Print vs. online newspaper readership behaviors don’t look promising at all for media properties.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson

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.

What they learned is that shutting down the print property didn’t drive those news consumers to print-like consumption habits on digital devices.

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

Baby, meet bathwater.

Are there no alternatives for the alternative press?

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.

Twin Cities-based pop music star Prince on the cover of City Pages (1980s).

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.

The April 2, 2009 issue of the Missoula Independent.

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.

The final issue of Baltimore City Paper (November 1, 2017).

During 2017 it was announced that the 40-year-old Baltimore City Paper would be publishing its last issue by the end of that year.  That’s exactly what happened — by early November as it turned out.

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.

The March 17, 1992 issue of The Village Voice.

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:

Melynda Fuller

“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.

Grunts and groans in the e-mail sector.

Want to work as a drone for middling pay? Then a job in e-mail marketing may be right for you!

There’s an oft-repeated axiom that success in business is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration.

If that’s the case, then the field of e-mail marketing is proving the rule – in spades.

Recently, e-mail service provider MessageGears surveyed workers in the business-to-consumer e-mail enterprise space. All survey respondents worked in companies that deploy 10 million or more e-mails per month.  More to the point, two thirds of the respondents worked in companies that send more than 50 million e-mails monthly.

So, we’re talking about companies that are on their game when it comes to the e-mail discipline – presumably aware of the latest operational and analytical tools to make their businesses as efficient as possible.

Here’s what MessageGears discovered in its survey:

  • More than 90% of respondents that have purely strategic roles in e-mail marketing are “very satisfied” with their jobs … and ~81% would again choose the e-mail discipline as a career.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents who are unhappy with their jobs spend 50% or more of their time on operational work tasks … and half of those would choose a different career if they were starting over.

Clearly, the creative and strategic parts of e-mail marketing are more popular than the operational aspects. Indeed, respondents rated the following job tasks the most fulfilling ones personally:

  • Designing customer-centric e-mails
  • Creating e-mail content
  • Devising new ways to engage with customers via e-mail communications

On the other hand, the lowest marks were recorded for these tasks:

  • E-mail testing
  • Analytics
  • Data segmenting

Unfortunately, it’s these latter types of tasks that take up the majority of daily job responsibilities for many workers in the e-mail sector: According to the survey results, nearly half of the workers spend more time on testing, analytics and data segmenting than they do on anything else.

MessageGears claims that there’s a direct link between the heavy proportion of operational tasks and the lack of creativity and strategic thinking in the field of e-mail.

Whether this linkage results in a loss of efficiency may be open to question … but what it does suggest is that working in e-mail isn’t the most personally fulfilling path for a marketing career – at least for most people.

More about the MessageGears survey results can be accessed here.

Are there fewer (but more relevant) ads in our future?

A new theory in the MarComm field is the notion that the future of advertising is one where people are confronted by less advertising – but the ads that are presented to them will be more relevant to their interests.

I’m pretty sure about the second part of that … but not so sure about the first bit.

Certainly, “fewer, more relevant ads” don’t appear to be what’s happening at the moment.

Think about the plethora of digital screens these days – not just smartphones and tablets and such, but also the ones on gasoline station pumps, in taxis, on airline seatbacks, in kiosks and on the sides of buildings – and it’s pretty clear that many more ads are being displayed to more people in more places than ever before.

Of course, many of these ads are selling products or services that are of little or no interest to most of us. Some people respond by blocking ads on their own personal devices, doing what they can to mitigate the onslaught.

As well, people seem to like the idea of commercial-free TV to the degree that quite a few are willing to pay for video-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video that provide content to them without all of those pesky ads embedded within.

It’s also true that advertising and media platforms are becoming ever “smarter” and more data-driven, giving them the ability to replace mass-reach ads with ones that are customized to some degree so that different people see different ads. It isn’t a stretch from there to the notion that because these ads will yield better results for media platforms, total ad loads can be reduced while still increasing consumer engagement.

This idea is leading some people to predict that in the coming few years, consumers will experience significant change in how many ads they see and how relevant they’re likely to be.

In response to that, I have two counter-thoughts. The first is that with all of the buying choices that people have today — more than ever before — brand loyalty is being eroded.  And with less brand loyalty, advertisers need to stress “recency” – being the last message a consumer sees before purchasing a particular product or service.  This leads to the compulsion for advertisers to “be everywhere all the time” so that theirs is the last message the consumer sees before taking action.  It’s hardly in line with “fewer, more relevant” ads, unfortunately.

The other issue pertains to the basic economics of advertising. Fewer ads will happen only if their increased relevance is accompanied by a commensurate increase in their price.  I don’t see that happening anytime soon either, unfortunately.

Besides, heightened ad “relevance” isn’t really enough to overcome the issue of audience aversion and avoidance. On that score, fundamental attitudes have never changed:  The consumer’s relationship with advertising has always resided somewhere between “passive ennui” and “managed hostility.”

Today, of course, consumers can do more to “manage their hostility” to advertising than ever before, creating even more of a challenge on the ad revenue front.

What do you think? Are we indeed moving to an era of “fewer, more relevant” ads … or will we continue to deal with merely a more contemporary version of “all advertising, all the time?”  Please share your thoughts with other readers below.

The latest newsroom employment stats aren’t pretty — and unfortunately not “fake” either.

For people who might be hoping for a turnaround in the news industry that could take us back to a world more like the one we once knew – you know, with actual journalists writing primary-sourced stories and conducting formal fact-checking – those days seem less likely than ever to return.

In late July, analytics firm MediaRadar reported on the latest stats for print advertising in the United States – and they’re continuing a long slide by falling another 13% between January and April of 2018.

Even worse:  Most of the companies that stopped their print advertising during the period didn’t migrate their ad dollars over to digital. Instead, they stopped advertising altogether.

This by now numbingly-familiar trend in advertising is directly related to the financial well-being of the news media, as advertising has traditionally bankrolled the lion’s share of newsroom activities.

But with revenues dropping relentlessly, it’s having an outsized impact on newsroom employment. The Pew Research Center has just released stats on the number of employees in American newsrooms – and those figures aren’t pretty, either.

According to Pew, in 2008 America’s newsrooms collectively had approximately 114,000 reporters, editors, photographers and camera personnel on staff. As of 2017, the number had plummeted to around 88,000.

That loss of ~27,000 people represents nearly 25% of all the newsroom jobs that were existed in newspaper, radio, TV/cable and other information services in 2008.

Not surprisingly, the biggest decline was experienced in the newspaper segment – down a whopping 45% to ~39,000 jobs. The digital-native sector was something of a bright spot, with job numbers increasing by nearly 80% over the same period to reach a level of ~13,000 jobs in 2017.

But digital news personnel growth hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for the job losses suffered by the other newsrooms.

What’s more, even digital newsroom jobs aren’t particularly secure, with frequent restructurings being the order of the day thanks to the unsettled nature of the industry as it attempts to adjust to ever-evolving news-consumption preferences.

How are news media organizations responding? Give them credit for trying all sorts of gambits – from membership programs to paid newsletters, premium news paywalls and in-house content studios.

But how many of those efforts have proven to be financially robust enough to shoulder the costs of running a “legitimate” newsroom?  Whatever the number, it hasn’t been sufficient, because whether we like it or not, most people have become conditioned to expect their news and information delivered free of charge.  And while many may lip service to favoring traditional journalistic practices, most aren’t willing to put up their own money to pay for it as part of the bargain.

Meanwhile, the hollowing out of traditionally structured newsrooms continues on, with no end in sight.  I wonder if there even are other financial or business models that could stop the hemorrhaging of jobs in newsrooms.

Does anyone have any other suggestions?

Is the future of printed books written in disappearing ink?

Considering the spread of digitization into seemingly every nook and cranny of our lives, how are book-reading practices changing?  The Pew Research Center looked into this question recently, and it found that those behaviors are definitely changing.

First, what hasn’t happened is a wholesale flight from printed books.  According to Pew’s January 2018 survey of ~2,000 American adults age 18 and older, fewer than one in ten respondents reported that they’ve pulled the plug completely on reading printed books.

But it turns out that ~30% are reading both digital and printed books.

As for the rest, nearly a quarter of the respondents reported that they don’t read books at all – in any format.

That leaves around 40% who report that they read books in printed form only.

It seems that we’re in the midst of a technologically driven change in behavior. A few short years ago the percentage of Americans reading any books in digital format would have likely been in the single digits.  But now just about half the population of book readers are doing so at least in part using digital technology.

I suspect that we’ll see continue to see a shift towards digital books – and likely at an accelerating pace.  Even though speaking personally, I tend to read “better” when I’m not in front of a screen because I find it easier to absorb the more extensive paragraphs that are more typical to long-form writing.

But that’s just me.  What about you? Are you still reading printed books exclusively, or have you gravitated to digital?  And do you see yourself going 100% digital eventually?  Please leave a comment for the benefit of other readers.

Social media platforms navigate the delicate balance between free speech and censorship.

Everyday Americans weigh in with their views.

The past few months have seen people like Mark Zuckerberg doing mental acrobatics attempting to explain how social media platforms like Facebook intend to control the spate of “fake news” and “hate speech” posts, comments and tweets that are so often the currency of interactive “discourse” online.

And now the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute is weighing in with the results of a survey in which ~1,000 Americans were asked for their opinions about the challenges of monitoring and controlling what gets published for the world to see.

The survey, which has been conducted annually since 1997, gives us insights into Americans’ current attitudes about censoring objectionable content balanced against free speech rights.

Asked whether social medial companies should remove certain types of content from their pages in certain circumstances, sizable majorities agreed that companies should do so in the following cases:

  • Social media companies should remove false information: ~83% agree
  • Social media companies should remove hate speech: ~72% agree
  • Social media companies should remove personal attacks: ~68% agree

At the same time, however, when asked whether the government should require social media sites to monitor and remove objectionable content, those opinions were decidedly mixed:

  • Strongly agree with having government involved in these activities: ~27%
  • Somewhat agree: ~21%
  • Somewhat disagree: ~20%
  • Strongly disagree: ~29%
  • Don’t know/not sure: ~3%

So the key takeaway is that Americans dislike objectionable content and think that the social platforms should take on the responsibility for monitoring and removing such content. But many don’t want the government doing the honors.

A mixed result for sure — and one in which governmental authorities could well be d*mned if they do and d*mned if they don’t.

More information about the survey findings can be accessed here.