About Frédéric Filloux

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Two situations, two attitudes

Le Monde and The Daily Telegraph. Two leading newspapers. Last month, both had parallel experiences when dealing with government leaks. Two delicate situations, two reactions – or, at least, two postures.

On September 13th, Le Monde proclaimed it was filing suit against the French government for illegally investigating a leak reaching one of its reporters. Technically speaking, this is a lawsuit is “against X” (John Doe in the US), targeting an unknown person or organization.

The backdrop is both titillating and significant. We have the Liliane Bettencourt case (the L’Oréal empire heiress). One revelation after another, the affaire became a huge embarrassment for Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. Eric Woerth, a prominent cabinet minister, is at the heart of a web of conflicts of interests, all defended by a pathetic string of non-denial denials and outright fabrications. As the  Budget minister and as the chief fundraiser of Sarkozy’s UMP party, Woerth was in charge of Liliane Bettencourt’s tax situation while simultaneously collecting her donations for Sarkozy’s electoral machine. Still at the same time, to add another layer of recklessness (or cynicism), Woerth’s wife was working for Liliane Bettencourt’s main financial advisor, Patrice de Maistre, whom Eric Woerth got the Légion d’Honneur for, and who is suspected of helping Bettencourt evade taxes and break foreign bank account regulations. More

New media valuations metrics

On September 22, the Norwegian media group Schibsted announced a transaction to make it the sole owner of the French free classifieds site LeBonCoin.fr. The valuation for the deal? €400m ($540m). I must admit it : I fell from my chair(*). Not that I look down at Le Bon Coin, au contraire. In a previous December 2009 Monday Note (Learning from free Classifieds), I explained why news media should give a closer look to such sites. In my view, they could draw inspiration from five key components: a crystal-clear interface, deep concern for its users, a proprietary value proposition, software that keeps working, and a free model… with paid-options.

Still… Four hundred million euros! In last week’s deal, Schibsted bought back the 50% stake owned by Ouest-France, the French regional newspaper group. The deal nets €140m for the Breton group – now facing a €100m restructuring of its… paper-based classifieds. The deal involves an asset swap: Ouest-France gives up a 59% EBITDA business (Le Bon Coin), and increases its stake in the company Schibsted exits, Car & Boat Media, valued at €120m, a 29% margin business. Analysts I spoke to wonder: Is this really the best move for Ouest-France? Obviously, they’re selling off a jewel. And, no less obviously, they never fully grasped the free classifieds site’s potential.

Now, let’s consider two aspects of this deal: the context for media economics, and asset valuation.

Context. The €400m valuation for Le Bon Coin, a four-year-old business, is to be viewed against the backdrop of French media goings-on. To name but one example, Le Parisien, a powerful daily, is to be sold for around €120m (the family owners wanted €200m). Last year, it made about €240m in revenue and lost €6 m. Together, Le Parisien, and its national/regional edition, Aujourd’hui en France, have a combined circulation of 477,579 and a readership of 2.23m (that is an astonishing 4.7 readers per copy). Translated into an ARPU (Average revenue per User) equivalent, Le Parisien makes 496€ per buyer of the paper per year, and €106 per reader per year. Let’s keep those numbers in mind.

According to the Schibsted press release, Le Bon Coin is valued at 22 times 2009 revenue of €18m, and 11 times the 2010 expected revenue of €36m.

On the one hand, we have a great but money-losing news media brand, Le Parisien, likely to be sold for 0.5 or 0.6 times its revenue. And, on the other, a classifieds website, Le Bon Coin, valued 11 times its revenue.

Isn’t there an imbalance here? An excess of sorts?

Asset performance provides parts of the answer: strings of losses for the newspaper (although clearly getting better) against a whopping 59% EBITDA for the classifieds sites and its ultralight production structure (20 people).

But the real answer is elsewhere: expected growth. More

Aggregators: the good ones vs. the looters

News aggregators have grown into all shapes and forms. Some are truly helping the producers of original content but others simply amount to mere electronic ransack.

My daily media routine starts on Techmeme. It is a pure aggregator — actually an aggrefilter, as coined by Dan Farber, at the time editor-in-chief of Cnet, who recommended it. This little site combines simple concept and sophisticated execution. As shown in its “Leaderboard”, it crawls a hundred sources and applies a clever algorithm using 600 parameters. More importantly, it adds a human editing layer. In this Read Write Web interview, Techmeme’s founder Gabe Riviera recently discussed his views on the importance of human editing, how it allowed him to fine-tune the his site’s content. The result is one of the most useful ways of monitoring the tech sector. And, since Gabe Riviera also launched Mediagazer last year, I use it to watch the media space. (Another iteration of the concept, Memeorandum, aggregates political news; for reasons I don’t quite understand yet, it doesn’t work as well as the two others.)

Techmeme and Mediagazer benefit the news outlets they mention. Story excerpts are short enough to avoid being self-sufficient and the hierarchical structure works. (Self-sufficient excerpts result in the aggregator not sending back traffic to the source — I’ll come to that later.) These twin sites are definitely among the best of their kind, resulting in a sound six persons business, not the next Google News but doing OK financially.

In fact, in their very own fields, Techmeme are Mediagazer are more useful than Google News. By crawling through so many sources, with the sole help of a powerful (but aging) algorithm, Google News ends up lacking finesse, precision and selectiveness. It’s a pure product of the engineering culture the search giant is built on, where obsessive hardcore binary thinking sweeps away words like “nuance”, “refinement”, “gradation”.

At the other end of the aggregator spectrum, we have The Huffington Post, one of the smartest digital news machine ever and, at the same time, the mother of all news internet impostures.

In France, where true journalism is in a state of exhaustion, everybody wants to make “Un Huffington Post à la Française“. The dream hardly comes from the best and the brightest. No, the fantasy agitates click-freaks building “traffic machines” on the generous losses their investors are willing to put up with. So, in spite of the red ink, why do they yearn for their Huffington Post so much? One word: Numbers. As recalled in Newsonomics story, in one year, the HuffPo doubled its audience. And now, the HuffPo is nibbling at the NYTimes.com’s ankle: 13m unique visitors/month (Nielsen) vs. 19m for the Times. The HuffPo is a privately-held company with abundant funding and therefore does not release financial numbers. Revenues are said to be in the $15m range, and profitability is “near”…, this according to fascinated bloggers who kissed the HuffPo CEO Eric Hippeau’s ring. More

What do they read — actually?

Unlike their dead tree ancestors, online publications provide an interesting view on what readers actually like. Most news sites have Most E-mailed, Most Viewed and Most Blogged or Most Commented lists. Some even propose Editor’s Picks. For today, I’ll share non-statistical findings, influenced, needless to say, by my personal reading habits.

Let’s start with the New York Times (surprise). Over the Most E-Mailed in the Past 30 Days we have 25 stories distributed as follows:

- Opinion: 11 articles. This label encompasses a wide spectrum, starting with high caliber in-house contributors such as Economics Nobel Prize Paul Krugman: see his Now That’s Rich piece criticizing the defense of tax cuts by conservative politicians. Amazingly, since August 23rd, his column has stayed on the chart and generated a stream of 523 comments. In this one-month selection, Paul Krugman has no less than four columns in the top 25, which is pretty remarkable since he doesn’t exactly belong to the Lady Gaga kind of beat.

This Most E-Mailed segment includes serious Op-Ed contributors such as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who wrote How to End the Great Recession, but also a column by best-selling author John Grisham, titled Boxers, Briefs and Books, in which he recounts how he became a writer. I can’t resist giving you his lead paragraph:

I WASN’T always a lawyer or a novelist, and I’ve had my share of hard, dead-end jobs. I earned my first steady paycheck watering rose bushes at a nursery for a dollar an hour. I was in my early teens, but the man who owned the nursery saw potential, and he promoted me to his fence crew. For $1.50 an hour, I labored like a grown man as we laid mile after mile of chain-link fence. There was no future in this, and I shall never mention it again in writing.

- Technology: 5 articles. Your brain on computers is among the most shared, especially the outdoor account of a group of neuroscientists wandering the Colorado River as they try to disconnect themselves from the information overflow. Others liked pieces include lighter subjects: Photos on the Web That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live, or Your Own Hot Spot, and Cheap. The relative weight of tech stories is tied to the nature of the medium. Readers who take the paper version of the Times probably read less nerdy stuff. (Historically, the New York Times has always been quite good at covering technology — this “education” of readers undoubtedly played a significant role in the NYTimes.com’s success on the web).

- Health & Science: 3 articles. Restoring good study habits for your kids, the unpleasant comeback of bedbugs in New York and Tai Chi Reported to Ease Fibromyalgia.

- Magazine: 2 articles. One story on the lives of grownups who stay with their parents: What Is It About 20-Somethings?, and one on neurolinguistics: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

- Business: 2. But Will It Make You Happy? (How you spend has a greater effect on your happiness than how much you spend, researchers say). And a rather stern piece on Housing that Fades as a Mean to Build Wealth. More

The newswire quandary

Questions: should newswire agencies serve consumers – directly? And, to a broader extent, how does the current information shift impact the agencies’ future? Two recent events lead me to explore these questions in today’s Monday Note. The first one is rather significant: last week, Associated Press announced a deal with Google allowing the search engine to republish its newswire stories. And the second was the admission by the new CEO of Agence France-Presse that he was indeed willing to join the B2C fray.

Before going further, a bit of disclosure. About a year ago, the previous AFP CEO  asked me to evaluate the newswire agency’s strategy. I interviewed countless people, insiders and outsiders — especially AFP customers. Early this year, I handed my report to the CEO who, in turn, forwarded it to the union representatives (the unofficial agency co-managers). Consistent with their unabated propensity to relieve themselves on their doorsteps, the unions leaked the report to everyone around them, they even made it downloadable. (Expecting their reaction, I had carefully redacted every piece of data that could have been of interest to the competition.) Needless to say, my report was blasted by unions, with truckloads of personal attacks targeting my past, my career, my connections, my supposed agenda. Again, this is part of the French news agency’s folklore. Since then, the CEO who ordered the report has resigned — he was clearly at odds with the unions –  was replaced by the former head of the national TV archives whose primary mission, given by the Culture minister, was avoiding any conflict with the unions (in other words, give them what they want, elections are two years down the road). Why the Culture minister, you ask? Because he oversees the Agency, which draws 40% of its revenue from the government. (The new CEO was picked by president Sarkozy within the minutes of his predecessor’s resignation.)

With this out of the way, let’s go back to the issue of newswires going after the consumer market. Should they do it?

Unfortunately, there is not one answer to this question. It depends on each company’s customer base, on its shareholder structure, and on its financial health. Historically, newswire agencies justify their existence with their unique ability to provide breaking news, in depth-reporting, on a global scale. In order to do this, they maintain a network of bureaus and correspondents all over the world, with the ability to collect and process huge amounts of text, photo and video on a round the clock basis. All the four major agencies — Associated Press, Reuters, AFP and Bloomberg — are truly amazing news gathering machines with large staffs of highly dedicated newspeople at the frontline of the information.

With the advent of instant and ubiquitous information, the dominance – and even the relevance – of the “Big Three” (Bloomberg is marginally in the general news segment) is now seriously challenged. Newsrooms wonder: does it make sense to pay high subscription fees to newswire services increasingly undermined by the global information overflow? More

A Toolkit for the Cognitive Container

We now live in an apps world. “The web is dead” shouts Chris Anderson, Wired’s editor-in-chief. To make his point, he teamed up with Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair writer. According his latest theory, the internet is taken over by mobile applications, and the web as we know it, will be soon dead. Wired produces a Cisco-originated graph (below) showing the decrease in “web” traffic, down to a quarter of the traffic of the internet. The other 75%, says Anderson, include video, peer-to-peer, gaming, voice-over-IP telephony, a large part of it encapsulated in apps, blah-bla-blah.

Well. Two things. To begin with, Chris Anderson isn’t the first to notice the rise in applications used to access the internet. Every news outlet’s digital division witnesses a sharp increase in its apps-related traffic. Here in France, Le Monde just said its iPhone apps now contribute about 20% of its entire traffic; its iPad application (a bit crude but efficient reader) has been downloaded 150,000 times. This is just the beginning as publishers are working on new apps, for the iPhone, the iPad, but also for Android, Windows 7 for Mobile and even Bada, Samsung’s proprietary OS. Many publishers forecast a share of 30% of their traffic originating from mobile devices. This is consistent with Morgan Stanley’s predictions of smartphones shipments overtaking the PC two years from now (see below).

Such trends, when repackaged in Chris Anderson’s craft, ascend close to papal encyclical status (that Anderson’s particular skill; in a recent lecture, the British journalism professor George Brock calls him “a professional exaggerator”). Never mind the data he presents are not of the utmost rigor. As we can see here, he magnifies the demise of the web.

But byte-flow analysis is misleading. A more accurate measure would be time spent on the traditional web versus apps. For instance, neither Anderson nor the graph say in which category Facebook traffic falls. Is it an app? A web-based service? All we know is American users spends a quarter of their time on it. I wouldn’t dare wrecking such an attractive intellectual scaffolding with mere facts, but we can’t compare video and text-based pages on the basis of their byte-stream. I did the test: a 3 minutes of You Tube video weighs 16 megabytes; the same time spent on text will only require a 20 kilobytes page, 800 times lighter. (The 8000 words Anderson/Wolff story — devoured in 15 minutes at a normal reading speed, weighs only 117 kilobytes). When measuring things, the metric does alter the perspective…

Nevertheless, Anderson’s fatwa is gaining traction, as did, in its time, his Long Tail theory. Later, Anderson amended the postulate, using the concept of “strong head” (mandatory if you expect to make money with the tail). His “Free!” edict was also updated with the Freemium notion – a paid-for model tied to an incentive. But no more sarcasm, such silicon snake oil is a charming ingredient of our e-times.

Caution with Anderson’s theory aside, there is no doubt the app phenomenon will significantly impact the way we consume news: apps might become their main cognitive container. More

The Facebook Gravitational Effect

Over the next twelve months, the media industry is likely to be split between those who master the Facebook system and those who don’t. A decade or so  ago, for a print publication, going on the internet was seen as the best way to rejuvenate its audience; today, as web news audiences reach a plateau, Facebook is viewed as the most potent traffic booster.

If you are looking for the ultimate cyber black hole, point your browser toward Facebook. Beyond the 500 million users milestone, even more significant gravitational pull await the media industry. Here are facts to keep in mind.

— While the average online newspaper is viewed about 30 minutes per month (see data from the NAA), users spend 12 times more on Facebook: a worldwide average of 5hrs 52 minutes, 6hrs 02 minutes in the United States and 4hrs 12  minutes in France. Globally, social networks represent about 10% of the total internet time; and 2/3 of the internet population visit one such network at least once a month. And the growth is about  30% per year; in three years, that’s 220%, a multiplication by 2.2!

— Facebook dwarfs other social networks: worldwide, measured in time per month, it weighs 6 times MySpace, and 12 times twitter and 30 times LinkedIn.

— Of the half billion users, 250 million are logging every day, for about 34 minutes.

— Just as important, or more, 150 million access Facebook through their mobile phone.

— In June alone, on the US market, users spend more time on Facebook than on sites owned by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo combined (source: Nielsen).

Update Aug.2:  Nielsen just released this study showing that American spend 23% of their internet time on social media, vs. 16% a year ago.

The time spent numbers are always spectacular… but some view those as misleading considering how users interact with Facebook: uploading videos or photographs takes inherently more time than glancing over Google News. Granted. Let’s then consider more media related metrics. More

Smartcameras in our future?

I have two cameras in front of me: My smartphone and a Canon’s S90. And I wonder: Why isn’t there an app store for this neat compact camera?

I can download any number of third-party, post-processing photo applications to my smartphone. I can crop, filter, stitch, frame… And there will be more applications tomorrow. With my “real” camera, I’m stuck with yesterday’s features.

As the saying goes, the better camera is the one you always carry. (By the way, “Better Camera” is the name of a smartphone application…) In that sense, smartphone cameras have a major advantage, they’re always at the ready.

But…smartphones cameras have tiny sensors, tiny lenses, tiny flashes. While the technology improves with each new generation, smartphone cameras will always lag behind the resolution, speed, and depth of single-purpose compact cameras, with their better lenses and bigger sensors. And, yes, compared to even “realer” cameras such as DSLRs, the compact cousin has much to learn, but try stuffing the callipygian Nikon D3s in your pocket.

Wouldn’t it be neat to have the superior picture taking capabilities of the Canon S90 (or other competitors such as the upcoming Panasonic LX-5) and the benefits of downloadable third-party applications to perform more in-camera processing and editing, to say nothing of smartphone-like communication capabilities?

Technically, such a hybrid is easier said than done. Add the circuitry (processor, memory, communications) of a smartphone to an existing compact camera and, done poorly, you’d get a “feature-rich” monstrous contraption that does more than either donor product, but that does none of them as well. Cost would also be a challenge.

But the idea is in the air.

Years ago, enterprising geeks found a way to break into and modify Canon’s DIGIC, the camera’s on-board image processor. More

Understanding the Digital Natives

They see life as a game. They enjoy nothing more than outsmarting the system. They don’t trust politicians, medias, nor brands. They see corporations as inefficient and plagued by an outmoded hierarchy. Even if they harbor little hope of doing better than their parents, they don’t see themselves as unhappy. They belong to a group — several, actually — they trust and rely upon.

“They”, are the Digital Natives.

The French polling institute BVA published an enlightening survey of this generation: between 18-24 years of age, born with a mouse and a keyboard, and now permanently tied to their smartphone. All of it shaping their vision of an unstable world. The study is titled GENE-TIC for Generation and Technology of Information and Communication. Between November 2009 and February 2010, BVA studied hundred young people in order to understand their digital habits. Various techniques where used: spyware in PCs , subjective glasses to “see what they see”, and hours of video recording. (The 500 pages survey is for sale but abstracts, in French, are here ; BVA is considering a similar study for the US market). Here are the key findings:

The constant gamer. The way a Digital Native see his (or, once for all “her“) environment is deeply shaped by computer games. “When he is buying something”, says Edouard Le Marechal who engineered the survey, “finding the best bargain is a process as important as acquiring the good. The Digital Native enjoys using all tools available in his arsenal to outsmart the merchant system and to find the best deal. He doesn’t trust the brand. Like in a game, the brand is the enemy to defeat”.

According to the study, brands face a serious challenge from the Digital Native. Not only does he gets a kick out of triumphing over the brand, but he is not deceived by the marketing pitch. To make things worse, he’ll become an expert, he’ll achieve more knowledge than the merchant trying to lure him. That’s part of the game. Reading the GENE-TIC survey, brands and their vector (advertising), appear under siege in multiple ways. They look increasingly disconnected and outpaced by their target. In addition, advertising is reduced to its utilitarian dimension: if an ad message does not carry an explicit promotion, it is unlikely to lead to a good bargain.

Weirdly enough, when I asked Edouard Le Marechal if big ad agencies were flocking to subscribe to his survey, he replied they were not. Instead, GENE-TIC is massively subscribed to by clients such as high tech or telecommunications companies. (That also reinforces the idea that the brand – whether it is a manufacturer or a service – is willing to (re)connect more directly with its customer base at the expense of the advertising intermediary which appears to have lost its power). More

Zero tolerance for latency

The big battle of the coming years will be a battle for time. For media related software or for web design, the fight will be for customers’ or readers’ attention, the challenge will be to prevent them from fleeing elsewhere and to give them more in less time.

More than ever, we are in the business where speed is key.

Look at how critical the speed factor has been in recent tech successes. To be sure, Google has been able to dominate search thanks to the quality of its algorithm. But Google’s win also came from its ability to deliver results faster than anyone else. This speed comes from the combined performance of three pieces of software:  Map Reduce slices the request in multiple chunks and assigns the work to multiple CPUs, the Google File System at the core of Google’s distributed architecture and the main database, BigTable, all supported by an unprecedented hardware deployment of several million servers. (A Cornell University paper by a Google Fellow gives a comprehensive description of the company’s architecture, PDF here). All three components are dedicated to speed of service, one of Google’s edges and a must to conquer cloud computing, where waiting for a file update or data transfer is not an option.

Speed is also a key success factor for Amazon and iTunes — the two kings of the friction-free transactions — but also for the video streaming service Hulu, or for business applications such as Salesforce. As for hardware, Apple taught us that speed and fluidity weigh more than a long feature list. Look at the four iterations of the iPhone (leaving aside the antennae issue for once), most of the hardware improvements have been aimed at increasing speed and fluidity of use (OK, battery life as well).

Two of the reasons why the iPad is about to take over the netbook market are its near to zero boot time and its instant application launch. Both are a blow to the PC which remains stuck in its passé architecture despite huge increases in processing power (or perhaps because abundant power facilitates wasteful programming practices). This contributed to the pace of the iPad adoption by the customers: it took 28 days for the iPad to reach a million users, vs. 180 days for the netbook. Consumers love speedy devices.

And, as a final example of speed related services, we can mention classifieds websites derived from the highly successful Blocket in Sweden (Blocket is owned by my former employer Schibsted). The site is so huge that an equivalent about 5.5% of the entire Swedish GNP goes through it!  As for the French version called Le Bon Coin (see Monday Note’s story), it delivers 2000 pages per second while relying on fairly small hardware. But the site is entirely coded in C language that provides lightning-fast data delivery (users see 40 pages per visits on average, eight to ten times more than any news site).

Let’s face it, consumers tolerance to latency is closing down to zero. They want ultra-fast boot time, quick network access, fast pages display or download.

Sadly, this issue that has yet to percolate to the surface of news media industry consciousness. Too many web publishers remain convinced that the quality of their editorial is far more important that the underlying technology that supports it. This is made even more obvious with the inception of the iPad and of its applications. The vast majority of news media publishers have not focused enough on speed and seamlessness. Let me repeat a point I’ve already made here several times: the digital news sector needs more investment in technology and techies. More