The bad news continues for the publishing industry in 2019.
I’ve blogged before about the employment picture in journalism, which has been pretty ugly for the past decade. And just when it seems that news in the publishing industry couldn’t get much worse … along comes a new study that further underscores the systemic problems the industry faces.
The results from a recent Reuters survey of publishers worldwide point to declines that will only continue in 2019. In fact, Reuters is predicting that the industry will experience its largest wave of layoffs in years, coming off of a decade of already-steadily shrinking numbers.
The main cause is the continuing struggle to attract ad revenues – revenues that have been lost to the 600-lb. gorillas in the field – particularly Facebook, Google and Amazon.
Growing subscription revenue as opposed to a failing attempt to attract advertising dollars is the new focus, but that will be no panacea, according Nic Newman, a senior research associate at Reuters:
“Publishers are looking to subscriptions to make up the difference, but the limits of this are likely to become apparent in 2019.”
In addition to boosting subscription revenue, publishers are looking to display advertising, native advertising and donations to help bankroll their businesses, but advertising is the main focus of revenue generation for only about one in four publishers — a far cry from just a few years ago.
Putting it all together, Reuters predicts that it will lead to the largest wave of publishing job layoffs “in years” – and this in an industry where employment has been shrinking for some time now.
With yet more layoffs on the horizon, it’s little wonder that the same Reuters research finds employee burnout growing among the employees who remain. As Newman states:
“The explosion of content and the intensity of the 24-hour news cycle have put huge pressure on individual journalists over the last few years, with burnout concerns most keenly felt in editorial roles.”
A major reason why: Even more is being asked from the employee who remain – and who are already stretched.
Journalism salaries are middling even in good times – which these certainly are not. How many times can an employee be asked to “do more with less” and actually have it continue to happen?
Even the bragging rights of journalists are being chipped away, with more of them relegated to spending their time “aggregating” or “curating” coverage by other publishers instead of conducting their own first-hand reporting. That translates into perceptions of lower professional status as well.
In such an environment, it isn’t surprising to find editorial quality slipping, contributing to a continuing downward spiral as audiences notice the change — and no doubt some turn elsewhere for news.
Last but not least, there’s the bias perception issue. Whether it’s true or not, some consumers of the news suspect that many publishers and journalists slant their news reporting. This creates even more of a dampening effect, even though in difficult times, the last thing publishers need is to alienate any portion of their audience.
How have your periodical and news reading habits changed in the past few years? Do you continue to “pay” for news delivery or have you joined the legions of others who have migrated to consuming free content in cyberspace?
(For more details from the Reuters research, you can sign up here to access the report.)
But will the results be any different this time around?
Since the emergence of digital magazines, salon.com has been the poster child for experimentation on figuring out the best ways for news and opinion publications to make money.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. Over a period of 15+ years, Salon has tried various different approaches – with never more than middling success.
Salon was one of the very first publications to erect a paywall for content, way back in 2001. Over the ensuring eight years, it tried several different paywall programs before dropping the paywall plan entirely in 2009.
At its height, Salon had attracted nearly 90,000 subscribers, each paying around $30 per year. But that represented less than $3 million in annual subscription revenues. Those paltry numbers were one reason why the subscription model was dropped by the publisher.
The fundamental challenge – the same one faced by so many other digital news sites – is whether people think a publication is worth paying “real money” to access when so much alternative content is available online free of charge.
Even with free access, Salon’s unique users have slipped in their totals so that in some months, they’ve barely exceeded 1 million users. Compare that to the average monthly traffic of 9 million that the publication was experiencing as late as 2016.
The user statistics for Salon do point to a certain measure of brand loyalty, with nearly 40% of the site’s desktop traffic being direct (the other key sources of traffic are search and social channels). But even with Salon’s level of brand loyalty, it remains a difficult slog. As Rob Ristagno, CEO of media technology consultancy Sterling Woods Group, puts it:
“If you can’t prove to me that your content is better than anything I can get [for free] on YouTube or through a Google search, you should probably find a new business.”
But hope springs eternal, and Salon is now trying to go back to the revenue-producing well by offering ad-free options. It’s now launched a feature that allows visitors to try out an ad-free version of the site over small windows of time – as little as an hour of viewing for 50 cents.
Other viewers can sign up for larger blocks of ad-free reading — all the way up to a year’s supply of ad-free viewing for a flat rate of $99.
In 2019, Salon also plans to return to putting some content behind a paywall, in a two-pronged effort to drive more readership toward paying for the information they see and consume on the site, while diversifying away from the programmatic ad revenue model that’s been driving most of Salon’s business of late.
One of the reasons the company predicts success in this latest endeavor is due to heightened consumer awareness of user tracking. Here’s what Salon Media Group’s CEO, Jordan Hoffner, has noted:
“I believe you’re going to see a shift in consumer demand around tracking-free [sites]. I just think that with everything that’s gone on in the industry over the last two years, I believe that people are tired of being followed.”
That sounds more like a wing and a prayer – especially when we learn that Salon‘s ad-free testing has reportedly received only “hundreds” of viewer signups so far.
In the coming months, we’ll see if Salon’s latest gambit is working. But why should we expect this foray to be any different? True, there is heightened consumer awareness of viewing tracking … but I have my doubts as to whether very many people will be prompted to pay for web content as a result.
How about you – do you feel differently? Let us know your thoughts.
How many of us have predicted the demise of Google+? Over the years, the ill-fated social network wasn’t ever able to gain much traction.
Its “hangouts” and “rooms” functionality, trumpeted with great fanfare when launched, never really amounted to much. The few times I attempted to engage with people in any of those spaces, it was akin to being the only person in a restaurant at 3:00 in the afternoon.
Several months ago, Google finally bowed to the inevitable and announced that it would be shuttering Google+, effective in August 2019.
But even this end-date has turned out to be star-crossed. In one final ignominy, Google discovered a bug in a Google+ API which appears to have affected potentially more than 52 million users.
Specifically, apps that have requested permission to view the profile information that users had added to their Google+ profiles – basic things like name, age, occupation and e-mail address – were granted permission to do so even when the users’ profiles weren’t set to “public.”
On a brighter note, the bug didn’t allow access to more sensitive information such as financial figures, passwords, or similar data typically used for identity theft, nor does it appear that any of the personal information has been misused – at least not yet.
So, what we have is that the final exit of Google+ from the scene further underscores its underwhelming existence. As Ben Smith, a Google vice president of engineering, stated candidly, the social platform “has not achieved broad consumer or developer adoption and has seen limited user interaction with apps.”
Which is another way of saying, “It’s been a failure.”
In the age of social media shaming, it’s a wonder that some companies think they can get away with failing to keep their promises.
A case in point is Starbucks Coffee. For a number of years now, there have been concerns raised by Starbucks customers and other consumers about the easy ability to access pornography websites via the free public WiFi at the company’s store locations.
You may have witnessed it – people viewing such material in full view of other customers, without regard to whether there are minors present or any other ameliorating factors.
In such matters there’s such a thing as propriety. It isn’t illegal to view (most) pornography, but there’s a time a place for everything.
What it most certainly isn’t is copulating on the beach, or viewing hardcore pornography in a public space like a shopping mall, a coffee shop an airplane.
You’d think all of this would be obvious to a company like Starbucks — seeing as how “socially aware” the company purports to be. But it took protests from 75+ groups beginning in 2014 to convince the company to block access to porn sites for people using the public WiFi at its stores.
It took two years, but in 2016 Starbucks bowed to pressure and announced publicly that it would be rolling out porn blocking mechanisms across all of its stores.
But then … it didn’t happen.
What was Starbucks thinking? In its wisdom, did it think that by simply making the announcement the controversy would blow over? That’s either naïve or willfully arrogant.
In any case, after waiting several more years for action to occur, a new online petition in November from a group called CitizenGo quickly gained more than 26,000 signatures — inside of a week, in fact.
Commenting on the effectiveness of the new effort, Donna Hughes, who heads up Enough is Enough, the Internet safety umbrella organization representing the 75+ groups concerned about Starbucks’ lack of action, explained why the petition resonated with so many people:
“By breaking its [earlier] commitment, Starbucks is keeping the doors wide open for convicted sex offenders and others to fly under the radar from law enforcement and use free, public WiFi services to access illegal child porn and hardcore pornography. Having unfiltered hotspots also allows children and teens to easily bypass filters and other parental control tools set up by their parents on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.”
Considering the speed in which the November petition reached critical mass, social media has only grown in its reach since 2016. What took two years to obtain a (broken) promise from Starbucks to implement blocking mechanisms for its store’s public WiFi took just one week this time around.
Starbucks has now confirmed to several news outlets that it is recommitting to install blocking software for its store locations in 2019.
We’ll see how good the company is in honoring its pledge this time around. My guess is that they won’t play with fire a second time around.
If you suspect that digital advertising might well include a big dose of “blue smoke and mirrors,” you aren’t the only one who thinks this way.
In fact, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer of Procter & Gamble, felt much the same thing. Back in early 2017, Pritchard complained to the industry about what appeared to him to be an unacceptable degree of waste in the digital advertising supply chain.
Among his concerns was the lack of transparency between advertisers and digital agencies, as well as the myriad ad-tech vendors that seemed to be adding more complexity that was disconnected to any defined value.
Pritchard was also concerned about the prevalence of bot traffic and the dangers to brand safety posed by risky content.
Holding the purse strings of one of the largest digital advertising budgets on the planet, Pritchard was in a uniquely strong position to exert changes in how digital advertising campaigns are handled.
And yet, even with this threat, the response from the industry didn’t go much beyond mild alarm and a bit of lip-service.
So, P&G‘s CBO put some juice behind his warning, cutting more than $100 million in the company’s digital ad spend between April and July of 2017. Pritchard noted at the time that this reduction in ad spending was designed to reduce waste.
After cutting the $100 million in ad dollars – representing a 20% reduction in P&G’s digital ad spend – what changed was … exactly nothing.
That is correct: no negative impact on ROI at all.
In fact, P&G actually experienced a ~10% increase in the overall reach of its remaining advertising campaigns.
How to explain this counterintuitive result? Spending less but reaching more consumers occurred because extra efficiencies were harnessed by carefully pruning ineffective inventory and reallocating the remaining budget to higher-quality placements.
Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, another major consumer packaged goods company – Unilever – soon followed suit, reducing its own digital advertising spend by a whopping 50%.
Its move garnered the same result: no discernible ill effects on ROI resulted from the dramatic cuts.
The experiences of these two companies have poked several gigantic holes in a number of “truisms” about digital advertising. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Ad spending doesn’t drive value when it isn’t tied to quality metrics like viewable inventory.
“Quality” is something that can be controlled by taking steps like moving platforms.
Measuring the quantity of impressions isn’t as important as the quality of those impressions.
“Scale” isn’t king. Advertisers don’t need to have super-large budgets in order to drive meaningful results in the digital sphere.
Indeed, P&G and Unilever have proven that a media strategy that focuses on context and quality rather than brute force can get a lot done for significantly less outlay.
From the New York Times on down, leading publishers are telling us that print versions of their newspapers will eventually disappear. The only question is how soon it will happen.
But what are the implications of this pending shift to all-digital? Will online news consumers be as strongly engaged as they have been with the print newspaper product?
We now have a window into answering this question by looking at the experience of The Independent, a UK national daily paper. Two years ago, The Independent made the shift to become an online-only publication.
And the result was … no measurable increase traffic shifting from offline to online. That finding comes from a before/after analysis of the publication’s performance as conducted by European communications industry researchers Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher.
Instead, these customers became like other digital readers. That is to say, in the words of the researchers, “easily distracted, flitting from link to link, and a little allergic to depth.”
Let’s drill down a little deeper. At the time it ceased publishing a print edition of its newspaper, The Independent had a paid print circulation of approximately 40,000, along with ~58 million monthly unique visits on its digital platform.
That a humongous chasm … but the researchers found that the publication’s relatively small number of print readers were responsible for more than 80% of all time spent consuming all of The Independent’s news content – print and digital.
That is correct: Considering engagement on all of its digital platforms, all of that added up to fewer than 20% of the time collectively spent reading the print publication.
The chart below shows what happened to readership. All of the time The Independent’s print readers spent with the paper seems to have simply disappeared when the company ceased publishing a print version. It didn’t transition to independent.co.uk.
Even more telling, the researchers found that half of print recipients had read the newspaper “almost every day,” whereas online visitors read a news story in The Independent, on average, a little more than twice per month.
While print readers typically spent from 40 to 50 minutes reading each daily edition of The Independent, online readers spent, on average, just 6 minutes over the entire month.
Here’s the thing: Whereas print newspapers usually have few if any competitors in their immediate space, online there are an unlimited number of competing sites to attract (and distract) the reader – all of them just a mouse-click away.
Even if we discount a measure of exaggeration on the part of respondents in terms of how much time they actually expend on their reading consumption versus what they reported to survey-takers, the print/online dynamics reveal stark differences. As researcher Thurman reports:
“By going online-only, The Independent has decimated the attention it receives. The paper is now a thing more glanced at, it seems, than gorged on. It has sustainability but less centrality.”
There is one silver-lining of shifting to an all-digital platform, at least in the case of The Independent. That shift has resulted in increased international reach by the publication.
But The Independent is a national newspaper, unlike most of America’s leading papers, and so that sort of positive aspect can’t be expected to apply very easily to those other media properties. How many people outside of central Colorado can be expected to read a digital edition of the Denver Post?
The main takeaway from The Independent’s experience is that for any paper choosing to go all-digital, chances are high that the audience isn’t going to follow along – certainly not at the level of loyal, in-depth time once spent with the print product.
Sure, the very real costs of printing and delivery will now be a thing of the past. But a significant – even dramatic – decline in reach, influence and impact will be the new reality for the publishers
The slow death of America’s alt-weeklies can’t help but feel a little disheartening.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading the so-called “alternative press.” I’ve found it a fascinating sociological exercise, where certain fringe or controversial topics and points-of-view are often aired long before they enter more mainstream discourse.
But that was before the Internet changed everything.
Before the ubiquity of the Internet, the role that alternative weeklies played was arguably one of consequence. I can recall a time where one could encounter a dozen or more papers freely available in retail establishments such as record stores, coffeehouses and head shops in any medium sized or larger North American city.
The editorial focus of these alt-weeklies covered the gamut – from alternative music, film and literature to environmental causes, LGBTQ interests and other social action priorities – not to mention various ethnic sub-groups.
Basically, any “ism” or group that was underrepresented in the mainstream press was a prime editorial focus and audience target of the alternative press.
One could chart the fortunes of cultural trends by the tone of the editorial writing in these publications – ranging from optimism and anticipation to depression or even rage – depending on the prevailing sociological or political currents of the day.
One friend of mine called it the “alt-weekly shrill-o-meter” – with the decibel level rising or falling with the fortunes of urban-progressive forces in America.
One of the foundational premises of alt-weeklies was that they should be available free to everyone, and therefore they were given wide distribution everywhere urban-aware people congregated.
The costs of production, printing and distribution were paid for through varied and frequently entertaining (of the voyeur sort) advertising.
Back in the late 1980s I was acquainted with a fellow who sold advertising for one such paper, Minneapolis-based City Pages. He earned a tidy-if-modest living selling advertising space for independent restaurants, funky specialty retailers, dive bars, performance spaces and the myriad music groups that were prevalent on the Twin Cities scene.
Other regular advertisers he relied on were the ones peddling more “questionable” fare like phone chat lines (of whatever persuasion one might prefer) and other services one can euphemistically characterize as “adult.”
Some people contend that these advertisers did as much as anything to keep many an alt-weekly publication afloat in the pre-Internet days.
The point is, in their heyday the alternative press played an important role in American urban culture – even if it existed on the margins of society and played a somewhat less-than “conventionally upstanding” role in the process.
And another thing: These alt-weeklies reflected the personalities of the cities in which they operated. Despite the inevitable superficial similarities between them, I always recognized distinct aspects of each publication that made it a true product of its place. (Speaking personally, I found this to be the case in Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Baltimore, where I lived and worked from the 1970s to the 1990s.)
Unfortunately, the past 15 years haven’t been kind at all to this corner of the publishing world. With the rise of the Internet (where “anything goes” editorially is an understatement), coupled with inexorably increasing costs to prepare and distribute a paper-based news product, the business environment has turned into a classic squeeze-play for these alternative papers.
Adding to those problems is the challenge of shrinking advertising revenues. Publishers aren’t facing merely the general decline of revenues from would-be advertisers who can now publicize themselves just as effectively online at a lower cost. It’s also the near-total banishment of adult-oriented advertising, as alt-weeklies have been shamed into dropping those ads due to changing societal attitudes about the objectification and exploitation of women (and men, too).
Because of these dynamics, in recent years the main story about the alternative press has been a predictable (and dreary) one: how these papers have been dropping like flies. Whereas once there were a dozen or more alternative papers published in a typical urban market the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh, today there may be just one or two.
In smaller urban markets, there may be none at all.
Just this past week, the last non-student run alt-weekly publication in the entire state of Montana – the Missoula Independent – shut down for good. Employees received this warm-and-fuzzy communiqué from the publisher, Lake Enterprises:
“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.”
In a now-familiar story line, closing Montana’s last remaining alt-weekly publication came down to a simple calculation of revenues vs. costs. (It probably didn’t help that the magazine’s staff had voted to unionize earlier in the year.) And adding insult to injury, Lake Enterprises has also shuttered the publication’s archives – all 27 years of it.
Suddenly, it’s as if the Missoula Independent never existed.
This alt-weekly publication’s experience is similar to numerous others. Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, had this to say about the Missoula Independent’s fate after the previous owner sold the publication to Lee Enterprises:
“There was – almost immediately – a pretty good chance this was going to happen. Other alt-weeklies that have been purchased by paper chains have been closed.”
Indeed, it’s a scenario that’s been playing out all over the country: An alt-weekly begins to struggle; new owners move in with the objective of saving the publication, only to cut staffing to near-zero or shut down completely when the old (or new) business model cannot be sustained.
And in fact, no publication is immune – even an iconic brand like New York City’s The Village Voice.
Earlier this month, the world witnessed the effective demise of that vaunted alt-weekly – a publication that some people consider the best exemplar of the genre.
Village Voice publisher Pete Barbey, who acquired the media property in 2015 and turned it into an online-only publication in 2017, has now shuttered the publication completely barely a year later.
“Today is kind of a sucky day,” Barbey reportedly told Village Voice employees in a phone conference call. “Due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing new Village Voice material.”
At least in this case, a veritable treasure trove of Village Voice archival material will be digitized and remain available in cyberspace. Approximately half of the publication’s employees are being kept on for a period of time to carry out that mission … but no new Village Voice journalism will ever again be produced.
As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I don’t come out of the “counter-culture” movement – nor would I consider that many of my personal or political views reflect those that are typically espoused by the writers and editors of the alternative press.
And yet … I can’t help but empathize with the comments of freelance writer Melynda Fuller, who has opined:
“The loss of alternative weeklies feels particularly personal. They act as mirrors for the complex lives lived in the cities where they publish. As more outlets are bought up, shut down or prevented from operating at full capacity, a much-needed connection is lost between that city’s culture and its residents.
Media is in the communications business. In a fractured time in our history, every connection counts.”
How about you? Do you feel any sense of nostalgia for the alternative press? Is there a particular favorite publication of yours that hasn’t been able to survive? Please share your thoughts with other readers.