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.

Music industry mashup: Streaming audio sets the pace.

… while digital downloads fade and physical music media sales hold steady.

The music industry revenue reports issued annually by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are always interesting to look at, because they chronicle the big trends in how people are consuming their music.

The 2018 RIAA report is particularly enlightening, as it finds that streaming audio now accounts for three-fourths of all U.S. music industry revenue. With more than 50 million Americans subscribing to at least one streaming service, those revenue stats certainly make sense.

Moreover, the RIAA report states that 2018 revenues from streaming music platforms amounted to nearly $7.5 billion. That compares to just $1.1 billion (~11%) for digital downloads and $1.2 billion (~12%) for physical media sales.

Equally significant, streaming revenues account for nearly all of the revenue growth experienced across the entire industry – and the growth is dramatic. Streaming revenues jumped ~30% between 2017 and 2018, whereas growth in the other segments was essentially flat.

Within the streaming segment, all three major sectors – premium subscriptions, ad-supported on-demand streaming, and streaming radio – experienced revenue growth.  But paid subscriptions continue to comprise the biggest chunk of revenue; they make up ~73% of all streaming revenues, or $5.4 million.

Ad-supported on-demand streaming is also proving to be quite popular with users, but while revenues grew by some 15% in 2018 to reach $760 million, it’s pretty clear that ad-supported streaming audio services lag behind in terms of generating revenues. Ad-supported streaming may account for more than one-third of all streaming activity … but only ~8% of streaming revenues.

The third segment — radio streaming services – looks to be a particularly bright spot. These services are evolving nicely, passing the $1 billion mare in revenues in 2018 for the first time.

But the main takeaway is this:  Streaming audio now represents the “mainstream” while digital downloads are going the way of the cassette tape in an earlier era. And physical media (CDs, vinyl) have stabilized to a degree that many observers might not have anticipated happening just a few years ago.

More information from the 2018 RIAA report can be viewed here.

What are your own personal music consumption preferences? Feel free to share your thoughts with other readers here.

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.