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.

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.

Blogging and social media in B-to-B marketing: Continually falling short.

As a MarComm specialist and head of a marketing firm for several decades, I’ve worked with my share of marketing tactics — the tried-and-true ones as well as the “next new things.”

Along those lines, working with numerous B-to-B companies in their attempts to turn social media and blogging into significant sources of new business, the track records have been more often ones of failure than of success.

I think the issue boils down to something pretty fundamental: Unlike consumer products, where customers can fall deeply “in love” with particular brands, or at the very least develop feelings of brand affinity, in the world of business products and services, the brand dynamics are seldom “emotional.”

The reality is, business buyers are looking for products and services that will solve their problems and also provide all-important CYA peace of mind. Few B-to-B buyers are truly “excited” about these purchases, and they aren’t personally “invested” in the brands in question, either.

Instead, they’re looking for solutions that work. Ones that deliver on a checklist of criteria, and ones that don’t risk unpleasant developments down the road.

In such a world, the notion that buyers are waiting around to read the and interact with the next blog article or social media post that’s published by a supplier is fanciful at best.

News flash: The target audience doesn’t care about things like that.  Business buyers don’t have time in their busy schedules to read the posts.  The few times they will is when they need to satisfy a business need and are looking for information to help them make an informed buying decision.

But of course, it’s precisely then when content needs to be easily findable on the web. Brands that have published deeper and more relevant content than their competitors are going to be the ones that show up on search engine results pages (SERPs), because those are the websites the search engines reward with higher rankings based on the perceived “relevance” of the web pages in question.

This view of B-to-B audience dynamics isn’t just my personal one; survey research of B-to-B buyers reveals similar attitudes.  For instance, market research and communication firm KoMarketing publishes an annual B2B Web Usability Report, and the findings they uncover are consistent:

  • Most B-to-B buyers don’t think a blog adds much to a supplier’s credibility as a company.
  • As for social media activity, three-fourths of buyers find such platforms irrelevant to their interests and concerns.

So, what is it that buyers are seeking?

It’s more “actionable” data such as sales contact information (who to call), a list of customers a supplier serves (addressing the credibility factor), plus customer testimonials, case studies and similar reports that help buyers “see” themselves in the experiences of other customers.

That’s pretty much it.

Which brings us back to blog posts in the B-to-B realm. Informative articles that center on customer testimonials and before/after case studies provide the best of everything:  content that buyers will actually find useful, along with the “relevance” and “robust activity” that search bots are seeking in making their quasi-mysterious calculations on how high to rank a particular web page on SERP pages.

It dovetails with my typical advice to business clients:

  • Don’t publish blog posts because you expect people to read them like they would a newsfeed. Publish them for relevance and visibility when your prospect is actually seeking out information and insights — which could be months or even years after you publish the post.
  • Make sure each blog article addresses “problem –> solution” topics centered on the challenges your customers are most likely to face.
  • Twitter or Facebook? Unless your marketing have plenty of time on their hands and nothing better to do, don’t bother with these social platforms at all — because the payoff is so mediocre.

What about you? Are your B-to-B marketing experiences different?  If so, please share your perspectives in the comment section for the benefit of other readers.

GDPR: What’s the big whoop?

This past week, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) initiative kicked in. But what does it mean for businesses that operate in the EU region?

And what are the prospects for GDPR-like privacy coming to the USA anytime soon?

First off, let’s review what’s covered by the GDPR initiative. The GDPR includes the following rights for individuals:

  1. The right to be informed
  2. The right of access
  3. The right to rectification
  4. The right to be forgotten
  5. The right to restrict processing
  6. The right to data portability
  7. The right to object
  8. Rights in relation to automated decision making and profiling

The “right to be forgotten” means data subjects can request their information to be erased. The right to “data portability” is also a new factor.  Data subjects now have the right to have data transferred to a third-party service provider in machine-readable format.  However, this right arises only when personal data is provided and processed on the basis of consent, or when necessary to perform a contract.

Privacy impact assessments and “privacy by design” are now legally required in certain circumstances under GDPR, too. Businesses are obliged to carry out data protection impact assessments for new technologies.  “Privacy by design” involves accounting for privacy risk when designing a new product or service, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

Implications for Marketers

A recent study investigated how much customer data will still be usable after GDPR provisions are implemented. Research was done involving more than 30 companies that have already gone through the process of making their data completely GDPR-compliant.

The sobering finding:  Nearly 45% of EU audience data is being lost due to GDPR provisions.  One of the biggest changes is that cookie IDs disappear, which is the basis behind so much programmatic and other data-driven advertising both in Europe and in the United States.

Doug Stevenson, CEO of Vibrant Media, the contextual advertising agency that conducted the study, had this to say about the implications:

“Publishers will need to rapidly fill their inventory with ‘pro-privacy’ solutions that do not require consent, such as contextual advertising, native [advertising] opportunities and non-personalized ads.”

New platforms are emerging to help publishers manage customer consent for “privacy by design,” but the situation is sure to become more challenging in the ensuing months and years as compliance tracking the regulatory authorities ramps up.

It appears that some companies are being a little less proactive than is advisable. A recent study by compliance consulting firm CompliancePoint shows that a large contingent of companies, simply put, aren’t ready for GDPR.

As for why they aren’t, nearly half report that they’re taking a “wait and see” attitude to determine what sorts of enforcement actions ensue against scofflaws. Some marketers admit that their companies aren’t ready due to their own lack of understanding of GDPR issues, while quite a few others claim simply that they’re unconcerned.

I suspect we’re going to get a much better understanding of the implications of GDPR over the coming year or so. It’ll be good to check back on the status of implementation and enforcement measure by this time next year.

What’s happened to influencer marketing?

Over the past five years or so, one of the key tactics of branding has been convincing “market influencers” to promote products and services through endorsements rather than relying on traditional advertising. Not only does “influencer marketing” save on paid advertising costs, presumably the brand promotion appears more “genuine” to consumers of the information.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work according to the textbook theory.

But let’s dissect this a bit.

Some of the earliest forms of “influencer marketing” were the so-called “mommy bloggers” who were stars of the social media world not so long ago. The blogs run by these people were viewed as authentic portrayals of motherhood with all of its attendant joys and stresses.

Mommy blogs like Heather Armstrong’s Dooce.com, Jenny Lawson’s The Bloggess and Glennon Doyle’s Momastery once held sway with stratospheric monthly traffic exceeding the million page level.  But once that volume of engagement happened, it didn’t take long for many bloggers to begin to command big dollars in exchange for product mentions and brand endorsements.

Various meetings and workshops were organized featuring these bloggers and other stars of the social media world – moms, style gurus, interior decorators, fashionistas and the like – providing a forum for consumer product and service companies to interact with these social movers-and-shakers and pitch their products in hopes of positive mentions.

Eager to jump on the bandwagon of this phenomenon, several years ago I recall one of my corporate clients attending their first conference of bloggers — in this case ones who specialize in home décor and remodeling topics.

To put it mildly, our client team was shocked at the “bazaar-like” atmosphere they encountered, with bloggers thrusting tariff schedules in front of their faces listing prices for getting brand and product mentions based on varying levels of “attention” – photos, headline story treatment and the like.

Even more eyebrow-raising were the price tags attached to these purportedly “authentic” endorsements – often running into the thousands of dollars.

Quite the gravy train, it turns out.

It would be nice to report that when the bubble burst on these types of blogs, it was because their readers wised up to what was actually happening.   But the reality is a little less “momentous.”  Simply put, blogging on the whole has stagnated as audiences have moved to other platforms. The rise of “mobile-everything” means that consumers are spending less time and attention on reading long-form blog posts.  Instead, they’re interacting more with photos and related short, pithy descriptions.

Think Facebook and Instagram.

Along with that shift, product endorsements have reverted back to something more akin to what it was like before the time of social media – product promotion that feels like product promotion.

Look at blogging sites today, and often they feel more like classified advertising – more transactional and less discursive. Photos and video clips are the “main event,” and the writing appears to exist almost exclusively to “sell stuff.”

Many consumers see through it all … and it seems as though they’ve come to terms with the bloggers and their shtick.  With a wink and a nudge, most everyone now recognizes that bloggers are “on the take.”  It’s a job – just as surely as the rest of us have our 8-to-5 jobs.

Still, it’s an acceptable tradeoff because in the process, useful information is being communicated; it’s just more transactional in nature, like in the “old days.”

So where does this put influencer marketing today? It’s out there.  It still has resonance.  But people know the score, and few are being fooled any longer.

It’s certainly food for thought for marketers who are thinking that they can use influencer marketing to replace advertising.

They still can … sort of.

America’s “Always On” Dynamics

It’s natural to assume that these days, pretty much all Americans go online regularly. And indeed, that is the case.  According to a survey of ~2,000 Americans age 18 and older conducted recently by the Pew Research Center, more than three in four respondents (~77%) reported that they go online at least once each day.

Compare that to the far smaller cohort of people who don’t use the Internet at all, which is only around 10%.

But even more interesting perhaps is another finding from the Pew survey: More than one in four Americans (~26%) report that they are online “almost constantly”.

That proportion is up from one in five just a couple years ago.

Even for people who go online but don’t use a mobile device, nearly 55% report that they go online at least daily, although just 5% of them report being online continually.

Looking further into the Pew findings, the “always on” population is skewed younger … better educated … ethnically diverse … and with higher incomes:

Gender

  • Men: ~25%
  • Women: ~27%

Age

  • 18-29: ~39%
  • 30-49: ~36%
  • 50-64: ~17%
  • 65 or older: ~8%

Education Level

  • High school degree or less: ~20%
  • Some college: ~28%
  • College degree or more: ~34%

Race

  • Non-white: ~33%
  • White: ~23%

Income Level

  • Less than $30K annual income: ~24%
  • $30-$75K annual income: ~25%
  • $75K or higher annual income: ~35%

Location

  • Living in urban areas: ~32%
  • Living in suburban areas: ~27%
  • Living in rural areas: ~15%

Regarding location, one explanation for the lower “always on” characteristics of rural dwellers may be that interconnectivity isn’t as simple and easy as it is in urban environments.

Or perhaps it’s because rural areas offer more attractive options for people to spend their time doing more fulfilling things than being tethered to the online world 24/7/365 …

Which is it? Your thoughts on this or the other dynamics uncovered by Pew are welcomed.  You can also read more about the survey findings here.