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

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson

From the New York Times on down, leading publishers are telling us that print versions of their newspapers will eventually disappear.  The only question is how soon it will happen.

But what are the implications of this pending shift to all-digital? Will online news consumers be as strongly engaged as they have been with the print newspaper product?

We now have a window into answering this question by looking at the experience of The Independent, a UK national daily paper.  Two years ago, The Independent made the shift to become an online-only publication.

And the result was … no measurable increase traffic shifting from offline to online. That finding comes from a before/after analysis of the publication’s performance as conducted by European communications industry researchers Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher.

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

Instead, these customers became like other digital readers. That is to say, in the words of the researchers, “easily distracted, flitting from link to link, and a little allergic to depth.”

Let’s drill down a little deeper. At the time it ceased publishing a print edition of its newspaper, The Independent had a paid print circulation of approximately 40,000, along with ~58 million monthly unique visits on its digital platform.

That a humongous chasm … but the researchers found that the publication’s relatively small number of print readers were responsible for more than 80% of all time spent consuming all of The Independent’s news content – print and digital.

That is correct: Considering engagement on all of its digital platforms, all of that added up to fewer than 20% of the time collectively spent reading the print publication.

The chart below shows what happened to readership. All of the time The Independent’s print readers spent with the paper seems to have simply disappeared when the company ceased publishing a print version.  It didn’t transition to independent.co.uk.

Even more telling, the researchers found that half of print recipients had read the newspaper “almost every day,” whereas online visitors read a news story in The Independent, on average, a little more than twice per month.

While print readers typically spent from 40 to 50 minutes reading each daily edition of The Independent, online readers spent, on average, just 6 minutes over the entire month.

Here’s the thing: Whereas print newspapers usually have few if any competitors in their immediate space, online there are an unlimited number of competing sites to attract (and distract) the reader – all of them just a mouse-click away.

Even if we discount a measure of exaggeration on the part of respondents in terms of how much time they actually expend on their reading consumption versus what they reported to survey-takers, the print/online dynamics reveal stark differences. As researcher Thurman reports:

“By going online-only, The Independent has decimated the attention it receives. The paper is now a thing more glanced at, it seems, than gorged on.  It has sustainability but less centrality.”

There is one silver-lining of shifting to an all-digital platform, at least in the case of The Independent.  That shift has resulted in increased international reach by the publication.

But The Independent is a national newspaper, unlike most of America’s leading papers, and so that sort of positive aspect can’t be expected to apply very easily to those other media properties.  How many people outside of central Colorado can be expected to read a digital edition of the Denver Post?

The main takeaway from The Independent’s experience is that for any paper choosing to go all-digital, chances are high that the audience isn’t going to follow along – certainly not at the level of loyal, in-depth time once spent with the print product.

Sure, the very real costs of printing and delivery will now be a thing of the past. But a significant – even dramatic – decline in reach, influence and impact will be the new reality for the publishers

Baby, meet bathwater.

Are there no alternatives for the alternative press?

The slow death of America’s alt-weeklies can’t help but feel a little disheartening.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed reading the so-called “alternative press.” I’ve found it a fascinating sociological exercise, where certain fringe or controversial topics and points-of-view are often aired long before they enter more mainstream discourse.

But that was before the Internet changed everything.

Before the ubiquity of the Internet, the role that alternative weeklies played was arguably one of consequence. I can recall a time where one could encounter a dozen or more papers freely available in retail establishments such as record stores, coffeehouses and head shops in any medium sized or larger North American city.

The editorial focus of these alt-weeklies covered the gamut – from alternative music, film and literature to environmental causes, LGBTQ interests and other social action priorities – not to mention various ethnic sub-groups.

Basically, any “ism” or group that was underrepresented in the mainstream press was a prime editorial focus and audience target of the alternative press.

One could chart the fortunes of cultural trends by the tone of the editorial writing in these publications – ranging from optimism and anticipation to depression or even rage – depending on the prevailing sociological or political currents of the day.

One friend of mine called it the “alt-weekly shrill-o-meter” – with the decibel level rising or falling with the fortunes of urban-progressive forces in America.

One of the foundational premises of alt-weeklies was that they should be available free to everyone, and therefore they were given wide distribution everywhere urban-aware people congregated.

The costs of production, printing and distribution were paid for through varied and frequently entertaining (of the voyeur sort) advertising.

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

Back in the late 1980s I was acquainted with a fellow who sold advertising for one such paper, Minneapolis-based City Pages.  He earned a tidy-if-modest living selling advertising space for independent restaurants, funky specialty retailers, dive bars, performance spaces and the myriad music groups that were prevalent on the Twin Cities scene.

Other regular advertisers he relied on were the ones peddling more “questionable” fare like phone chat lines (of whatever persuasion one might prefer) and other services one can euphemistically characterize as “adult.”

Some people contend that these advertisers did as much as anything to keep many an alt-weekly publication afloat in the pre-Internet days.

The point is, in their heyday the alternative press played an important role in American urban culture – even if it existed on the margins of society and played a somewhat less-than “conventionally upstanding” role in the process.

And another thing: These alt-weeklies reflected the personalities of the cities in which they operated.  Despite the inevitable superficial similarities between them, I always recognized distinct aspects of each publication that made it a true product of its place.  (Speaking personally, I found this to be the case in Phoenix, Nashville, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Baltimore, where I lived and worked from the 1970s to the 1990s.)

Unfortunately, the past 15 years haven’t been kind at all to this corner of the publishing world. With the rise of the Internet (where “anything goes” editorially is an understatement), coupled with inexorably increasing costs to prepare and distribute a paper-based news product, the business environment has turned into a classic squeeze-play for these alternative papers.

Adding to those problems is the challenge of shrinking advertising revenues. Publishers aren’t facing merely the general decline of revenues from would-be advertisers who can now publicize themselves just as effectively online at a lower cost.  It’s also the near-total banishment of adult-oriented advertising, as alt-weeklies have been shamed into dropping those ads due to changing societal attitudes about the objectification and exploitation of women (and men, too).

Because of these dynamics, in recent years the main story about the alternative press has been a predictable (and dreary) one: how these papers have been dropping like flies.  Whereas once there were a dozen or more alternative papers published in a typical urban market the size of a St. Louis or Pittsburgh, today there may be just one or two.

In smaller urban markets, there may be none at all.

The April 2, 2009 issue of the Missoula Independent.

Just this past week, the last non-student run alt-weekly publication in the entire state of Montana – the Missoula Independent – shut down for good.  Employees received this warm-and-fuzzy communiqué from the publisher, Lake Enterprises:

“This is to give you notice that we are closing the Missoula Independent as of September 11, 2018. As of that time, the offices will be closed and you are not to report to work or come into the building.”

In a now-familiar story line, closing Montana’s last remaining alt-weekly publication came down to a simple calculation of revenues vs. costs. (It probably didn’t help that the magazine’s staff had voted to unionize earlier in the year.)  And adding insult to injury, Lake Enterprises has also shuttered the publication’s archives – all 27 years of it.

Suddenly, it’s as if the Missoula Independent never existed.

This alt-weekly publication’s experience is similar to numerous others. Lee Banville, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Montana, had this to say about the Missoula Independent’s fate after the previous owner sold the publication to Lee Enterprises:

“There was – almost immediately – a pretty good chance this was going to happen. Other alt-weeklies that have been purchased by paper chains have been closed.”

Indeed, it’s a scenario that’s been playing out all over the country: An alt-weekly begins to struggle; new owners move in with the objective of saving the publication, only to cut staffing to near-zero or shut down completely when the old (or new) business model cannot be sustained.

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

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

And in fact, no publication is immune – even an iconic brand like New York City’s The Village Voice.

Earlier this month, the world witnessed the effective demise of that vaunted alt-weekly – a publication that some people consider the best exemplar of the genre.

The March 17, 1992 issue of The Village Voice.

Village Voice publisher Pete Barbey, who acquired the media property in 2015 and turned it into an online-only publication in 2017, has now shuttered the publication completely barely a year later.

“Today is kind of a sucky day,” Barbey reportedly told Village Voice employees in a phone conference call.  “Due to, basically, business realities, we’re going to stop publishing new Village Voice material.”

At least in this case, a veritable treasure trove of Village Voice archival material will be digitized and remain available in cyberspace.  Approximately half of the publication’s employees are being kept on for a period of time to carry out that mission … but no new Village Voice journalism will ever again be produced.

As anyone who knows me personally can attest, I don’t come out of the “counter-culture” movement – nor would I consider that many of my personal or political views reflect those that are typically espoused by the writers and editors of the alternative press.

And yet … I can’t help but empathize with the comments of freelance writer Melynda Fuller, who has opined:

Melynda Fuller

“The loss of alternative weeklies feels particularly personal. They act as mirrors for the complex lives lived in the cities where they publish.  As more outlets are bought up, shut down or prevented from operating at full capacity, a much-needed connection is lost between that city’s culture and its residents.   

Media is in the communications business. In a fractured time in our history, every connection counts.”

How about you? Do you feel any sense of nostalgia for the alternative press?  Is there a particular favorite publication of yours that hasn’t been able to survive?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

Good news: Online advertising “bot” fraud is down 10%. Bad news: It still amounts to $6.5 billion annually.

Ad spending continues with quite-healthy growth, being forecast to increase by about 10% in 2017 according to a studied released this month by the Association of National Advertisers.

At the same time, there’s similarly positive news from digital advertising security firm White Ops on the ad fraud front. Its Bot Baseline Report, which analyzes the digital advertising activities of ANA members, is forecasting that economic losses due to bot fraud will decline by approximately 10% this year.

And yet … even with the expected decline, bot fraud is still expected to amount to a whopping $6.5 billion in economic losses.

The White Ops report found that traffic sourcing — that is, purchasing traffic from inorganic sources — remains the single biggest risk factor for fraud.

On the other hand, mobile fraud was considerably lower than expected.  Moreover, fraud in programmatic media buys is no longer particularly riskier than general market buys, thanks to improved filtration controls and procedures at media agencies.

Meanwhile, a new study conducted by Fraudlogix, and fraud detection company which monitors ad traffic for sell-side companies, finds that the majority of ad fraud is concentrated within a very small percentage of sources within the real-time bidding programmatic market.

The Fraudlogix study analyzed ~1.3 billion impressions from nearly 60,000 sources over a month-long period earlier this year. Interestingly, sites with more than 90% fraudulent impressions represented only about 1% of publishers, even while they contributed ~11% of the market’s impressions.

While Fraudlogix found nearly 19% of all impressions overall to be “fake,” its fraudulent behavior does not represent the industry as a whole. According to its analysis, just 3% of sources are causing more than two-thirds of the ad fraud.  [Fraudlogix defines a fake impression as one which generates ad traffic through means such as bots, scripts, click-farms or hijacked devices.]

As Fraudlogix CEO Hagai Schechter has remarked, “Our industry has a 3% fraud problem, and if we can clamp down on that, everyone but the criminals will be much better for it.”

That’s probably easier said than done, however. Many of the culprits are “ghost” newsfeed sites.  These sites are often used for nefarious purposes because they’re programmed to update automatically, making the sites seem “content-fresh” without publishers having to maintain them via human labor.

Characteristics of these “ghost sites” include cookie-cutter design templates … private domain registrations … and Alexa rankings way down in the doldrums. And yet they generate millions of impressions each day.

The bottom line is that the fraud problem remains huge.  Three percent of sources might be a small percentage figure, but that still means thousands of sources causing a ton of ad fraud.

What would be interesting to consider is having traffic providers submit to periodic random tests to determine the authenticity of their traffic. Such testing could then establish ratings – some sort of real/faux ranking.

And just like in the old print publications world, traffic providers that won’t consent to be audited would immediately become suspect in the eyes of those paying for the advertising.  Wouldn’t that development be a nice one …

The world of blogging: Just how does it operate?

wbMost people in business know at least one or two people who publish a blog. Chances are, they know people who blog on non-business topics as well.

Have you ever wondered what are the common practices followed by these bloggers? Speaking as someone who has published blog posts since 2009, I certainly have.

Now the “wondering” is over, because Chicago-based web design firm Orbit Media Studies has just published its 2016 Blogger Research Study, which presents the results of surveying ~1,050 bloggers about how they go about their blogging business.

Here are some of the most interesting highlights from the study:

Where do bloggers write their articles?

According to Orbit’s findings, the vast majority of bloggers are creating their content at home or at their home office:

  • At home/home office: ~81% of respondents cited
  • At the office: ~32%
  • Coffee shops or other foodservice establishments: ~19%
  • Co-working spaces: ~4%
  • Other locations: ~7% (primarily on trains or planes, or at a library)

What is the length of a typical blog post?

From the Orbit research findings, it’s pretty clear that the most popular blog post length is 500 to 1,000 words. (This one is, for instance.)  Anything longer than that quickly migrates into the “feature story” mode:

  • Less than 500 words: ~21% of respondents cited
  • 500 – 1,000 words: ~61%
  • 1,000 – 1,500 words: ~13%
  • 1,500 – 2,000 words: ~4%
  • More than 2,000 words: ~1%

Do bloggers use editors, or act as their own editor?

There’s little differentiation in behaviors here; the vast majority of bloggers report that they edit their own work. An even greater ~91% of the survey respondents either edit their own work or use an ad hoc review process.  Bottom line, most blog posts have never been seen by anyone other than the author before going live:

  • Edit own work: ~73% of respondents
  • Show it to one or two people: ~30%
  • Use a formal editor: ~12%
  • Use more than one editor: ~3%

How long does it take to write the typical blog post?

The responses ranged widely, but the most common length of time is between one and two hours:

  • Less than 1 hour: ~17% of respondents cited
  • 1-2 hours: ~37%
  • 2-3 hours: ~20%
  • 3-4 hours: 13%
  • More than 4 hours: ~13%

Are bloggers writing for other people besides themselves?

Generally speaking, bloggers are writing for their own publication, but there are many instances where bloggers are writing for clients as well.

  • 75% – 100% of blogger’s posts written for clients: ~9% of respondents cited
  • 50% – 75%: ~6%
  • 25% – 50%: ~9%
  • 5% – 25%: ~13%
  • 1% – 5%: ~18%
  • 0%: ~47%

How are bloggers driving traffic to their posts?

Two words: social media.  Direct e-mail marketing is also a common technique, as is search engine optimization:

  • Social media marketing:  ~94% of respondents cited
  • Search engine optimization: ~51%
  • E-mail marketing: ~35%
  • Influencer outreach: ~15%
  • Paid services (SEM/social media advertising): ~5%

The high SEO figure is hardly surprising, considering that bloggers are, by definition, focused on writing inherently interesting, newsworthy content.

More details from the Orbit survey can be accessed here.

Downsizing hits America’s most prestigious business media properties.

bwsjThis past week, the business media world was buzzing about the inadvertent release of information concerning pending layoffs at Barron’s magazine, thanks to editor-in-chief Ed Finn mistakenly hitting “reply all” on a message intended for just one person.

But the more interesting news is what’s happening right now with two of America’s most important national print publishing properties: Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

Up until now, it was thought that a select handful of America’s largest and most pervasive publications with national reach and reputation would be the ones least susceptible to problems befalling the industry regarding declining advertising revenues and changing news consumption habits.

At or near the top of the list of those rarefied properties were these two publications for sure.

But now we know a different reality — or at least a more complicated one. WSJ editor-in-chief Gerard Baker announced last week that the publication is seeking a “substantial number” of employee buyouts to limit the extent of involuntary layoffs that will need to happen otherwise.

The WSJ buyout offer been extended to all news employees worldwide – managerial and non-managerial – and includes a lucrative voluntary severance benefit that’s 1.5 times larger than the company’s standard buyout package.

WSJ employees will need to make up their minds quickly, as the buyout offer is good only until the end of October.

wsjbAs for Barron’s, its situation became public only after the Ed Finn memo was received in the New York City newsroom of The Wall Street Journal in error.  The Finn memo, which had been intended for Dow Jones Media Group publisher Almar Latour, speculates on how The Wall Street Journal’s announcement might affect an upcoming round of layoffs at Barron’s.

That bit was “new news” to pretty much everyone.

Aside from the “drama” of news scoops happening because of unintentional actions, the bigger question is this: What do these layoffs and buyouts portend?  Is it the end of the adjustments – or just the beginning?

Clues to that answer come in Gerard Baker’s memo, where he reveals that The Wall Street Journal has “begun an extensive review of operations as part of a broader transformation program.”

Let’s see what kind of “silver bullet” business strategy they end up devising – and whether it will have its intended effect.

The Gawker saga: Are there any good guys in this drama?

gmSome people I’ve spoken to about blog collective Gawker Media’s recent legal and corporate tribulations have expressed concerns about the chilling effect well-funded lawsuits may be having on a free and unfettered press.  But it’s hard to find any angels in the ongoing saga of Gawker Media and its many detractors.

The latest news is that Gawker is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection even as it entertains an acquisition bid from publishing firm Ziff Davis.

Reportedly, Ziff Davis is offering $90 million to purchase Gawker Media.  This compares to the $140 million judgment against Gawker handed down by the courts in March in the Hulk Hogan defamation lawsuit.

hhLooking at the sordid details, it’s hard to find sympathy for any of the major players.  In the choice words of journalist and writer Bob Garfield:

“[Gawker Media is a] snide, predatory gossip site that built a reputation cutting hypocritical big shots down to size, but soon ran out of big shots and turned its sneering animus on any anonymous medium-shot unfortunate enough to fall into its sights … Gawker.com is in the schadenfreude business.”

Professional wrestler and television personality Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Gene Bollea) isn’t a paradigm of virtue, either – what with his history of obnoxious statements and what we’ll call euphemistically “other activities” that fall pretty low on the class-meter.

ptTech industry billionaire Peter Thiel, who provided the financial backing for Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit, was once a victim of Gawker himself – being “outed” as gay by the media site.  But Thiel’s über-libertarian pronouncements appear churlish on the one hand, while his legal takedown of Gawker seems to be at cross-purposes with the “anything goes” free speech premises of libertarianism.

Nick Denton, Gawker founder and CEO, has remained defiant even in the wake of the latest turn of events:  “Even with his billions, Thiel will not silence our writers.  Our sites will thrive – under new ownership,” Denton has been quoted, adding that court appeals will continue.

Clearly, this drama isn’t ending anytime soon. But with no sympathetic characters in this drama — and that’s about the most positive thing one can say about it — who’s ready to take a shower right about now?

Magazine Profitability Strategies: Prevention Magazine Goes for a Radical Solution

pmWhen a business model becomes problematic, sometimes the only solution is to step outside the circle with some seriously radical thinking.

That seems to be what magazine publisher Rodale has done with its flagship media property, Prevention magazine.

As reported by Jeffrey Trachtenberg this past week in The Wall Street Journal, beginning with the July issue, Prevention will no longer accept print advertising.

It’s a major step for a publication as venerable as Prevention, in print since 1950 and an important player in the magazine segment focusing on nutrition, fitness and weight loss.

According to the Trachtenberg piece, Prevention magazine has actually seen an increase in ad pages – up over 8% to 700+ ad pages in 2015 over the year before.  But here’s the rub:  ad revenues were actually down because of circulation losses.

The magazine hasn’t turned a profit in a number of years, either, although other related Rodale titles have (Runner’s World and Men’s Health).

The radical surgery planned for the publication means that the number of pages of a typical magazine issue will decline dramatically. So the cost of printing and shipping will go down.  In order to make up for the loss in ad revenue, the magazine’s subscription price is set to more than double to nearly $50 per year.

Price-conscious as consumers are, that action is expected to drive circulation figures down even further – from around 1.5 million to roughly 500,000 if the company’s projections are correct.

Is this an ingenious idea that will preserve and strengthen a highly regarded publication? Or a desperate action that will end up simply driving this magazine into oblivion in a novel way?

Maria Rodale

Maria Rodale, CEO of the family-owned publication company, thinks the former. As she stated to reporter Trachtenberg:

“We’re walking away from revenue but we’re also walking away from a lot of expense. Let’s serve our readers and charge them for it.”

Rodale anticipates that Prevention magazine’s operating expenses will be reduced by more than 50%.

What are the implications of that?  Maria Rodale again:

“If you have to run the numbers out with an advertising model, it’s hard to see it ever getting to profitability. With a non-advertising model, it quickly becomes profitable.”

… But I’m not so sure. This radical departure from the traditional ad-supported publication model may pay short-term dividends.  But will it turn out to be merely a momentary respite before the next downward slide – this time into irrelevance?

With so much information being so easily accessible online (and free of charge) – particularly in the areas of preventive health – I can easily envision fewer and fewer people wishing to shell out $50+ per year for the benefit of receiving a monthly publication that may or not contain highly relevant and valuable information each and every issue.

What do you think? Is this a silver-bullet solution?  Or a zinc zeppelin?