforts to get bands to charge market rates for their concert tickets, rather than selling cheap tickets and letting scalpers extract the difference in value.

As recorded music collapses, I wonder if we’re going to see new efforts to maximize the efficiency of the live music experience. In the future, bands will make more of their money on the road. One way to do this would be to play more shows, as Duncan Black suggests. Another option would be to play larger venues. The problem with the former is that each night on the road costs you another night’s lodging, another day away from the family, etc. The issue with the latter is that there are only so many large venues. Perhaps over time, average venue size will increase. But in the short term, it seems like the problem is more that these venues are typically empty for 19 hours a day, and then booked from 8pm – 1am (and the headliner often doesn’t go on until midnight — even on a weeknight). A hugely inefficient allocation of venue space!

So here’s Frank’s solution: book two shows a night in the same venue! First, get rid of opening acts on most shows. Opening acts were a good idea when it was hard to introduce people to new bands, but that’s gotten so much easier with social media, Pandora, what have you. Instead, have an 8pm show for geezers like me who can’t stay up late on a weeknight (and maybe the under-21 set, too, if licensing laws permit), and then a 10 or 11pm show for the 20-somethings.

In this scenario, you’re making better use of your resources. You don’t have the increased overhead of the larger venue (more security guards, etc.), you’ve increased the potential audience (presumably by bringing in the under-21s and the geezers, who would have otherwise not attended), and you’re now booking two shows instead of one for each night on the road.

As society gets richer, and the costs of having a live performer perform for a fixed audience get higher, I imagine we’ll see this sort of thing not just in live music, but other performing arts (theater, dance, etc.) as well.

When Rachel Met Jon

I finally got around to watching Rachel Maddow’s fascinating interview of Jon Stewart from November.

The interview came a few days after Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity,” and Stewart seems to have come to clear the air regarding what the rally was “about.” If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it, but here’s the gist: Stewart argues he’s a satirist, more Seinfeld than Murrow. Maddow, however, argues that Stewart is not really any different than she is: in her mind, they’re both opinion journalists trying to influence the national debate.

I have to say, I think both of them were talking past each other.

Here’s the nut of Stewart’s argument. First, he thinks Maddow has more of a responsibility to truth telling, since she’s part of the news ecosystem, whereas he’s somehow outside of it. Second, after 12 years of irony, he believes he’s “earned 10 minutes of sincerity,” which was his final monologue at the end of the rally.

Ok, I think Stewart’s got a point that he’s a satirist – George Carlin with a desk. That said, he’s engaged in far more than 10 minutes of sincerity in his past 12 years. Not only the 9/11 responders show in December, but pretty much every time he has an interesting or controversial political guest. He uses humor as a tool to disarm, sure, but his questions can be just as probing – sometimes even more so – than what you’ll find on any “real” news show.

(One of my favorites is when he got Bill Kristol to admit that all Americans don’t deserve health care that’s as good as what our soldiers get.)

Stewart’s also hung up on this idea that cable news is destroying the republic. Look, I sympathize. I can’t stand cable news. I should be right square in MSNBC’s demographic and yet I hardly ever turn it on. But there have been partisan news outlets since the start of the republic, and somehow we’ve muddled through. And the cold, hard truth is that no one watches cable news. On Fox’s best day ever, they get 1% of the US population to tune in. And they’re the big dog!

No one, that is, except everyone in Washington, DC. Which is where Stewart has a point. The idiocy of cable news echoes through the corridors of power in America in a way that is truly toxic.

In that sense, Maddow’s role at MSNBC is interesting. She’s definitely trying to raise the level of the debate, but she’s constrained by dynamics and necessities of the format and the network. She’s doing a good job, and she doesn’t need Stewart’s stamp of approval. Because after watching this interview, I’m more convinced than ever that Stewart hasn’t really gotten his own house in order.

Nonprofit News

Nonprofit news outlet The Texas Tribune seems to be doing well. GigaOm reports that one challenge the company has been having is around donations:

So if growth has been easier than expected, what has been harder than the company expected? Smith said building up a membership of donors — like any non-profit entity must — has been difficult, and in particular “getting existing members to renew and getting new members has been harder than we thought it would be.

Without really knowing much about the Tribune’s situation, it does seem to me that news organizations face a bit of an uphill battle when it comes to donations, if only because they haven’t quite figured out how to tell their story to donors in a coherent way. Social service and cultural organizations have been nonprofits for quite a long time, and so have a robust vocabulary for talking about themselves as a public good.

NPR is the big exception here, but they’ve been able to rely for a long time (until quite recently) on a kind of scarcity: support your local affiliate or one day you won’t be able to get Car Talk and This American Life. Orgs like the Texas Tribune can’t make the same claim.

This is a very sumountable problem. We’ve figured out how to create a fundraising model for dance companies, museums, historical societies, food banks, and many, many other organizations. There’s no reason why we can’t figure one out for the news. But it will take some time.

Content: Still King

In the New York area, Fox and Cablevision have been locked in a battle over transmission fees. Cablevision blocked Fox from the air. At first, I thought Cablevision would win this Mexican standoff easily – after all, it’s relatively easy for a consumer to switch to another channel, but hard (if not impossible) to switch cable providers. So I thought Cablevision ha the upper hand in the negotiations.

But judging by Cablevision’s bitter reaction to the settlement, it looks like Fox got the upper hand:

In a sign of the animus that remains between the two companies, Cablevision released a statement that said it was agreeing to pay an “unfair price” for the stations.

“In the absence of any meaningful action from the FCC, Cablevision has agreed to pay Fox an unfair price for multiple channels of its programming including many in which our customers have little or no interest,” Cablevision said, adding that it “conceded because it does not think its customers should any longer be denied the Fox programs they wish to see.”

In retrospect, I guess this makes sense. People have a stronger attachment to content than infrastructure, regardless of the switching costs. And certain Fox products (such as the Baseball World Series and, er… Glenn Beck) don’t have perfect substitutes on other channels.

Newspaper as Premium Service

Speaking of subscriptions, I see that the New York Times is planning a pay-wall for their content in 2011. As a subscriber to the print edition (Sunday only), it appears I’ll get access. Which is good. Yet another reason not to cancel.

Either way, I think this is the right move for the paper. It may or may not work, but I think the idea behind it is solid: the New York Times is premium content, and it needs to be treated that way.

I’d love to see the premium service extend to the print edition as well. Newspapers have been cheap, disposable commodities since their inception. But in the digital age, a newspaper is a luxury good. Subscribing to the NYT every day costs more than a broadband internet connection. Subscribing to Sundays only costs 50% more than my Netflix membership. It’s not for the poor, or the half-hearted subscriber. It’s a premium experience, and it should be presented as such.

Look, I have an emotional attachment to the Sunday New York Times. Walking out onto my porch and grabbing it, unwrapping it, sitting at the breakfast table with it, in a bathrobe, with a cup of coffee, feels fantastic. I’m far away from screens or keyboards or mice, as it should be on a Sunday. This is the life of kings, and I pay for it like one.

Sadly, the New York Times Company doesn’t seem to see it this way. For example, the paper is delivered in a plastic bag. It used to come double-bagged, but I suppose budget cuts have forced them to cut back. It’s routinely water-logged. I’m not saying it should come wrapped in raw silk, but at least give me a full product experience that’s commensurate with the costs.

Media Subscriptions

Via Kay, an interesting post on the costs of monthly subscriptions for media. Our current household bill for media and connectivity comes to about $325, including a couple of iPhones, internet, TV, Netflix, and the Sunday NY Times.*

“Content is free,” eh? Well, obviously not, but the media is often disconnected from the message these days. Comcast bought NBC to try and change that equation, but it’s unclear why. I’m paying a lot more money to bandwidth providers like Comcast than I am to content companies like NBC.

Anyway, I don’t have much to say except that it’s interesting in context of one of our local theaters, ACT, which just started a $25/month all-you-can-eat subscription package. For roughly the cost of Netflix, I can go see as much live theater as I want. ACT isn’t really billing it this way, but they ought to.

* I could include $10/month or so for web hosting into that mix, which is what it costs me to participate in the media by hosting this site, among others.

Writing for the Web

Mike Kinsley has a terrific piece in The Atlantic about how the old newspaper writing conventions don’t work on the web. He should know — his does web news articles as good as anyone in the business.

I’d even go Kinsley one further, though. I’m starting to wonder if the whole idea of the “article” is becoming passe in the era of the internet. When you’re talking about a breaking story that’s being updated constantly, it doesn’t make sense to publish an article. The New York Times often choses to use one of its various blogs for these types of stories, where posts can be updated as needed.

When people talk about how the internet changed content distribution, they often lump newspapers, music and movies together. But they’re really quite different. Newspapers are out of date as soon as the ink is dry. Distributing news over the web is a far different endeavor than distributing music or movies. Because news is ever-changing, the web breaks the fundamental unit of content — the news article — in a way that it doesn’t for the song or the movie.*

* You could argue that the web favors singles over albums, or 10-minute YouTube videos over movies, but I don’t think the change is nearly as significant as it is for news.

Advertising as Product

Jim Lansbury argues in AdWEEK for replacing “art and copy” people at ad agencies with “idea architects and engineers” who can build interactive products and solutions for their clients.

The article comes in for quite a bit of ridicule in the comment section. While sentences such as “new software has allowed practically anyone to be a designer” and “every idea is forward compatible” are pretty indefensible (if not nonsensical), I do think there’s a germ of truth there. Clients are looking for agencies to build products that stand on their own as having value. The Facebook and iPhone platforms are littered with examples of these apps (both good and bad).

In a way, it’s a bit of a throwback to the days where companies would sponsor television content (think Texaco Star Theater) or buy media companies outright (think GE+NBC) as a way of getting brand visibility.

Regardless, building an iPhone app (for example) is a product development process. Agencies can help clients work through that process to develop a product that’s actually useful and adds value, not just a pretty-looking widget with the company’s logo splashed all over it. To do that, they have to be willing to take a longer-term view of the product and develop a strategy to enhance and support it over time. However they organize themselves internally (designers, product developers, idea engineers), successful agencies will be the ones who can help clients envision, execute, and support quality interactive products, not just messages.