About Frédéric Filloux

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Posts by Frédéric Filloux:

You Cheat. We Cut Prices

Surprise: To boost its circulation, Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal Europe engaged in massive channel stuffing. No kidding. It sounds like everyone discovers, all of a sudden, how medias (old and new) actually work. Granted, when it comes to cheating, News Corp is in a class all by itself. The phone hacking scandal pushed the practice of checkbook journalism to the pinnacle of massive corruption. As for the circulation scheme unveiled last week by the Guardian, WSJ Europe has pushed the envelope of bogus circulation numbers much farther than any other newspaper in the world.

From May 2009 to April 2011, the WSJE had a deal with a Dutch company called Executive Learning Partnership by which ELP purchased thousands of copies of the Journal for a price as low as 0.01€. If such deal is not uncommon, the scale was: 41% of the WSJE’s total audited circulation was inflated via this little scheme. The deal also involved a positive coverage of ELP. On Tuesday October 11th, Andrew Langhoff, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal Europe handed his resignation out.

The next episode is likely to unfold inside the soundproof walls of News Corp’s boardroom. While the phone hacking scandal might still hold more juicy bits in reserve (Guardian’s full coverage here), the circulation scandal involving the Murdoch empire’s most prestigious asset could be the one transgression too far. The board could be tempted to demote the aging boss. The rationale behind their putative decision would point to the rigid, top-down News Corp chain of command. In such an environment, practices such as this amazing circulation scheme must have been directed or, at the very least, tolerated by top management.

More broadly, this scandal raises another question: What is the real value of an audience, print or digital, when it is artificially bought — instead of naturally sold?

In the newspaper business, inflating circulation is hardly new. In fact, it is standard practice. The way copies are counted is a soft encouragement to blur the line between loyal and occasional readers. Officially, audit organizations across the world make subtle distinctions between distribution channels. They break down paid/unpaid circulation, mass subscriptions, types of deliveries, etc. On most Western markets, roughly 20% to 35% of the circulation for supposed paid-for newspaper is actually free.
Beyond that, we have what I’d call “near-free” circulation, i.e, copies that are paid a fraction of the cover price, usually just above the minimum rate imposed by audit organizations to be counted as paid distribution. This includes copies made available in airline lounges and hotels. In the end, this circulation is free. First of all, end users won’t disburse a dime for their newspaper (it is part of the service). Second, the price paid by the corporate distributor will likely be offset by side arrangements such as logistics fees charged by airlines or hotel chains (let alone advertising deals that could also be part of the package). Taking in account such arrangements, the share of free distribution can rise well above 50%. More

The Teacher

Steve Jobs taught us so many things… To us whose professional life strides tech, ads and media, his way of fostering innovation, of creating an obsessive culture of perfection remains both inspirational and enigmatic. For those who like design and engineering, there isn’t a single field Apple hasn’t entered — or at least influenced. When I fumble with the appalling multi-function display of my Prius, when I struggle with the remote control of my office A/C, or when I wonder why in hell the $2000 battery-assisted bicycle I consider buying doesn’t have an programmable memory chip to upgrade software that looks forever stuck in version 1.0, I wonder how the Cupertino guys would have handled it. Needless to say, I do the same when I look at media applications or newspapers/magazines designs, many of which seem to have succumbed to a sad mélange of sloppy execution and a lack of decisiveness in design.

For years, I have been reading everything I could about Apple from the management/innovation perspective. As a business journalist, I find Apple being the most frustrating company to follow. Very little comes out. The culture (and the cult) of secrecy extents way beyond any employee tenure; even the usually profligate academic literature is rather bare when it comes to Apple.

Front page of Liberation

However, over a span of fourteen years, as it impacted so many sectors, Apple’s unprecedented turnaround yielded a few clues. I tried to isolate some with potential applications outside the tech world. What interests me in Apple ranges from their choice of frosted-glass for my MacBookPro’s trackpad (instead of cheaper plastic), to the use of its immense cash hoard, to the way the company prepared itself for the post-Steve Jobs era. More

Dreaming at the Kindle Potential

With each introduction of a new reading device publishers around the world are overcome with the same recurring same fantasy: What if it worked, this time around? Could a reliable business model emerge for news publishing companies?

Last week’s launch of new Kindles is no exception to the cyclic fantasy. For those who where on Mars last Wednesday, here is a look at the revamped family:

To sum up: the new lineup features the widely expected Kindle Fire (full color display, multimedia capabilities and the clever, cloud-accelerated Silk browser — see Jean-Louis’ column). In addition, Amazon redesigned its e-Ink based Kindle with two models, including a small 6 inches version that fits in a pocket. All of them priced aggressively, below their production cost.

A lot has been written comparing Apple’s iPad and Amazon Kindle devices. Exciting but not relevant. The two companies’ strategies can’t be more diametrically opposite. Apple is in the hardware business and all other product lines — software, media offerings — exist for the sole purpose of raising perceived value and units volume. Then, great product execution and streamlined operations help maximize margins. Apple’s gross margin on iPads is about 30%.
By contrast, Amazon is a digital retail company in which all forms of media — books, videos, music, games –  account for about 40% of its sales. Its hardware strategy is designed to funnel customers to its retail business.

This explains why Amazon doesn’t care much about Kindle hardware margins, and is much keener to strike deals with content providers than Apple is. In parallel to the launch of its news Kindles, Amazon has harvested a large set of deals with media companies. Its Kindle Fire Newsstand is already impressive and features a 3-months free trial for a selection of magazines. Symmetrically, a growing number of publishers keep complaining about Apple harsh terms; as a result, in the coming months, we’ll see many prominent publishers exit the Apple ecosystem and switch instead to web-based apps (a move that is actually more complicated than it appears). More

The Capsule’s Price

Do encapsulated digital editions make sense? Is the notion of having a “news container”, similar to a newspaper or magazine, a relic of the past or is it still associated with quality journalism? In an era of instant information, is it worth proposing a self-contained, stop-motion shot of the news cycle?

For some, the reflexive answer involves market research, readers samplings and the like. I don’t think so. I’d rather abide by one of Steve Jobs’ sayings:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

He was only referring to electronic devices and the software that powers them, all being complicated indeed. But great news products have yet to be invented, and developing them can be quite involved, too: they combine interface design, contents structures and… technology (the latter’s importance being largely underestimated by legacy medias).

First of all, a matter of definition. By “encapsulated edition” I mean a decisive evolution away from the Zinio-like PDF replica of the paper product. Some publications have added XML layers that considerably improve the reading experience and allow numerous features — creating files, sharing on social medias. But very few are willing to get rid of the PDF’s bulkiness (for more on the subject, read a recent Monday Note Tear down this PDF). For “PDF-shovel” editions, the result is unsatisfactory: broadsheet newspapers that are six times larger than an iPad screen, 80-pages magazines loaded with ads that you must painstakingly leaf through.

Certainly not the right template for the future.

On the other hand, BloombergBusinessweek+ looks like a good start. I’m a long time reader of BusinessWeek magazine (when it belonged to McGraw Hill, before Bloomberg bought for a few million dollars). Then, last March, Bloomberg launched the weekly’s digital edition. I was curious to see how the switch to digital would look like.

Today, after a few dozens issues, let’s see what makes “BBW+” a great digital encapsulated product.

#1:  Investment in Design. BBW+ obviously gives design a great deal of thought, both in terms of graphics and structure.

Today’s web is plagued by cheap design. Many sites, especially in the tech field, use stock photographs or copyright-free Flickr pics ad nauseam, quickly messed with by some enslaved intern. No such thing is allowed in an app. And BBW invested a lot in graphic design for both print and the digital products. The short video introducing every issue usually features the editor, Josh Tyrangiel, and the creative director, Richard Turley, or Robert Vargas, the art director, as they explain their cover story choices for the two versions of the magazine. (See examples in Coverjunkie, a good graphic design blog). No stock photos in BBW+: most pictures are produced on spec, and it screams. As for infographics, they are redesigned for the digital version. More

The (Overly Personal) Litmus Test

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been followed. By advertising. Like many, week after week, I land on dozens of sites. Some visits originate from my set of bookmarks, others from the usual click hopping that defines internet serendipity.
In numerous instances, I get the same ad in different formats. The advertiser is called Litmus. I’m testing it. Since it sounds like a good product, I’m happy to link to it. Litmus is owned by Salted Services Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts company founded in 2005. It specializes in mass emailing analytics and optimization. You send it a test email, it previews your layout in numerous mail readers, flags any rendering issue, measures its ability to go through spam filters (a publisher’s nightmare for legit newsletters) and provides incredible analytics. (In the Monday Note’s case, these analytics are extremely encouraging and a good incentive for Jean-Louis Gassée and I to continue ruining our weekends.)

I’ve been testing Litmus for three weeks now, on advice from my friend Kim Gjerstad, a great WordPress and emailing specialist.  Now, Litmus wants me as a regular customer, and they are stalking me all over the web. Fair enough. How do they do it?  They — in fact, the digital marketing firm they hired — installed tracking devices in my computer. Since I subscribed to their service and since I’m professionally transparent on the internet, Litmus has been able to reconstruct my complete profile. Therefore, each time I visit one of its thousands of affiliates, the site will identify me as a potential Litmus customer and serve me the right ad. (As I write this, I discover I’m also targeted by Litmus competitors — some internet marketing arms merchant is making money on all sides).

After a while, I realized how saturated I was with Litmus ads when my synapses (slowly, I admit) finally added-up the number of pages I saw carrying the company’s rainbow logo. At the same time (but unrelated), I noticed how my advertising environment surreptitiously changed, depending upon the “freshness” of the browser I used. On one, I never delete cookies; on another I regularly flush tracking devices. More

The Blogosphere’s Soft Corruption

The TechCrunch / Arrington saga is the perfect illustration for the stealthy corruption plaguing digital information. Skip this paragraph if you know the story. In a nutshell: on September 1st,  Michael Arrington, founder of the site TechCrunch, announced the launch of a venture fund (Fortune broke the story). Rather small token by Silicon Valley standards: $20 million (to put things in perspective, according to the National Venture Capital Association, 37 funds raised a total of $2.7 billion in Q2 2011, which gives an average of $72 million per fund). No big deal, except Arrington is also TechCrunch’s editor and he intends to continue writing about startups — startups his venture would fund. (To make things even weirder, one of the main contributors to the fund is AOL, TechCrunch’s owner since last year).

Even the most twisted ethicist would have detected a looming conflict of interest. Not Arrington. Because he is one of most arrogant pricks in this business. And because he lives elsewhere. He resides in the blogosphere, where the simplest ethical issues are distorted like space-time at the edge of the universe.
Back on Earth, a controversy erupted. The loudest shot was fired by Kara Swisher, the co-executive editor (along with Walter Mossberg) of All Things Digital, the Wall Street Journal Digital Technology site.

I can’t help but sharing with you the first graf of her 6:00am (Pacific) outburst:

Of course I have something to say about the news yesterday that AOL would be a key investor in a new early-stage venture fund being started by TechCrunch’s perpetually petulant editor Michael Arrington — with a big, fat and decidedly greasy assist from a panoply of Silicon Valley’s most powerful VC firms and angel investors.

As Alfred Hitchcock said, it starts with an earthquake and it’s getting worse. Then, she summed up :

In fact, the creation of a $20 million investment kitty that Arrington has dubbed CrunchFund is simply the formalization of a long-standing arrangement that has already been going on since he founded his popular tech blog.

Eventually, after a public, web-enhanced, dispute with his owner, Michael Arrington was fired. (On the matter, New York Times’ media columnist David Carr wrote the best piece, as usual, well-crafted and documented).

Now, here is why I find this subject interesting. Three things: the revolving door between journalism and industry; the blogosphere distortion field; the pervasive conflict of interest.

The switch. For one, I have nothing against switching from journalism to another kind of activity. In that respect, I disagree with most of my fellow journalists – especially those in France who like to believe journalism is an apostolate (both come with a vow of poverty.) Last week, I met a former London-based business reporter, who is now back in France; he is being offered a top communication job in a Fortune 500 company. He feared being marked with the seal of infamy and no longer allowed to come back as a journalist. I told him things have changed; after five years or so as a communication guy for a large conglomerate, a business news organization would be even more interested in hiring him because he would know his sector pretty well, and would be able to detect all the manipulation tricks of big corporate PR machines, which could be invaluable to his junior co-workers.

As for someone writing about startups, I find it perfectly understandable the desire to cross the Rubicon and to join or create a venture fund. Trying to detect what could be a great product or even the Next Big Thing, nurturing great teams of engineers, designers or marketers, is an enthralling occupation, which, in addition, is both intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding.

Unfortunately, Arrington doesn’t see things that way. He got drunk in a kind of power game, intoxicated with his supposed “make or break” power over startups. (By the way, I always found the alleged power of tech writers over the fate of a startup to be vastly overstated; unlike in the analog era, the disintermediated world allows every product to find its path to success – as long as it deserves one.)  Anyway: I do find the revolving door is a good thing. As long as the previous door has been properly locked.

Enter the blogosphere and its tolerance for conflicts of interest and — let’s use the word – soft corruption.

Ten years ago, Arrington’s case would have been a no-brainer. Neither for him or his employer. He would have simply been let go. Now, it seems to trigger a quarrel between Ancient and Modern, the former being – obviously – representatives of the old medias, the likes of the Swishers and the (David) Carrs and the latter being the tech blogosphere and is elastic value-system. Fine.

I’m not going to denigrate the blogosphere as a whole or TechCrunch itself, which harbors good reporters. Blogs are part of my daily media routine and, for the record, I’ll say many bloggers do a better job than presumed professional writers. Still, by construction, bloggers are more prone to serve third party agendas: many are penniless, young, untrained, unsupervised and their writing is unedited. A target of choice for manipulation.

A couple of years ago, I witness firsthand the blogosphere’s vulnerability. I was called by a non-profit organization to take a look at their digital strategy (I can’t be too specific, I’m still under NDA). The whole things was in the hands of a couple of communication agencies, which had detected a gold mine, loading the project with outrageously overpriced services. I pissed them off quite a bit by donning a bean-counter’s suit — which I found, in that case, enjoyable – and by suggesting many budget cuts. (When done, I quickly moved away from that fishy mission).
One of the promotional tools proposed by the flacks, was dubbed as “The Blogger Army”. In short, a few hundred bloggers worldwide, presented as “influencers” that would convey pre-packaged messages concocted by the communication agencies. The bloggers didn’t have to care about the product or its underlying value, they just had to cut and paste the material they were provided with. All of the above for a $100,000 budget paid to a firm specialized in deploying the “army” — including a couple of well-know “influencers”.
That very same year, as I dug a bit further, I realized how many bloggers are deluged with gifts from the tech industry and how, to that crowd, the notion of flashing a Visa card to pay for gadgetry was seen as utterly ridiculous…

In the information business, the conflict of interest is looming at every corner. All the time, someone is trying to buy you with something. It could be a product, “exclusive” access, the transcript of legal depositions, a heads-up to a report. Everything. The more vulnerable (or hungry, or ambitious) a writer is, the better target he’ll be for the corrupters. Years ago, as I was writing about Hollywood, a writer from The Los Angeles Times explained how an interview with an agent or a movie producer often ended up with a cajoling “… And what about you my friend, you must have a script buried somewhere, hmmm? Let’s discuss it someday…”

That’s why, when it comes to get an credible review of a tech product or service, I’ll trust Walt Mossberg’s Personal Technology column much more than any blogger.  Mossberg is a seasoned professional (he’s 63) who had developed his craft well before the tech boom. He actually sharpened his claws covering the brutal automobile industry, as recounted is this 2004 Wired profile. Mossberg lives by his reputation of independence, that’s why the Wall Street Journal (and AllThingsD) consider him as an important asset – and pays him accordingly. I took him as an example because I’ve been reading his column since he started it in 1991 (I was then living in New York).

His 1000 words ethics statement is an example of what should be the standard in journalism. Many news organizations, newspapers, magazines, websites, have adopted similar codes. Are they foolproof? No, certainly not. But it is worth considering having one.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Politico’s Way

To cover American politics, Politico deploys an editorial staff of 150. This is more than any news organization in the United States for the same beat. It all started five years ago: a niche website launched by three seasoned political reporters who sharpened their claws in mainstream medias. As envisioned by John Harris, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, Politico was to start with a kernel of 12 hardcore political reporters who would aggressively run after all the balls.

Four years later, as a new presidential campaign gears up, Politico owns the news cycle, from 4:30am to midnight, on all vectors: web, mobile, television and… print. And it does so in rapid-fire mode.

Last week, I chatted with Bill Nichols, Politico’s managing editor. Before Politico, he spent 24 years at USA Today. There, among the many items on his impressive résumé, he covered six presidential campaigns as well as the State Department. Bill was in Paris to deliver the inaugural lecture at the Journalism School of Sciences-Po where I happen to have a gig (highlight of the lecture summed up in French on Slate.fr). His talk provided the students with a great start for their year; they were listening to a fifty-plus journalist who didn’t hesitate to leave the comfort of a great newspaper to jump into the unknown. Even in 2007, going after the Washington media establishment with a website was quite a bold move. Today, Nichols is obviously having a lot of fun — which is the best message to convey to a crowd of aspiring journalists.

The lessons to draw from Politico’s success are connected journalistic and business ones.

Politico has literally sliced and diced the news cycle with an array of dedicated products fitting all possible subjects, reading time and formats. Anyone serious in politics or government affairs will begin his day with a peek at the mobile version of the Politico Playbook. Described as ” Must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Washington”, it is written by Mike Allen, the chief White House correspondent. The site features eight other “tip sheets”:

  • Huddle A play-by-play preview of the day’s congressional news
  • Pulse The latest in health care policy every weekday morning
  • Morning Money Political intelligence on the intersection of D.C. and Wall Street
  • Morning Score A pre-dawn guide to the permanent campaign
  • Morning Tech Daily download of technology news from D.C. and Silicon Valley
  • Morning Defense A daily briefing from inside D.C.’s national security apparatus
  • Morning Energy The one-stop source for energy and environment news
  • Influence Intelligence and analysis on lobbying

The idea is to hook the reader on the day’s “must-follow” items. Then, developing stories will be made available in all possible forms: stream of stories as the news dictate, a great deal of support through countless TV appearances (Politico maintains its own studio linked to all networks and all reporters are required to promote their work). Many times a day, breaking news, alerts, warnings are pushed on mobile. Then, to maximize the impact, top stories will be re-edited to feed the eponymous daily. It is published five days a week, only when congress in in session, and its 34,000 (free) copies are distributed at various strategic spots in DC.

Then, the Politico tone. As Bill Nichols acknowledges, Politico’s pitch is slightly more tabloidish than mainstream media. It doesn’t pontificate, nor does it endlessly circle around a subject. It reflects internal newsroom discussions and the talk of the town.  A few days ago, recounts Nichols, the editorial staff was discussing Republican Texas governor Rick Perry’s intellectual ability to run for the presidency; instead of going for a convoluted story loaded with nuances, Politico went straight with this headline: Is Rick Perry Dumb? This treatment was later supplemented by an informative 1600 words piece about Perry’s 2010 book “Fed Up!”, itself a great gift to his opponents. (To nail it, Politico published a Nine questions for Perry article listing subjects the candidate will have hard time eluding.)

That’s Politico’s way: aggressive, relentless, fun, witty, but also dedicated to providing in-depth, well-reported journalism. Last year, the New York Observer ran an interesting story on how The Atlantic (great magazine, along with an equally great site) was fighting back Politico on the Washington scene. David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media company, had this comment:

“It was much happier to do what we were doing until Politico arrived in the world. Politico introduced a whole new standard of, I wouldn’t say quality, but I would say velocity and metabolism. I responded way too slowly. (…) They are going to be at the more racy, tabloid end of the spectrum. That seems to be the position they have chosen. I think we’ll be more of the authoritative end.”

To which Jim VandeHei retorted

“People come to us because we break news, we are authoritative and we help readers understand how Washington really works. I think Bradley’s description is clearly motivated by business interests. That said, we take all competitors seriously.”

Business is important as well to Politico and its powerful backer, the Allbritton family. As a privately held company it does not disclose financial data. Even with its large staff of 200 in total, it is said to be profitable thanks to its multi-pronged product strategy:

–The web site had an audience of 4 million unique visitors last July, according to Comscore (it should triple during the 2012 campaign). This is rather small compared behemoth such as the Huffington Post or the NYTimes that are more into the 50 million UVs range. But the value extracted from each visitor is quite high.

– Around half of its revenue is coming from the newspaper which sells high premium ads. Thanks to the geographical concentration of the Washington elite, the paper does not cost too much to distribute and its pagination and printing costs are adjusted to the advertising load.

– Last November, Politico launched “Politico Pro”, an in-depth paid-for service focusing on three critical (and lobbying-intensive) issues: energy, technology and healthcare. The price is $2,500 per month (story in the Columbia Journalism Review). “Pro” relies on several dozens of reporters and editors integrated with the rest of the newsroom.

– Recently, Politico added an event department: get-togethers for the Happy Few with big political names, moderated by staffers. The guests don’t pay, but big sponsors do — happily it seems. Events will be organized not only in Washington but on the campaign trail as well.

– Last June, Politico announced an e-Book venture with Random House. The concept: quick accounts, 20,000 to 30,000 words (80-120 pages), of the 2012 campaign. Produced at little additional cost, promoted by the brand, these could be pure gravy.

Politico’s potential revenue pool is huge. According to the Center for Responsive  Politics, the 13,000 registered lobbyists in Washington spent $3.51 billion (!!) in 2010. This is an affluent market, highly concentrated, both geographically and interests wise.

On the surface, Politico’s method of squeezing money from every slice of its market looks logical and reproducible. But its unique ecosystem makes Politico’s success difficult to replicate elsewhere.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Getting More Bang For Our Bucks

(Includes correction with the right 3rd graph)

Two important questions in our times of large public debt and lagging economies: Is it effective to inject public money in support of the ailing media industry? And, in order to ensure the best readers’ bang for the taxpayer’s buck, are some models better than others?

Last week, I chatted with Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, a Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and a communication professor in Denmark. With Geert Linnebank, a former editor-in-chief at Reuters, Rasmus wrote a compelling report on the subject: Public Support for the Media, A Six-Country Overview of Direct and Indirect Subsidies (PDF here). Together, they review public support systems for Finland, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and the United States. A large part of the report looks at the funding of public radio and television channels, which varies widely from one country to another. In this column, I’ll limit myself to public sector funding for the print media.

When it comes to supporting its print press, Finland is a big spender. It invests 22 times more public funds per capita than the United States, nine times more than Germany, five times more than the United Kingdom, four times more than Italy, and three times more than France, see below:

Supporting the press sector is a big deal in Finland, then. In theory. Because, in Finland, like in all Scandinavian countries, newspapers enjoy a huge reach: 79% of the population. This might tempt you into thinking there is a direct relationship between subsidies and penetration. Actually, there is none: According to the report, Germany, which spends 11% of what Finland does, has a newspaper reach of 72%.

Using readership stats provided by the World Association of Newspapers, the picture looks like this:

Combining the two sets of numbers leads to a compelling result: While spending much more than any other country, the Finns get a much better performance. According to the Reuters Institute report, they perform 13 times better than Italy and France, the clear losers of the subsidies systems, as shown here:

We can draw three conclusions from these data sets.

1 / There are no Keynesian mechanisms in evidence when it comes to correlating public spending with print media penetration. The US spends only 16% more per capita than Italy, but have 94% more readers per thousand people. As for Germans, they spend 40% of what the Italians do, but have almost three times more readers. Practically, it means there is no hope to reverse the declining trend by beefing up subsidies.

2 / The Finnish performances is more a matter of editorial product than of public policy. I happen to know quite a bit about the kind of journalism practiced in Nordic countries. It is a fiercely independent, aggressive (in the best sense) kind or reporting. A couple of years ago, I was a jury member for the Schibsted Journalism Award (see my June 2009 column about it). I saw editors making choices, strategizing their coverage, assigning substantial resources to it, and striving to beat their competition. In addition, they provide very efficient public service journalism, lifting the veil on administrative shortfalls and occasional abuses by officials.

From a pure industrial perspective, Scandinavian media companies have once and for all decided competition had to stop right after the newsroom doorstep. For a long time, printing and distribution have been mutualized. Newspapers and magazines have not been spared by erosion, but they are in a much better shape than in most countries.

3 / Contrary to the cliché, internet growth doesn’t cause a decrease in print press penetration. Finland (again) and the UK have both strong readerships and a high number of online users (respectively 57% and 37%).

The Rasmus Nielsen report explains in great detail the complexity and diversity of public funding for media. In passing, it kills long lasting prejudices such as European media being massively state-funded, or an American public sector unsupportive of the media industry.

And there is no one-size-fits-all model.

Still, some ideas emerge — as long as you think media ought to be somewhat subsidized. Which I do, for several reasons:

  • Quality information plays a critical role in democracy.
  • Good reporting remains quite expensive to produce. Remaining able to preserve non-commercial formats (such as NPR or the BBC) leaves no choice but public support.
  • The industry — especially the print press — is in the midst of a radical and costly transformation, and many organizations don’t have enough capital to undertake it.
  • We are facing an historical wave of mediocrity in the information business with wealthy aggregators eager to repackage anything that fits their obsession with eyeballs. (I’m appalled to hear Le Monde is about to strike a deal with the Huffington Post.)

Having said that, for public support to work, critical conditions must be met:
1 / Tight management. Sounds obvious, but too often public money means outrageous waste (as often seen in public broadcasting).
2 / No open-bar. Meaning: no open-ended funding. If money is supposed to help a precise restructuring, it must be tied to measurable results.
3 / Sanitization. Subsidies should rather be indirect than direct. For instance, a tax break as opposed to a grant for a specific company falling below a certain level of advertising (as is the case in France).
4 / No life-support funding. Only support for transformation.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Innovation in turbulent times

News organizations have an innovation problem. Especially print media. As they gingerly wade into digital, their ability to foster innovation becomes more critical than ever. In today’s fast-changing landscape, they should view innovation as their main weapon against direct competitors and emerging players such as tech startups,.

Unfortunately, print media appears ill-equipped to innovate. The reasons are many.

– The weight of the past. Looking back ten years, making changes to a newspaper or magazine used to be a lengthy and complicated process, with technical, industrial as well as political implications. On the internet, by contrast, major changes are a only few lines of code away. Modern CMS (Content management systems) are designed to allow and sometimes encourage modifications and adaptation to rapidly changing needs. As for applications, a minuscule team needs only a couple of months to engineer an impactful product.

– The takeover of the bean-counters. In the newspaper industry, years of revenue depletion have shifted tremendous power to the financial guys. They performed as requested by shareholders (especially because journalist-bred managers lost their credibility).They cut, downsized, optimized. Not exactly the best petri dish for creativity.

– A risk averse culture. This is mostly a consequence of the previous point. Cost-centered management, added to gloomy business conditions, won’t foster initiative and risk-taking. The result is you will not see a group of journalists putting their job in play in order to launch a new product they believe in.

– No management reform. Each time I look at a newspaper’s org chart, I’m struck by the complexity of the management structure, by the level of red tape still remaining. Curiously enough, very little has been done about it. (In most cases, it has to do with a spreadsheet-driven management unwilling to fight organizational conservatism).

As a result, very few news organizations prepared themselves to switch to a genuine competitive innovation model, more comparable to the one used by technology companies. Having said that, questions arise: How to create an environment that will stimulate new ideas; how to restore a risk-taking culture; should innovation be mostly internalized or outsourced; how to select the best decision-making processes for the new digital-driven world?

Last week, the New York Times unveiled its Beta 620 initiative. As Matthew Ingram  puts it in Gigaom, the project is the NYT’s version of Google Labs, with selected projects presented to the public. Innovations involve social media, search, recommendation engines, etc. Let’s be clear: I can’t think of many news organizations with the courage and ability to devote anything close to what the Times is investing in its R&D effort. (To get an idea of the New York Times R&D Labs’s scope and ambition, see these videos shot by the Neiman Journalism Lab.) Still, some of their processes and ideas are worth considering. From what I’m told, Beta 620 is the visible part of a program started several years ago, one in which, once a year, everyone is encouraged to present a digital project. Even the least nerdy will be helped in his/her pitch. An ad hoc committee selects a couple of projects and the authors receive a small prize (a thousand dollars or so). More importantly, s/he will get appropriate resources and time to further develop it.

More broadly, the Times has a low-key but efficient way to stimulate innovation or improvements. Take its new CMS. Developed in cooperation with Infosys, it is carefully designed to be safe and robust. But, at the same time, it lets the nerdiest web producers tinker with the code to alter the layout of a page, or to adapt the rendering of the website to a specific need. When someone described how the improvement process was made available to so many, I was surprised by the level of trust the NYTimes is putting in its staff. (Needless to say: this accessibility comes with suitable precautions, tests procedures and so on).

Obviously,  very few news organizations facing a constant revenue depletion can afford a fully-staffed R&D Lab. Having said that, between its internal contest encouraging out-of-the-box thinking and the trusted approach for continuous improvement, The New York Times teaches us a lesson: Fostering innovation is a matter of creating the right environment as much as pouring tons of money in it.

The dominance of finance-driven management impacts innovation. It encourages a short-term approach. Today, an executive team will be much more inclined to spend money with the promise of a quick — even if small — return, as opposed to investing the same amount of cash in an actual new product. To them, the potential for the greater benefit of a truly new creation is outweighed by the risk of a more distant, more uncertain outcome. Investing $100,000 or $500,000 in a marketing campaign, aimed at boosting an existing digital audience, will get a greater consideration than making the same investment in a new app — especially since the performances of the former will be easier and quicker to measure.

Another side-effect is the alteration of the decision-making process. Ten or twenty years ago, sound businesses with decent margins and growth, along with predictable economic conditions, allowed gut-based decisions. Today is the opposite: with all key economic indicators blinking red, management will run for cover by asking for as much data as possible to justify their decision. And a landscape that changes faster than ever before makes getting reliable data a complicated task. Think about the changes we witnessed over the last two years. In a recent interview to McKinsey Quarterly,  Google’s CFO Patrick Pichette acknowledged that, every single day, 15% of the queries it handles are completely new and never seen before. This says a lot about the level of uncertainty the digital business now faces.

What is left to manage innovation? Based on my observations and discussions with project managers and executives, key recommendations emerge:

– Separate short-term tactics from medium-to-longer term strategy initiatives. Marketing is fine, but it doesn’t guarantee lasting results. A great product does.

– Dissociate production from innovation functions. Those who drive the train can’t be asked to design a new locomotive. Nor to oversee it construction.

– Stimulate creativity. Encouraging staff to come forward with new ideas, helping people formulate projects can be done inexpensively.

– Once a project is selected, assign clear objectives, scope, schedule and ways of measuring success or failure.

– Assign a small, dedicated team that will report to the top of the organization, not to middle management.

This sounds like basic and somewhat obvious rules. With one exception: very few news organizations have adopted them.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Gunning for the Copyright Reformers

Going after copyright reformers is risky business. To digital zealots, defending copyright is like advocating the return to the typewriter. (I personally like typewriters; I own several and I recommend a wonderful 1997 Atlantic piece on them at Longform.org). Going after sworn copyright opponents is what Robert Levine does in his just-published  book Free Ride — How the Internet is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business can Fight Back.

The pitch: Digital corporations are conspiring to promote the free ideology that has been plaguing the internet over the last decade. With their immense financial firepower, the Googles and the Apples and the Silicon Valley venture capital firms that funded Napster did whatever it took to undermine the concept of copyright. From lobbying the United States Congress to funding free-culture advocates, they created a groundswell for rip-and-burn products that would sell their MP3 devices. They got lawmakers and pundits to pave the way for a general ransacking of intellectual property — from music to journalistic content. Once Levine makes his point, he explores possible solutions to restore value to creativity (We’ll address these in a future column).

Needless to say, Robert Levine has produced a non-politically correct opus. And that’s what makes his book fascinating.

To start, the author reframes the famous quote, “Information wants to be free.” Free Ride recalls the complete sentence as far more nuanced. This is actually what tech writer Stewart Brand said at an 1984 a hacker conference:

“One one hand information wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

Few quotes in recent history have been more twisted and misinterpreted than this one. Everyone jumped on Stewart Brand’s distinction between collecting information and making it available to the audience. While the cost of the former remains high — at least for those producing original information, or content — the marginal cost of broadcasting it fell dramatically, and that is what sparked the idea of a zero-cost culture. Yet, “media products have never been priced according to their marginal cost,” Levine says, and therefore, free is an idea that’s hard to defend.

As described in Free Ride, US lawmakers played a critical role in opening the floodgates of piracy and copyright violation on the internet. On October 28, 1998, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. That law, says Levine, gave a “safe harbor” to internet service providers and some online companies. No longer liable for copyright infringement based on the actions of users,  Levine writes that the “safe harbor made it easier for sites like YouTube to become valuable forums for amateur creativity. But it also let them build big businesses out of professional content they didn’t pay for.” That, he says, is how Congress created YouTube. (Google purchased it in 2006 for $1.65 billon).

The book’s most spectacular deconstruction involves Lawrence Lessig. The Harvard law professor is one of the most outspoken opponents of tough copyright. For years, he’s been criss-crossing the world delivering well-crafted, compelling presentations about the need to overhaul copyright. When, in 2007, Viacom sued YouTube for copyright infringement, seeking more than a billion dollars in damages, Lessig accused Viacom of trying to overturn the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It was a de facto defense of Google by Lessig who at the time was head of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. What Lessig failed to disclose is that two weeks after closing the deal to acquire YouTube, Google made a $2-million donation to the Stanford Center, and a year later gave another $1.5 million to Creative Commons, Lessig’s most famous intellectual baby. To be fair, Levine told me he didn’t believe Lessig’s positions on copyright were influenced by the grants from Google. Moreover, Google set aside $100 million to fight the Viacom lawsuit. Numerous examples throughout Free Ride show how technology companies are committed to influence public policy. Ironically, Lawrence Lessig’s newest crusade at Harvard is about corruption in Washington.

Robert Levine’s book could be disputed on a few items.

- One, he’s too kind to the music industry. (His view may have been influenced by his tenure as executive editor of Billboard magazine where he witnessed first-hand the self-inflicted deterioration of the music industry.) The music business missed all the trains: (a) it defended the physical model up to the last minute even as its annihilation seemed unavoidable; (b) it extended as long as it could the double screwing of consumers and artists alike (sadly, poor analog artists have been replaced by poor digital ones).

- Two, he tends to forget the general complacency of content creators toward all forms of digital looting. I’ve often described in the Monday Note how publishers – blinded by the short-term appeal of the eyeball count – became consenting victims of all sorts of aggregators (see my Lenin’s Rope series).

- Three, the advent of free content has in fact unleashed talent. Unknown authors have been able to rise from obscurity thanks to direct access to the audience. And some have found alternative ways to make money (more on this in another future column).

Lastly, the unfolding of technology made the relaxing of copyright unavoidable. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act may have accelerated the transition but it didn’t cause the upheaval. Today, BitTorrent file transfer for music and movies accounts for about 10-12% of the internet bandwidth consumption, and YouTube accounts for 11%. Pirated content represents almost 100% of the former and about a third of the latter. Huge numbers, indeed, and huge losses for the music and movie industries. But Netflix with its legitimate content now accounts for 30% of the entire internet traffic (Hulu has less than 2%) and iTunes is growing faster than ever. And some economists do consider that giving up a large quantity of content for free is the price that must be paid to preserve a marketable share.

The music industry paid a terrible price during the digital transition, with a drop of 50% of its sales in one decade. But it would be unfair to make lenient lawmakers and internet pirates the main culprits. Unbundling played a critical role as well, just as in the newspaper industry. Being able to buy a single song on iTunes (instead of an album), or hoping that a single article on a web page will generate enough viewers to pay for itself (instead or purchasing an entire bundled newspaper) caused a great deal of damage.

As plagued as it is by piracy, the movie industry is immune to the notion of unbundling, which partly explains why box office revenue between 2006 and 2010 rose by 30% outside the United States and by 15% in the US/Canada market. Although the number of moviegoers is slipping, the industry has been able to find its way into the digital world.

Robert Levine’s book is a must-read that reframes the debate on the evolution of copyright. In an unusual way, it encompasses a European view on the issue (Levine lives part-time in Berlin). That makes the book even more interesting as countries explore ways for content creators to finance their work while not killing the formidable creative freedom unleashed by the digital world.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

Free Ride, By Robert Levine is published by Bodley Head in the UK (available now on Amazon UK)and by Doubleday in the US (available oct 25 on Amazon US) and is also available the iTunes iBook Store.