The end of an era? Newsrooms are going dark in more ways than one.

nrWhen people stop reporting statistics on an industry, it could be a sign of increasing irrelevance.

Unfortunately, that seems to be what’s happening in the newspaper and print magazine segment, slowly but surely.  Over the past few years, there’s been a steady decline in the number of benchmark reports being published about the industry.

In 2014, Publishers Information Bureau, the longstanding publisher of annual statistics on print advertising pages and ad revenues for magazine titles, ceased providing such data after migrating to a digital audience reporting format.

A year later, the Newspaper Association of America (aka the News Media Alliance) stopped reporting annual revenue figures for the newspaper industry.

Its counterpart in the radio media segment – the Radio Advertising Bureau – has done the same thing as well.

No longer reporting on advertising and revenues is one thing. But now the American Society of News Editors has stopped publishing annual estimates on the total number of journalists working in the newsrooms of America.

For years, those statistics have been a proxy for gauging the overall health of American journalism. And in recent years, what the stats were showing was something pretty ugly.

Between 2001 and 2015, ASNE’s statistics showed a decline in the number of journalists of more than 40%, with the total head count dropping from ~56,400 to ~32,900 over the period.

Perhaps it’s understandable that the news industry doesn’t want to chronicle the continuing decline of a once-vibrant and vaunted profession. But stopping the reporting of stats on it may be sending the wrong message – or adding to the implosion.

At a time of heightened incidences of “fake news” in the media, and when the business model for traditional journalism is increasingly precarious, to take the “real facts” of what’s happening and shove them under the carpet seems short-sighted at best.

By averting our eyes to what’s happening, it could well be exacerbating the trend lines. And then at some point, it won’t be that much of a stretch to think of journalism as a quaint, historical concept that is irrelevant in today’s world.

I hope we never get there. But at the rate we’re going, it’s looking more and more like the “great disappearing journalism.”

Fewer brands are engaging in programmatic online advertising in 2017.

How come we are not surprised?

The persistent “drip-drip-drip” of brand safety concerns with programmatic advertising – and the heightened perception that online advertising has been showing up in the most unseemly of places — has finally caught up with the once-steady growth of economically priced programmatic advertising versus higher-priced digital formats such as native advertising and video advertising.

In fact, ad tracking firm MediaRadar is now reporting that the number of major brands running programmatic ads through the first nine months of 2017 has actually dropped compared to the same period a year ago.

The decline isn’t huge – 2% to be precise. But growing reports that leading brands’ ads have been mistakenly appearing next to ISIS or neo-Nazi content on YouTube and in other places on the web has shaken advertisers’ faith in programmatic platforms to be able to prevent such embarrassing actions from occurring.

For Procter & Gamble, for instance, it has meant that the number of product brands the company has shifted away from programmatic advertising and over to higher-priced formats jumped from 49 to 62 brands over the course of 2017.

For Unilever, the shift has been even greater – going from 25 product brands at the beginning of the year to 53 by the end of July.

The “flight to safety” by these and other brand leaders is easy to understand. Because they can be controlled, direct ad sales are viewed as far more brand-safe compared programmatic and other automated ad buy programs.

In the past, the substantial price differential between the two options was enough to convince many brands that the rewards of “going programmatic” outweighed the inherent risks.  No longer.

What this also means is that advertisers are looking at even more diverse media formats in an effort to find alternatives to programmatic advertising that can accomplish their marketing objectives without the attendant risks (and headaches).

We’ll see how that goes.

YouTube: It’s bigger than the world’s biggest TV network.

Just a few years ago, who would have been willing to predict that YouTube’s user base would outstrip China Central Television, the world’s largest TV network?

Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened: As of today, around 2 billion unique users watch a YouTube video at least once every 90 days, whereas CCT has around 1.2 billion viewers.

Consider that in 2013, YouTube’s user base was hovering around 1 billion. So that’s quite a jump in fewer than five years.

Here’s another interesting YouTube factoid: Nearly 400 hours of video content is being uploaded to YouTube each and every minute.

For anyone who’s tallying, this amounts to 65 years of video uploaded to the channel per day. No wonder YouTube has become the single most popular “go-to” place for video content.

But there’s more:  Taken as a whole, YouTube viewers across the world are watching more than 1 billion hours of video daily. That’s happening not just because of the wealth of video content available; it’s also because of YouTube’s highly effective algorithms to personalize video offerings.

One of the big reasons YouTube’s viewership has expanded so quickly goes back to the year 2012, which is when the channel started building those algorithms that tap user data and offer personalized video lineups. The whole purpose was to give viewers more reasons to watch more YouTube content.

And the tactic is succeeding beautifully.

Another factor is Google and its enormous reach as a search engine. Being that YouTube and Google are part of the same commercial enterprise, it’s only natural that Google would include YouTube video links at the top of its search engine results pages, where viewers are inclined to notice them and to click through to view them.

Moreover, Google pre-installs the YouTube app on its Android software, which runs nearly 90% of all smartphones worldwide.

The average run time for a YouTube video is around three minutes, with some 5 billion videos being watched on YouTube in the typical day.

Considering all of these stats, it’s very easy to understand how Internet viewing of video content is well on the way to eclipsing overall television viewing before much longer. As of 2015, TV viewing still outpaced interview viewing by about margin of about 56% to 44%.  But when you consider that TV viewing is stagnant (or actually declining a bit), while interview viewing continues to gallop ahead, the two lines will likely cross in the next year or two.

What about you? Like me, have you found that your video viewing habits have changed in the direction of YouTube and away from other platforms?

Advertisers “kinda-sorta” go along with FTC guidelines for labeling of native advertising placements.

In an effort to ensure that readers understand when published news stories represent “earned” rather than “unearned” media, in late 2015 the Federal Trade Commission established some pretty clear guidelines for news stories that are published for pay.

The rationale behind the guidelines is that the FTC wants advertisers to be prevented from presenting paid content in ways that mask the fact that it’s a form of advertising.  Essentially, it wants to avoid leaving the erroneous impression that the advertiser did not create — or influence the creation — of the content, or that it paid a fee in order for the news to be published.

But what native advertising content developer Polar has found is that the explicit disclosures the FTC wishes advertisers to include as part of their stories tend to have a negative impact on readership.

… Which is precisely what native advertising is trying to avoid, of course.

After all, the whole point of these articles is to appear that they’re published due to their inherent newsworthiness, rather than because advertisers wish to push a sales message disguised as “narrative” so strongly, they’re willing to fork over big bucks for the privilege.

In its evaluation, Polar analyzed ~140 native placements across 65 publishers, and found that only ~55% of them used the term “sponsored” as a way to label the content.

As for the term “advertisement” or “advertorial,” the incidence of usage was far lower; less than 5% of the native placements identified their content as such.

Correlated to these findings was that more euphemistic terms like “partner content” tend to perform better in terms of reader engagement than do more explicit disclosures of an advertiser relationship.

“Promoted” was found to be the best performing term, garnering a 0.19% clickthrough rate as compared to “sponsored,” with just a 0.16% clickthrough rate.

[Interestingly, on desktop devices “sponsored” marginal outperformed “promoted,” whereas on mobile devices it was just the opposite.]

More broadly, the Polar investigation also found that nearly one-third of the pay-to-play native advertising placements it evaluated failed to comply at all with the FTC guidelines (as in zip/zero/nada) – which brings up a whole other set of issues at a time of heightened awareness of the “fake news” phenomenon online.

Facebook attempts to shake the “Fakebook” mantle.

There are a growing number of reasons why more marketers these days are referring to the largest social media platform as “Fakebook.”

Back last year, it came to light that Facebook’s video view volumes were being significantly overstated – and the outcry was big enough that the famously tightly controlled social platform finally agreed to submit its metrics reporting to outside oversight.

To be sure, that decision was “helped along” by certain big brands threatening to significantly cut back their Facebook advertising or cease it altogether.

Now comes another interesting wrinkle. According to Facebook’s statistics, the social network claims it can reach millions of Americans across several important age demographics, as follows:

  • 18-24 year-olds: ~41 million people
  • 25-34 year-olds: ~60 million people
  • 35-49 year-olds: ~61 million people

There’s one slight problem with these stats:  U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that the total number of people living in the United States falling in the 18-49 age grouping is 137 million.

That’s a substantially lower figure than the 162 million people counted by Facebook – 25 million (18%) smaller, to be precise.

What could be the reason(s) for the overcount? As reported by Business Insider journalist Alex Heath, a Facebook spokesperson has attributed the “over-counting” to foreign tourists engaging with Facebook’s platform while they’re in the United States.

That seems like a pretty lame explanation – particularly since U.S. tourism outside the country is a reciprocal activity that likely cancels out foreign tourism.

There’s also the fact that there are multiple Facebook accounts maintained by some people. But it stretches credulity to think that multiple accounts explain more than a small portion of the differential.

Facebook rightly points out that its audience reach stats are designed to estimate how many people in a given geographic area are eligible to see an ad that a business might choose to run, and that this projected reach has no bearing on the actual delivery and billing of ads in a campaign.

In other words, the advertising would be reaching “real” people in any case.

Still, such discrepancies aren’t good to have in an environment where many marketers already believe that social media advertising promises more than it actually delivers.  After all, “reality check” information like this is just a click away in cyberspace …

Free-speech “confusion-in-advertising” continues unabated.

Sparring over the guarantees and limits of free speech seems to be growing rather than abating.

How controversial? The advertising rejected by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as being too political for public display.

The most recent indication of just how much confusion there is on the topic of free speech comes in the form of a recently filed lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – a public agency popularly known as the DC Metro.

The issue sparking the lawsuit related to a number of ads which the WMATA refused to display due to concerns over the advertising content being “too political for public display.”

Countering WMATA’s efforts to avoid “offending” its customers, the ACLU chose to sue on behalf of itself as well as three companies and organizations that includes:

  • Carafem – a healthcare network specializing in birth control and medication abortion
  • Milo Worldwide, LLC – the corporate entity behind the libertarian political advocate and “extreme commentator” Milo Yiannopolous
  • PETA Foundation (aka FSAP – Foundation to Support Animal Protection) – an animal rights/welfare organization

The lawsuit claims that WMATA refused to display advertising from these organizations for fear of offending some of the people who use its transportation services.

In announcing its intention to defend itself against the ACLU suit, a WMATA spokesperson stated:

“In 2015, WMATA’s board of directors changed its advertising forum to a nonpublic forum and adopted commercial advertising guidelines that prohibit issue-oriented ads, including political, religious and advocacy ads. WMATA intends to vigorously defend its commercial advertising guidelines, which are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.”

On the point of whether the advertising in question is “issues-oriented,” there is sharp disagreement.

Gabe Walters, manager of legislative affairs for the PETA Foundation, emphasizes that “the government cannot pick and choose who gets to speak based on their viewpoint – no matter how controversial.”

A spokesperson for Milo Yiannopoulos echoed the PETA Foundation statement: “On this issue we are united:  It is not for the government to chase so-called ‘controversial’ content out of the public square.”

Considering the ads that were rejected, a case could be made that they’re hardly “controversial” on their face:

  • The Milo Worldwide ads featured a photo of Milo Yiannopoulos.
  • The Carafem ad copy stated simply “for abortion up to 10 weeks.”
  • The PETA ad showed a pig with the caption, “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the Individual. Go Vegan.”
  • The ACLU ad stated the First Amendment language verbatim.

The ACLU suit contends that none of the advertising in question negates any kind of fundamental right to free speech. Moreover, the abortion pill provided by Carafem is FDA-approved as well as accepted by the American Medical Association.

Even more problematic for the WMATA’s defense, at the same time the agency was rejecting the PETA ad, it approved one from Chipotle promoting a menu item made with pork.

The only difference between them according to the ACLU? The Chipotle ad sends the message that it’s good to eat pork, whereas the PETA ad says the opposite.

Looking at the contours of the lawsuit and the facts of the case, I think the WMATA defense is on pretty shaky ground, and for this reason, I’m pretty sure that the ACLU lawsuit is going to succeed.

Indeed, it’s somewhat distressing that such a suit had to be filed at all, because its point is the First Amendment and what it’s all about: protecting everyone’s speech.

That people are having to re-litigate the issue of free speech in 2017 speaks volumes about the level of confusion that has been introduced into the public sphere in decent years.

It’s time to clear the air.

Al-Jazeera axes the “Comments” section on its English-language website.

What took them so long?

This past week, al-Jazeera.com, the English-language website run by the Qatar-based international media company, announced that it is disabling the comments section on its site.

In a written statement, the company complained that what was originally designed to “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with one another” had devolved into a free-for-all, with the comments sections “hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.”

“The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent,” the al-Jazeera statement added – as if any further explanation for their action was needed.

I have a comment of my own in response to al-Jazeera: “Welcome to reality.”

Al-Jazeera is hardly an innocuous website in cyberspace. It reports on some of the most explosive developments affecting the most volatile regions of the world.  Considering the sparring parties in these never-ending conflicts, complaining about “sectarianism” is almost laughable.

Is there a more “sectarian” group of people on the face of the earth than those who are exorcised about the inhabitants of the Middle East – or of Muslims, Christians and Jews in general? I don’t know of any.

As for the comments section being a repository of derision and hate, how is anyone surprised? What other result could one expect – especially since there was little or no attempt by al-Jazeera personnel to moderate the comments section?

The fact is, unmoderated comments sections that also allow for poster anonymity are a blanket invitation for “the inmates running the asylum.” Comments that are left in these “anything’s allowed” forums chase the well-intentioned participants away – and fast.

On the other hand, I’ve found plenty of well-moderated forums and comments sections that are as valuable as the underlying articles themselves.

That doesn’t happen all by itself, of course. Good moderation takes effective policies – requiring commentators to identify themselves for a start.  It also requires an ever-watchful eye.

Evidently, al-Jazeera and others like them found the not-insignificant effort required to perform this degree of moderation to be unworthy of their time or financial resources. And as a result, their forums became worthless.

And now they’re history.