For good or for ill, political advertising has just one trajectory: “Up”.

For those of us who hope that we’d seen the apex of political advertising in 2016 or 2018, it looks like we’re in for a rude awakening. Just-released projections from Advertising Analytics and Cross Screen Media predict that political advertising will exceed $6 billion in 2020 — nearly half of it allocated to the presidential contest alone.

And if we thought that broadcast TV and cable TV advertising might be leveling off because of the explosion of digital advertising, that’s incorrect as well. As it turns out, political advertising across all sectors is going to be up significantly.  Here’s what’s forecast:

More specifically, the analysts project ~8 million broadcast airings of political ads in 2020, which is significantly above both the 2016 and the 2018 figures. Meanwhile, digital advertising will grow by the biggest percentage, but will still make up less than 30% of the total expenditures.

One thing appears to be completely static, however:  where most of the ad dollars will be spent. It seems that the same ~15 states will remain the big battlegrounds in 2020, so the lion’s share of the advertising will be just as concentrated as it was in 2016.  Here are the report’s state projections:

Might it be time to move to a nice one-party state like Rhode Island, Washington, North Dakota or Mississippi? Perhaps — if only for the campaign season …

For those gluttons for punishment who’d like to view the full report, it can be accessed here.

Just ducky: Engineers develop robots to replace ducks in cleaning and patrolling rice paddy fields.

Aigamo ducks in a rice paddy.

It’s a common theme that we hear: Artificial intelligence and robotics are coming for many of the jobs that have traditionally been performed by humans.

But what about the fate of animals?

That prospect was raised recently by David Mantey, a writer for Thomas Publishing, in an article about what’s happening in rice paddy fields.  And it involves ducks.

More specifically, aigamo ducks, which are a cross between mallards and domestic fowl. There is a farming method, originating in Japan, that employs these creatures to clear and keep unwanted plants and parasites out of rice paddy fields.

Essentially, it’s an environmentally-friendly practice in which the ducks keep the paddies clear without the need for pesticides. As an ancillary benefit, the ducks’ own waste acts as fertilizer for the rice plants.

The centuries-old practice was revived in Japan the mid-1980s, and has since become a popular natural rice farming method beyond that country, used in places like China, Iran and France.

Broadly speaking, approximately 15 ducks can keep more than a 10,000 sq. ft. area clear of weeds and insects, while also enriching the water with oxygen via stirring up the soil beneath.

It seems like a neat and tidy solution all-around — and one that works based on decades of experience with the farming practice. But as it turns out, it’s something that a robot can accomplish, too (well, maybe not the duck waste bit) — with certain improvements on the original tradition.

A rice paddy robot doing its thing.

While ducks can be “trained” to patrol specific areas of a rice paddy, it isn’t a foolproof proposition. As for the robotic version (which looks more like a white, floating ROOMBA® than it does a duck), it utilizes wi-fi and GPS technology to stir up the soil and keep the bugs at bay.

Reportedly, the robot is more accurate and more consistent in its execution compared to the aigamo ducks.

At the moment, the rice paddy robot is in an experimental phase with beta prototypes patrolling paddies in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan — and it’s too soon to know if or when the robot will be deemed ready for commercialization.

But the development goes to show that robots are spreading into some very surprising corners.  Indeed, it seems that robotics technology knows no bounds.

The “creeping crisis” for newspapers seeps into yet another corner of the industry.

Newspaper revenue trend lines are problematic, to say the least.

The travails of the newspaper industry aren’t anything new or surprising. For the past decade, the business model of America’s newspapers has been under incredible pressures.  Among the major causes are these:

  • The availability of up-to-the-minute, real-time news from alternative (online) sources
  • the explosion of options people have available to find their news
  • The ability to consume news free of charge using most of these alternative sources
  • The decline of newspaper subscriptions and readership, leading to a steep decline in advertising revenues

Exacerbating these challenges is the fact that producing and disseminating a paper-based product is substantially more costly than electronic delivery of news. And with high fixed costs being spread over fewer readers, the problems become even more daunting.

But one relative bright spot in the newspaper segment — at least up until recently — has been local papers. In markets without local TV stations, such papers continued to be a way for the citizenry to read up on local news and events.  It’s been the place where they could see their friends and neighbors written about and pictured.  And let’s not forget high-school sports and local “human-interest” news items that generally couldn’t be found anywhere else.

Whatever online “community” presence there might be covering these smaller markets — towns ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 population — is all-too-often sub-standard — in some cases embarrassingly bad.

But now it seems that the same problems afflicting the newspaper segment in general have seeped into this last bastion of the business.

It’s particularly ominous in places where daily (or near-daily) newspapers are published, as compared to weekly pubs. A case in point is the local paper in Youngstown, Ohio — a town of 65,000 people.  Its daily paper, The Vindicator, has just announced that it will be shutting its doors after 150 years in business.

The same family has owned The Vindicator for four generations (since 1887).  It isn’t that the longstanding owners didn’t try mightily to keep the paper going.  In a statement to its readers, the family outlined the paper’s recent struggles to come up with a stable business model, including working with employees and unions and investing in new, more efficient presses.  Efforts to raise the price of the paper or drive revenue to the digital side of the operation failed to secure sufficient funds, either.

Quoting from management’s statement:

“In spite of our best efforts, advertising and circulation revenues have continued to decline and The Vindicator continues to operate at a loss.

Due to [these] great financial hardships, we spent the last year searching for a buyer to continue to operate The Vindicator and preserve as many jobs as possible, while maintaining the paper’s voice in the community. That search has been unsuccessful.”

Youngstown, Ohio

As a result, the paper will cease publication by the end of the summer. With it the jobs of nearly 150 employees and ~250 paper carriers will disappear.  But something else will be lost as well — the sense of community that these home-town newspapers are uncommonly able to foster and deliver.

For a city like Youngstown, which has seen its population decline with the loss of manufacturing jobs, it’s yet another whammy.

Because of the population loss dynamics, it might seem like local conditions are the cause of The Vindicator‘s situation, but some see a bigger story.  One such observer is Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton, who writes:

“I don’t think this is just a Youngstown story. I fear we’ll look back on this someday as the beginning of an important — and negative — shift in local news in America.”

What do you think? Is this the start of a new, even more dire phase for the newspaper industry?  Is there the loss of a newspaper that has his your own community particularly hard? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Hacking is a two-way street.

Usually we hear of attacks being launched against American websites from outside the country. But the opposite is true as well.

In recent days there have been reports that attacks were launched against Iranian computer networks that support that country’s air bases, likely in response to the June 20th attack by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard  Corps on a U.S. military drone in the Persian Gulf.

And now there are reports that hackers working for an alliance of intelligence agencies broke into Yandex, the large Russian-based search engine, in an attempt to find technical information that reveals how Yandex authenticates user accounts.  The hackers used Regin (QWERTY), a malware toolkit associated with intelligence sharing that has often been utilized by the intelligence alliance (made up of the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand).

Interestingly, Yandex acknowledges the hack, which happened back in 2018. But whereas it claims the attack was detected by the company’s security team before any damage could be done or data lost, outside observers believe that the hackers were able to maintain their access to Yandex for several weeks or longer before being detected.

Reportedly, the information being sought could help spy agencies impersonate Yandex users, thereby gaining access to their private messages. The purpose?  To focus on espionage rather than the theft of intellectual property.

These actions, which are coming to light only now even though the events in question happened last year, underscore how much much future “warfare” between nations will be conducted in cyberspace rather than via boots on the ground.

Welcome to Cold War II — 21st century style.

Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

You probably suspected this already, but employee surveys continue to show that open-plan workplaces are a source of job dissatisfaction.

One of the most recent research studies surveyed ~4,000 adults who work in offices and found that employees dislike open office concepts for a host of reasons, including:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Interruption and/or distraction from fellow employees
  • Noise levels
  • Inescapable odors
  • Temperature control issues

In fact, feelings run so strongly against open offices that employees would prefer to give up the following perks as a tradeoff:

  • Vacation days
  • Year-end bonus
  • Office coffee machine
  • Access to a window or natural light

And for the cherry on top, a significant percentage of respondents claimed that an open office environment would be a deal-breaker when considering a new job — either inside their current company or going someplace else.

At a time when companies are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, that factor is perhaps the most impactful one of all.

Against this backdrop of “passive-aggressive” attitudes about open-plan workspaces, many companies keep on merrily designing open-office environments or renovating existing spaces to conform to new open-plan design schemes.

Purportedly the reason for open office environments is to save money — but is that really the case? It’s true that some building and partition costs can be reduced, but how about the impact on worker productivity?

Actually, there’s another, perhaps unspoken reason why companies love open offices: they can monitor (read: spy on) their employees more easily.  That’s something most people find quite distasteful — at least here in America where “individualism” continues to thrive as a bedrock cultural principle.  And the plain truth is that people like having some control over their workspace.  After all, it’s a place where they spend eight hours of every workday.

But even with these basic truisms at work, there are new developments that could be changing the whole notion of the office environment. It’s more than just conceivable that we’ll be seeing more spaces adapt to accommodate workers who move from environment to environment based on the needs of the moment.

As more of the “guts” of the office are housed electronically — and portably — the whole notion of a “home desk” may be becoming less and less relevant. Jay Osgerby, a partner in workspace design firm Barber & Osgerby puts it this way:

“The desk is dead. I don’t even know if the office building as we know it today will be in existence.”

I’m not at all sure that Osgerby’s prediction will come true any time soon. Who knows, his view might turn out to be as off-base as the open-office concept.  But it is interesting to observe how the office environment is changing as the nature of business evolves.

What about your own office environment? What’s good and not-so-good about the concept?  What sort of personal horror stories do you have — or conversely, do you have good tales to tell?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

The wider implications of the “deliver it to my door” mentality.

There’s been quite a bit of attention paid to the impact of online retail on bricks-and-mortar sectors like shopping centers.  More than a few of them have started looking like Potemkin Villages. Some forecasts predict that the number of indoor shopping malls in America will contract by as much as one-third in the coming years.

On the other hand, the changing dynamics of e-tailing are having the opposite effect when it comes to shipping logistics … because not only are consumers shopping online in record numbers, they’re also taking advantage of delivery options that are bringing merchandise directly to them in 24 or 48 hours – even same-day deliveries in some cases.

What this means is that the efficiencies in procurement, inventory and distribution that drove many distribution centers to be built in outlying locations aren’t exactly working in today’s “deliver it to me and deliver it to me now” mindset.

[This is why we’re hearing about solutions such as drone deliveries – but that’s still a ways in the future and could eventually begin to cause congestion in a new realm – up in the air.]

In the meantime, more delivery vehicles than ever are competing with commuter traffic on already-congested highways during peak time periods. A shortage of qualified truckers is spurring development of driverless trucking, while the delivery system as a whole is running at full capacity (if not full efficiency).

Of particular concern is the so-called “last mile” delivery aspect in urban environments. It isn’t merely the issue of traffic congestion.  It’s also city planning codes (outdated), parking restrictions (made even more difficult thanks to the current fad in “progressive” cities of adding bike lanes while removing on-street stopping and parking), and load limitations (adding even more challenges and complexity).

But nature abhors a vacuum, and there are some interesting developments happening to address the challenges. The use of data analytics is growing exponentially, with route maps, GPS data, and real-time expected-versus-actual travel time updates allowing for transport rerouting to happen “in the moment.”

Other novel solutions, such as smart lockers that receive multiple shipments in a central location, plus the use of mobile warehouses within urban areas enabling less reliance on the big remote distribution centers, are emerging.

Burgeoning ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are contributing to more congestion in urban areas – just think how many more ride-sharing vehicles are on the road today compared to taxi cabs in the past. But in rural or remote areas the opposite issue is in play – difficult accessibility.  This is where drone deliveries are a welcome development — including during in the wake of natural disaster occurrences where traditional transportation methods might be impossible — or at the very least highly dangerous.

What are your thoughts about the friction between “convenience and congestion”?  Will technology help us smooth out the rough edges — or are we in for even more frustrations?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.