Reuters: In 2019, publishers will experience “the biggest wave of layouts in years” … and massive burnout among the journalists who remain.

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.)

Salon takes another crack at generating revenue from viewers.

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.

The ignominious end of Google+.

… And who cares?

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.

But as a result of discovering this bug, Google has now decided to shut down the Google+ social platform this coming April – four months earlier than planned.

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.”

And while a few souls may be lamenting its demise, for the vast majority of people, the platform expired years ago.

What about you?  Did you ever engage with this social media network?  And if you did, what was your experience.  Most tellingly, when did you cease you interaction?

A day late and a dollar short: Starbucks finally honors its pledge to install WiFi blocking mechanisms in its stores.

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.

When P&G cut way back on digital advertising … and nothing changed.

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.

Programmatic ad buying in the B-to-B sector: The adoption rate grinds to a halt.

Each year, Dun & Bradstreet publishes its Data-Driven Marketing & Advertising Outlook report.  The report’s findings are based on a survey of marketers in the business-to-business sector.  Among the questions asked of marketers is about the advertising tactics they utilize in support of their sales and business objectives.

A look at D&B’s annual outlook reports over the past several years, an interesting trend has emerged: The adoption rate of B-to-B companies being involved in programmatic ad buying has plateaued at somewhat below 65% of firms.

In fact, you have to go back to 2015 in D&B’s reports to find the proportion of companies involved in programmatic advertising running significantly below where it is now.

That being said, those firms that are involved in programmatic ad buying are planning on allocating additional funds to the effort. The most recent survey finds that ~60% of the respondents involved in programmatic advertising plan to increase their spending in 2019.  That includes ~20% who plan to allocate a significant dollar increase of 25% or greater.

Another interesting finding from the 2018 survey is that there appears to be slightly less interest in display and video programmatic ad placements – although display remains the most commonly run ad type.

Where heightened interest lies includes one category that should come as no surprise – mobile advertising – as well as several that might be more unexpected. Social media advertising seems like it wouldn’t be a very significant part of most B-to-B ad buyers’ bag of tricks, but two-thirds of respondents reported that programmatic advertising in that sector will be increasing.

Another interesting development is that ~17% of the respondents reported that they’re stepping up their programmatic buying for TV advertising – which may be an interesting portent of the future.

Lastly, the survey revealed little change in the types of challenges respondents face about programmatic ad buying – namely, how to target the right audiences more effectively, how to measure results, and the need for better technical and operational knowledge for those charged with overseeing programmatic ad efforts inside their companies.

More information and findings from the 2018 D&B report can be viewed here.

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.