The Demise of the Urban Commuter Tabloids

The end of the line: The final edition of Express at the McPherson Square Metro stop in Washington, DC.

I’ve blogged before about the major struggles of the so-called alt-weekly press in recent times as the Internet has upended both the business model and the editorial mission of such papers.

But what about urban commuter publications? These are the tabloid freebies that sprang over the decades up to serve the daily public transit population in large urban areas, offering quick-read news and entertainment during subway, train and bus commutes.

Unlike the alt-weeklies with their often-edgy or otherwise counterculture editorial slant, the commuter tabloids were generally more conventional in their content — focusing less on controversial POV topics and instead on “what’s happening” in headline news and on the dining, arts and entertainment front.

One such publication that I came to know quite well was Skyway News — named after the iconic skyway system in downtown Minneapolis — where professionals could grab a copy of the tabloid while dashing off to grab their public transport.  For me, reading Skyway News was a way to pass the time while taking my 35-minute bus commute (yes – it took that long to travel just three miles in the city during rush hour).

An amazing 48-year run: Skyway News / The Journal (Minneapolis, 1970-2018).

Alas, Skyway News, which debuted in 1970, eventually went the way of so many alt-weekly papers.  First it tried expanding its circulation (and editorial focus) to cover residential Northeast Minneapolis, changing its name to The Journal in the process … but finally shut down for good late last year.

Still, it was an amazing 48-year run for a paper that never had a circulation exceeding 30,000.

This week, we’re hearing news that one of the most successful of the urban commuter tabloid ventures has bitten the dust, too. In this case it’s Washington DC’s vaunted Express, a free commuter tabloid published by the Washington Post since 2003.

In his customary colorful way, Dan Caccavaro – the tabloid’s founding editor who remained in that position for the entire 16 years of the publication’s existence – explained to readers what was behind the paper’s demise:

The final edition of the Express tabloid paper (September 2019).

“When we launched in 2003, there was no such thing as an iPhone. It would be another year before Harvard students would start using a novel social network called Facebook to keep tabs on their classmates.  No one was tweeting anything – or Instagramming or Snapchatting.  And most of us still mocked our “CrackBerry”-addicted friends who just couldn’t wait until they got to work to check their email.   

How quaint.”

The headline of Caccavaro’s editorial says it all: “Hope you enjoy your stinkin’ phones.”

While circulation of the Express had been declining since its height of nearly 200,000 copies to around 130,000 today and while the paper’s finances had slipped into loss territory, the death knell came when the DC metro system introduced Wi-Fi service on its trains.  With that move, the ability for the Express to engage the attentions of DC’s metro commuters died.

Whereas at one time the Express and its quick-read news format was “an integral part of the morning commute for Washingtonians,” the ability for people to stay online during their commute effectively made the Express an irrelevance.

As Caccavaro explained in his final editorial salvo:

Express editor Dan Caccavaro then …

“It wasn’t unusual in [the] early days to see two-thirds of riders on a rush-hour train reading Express … The appetite for Express was so great, in fact, that we more than once considered printing an afternoon edition.  

This Monday morning as I rode the train to work, I was struck by a very different observation. Three people on my crowded Blue Line train were reading Express … one man had his nose in an old-fashioned book. Almost everyone else was staring at a phone.”

Express editor Dan Caccavaro now.

What’s particularly ironic is that the Express, with its lively, quick-read character and attractive, colorful layout, was the precursor to the kind of news and information that everyone expects to see continuously fed to them on their devices.  So as it acclimated a generation of readers to being quickly-informed, entertained and pleasantly distracted during their commutes, Express actually sowed the seeds for the wholesale shift to mobile screens to receive information in the same fashion.

With the closure of Express, there can’t be more than a handful of urban commuter tabloids left in existence in America.  I can’t think of single one.  But if you’re aware of any, please enlighten us – and let us know what might be the secret behind their continuing relevance.

Cookie-blocking is having a big impact on ad revenues … now what?

When Google feels the need to go public about the state of the current ad revenue ecosystem, you know something’s up.

And “what’s up” is actually “what’s down.” According to a new study by Google, digital publishers are losing more than half of their potential ad revenue, on average, when readers set their web browser preferences to block cookies – those data files used to track the online activity of Internet users.

The impact of cookie-blocking is even bigger on news publishers, which are foregoing ad revenues of around 62%, according to the Google study.

The way Google conducted its investigation was to run a 4-month test among ~500 global publishers (May to August 2019). Google disabled cookies on a randomly selected part of each publisher’s traffic, which enabled it to compare results with and without the cookie-blocking functionality employed.

It’s only natural that Google would be keen to understand the revenue impact of cookie-blocking. Despite its best efforts to diversify its business, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, continues to rely heavily on ad revenues – to the tune of more than 85% of its entire business volume.

While that percent is down a little from the 90%+ figures of 5 or 10 years ago, in spite of diversifying into cloud computing and hardware such as mobile phones, the dizzyingly high percentage of Google revenues coming from ad sales hasn’t budged at all in more recent times.

And yet … even with all the cookie-blocking activity that’s now going on, it’s likely that this isn’t the biggest threat to Google’s business model. That distinction would go to governmental regulatory agencies and lawmakers – the people who are cracking down on the sharing of consumer data that underpins the rationale of media sales.

The regulatory pressures are biggest in Europe, but consumer privacy concerns are driving similar efforts in North America as well.

Figuring that a multipronged effort makes sense in order to counteract these trends, this week Google aired a proposal to give online users more control over how their data is being used in digital advertising, and seeking comments and feedback from interest parties.

On a parallel track, it has also initiated a project dubbed “Privacy Sandbox” to give publishers, advertisers, technology firms and web developers a vehicle to share proposals that will, in the words of Google, “protect consumer privacy while supporting the digital ad marketplace.”

Well, readers – what do you think? Do these initiatives have the potential to change the ecosystem to something more positive and actually achieve their objectives?  Or is this just another “fool’s errand” where attractive-sounding platitudes sufficiently (or insufficiently) mask a dimmer reality?

Company e-newsletters: Much ado about … what?

One of my clients is a multinational manufacturing firm that has published its own “glossy” company magazine for years now. The multi-page periodical is published several times a year, in several regional editions including one for the North American market.

It’s a magazine that’s full of interesting customer “case histories” accompanied by large, eye-catching photos. The stories are well-written and sufficiently “breezy” in character to read quickly and without strenuous effort.  The North American edition is direct-mailed to a sizable target audience of mid-five figures.

And I wonder how many people actually read it.

The reason for my suspicion stems from the time we were asked to produce a survey asking about readers’ topic preferences for the magazine. The questionnaire was bound into one of the North American issues, including a postage-paid return envelope.  The survey was simple and brief (tick-boxes with no open-ended questions).  And there was an incentive offered to participate.

In short, it was the kind of survey that anyone who engaged with the publication even marginally would find worthwhile and easy to complete.

… Except that (practically) no one did so.

The unavoidable conclusion: people were so unengaged with the publication that they weren’t even opening the magazine to discover that there was a survey to fill out.

In the world of company e-mail newsletters, is the same dynamic is at work? One might think not.  After all, readers must opt-in to receive them – suggesting that their engagement level would tend to be higher.

Well … no.

A just-published study titled How Audiences View Content Marketing, finds that company e-newsletters are just as “disengaging” as the printed pieces of yesteryear.

The study’s results are based on a survey conducted by digital web design firm Blue Fountain Media. Among the findings outlined in the report are these interesting nuggets:

  • One in five respondents completely ignore the e-newsletters they receive, while more than half scan headlines before deciding to read anything.
  • Two-thirds of respondents admitted that the main reason for opting in to receive e-newsletters is to take advantage of special offers or discounts, while only around 20% expressed any interest at all in receiving information about the company.
  • More than half of respondents (~52%) feel that newsletter content is too “commercial” (as in “too sales-y”). Other complaints are that the e-newsletters are “too long” (~21%) or “boring” (~19%).

Even more alarming is this finding: Approximately one-third of the respondents felt that e-newsletter content is so lame, it actually leads them to question using the product or service.

That seems like marketing going in reverse!

What Blue Fountain has uncovered may be indicative of another challenge as well:  the diminishing allure of content marketing. Over time, readers have become cautious about accepting online content as the gospel truth; this research pegs it at two-thirds of respondents feeling this way.

At the same time, only about one-third of the respondents think that they can distinguish well between fact-based content versus content with an “agenda” behind it. And therein lies the basis for suspicion or distrust.

On the plus side, the research found that readers are more apt to engage with video content, so that may be a way for e-newsletters to fight back in the battle for relevance.  But it still seems a pretty tall order.

I address the topic of company e-newsletters in a second blog post to follow.  Stay tuned …

The “creeping crisis” for newspapers seeps into yet another corner of the industry.

Newspaper revenue trend lines are problematic, to say the least.

The travails of the newspaper industry aren’t anything new or surprising. For the past decade, the business model of America’s newspapers has been under incredible pressures.  Among the major causes are these:

  • The availability of up-to-the-minute, real-time news from alternative (online) sources
  • the explosion of options people have available to find their news
  • The ability to consume news free of charge using most of these alternative sources
  • The decline of newspaper subscriptions and readership, leading to a steep decline in advertising revenues

Exacerbating these challenges is the fact that producing and disseminating a paper-based product is substantially more costly than electronic delivery of news. And with high fixed costs being spread over fewer readers, the problems become even more daunting.

But one relative bright spot in the newspaper segment — at least up until recently — has been local papers. In markets without local TV stations, such papers continued to be a way for the citizenry to read up on local news and events.  It’s been the place where they could see their friends and neighbors written about and pictured.  And let’s not forget high-school sports and local “human-interest” news items that generally couldn’t be found anywhere else.

Whatever online “community” presence there might be covering these smaller markets — towns ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 population — is all-too-often sub-standard — in some cases embarrassingly bad.

But now it seems that the same problems afflicting the newspaper segment in general have seeped into this last bastion of the business.

It’s particularly ominous in places where daily (or near-daily) newspapers are published, as compared to weekly pubs. A case in point is the local paper in Youngstown, Ohio — a town of 65,000 people.  Its daily paper, The Vindicator, has just announced that it will be shutting its doors after 150 years in business.

The same family has owned The Vindicator for four generations (since 1887).  It isn’t that the longstanding owners didn’t try mightily to keep the paper going.  In a statement to its readers, the family outlined the paper’s recent struggles to come up with a stable business model, including working with employees and unions and investing in new, more efficient presses.  Efforts to raise the price of the paper or drive revenue to the digital side of the operation failed to secure sufficient funds, either.

Quoting from management’s statement:

“In spite of our best efforts, advertising and circulation revenues have continued to decline and The Vindicator continues to operate at a loss.

Due to [these] great financial hardships, we spent the last year searching for a buyer to continue to operate The Vindicator and preserve as many jobs as possible, while maintaining the paper’s voice in the community. That search has been unsuccessful.”

Youngstown, Ohio

As a result, the paper will cease publication by the end of the summer. With it the jobs of nearly 150 employees and ~250 paper carriers will disappear.  But something else will be lost as well — the sense of community that these home-town newspapers are uncommonly able to foster and deliver.

For a city like Youngstown, which has seen its population decline with the loss of manufacturing jobs, it’s yet another whammy.

Because of the population loss dynamics, it might seem like local conditions are the cause of The Vindicator‘s situation, but some see a bigger story.  One such observer is Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton, who writes:

“I don’t think this is just a Youngstown story. I fear we’ll look back on this someday as the beginning of an important — and negative — shift in local news in America.”

What do you think? Is this the start of a new, even more dire phase for the newspaper industry?  Is there the loss of a newspaper that has his your own community particularly hard? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Roads to … nowhere?

Google Maps admits its business listings are riddled with errors and outright fraudulent entries.

The news reports hit fast and furious this week when the media got wind of the millions upon millions of “faux” business listings on Google Maps, thanks to a new Wall Street Journal exposé.

It’s true that there are a ton of map listings displayed by Google on search engine results pages, but the latest estimates are that there are more than 11 million falsely listed businesses that pop up on Google searches on any given business day.

That number may seem eyebrow-raising, but it’s hardly “new news.” Recall the reports that date as far back as a half-decade — to wit:

  • In 2014, cyber-security expert Bryan Seely showed how easy it was to use the Internet’s open architecture to record telephone conversations and create fraudulent Google Maps listings and locations.
  • In 2017, Google released a report titled Pinning Down Abuse on Google Maps, wherein it was estimated that one in ten fake listings belonged to actual real-live businesses such as restaurants and motels, but that nefarious third-parties had claimed ownership of them. Why do this? So that the unscrupulous bad-actors could deceive the targeted businesses into paying search referral fees.

Google is owning up to its continuing challenges, this week issuing a statement as follows:

“We understand the concerns of those people and businesses impacted by local business scammers, and back in 2017 we announced the progress we’d made. There was still work to be done then, and there’s still work to be done now.  We have an entire team dedicated to addressing these issues and taking constant action to remove profiles that violate our policies.”

But is “constant action” enough? Certain business trades are so riddled with fake listings, it’s probably best to steer clear of them altogether.  Electricians, plumbers and other contractors are particularly sketchy categories, where roughly 40% of Google Maps listings are estimated to be fraudulent entries.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent exposé, published on June 24th, reported on a search its researchers conducted for plumbers in New York City.  Of the top 20 Google search results returned, only two actually exist where they’re reported to be located and accept customers at the addresses listed.  That’s pretty awful performance even if you’re grading on a curve.

A measure of progress has been made; Google reports that in 2018 it removed some 3 million fake business listings. But that still leaves another 11 million of them out there, silently mocking …

Facebook attempts to clean up its act.

Is it enough?

Watching Facebook these days as it pivots from diffusing one “rude development” to another seems a little like watching someone perform a combination plate-spinning and whack-a-mole act.

We’ll call it the Facebook Follies.  The question is … is it working?

Last month, Facebook issued its newest Community Enforcement Report – a document that updates the world about improvements the social media giant is making to its platform to enable it to live up to its stated community standards.

Among the improvements touted by the latest report:

  • Facebook reports now that ~5% of monthly active accounts are fake. (Still, 5% represents nearly 120 million users.)
  • Facebook reports now that its ability to automatically detect “hate speech” in social posts has jumped from a ~24% incidence in 2018 to ~65% today. (But this means that one-third of hate speech posts are still going undetected.)

Moreover, Facebook now reports that for every 10,000 times Facebook content is viewed by users:

  • ~25 views contain content that violates Facebook’s violence policy
  • ~14 views contain content violating Facebook’s adult nudity and sexual activity policy
  • Fewer than 3 views contain content violating Facebook’s policies for each of these categories: global terrorism; child nudity, and sexual exploitation

The community enforcement information is being reported as “wins” for Facebook … but people can’t be faulted for thinking that Facebook could (and should) be doing much better.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

On a different type of matter, this past week it was reported that Facebook has agreed to settle a class-action complaint that accused the social platform of inflating viewing metrics on Facebook videos by up to 900%.

Although details of the settlement haven’t been revealed, this development appears to close the book on criticisms that were lodged as far back as 2016, in which advertisers charged that Facebook hadn’t investigated and corrected errors in its metrics — nor allowed for third-party verification of the metrics.

It’s yet another agenda item that’s now been ticked off the list – at least in Facebook’s eyes. But now another controversy has now erupted as reported over the past few days in The Wall Street Journal.

Described in a front-page article bylined by veteran WSJ reporters John McKinnon, Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears linked to “potentially problematic privacy practices” that date all the way back to 2012, when Facebook signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission but that it may have violated subsequently.

Contemporaneous e-mail communications retrieved from the time period suggest that Zuckerberg was more than merely passively involved in deliberations about a particular app that claimed to have built a database stocked with information about millions of Facebook users. Purportedly, the app developer had the ability to display the Facebook user information to others — regardless of those users’ privacy settings on Facebook.  The e-mails in question detail speculation about how many other apps were stockpiling such kinds of user data, but the evidence shows little or no subsequent action being taken to shut down the data mining activities.

Another view.

These latest developments raise questions about the veracity of Facebook’s stated intentions to redouble its efforts to uphold community standards and focus more on user privacy, including moving toward encrypted and “ephemeral” messaging products that are better aligned with the European Union’s existing privacy laws that the United States may also be poised to adopt in the future.

Apparently Facebook recognizes the problem: It’s ramping up its global advertising spending to “rebuild trust” — to the tune of doubling its previous ad expenditures.  Here’s what Facebook’s marketing head Antonio Lucio is saying:

“There’s no question we made mistakes, and we’re in the process of addressing them one after the other.  But we have to tell that story to the world on the trust side as well as the value site.”

Ad-tracking company Kantar notes a big increase already in Facebook’s U.S. ad spending — up to nearly $385 million in 2018 compared to only around $50 million the year before.  As for the campaigns themselves, Facebook is relying on a number of big-name ad agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, Leo Burnett and Ogilvy for developing its various campaigns.

Another view.

There’s more than a little irony in that.

Considering the latest news items, what are your thoughts about Facebook? Are they on the right track … or is it “too little, too late”?  Are their intentions honorable … or are they simply engaged in “window dressing” to get people off their case?  Let us know your thoughts.

“Wake me when it’s over”: Corporate podcasting goes over like a zinc zeppelin with employee audiences.

Just because podcasts have become a popular means of communication in a broader sense doesn’t mean that they’re the slam-dunk tactic to successfully achieve every kind of communications objective. Still, that’s what an increasing number of large corporations have decided to do.

And yet … an article by writers Austen Hufford and Patrick McGroarty that appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal paints a picture of what many of us have suspected all along about podcasts that are produced by corporations for their employees and other “stakeholders.”

These self-important testaments to “corporate whatever” have as much impact as the printed memos of yore – you know, the ones with sky-high BS-meter ratings – had.

Which is to say … not much.

Invariably, podcast topics are ones which next to no one in the employee trenches cares anything about. As a result, corporate podcast open stats are abysmal – running between 10% and 15% if they’re lucky.

And the paltry open rates alone don’t tell the entire story. How many people are tuning them out after just a minute or two of listening, once it becomes clear that it’s yet another yawner of a topic that senior leadership deems “important” and that corporate communications departments try mightily but unsuccessfully to bring alive.

More often than not, the production values of these corporate podcasts have all the pizzazz of a cold mashed potato sandwich. Consider this breathless declaration by PR director Lindsay Colker in a December 18th Netflix podcast:

“I think that Netflix has taught me so much more than information about a job. The person that I was, coming into Netflix, is an entirely different person than the person I am now.”

This response, posted by a Netflix employee on the Apple iTunes store site, is all-too-predictable:

“Hard to follow, boring and dry hosts, and tooooo long.”

Or this recent American Airlines podcast that covered the company’s three major strategic objectives for 2019. After company president Robert Isom described the strategies for the podcast audience, host Ron DeFeo, an American Airlines communications vice president exclaimed, “That’s awesome!”

Employee reaction was far different. Here’s one response from an American Airlines pilot:

“How about you tell me why I should listen to this? A healthy employee doesn’t live and breathe their job 24/7, and the last thing they’re going to do after being on a plane for 12 hours is listen to a podcast.”

Ouch.

Perhaps because of this kind employee pushback, one company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, permits its workers to count the time they spend listening to the company’s podcast on their time sheets.

One suspects that absolutely every HII employee is posting 15 minutes on their timesheets each time a podcast is released – whether or not they’re actually listening to it. (That may also explain why each HII podcast is strictly limited to just 15 minutes in length …)

Every company interviewed by the writers of The Wall Street Journal story admitted that engagement levels with their corporate podcasts are disappointing.  PPG Industries’ response is illustrative.  With only a few hundred listeners tuning in each month out of a total employee base of more than 47,000 workers, “We have a ways to go,” admits Mark Silvey, PPG’s director of corporate communications.

What do you think? Will corporations find themselves riding a wave of success with their podcasting?  Or are they swimming upstream against the triple currents of apathy, ennui, and snark? Will corporate podcasting become tomorrow’s “obvious tactic” or end up being yesterday’s “glorious failure”? Feel free to share your perspectives with other readers.