About Frédéric Filloux


Posts by Frédéric Filloux:

Media Culture Shifts: theory vs. reality

This weekend, my ritual readings were dominated by corporate media culture issues: How to transition from the legacy media culture to the more agile and chaotic digital world? I’ve been reading up on this topic — and sometimes conferencing about it — for years. But, to my surprise, over time, I’ve been feeling lectured on those very issues. Sometimes irritatingly so. The last sermon was delivered early March by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The report –which I nevertheless recommend reading– reverberated over many other great online publications such as the Nieman Journalism Lab in a piece written by two journalism professors, Jonathan Groves and  Carrie Brown-Smith; their column is softly titled A call for leadership: Newspaper execs deserve the blame for not changing the culture.

For once, I’ll align myself with the blamed “Newspaper execs” and provide a perspective from this vantage point.

Since December 15, I’m in charge of digital operations for Groupe Les Echos which publishes the only remaining business newspaper in France. Together with a seasoned CEO and a team of managers in charge of business units and critical functions, we’re doing our best to put the company back on track.  All of us are here because we firmly believe in the strength of the company’s core products: a competent and highly specialized newsroom and a line-up of solid business-related products and services. The main idea is to revitalize everything, restore profitability, increase and secure market share and create an enviable working environment capable of attracting the talent required by our many fields of activity. That’s the plan.

I addition to this recent line in my resumé, thanks to numerous exchanges with foreign colleagues, my affiliation with several trade groups such as INMA or the Gobal Editors Networks has nurtured my reflection. We are all converging to a similar train of thoughts: morphing a legacy media business into a modern, digital-dominated company is a f*** (frighteningly) complicated endeavor.

Now I’m coming back to the lecturers of all stripes. When you look at their CVs, not a single one can claim any managing experience. They all have a remote view of what a P&L or a KPI is; they never had to fire someone or to agonize over picking up x vs. y to fill an open position; they never had to make a recommendation for investing several million dollars or euros in a project with an uncertain future. They probably never experienced failure and the ensuing humiliation and anguish. This doesn’t mean they’re not interesting (and sometime entertaining) to read, it simply says they propagate a theoretical and narrow view. In a way, some of their ‘‘obvious’’ prescriptions remind me of people who claim losing weight is easy: All you have to do is exercise more and eat less. Sure. But don’t tell me what, tell me how.

Let’s address a few items mentioned in the Pew Report.

First, the authors deplore the propensity of newspapers management to remain more print centric than prone to speeding up digital transition. There is a good reason for this. According to the survey:

The papers providing detailed data took in roughly $11 in print revenue for every $1 they attracted online in the last full year for which they had data. Thus, even though the total digital advertising revenues from those newspapers rose on average 19% in the last full year, that did not come anywhere close to making up for the dollars lost as a result of 9% declines in print advertising. The displacement ratio in the sample was a loss of dollars by about 7-to-1.

Then, of course, everyone is focused on increasing the $1 digital revenue, but it’s difficult to blame managers for not trying to slow down the decline of print activity that stills account for…92% of the revenue of the 38 newspapers surveyed by Pew.

Fact is, very few industries are suffering as the newspaper business does. According to the latest statistics released by the Newspaper Association of America the evolution in print ad revenue went like this:

2005 +1.5%
2006 -1.7%
2007 -9,4%
2008 -17.7%
2009 -28.6%
2010 -8.2%
2011 -9.2%

Since 2005, print advertising revenue has dropped by 56%. And the $20.6 billion it brought last year has to be compared with the $3.2 billion scored by digital operations. Overall, despite the growth of their digital business, American newspapers have lost 52% in revenue from advertising since 2005.

Such massive revenue depletion is supposed to call for serious restructuring — a move that, at the same time, has become increasingly less affordable. A couple of years ago, management at a French national newspaper briefly considered switching to 100% online, no more print. It made the following back-of-the-envelope calculation: of a €20 million investment for the switch, €15 million would have been swallowed by restructuring costs such as discontinuing print-related operations, buyouts etc. The manager quickly decided against even mentioning the idea to its owner.

Newspaper companies have to deal with the specificities of their workforce that complicates any strategic move. An aging staff, locked-in by layers of antiquated guild or union-negotiated contracts, doesn’t favor labor agility. The same goes for training, job reassignments, etc.

Those constraints, combined to a residual sense of entitlement within newsrooms, further complicate the transition. Regardless of upper management’s determination, you’ll never be able to steer a century-old company the way a young startup adjusts to changing circumstances, whether it’s explosive growth or adverse events.

As a result, management of a legacy media company is left with a dual agenda. On the one hand, going for the low hanging fruits, getting quick wins such as small, swiftly executed projects thanks to “agents of change” identified within the company. And, at the same time, setting deep culture-changes in motion.

One of the most compelling “culture statement” I’ve seen was designed three years ago by Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, a company that rocked the streaming media sector like never before. Here is an excerpt of Hastings’ 126 slides presentation that I think deserves consideration:

– The “Behavior and skills” section is broke up into nine items “…Meaning we hire and promote people who demonstrate these nine:
1. Judgement
2. Communication: Listening others and articulating views
3. Impact: “You focus on great results rather than on process. You exhibit bias-to-action, and avoid analysis-paralysis”
4. Curiosity : “You learn rapidly and eagerly”, “You contribute effectively outside of your specialty”
5. Innovation: “You challenge prevailing assumptions when warranted, and suggest better approaches ”
6. Courage: “You say what you think even if it is controversial”, “You make tough decisions without agonizing”, “You take smart risks”
7. Passion: “You inspire others with your thirst for excellence”, “You celebrate wins”, “You are tenacious”
8. Honesty: “You are quick to admit mistakes”
9. Selflessness: “You are ego-less when searching for the best ideas.”

Other Netflix core values include:

– “Great Workplace [means working with] Stunning Colleagues : Great workplace is not espresso, lush benefits, sushi lunches, grand parties, or nice offices. We do some of these things, but only if they are efficient at attracting and retaining stunning colleagues.”

– “Corporate Team:  The more talent we have, the more we can accomplish, so our people assist each other all the time. Internal “cutthroat” or “sink or swim” behavior is rare and not tolerated.”

– “Hard Work = Not Relevant : We do care about accomplishing great work. Sustained B-level performance, despite “A for effort”, generates a generous severance package, with respect. Sustained A-level performance, despite minimal effort, is rewarded with more responsibility and great pay.”

– No room for what Hastings call “Brilliant Jerks“. His verdict:  “Cost to effective teamwork is too high.”

– About processes: “Process-focus Drives More Talent Out. Process Brings Seductively Strong Near-Term Outcome.  Then the Market Shifts… Market shifts due to new technology or competitors or business models. [Then] Company is unable to adapt quickly because the employees are extremely good at following the existing processes, and process adherence is the value system. Company generally grinds painfully into irrelevance.”

– “Good” versus “Bad” Process:
“Good” process helps talented people get more done.
- Letting others know when you are updating code
- Spend within budget each quarter so don’t have to coordinate every spending decision across departments.
- Regularly scheduled strategy and context meetings.”

“Bad” process tries to prevent recoverable mistakes:
- Get pre-approvals for $5k spending
- 3 people to sign off on banner ad creative
- Permission needed to hang a poster on a wall
- Multi-level approval process for projects
- Get 10 people to interview each candidate.”

And to conclude, I love this one about vacation policy and tracking days off:

” We realized… [that] We should focus on what people get done, not on how many days worked . Just as we don’t have an 9am-5pm workday policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.
No Vacation Policy Doesn’t Mean No Vacation.
Netflix leaders set good examples by taking big vacations – and coming back inspired to find big ideas.”

And my favorite, about “Expensing, Entertainement, Gift & Travel: Act in Netflix’s Best Interest (5 words long).”

“Act in Netflix’s Best Interest” Generally Means… Expense only what you would otherwise not spend, and is worthwhile for work. Travel as you would if it were your own money. Disclose non-trivial vendor gifts. Take from Netflix only when it is inefficient to not take, and inconsequential. “Taking” means, for example, printing personal documents at work or making personal calls on work phone: inconsequential and inefficient to avoid.”

I’ll stop here. I’m sure you get the point. I prefer rules as stated by Netflix’s battle-scarred chief rather than by unsoiled scholars.


Ebooks: Defending the Agency Model

(Last of a series — for a while.)

Launching an antitrust probe against books publishers, as the US Department of Justice might do, can’t come at a weirdest time. In the two previous Monday Notes, we explained how Amazon is maneuvering itself into a position to dominate the entire book industry. The Seattle giant keeps moving up the food chain, from controlling ebooks distribution (in addition to selling print books), to competing against publishers and even agents by luring best selling-authors. No one would bet a dime on the printed book as it reaches its peak while ebooks sales keep exceeding expectations.

Then, why does the DOJ waves the threat of an antitrust action?

Five publishers –and one distributor, Apple– are in the the US administration’s crosshairs:  Hachette Book Group (a division of Lagardère Group), Simon & Schuster (CBS Corp),  MacMillan (Holtzbrinck GmbH), Penguin (Pearson PLC), and HarpersCollins (News Corp). All are said to be suspected of ebooks prices collusion. (The Wall Street Journal broke the story on March 9th).

First, some background. There are two competing distribution models for printed books, electronic books and electronic newspapers as well: the wholesale model and the agency model. Using the wholesale model, the publisher sells its goods to the distributor for a fixed price — say half of the suggested street price — and the distributor is free to decide the actual price to the public. In the agency model, the publishers set the retail price, the distributor gets a fee (30% or so) and that’s it.

Amazon is fond of the wholesale model. But, in order to effectively enter a new market, the company had to make concessions. For example, in the newspaper business Amazon reluctantly yielded to the demands of European publishers who preferred the agency model. French publishers went for this arrangement last year (but they priced their publications too high, forgetting that a real e-paper format has nothing to do with PDF facsimile or a digital edition loaded with features). In the UK, British newspapers went for the wholesale model, much cheaper for the customer: they are doing well with lower margins and much higher volumes. (Price elasticity is a proven concept for digital publishing).

In the US market, Amazon offers nothing but the wholesale model. You end up with absurdly low prices:

…While the French weekly Paris Match won’t accept any discount:

… At least on Amazon. On the Relay.com digital kiosk, the magazine is sold for €1.59 ($2.08) per copy.

When it comes to selling newspapers or books, the wholesale model doesn’t seem to favor the publisher, this for three main reasons:

The wholesale model’s primary goal is to serve the retailer’s overall strategy. Let’s assume Amazon wants to strengthen its general e-distribution market share and to increase sales of its Kindle product line. Then, the price of the primary product becomes secondary: it is in the company’s best interest to price-dump ebooks top-sellers in order to stimulate the sale of other products, or to up-sell high-margin items through its incredible recommendation engine –something Amazon is extremely good at. The entire retail sector strategy is based on a similar combination of moves.

– This makes the wholesale model is a deflationary one. Once it has acquired the rights to distribute a book (print or digital), the retailer is free to lower its margin as it sees fit, even going into negative territory (provided there is no law, such as in France, that prevents dumping practices). As a side effect, consumers gets used to low prices, ignoring the fact such prices may or may not reflect the item’s true economic value: a bestseller acquired for $14 by Amazon will be sold for a discounted $9.99. Once the the consumer bites, the retailer catches up by selling other higher margin products and/or hooking the customer into its system.

That’s why, when Apple launched its iBooks Store, publishers stuck inside Amazon’s wholesale system were willing to take their chances. They asked Steve Jobs for the agency model: price set by them and Apple taking its 30% cut. Jobs obliged, he wanted to boost iPad sales and, to do that, needed to attack Amazon’s domination of the ebook market. (Kindle formats currently accounts today for 60% of total sales). Jobs’ move put publishers in a position to go back to Amazon and ask for the same conditions.

Coming back to the DOJ’s looming antitrust action, did the book publishing industry collude in trying to pressure Amazon to change its practices? I don’t know if they acted in concert (people talk, you know) but they moved in accordance to their best interest by taking advantage of the newcomer, Apple. Now it seems the dispute over pricing has resumed: last month, Amazon pulled out 4,000 ebooks from one of the biggest books distributors in the US, the Independent Publishers Group (story in the New York Times here).

Pricing an item should be left to the one who produces it. The case of the book publishing industry is not as simple as, say, an appliance maker looking for the most potent retail channel for its hair-dryers or its toasters. The book sector is entering a painful transition: First, it needs to respond to consumers who want a large catalog of inexpensive ebooks; two, there is a plateauing but still strong print market ($73 billion worldwide). Managing a smooth decline for this segment is key to the industry’s health, especially as the ebook market yields thinner margins. Legacy publishers are culturally ill-equipped for such a difficult transition: they now find themselves competing with the agile, cash-rich, data and technology-driven players of the digital world.


Ebooks and Apps, same challenges

(Second of a series)

Last week, we looked at the ebook’s Giant Disruption. A new ecosystem in which Amazon eats publishers’ and agents’ lunch by luring authors into self-publishing.

Today, we examine the new regime’s impact on book-making and distribution processes.
The outcome will surprise few readers: Over time, the new book publishing business will look more and more like the software industry.

1/ Managing abundance. Traditional publishing’s most salient feature is the maintenance of high barriers to entry. The journey from manuscript to bookstore is an excruciating one. Publishers are deluged with books proposals; a quick glance at a few pages and the bulk of submissions is rejected. Still, far too many books get published. Several Parisian booksellers told me they sometimes have to return unopened boxes of books to distributors, simply because they don’t have enough space for them. Therefore, the 80/20 rule applies: most of the revenue comes from a small assortment of books. Digital publishing removes those barriers –brutally so: the floodgates are now indiscriminately open to every aspiring writer. This will have two effects: more difficult choices for the reader (see Barry Schwartz TED’s talk on The Paradox of Choice) and, on average, lower quality products.

Overtime, two factors will help solve the problem of the choice: search engines and manual curation. As semantic search rises, books content gets treated like data, searchable not only by words clusters, but by variations of meaning, pitch and, at some point, style. Put another way, a search engine will soon be able to differentiate and to attribute texts written by two novelists working in the same segment of literature.
Such breakthroughs will impact recommendation engines systems that already act a serious sales booster. Again, tech companies, such as Amazon (more than Apple, which does not seem to “get” search) will ride the wave thanks to their past and future investments into search and data analytics.

Semantic recommendation engines won’t kill the need for human curation. Like the app business where abundance creates a need for more human-powered guidance and suggestions (see Jean-Louis’ idea of a Guide Michelin for Apps), book sections of magazines and newspapers will have to adapt and find ways to efficiently suggest e-readings to their audience.

2/ The need for editing. The most potent selection tool will remain the quality of the product. In the iPhone/iPad AppStore, Apple guarantees the overall technical quality of what lands on its shelves. Apple’s primary motive is to avoid poorly coded apps that crash or, worse, interfere with the inner core of the iOS. No such things on Amazon. Once a manuscript is properly formatted (not very complicated), it’s eligible for sale. That’s where reality barges in. Many self-published authors insouciantly flog texts replete with grammatical errors and typos. Very few seem to rely on proper editing and proofing, this is the main divide between amateurs and pros. Editing is both a mandatory and costly process — but worth every penny. It is probably the most critical part of the value added by traditional publishers. In the digital world, it must remain a key component of the process.

3/ Segmented manufacturing. Self-published ebooks won’t escape the laws of digital economics, of decentralized and specialized crafts. Here again, ebooks publishing and the making of applications converge. The entire process will be handled by dedicated freelancers focused on specific tasks: manuscript formatting (easy for text, but complicated otherwise); cover design — it will become more important as digital bookstores gain in sophistication; editing and copy-proofing the manuscript by a competent and well-paid professional, etc.

At a higher level of complexity for a book production (rich media contents, interactive learning features and more), two forces will kick-in: cloud computing and offshore outsourcing. The most recent example is the San Francisco-based startup Inkling: last month, the company made its own cloud publishing setup Habitat available to the general public. It went a step further by relying on companies such as Aptara, a US corporation with the bulk of its 5000+ workforce located in India. Note that Aptara is a contractor for almost all traditional publishing houses such as Hachette Livre, Pearson, Oxford University Press… Inkling will bypass publishers by connecting customers and contractors through a collaborative platform that provides highly sophisticated correction and versioning tools. It is no incident that Matt McInnis, Inkling’s CEO, is an alumnus of Apple’s education division, as told in this recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek story.

Ebook publishing is often linked to value depletion for the entire food chain. Ebooks obey the other digital law: low price, high volumes. In this case, extremely low prices. But evidence shows professional authors can find their way in the new world.

Take thriller author and self-publishing advocate Joe Konrath. His blog is a well-documented plea for getting rid of what he calls “legacy publishers”. A year ago, he posted a 13,000 words dialog with his pal Barry Eisler. Eisler, is a former CIA operative; at the time, he was making headlines for turning down a $500,000 deal from his traditional publisher and taking the self-publishing road instead. I recommend reading their conversation, especially when the two discuss business strategies, such as the time-to-market problem:

— Barry Eisler: [Time to market]  was one of the reasons I just couldn’t go back to working with a legacy publisher. The book is nearly done, but it wouldn’t have been made available until Spring of 2012. I can publish it myself a year earlier. That’s a whole year of actual sales I would have had to give up.
— Joe Konrath: We can make 70% by self-publishing. And we can set our own price. I have reams of data that show how ebooks under $5 vastly outsell those priced higher.
— Barry Eisler: This is a critical point. There’s a huge data set proving that digital books are a price-sensitive market, and that maximum revenues are achieved at a price point between $.99 and $4.99. So the question is: why aren’t publishers pricing digital books to maximize digital profits?
— Joe: Because they’re protecting their paper sales.
— Barry: (…) Fundamentally, it’s extremely hard for an industry to start cannibalizing current profits for future gains. So the music companies, for example, failed to create an online digital store, instead fighting digital with lawsuits, until Apple–a computer company!–became the world’s biggest music retailer.
— Joe: I was in love with the publishing industry. It was my dream to land a Big 6 deal. And I still believe the industry is filled with intelligent, talented, motivated, exceptional people. I’m grateful to have sold as many books as I did (and continue to do.) My switch to self-publishing isn’t personal. It’s just business. I can make more money on my own.

For context, among tons of books Joe Konrath wrote, one, The List, was first rejected by a New York Publisher in 1999. In April 2009, he self-published it on Amazon for $2.99 and sold a first batch of 25,000 copies. Then he took the price further down (!) and had sold 35,000 copies at the time of the interview (March 2011). Today, The List is now available on Amazon for $11.97 (paperback, 310 pages) or $4.01 in Kindle format.

Before wrapping this up, I’ll answer a Monday Note reader who asked what would I do if I had to publish a book today. Like most journalists, I’m not short of ideas; my two most advanced projects are a global techno-thriller and an essay about internet economics. (Because of my day job, they are likely to stay untouched for quite a while…)
To me, it’s a no brainer: I’d go digital, especially if I publish in English.
Among the reasons:
Time to market: I’m not exactly the patient type who’ll wait for a release window that will fit my publisher.
Pricing: I’dont want to compete against well-established authors releasing their opus in the same format for the same price. Mine has to be lower.
Size and scope: I want to be able to publish a book with a number of pages based on the subject’s scope, as opposed to antediluvian dictates saying books should have x hundreds of pages.
Updating capabilities: for a business book, being able to quickly make a new version with fresher data (or thoughts) is a must.
Control: I like the idea of picking the professionals who will help me with editing and design; no such freedom with a traditional publisher. Same for marketing and promotion; there, given the level of frustration I often see authors endure, I’d rather go by myself, or hire the right person to do it.
Permanence: an ebook never dies; it’s as easy to find as a new release in digital bookstores. Great for personal branding.
Revenue: I’d rather bet on volume than on a small number of high-priced copies.

But I still might print a small limited edition on dead trees. Because despite all rationale I’ll always love paper books.


Ebooks: The Giant Disruption

(Part of a series)

In the last twelve months, I’ve never bought fewer printed books — and I’ve never read so many books. I have switched to ebooks. My personal library is with me at all times, in my iPad and my iPhone (and in the cloud), allowing me to switch reading devices as conditions dictate. I also own a Kindle, I use it mostly during Summer, to read in broad daylight: an iPad won’t work on a sunny café terrace.

I don’t care about the device itself, I let the market decide, but I do care about a few key features. Screen quality is essential: in that respect the iPhone’s Retina Display is unbeatable in the LED backlit word, and Kindle e-ink is just perfect with natural light. Because I often devour at least two books in parallel, I don’t want to struggle to land on the page I was reading when I switch devices. They must sync seamlessly, period, even with the imperfect cellular network. (And most of the time, they do.)

I’m an ebook convert. Not by ideology (I love dead-tree books, and I enjoy giving those to friends and family), just pragmatism. Ebooks are great for impulse buying. Let’s say I read a story in a magazine and find the author particularly brilliant, or want to drill further down into the subject thanks to a pointer to nicely rated book, I cut and paste the reference in the Amazon Kindle store or in the Apple’s iBooks store and, one-click™ later, the book is mine. Most of the time, it’s much cheaper than the print version (especially in the case of imported books).

This leads to this thought about the coming ebook disruption: We’ve seen nothing yet. Eighteen months ago, I was asked to run an ebooks roundtable for the Forum d’Avignon (an ultra-elitist cultural gathering judiciously set in the Palais des Papes). Preparing for the event, I visited most of the French publishers and came to realize how blind they were to the looming earthquake. They viewed their ability to line-up great authors as a seawall against the digital tsunami. In their minds, they might, at some point, have to make a deal with Amazon or Apple in order to channel digital distribution of their oeuvres to geeks like me. But the bulk of their production would sagely remain stacked on bookstores shelves. Too many publishing industry professionals still hope for a soft transition.

How wrong.

In less than a year, the ground has shifted in ways the players didn’t foresee. This caused the unraveling of the book publishing industry, disrupting key components of the food chain such as deal structures and distribution arrangements.

Let’s just consider what’s going on in self-publishing.

“Vanity publishing” was often seen as the lousiest way to land on a book store shelf. In a country such as France, with a strong history of magisterial publishing houses, confessing to being published “à compte d’auteur” (at the writer’s expense) results in social banishment. In the United Kingdom or the US, this is no longer the case. Trade blogs and publications are filled with tales of out-of-nowhere self-publishing hits, or of prominent authors switching to DIY mode, at once cutting-off both agent and publisher.

And guess who is this trend’s grand accelerator? Amazon is. To get the idea, read these two articles: last October’s piece in the New York Times Amazon Signs Up Authors, Writing Publishers Out of Deal, and a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek cover story on Amazon’s Hit Man. The villain of those tales is former übber-literary agent Larry Kirshbaum, hired last May by the e-retailer giant to corral famous writers using six-figures advances. (By the way, BBW’s piece is subtitled “A tale of books, betrayal, and the (alleged) secret plot to destroy literature”, a hard-sell come-on…). Of course you can also read the successful self-publishing poster-child tale in this excellent profile of Amanda Hocking in the Guardian.

Here is what’s going on:

– Amazon is intent on taking over the bulk of the publishing business by capturing key layers of intermediation. At some point, for the market’s upper-crust, by deploying agents under the leadership of Mr. Kirshbaum and of its regional surrogates, Amazon will “own” the entire talent-scouting food chain. For the bottom-end, a tech company like Amazon is well-positioned for real-time monitoring and early detection of an author gaining traction in e-sales, agitating on the blogosphere or buzzing on social networks. (Pitching such scheme to French éditeurs is like speaking Urdu to them.)

– For authors, the growth of e-publishing makes the business model increasingly attractive. Despite a dizzying price deflation (with ebooks selling for $2.99), higher volumes and higher royalty percentages change the game. In the too-good-to-be-an-example Amanda Hocking story, here is the math as told in the Guardian piece:

Though [a $2.99 price is] cheap compared with the $10 and upwards charged for printed books, [Hocking] gained a much greater proportion of the royalties. Amazon would give her 30% of all royalties for the 99-cent books, rising to 70% for the $2.99 editions – a much greater proportion than the traditional 10 or 15% that publishing houses award their authors. You don’t have to be much of a mathematician to see the attraction of those figures: 70% of $2.99 is $2.09; 10% of a paperback priced at $9.99 is 99 cents. Multiply that by a million – last November Hocking entered the hallowed halls of the Kindle Million Club, with more than 1m copies sold – and you are talking megabucks.

Again, aspiring (or proven) authors need to cool-down when looking at such numbers. The Kindle Million Club mentioned above counts only 11 members to date — and most were best-sellers authors in the physical world beforehand.

– But at some point, the iceberg will capsize and the eBook will become the publishing market’s primary engine. Authors will go digital-first and the most successful will land a traditional book deal with legacy publishers.

Shift happens, brutally sometimes.


Next week: the editing equation and how the rise e-publishing will segment the craftsmanship of book-making.

Blog Strategies

How should large media organizations handle their blogs? As editors struggle to increase their news coverage, to generate the indispensable serendipity and raise the “fun side” (much needed for legacy media that are often too stiff), how do they strategize their use of blogs? For an online media, is there an optimal number of blogs to carry? Should editors adopt a Mao Zedong “let thousands blogs blossom” posture? Or, on the contrary, be rigorously selective?

Unsurprisingly, there is no easy answer, no one-size-fits-all strategy.

A note before we dive into the question: I choose to set aside independent professional bloggers. This is no reflexion on the quality of their work: it is often excellent, and sometimes better than what traditional media blogs offer. But I want to narrow the scope of this column.

When asked to explain what a legacy media blog should be and how it should relate to the general newsroom-produced content, I venture into the following set of requirements (in no particular order):

A Byline. Because the power of a media is often associated with the trust placed in it, readers tend to connect with “their” columnists. Moreover, the writer should provide more personal content, quite different from his/her “official” production (columns, editorial, analysis, opinion page).

Dedicated writing style. In a blog, no one wants (or expects) to find pontification — even by a celebrity author. A blog is an ideal fit for first person accounts and, if not for completely untrammeled stream-of-consciousness writing, at least for a good measure of casual, intimate stories.

A good example is Nobel Prize for Economics Paul Krugman in the New York Times: he combines a great byline, specific writing and a clear-cut editorial distinction. His weekly  column is, as expected, a neat and insightful production. And his blog, The Conscience of a Liberal, checks all the boxes. (In addition, Krugman — who builds his content without anyone’s help by adding photos, charts and video all on his own — is quite prolific: he wrote 21 posts over the last seven days!)

A concept. I always liked former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown‘s phrase about the key attribute of a good story: it must be “high concept”, she said, i.e. reducible to one sentence. This property, often ignored or downplayed by editors, is at the core of our business and must also apply to blogging: if the writer’s blogging intention cannot be boiled down to a straightforward idea, maybe the idea needs rethinking.

An insider’s view. Many blogs are valued because their authors are so specialized they border on being insiders. Their access, their expertise give them plenty of material that won’t find its way into the main site structure but is a great fit for a blog. See the Guardian Defence and security blog or, on the same subject, Wired’s Danger Room or, on legal affairs, the excellent WSJ.com Law Blog.
More broadly, behind-the-scenes blogs, or reporter notebooks often produce good results. Foreign correspondents are usually the first to use the blog medium. To them, blogs are the ideal vector to write about campaign-trails, being immersed in a remote place or group, with first-hand “you are there” accounts.

An ultra-sharp angle. Blogs are good vectors for ultra-specialized views or angles. To name but a few:  The Numbers Guy in the Wall Street Journal pores over statistics, or FT’s Datablog on data-driven journalism. For lighter fare, let’s mention WSJ’s  Heard on the Runway about fashion (one of the most viewed), or WSJ’s Juggle on “choices and tradeoffs people make as they juggle work and family”.

What a blog shouldn’t be: a dump of disorderly news contents belonging to established home page sections, random bursts of disorganized thoughts, or a receptacle for journalists’ frustrations. As for the question of collective blogs vs. individual ones, I favor the individual blog: better gratification for the writer and, for management, more accountability and quality control.

Let’s now turn to metrics. Is there a rule of thumb for the quantity of blogs a news media should host?

I live and work in France where newsroom managers tend to be lax on blogs, and writers are quite voluble. The result is a record high number of blogs. To take one example, Le Monde hosts 61 blogs manned by its own staff, 26 guest blogs, and they select 30 readers’ blogs out of… 753 blogs “updated over the last 60 days” (this is more a page view strategy than an editorial one). All strong newsrooms, such as Le Monde or other prominent French newspapers, host great blogs. But, for all of them, the audience structure is a classic “20/80”, one in which a small fraction of the blog production makes the bulk of the audience. I don’t see the point in such a long tail, especially since advertising tends to price blogs at the very low end of their rate card.

Here are some numbers based on my analysis of publications I read on a regular basis:

– New York Times : 68 blogs. Its Blogs Directory shows the best possible arrangement. Those guys clearly believe in the blog medium and their news staff of 1200 provides great quality and a good mix between serious and more entertaining fare. Some are more than mere blogs: the excellent Dealbook, manned by a staff of 16, is more like a business site than a blog. Or Lens is my favorite spot for photojournalism as it rises above the level or an ordinary blog.

– The same goes for The Guardian (61 blogs) whose newsroom seems to enjoy manning its own blogosphere. Their baseline says it all: “The Sharpest Writing, the Liveliest Debate”.(Plus, OK, The Guardian hosts a small set of independent blogs such as The Monday Note…)

– High on the score (quantitatively speaking) is the Washington Post (102 blogs), with a weird focus on religion thanks to an ecumenical catalog of 13 blogs.

– WSJ.com has 54 blogs, officially. Plus what looks like a cemetery of 45 more. On the WSJ.com blogs home page, click on the Most Popular or Commented and the Latest; you’ll see which ones are the most active (Washington Wire on politics and the entertainment blog Speakeasy). This should make business pundits even more modest…

A random sample shows that a large number of blogs doesn’t equate with great quality. Too many blogs hosted by large media brands seem loose or rarely updated. That’s why a few specialized outlets prefer to focus on a small number of blogs: the FT.com (only 14 blogs) or the Economist (23 blogs) have opted for a selective approach — which more often ensures a better execution overall.


Twitter, Facebook and Apps Scams

Here is the latest Twitter scam I’ve heard this week. Consider two fictitious media, the Gazette and the Tribune operating on the same market, targeting the same demographics, competing fort the same online eyeballs (and the brains behind those). Our two online papers rely on four key traffic drivers:

  1. Their own editorial efforts, aimed at building the brand and establishing a trusted relationship with the readers. Essential but, by itself, insufficient to reach the critical mass needed to lure advertisers.
  2. Getting in bed with Google, with a two-strokes tactic: Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which helps climb to the top of search results page; and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), in which a brand buys keywords to position its ads in the best possible context.
  3. An audience acquisition strategy that will artificially grow page views as well as the unique visitors count. Some sites will aggregate audiences that are remotely related to their core product, but that will better dress them up for the advertising market (more on this in a forthcoming column).
  4. An intelligent use of social medias such Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and of the apps ecosystem as well.

Coming back to the Tribune vs. Gazette competition, let’s see how they deal with the latter item.

For both, Twitter is a reasonable source of audience, worth a few percentage points. More importantly, Twitter is a strong promotional vehicle. With 27,850 followers, the Tribune lags behind the Gazette and its 40,000 followers. Something must be done. The Tribune decides to work with a social media specialist. Over a couple of months, the firm gets to the Tribune to follow (in the Twitter sense) most of the individuals who already are Gazette followers. This mechanically translates into a “follow-back” effect powered by implicit flattery: ‘Wow, I’ve been spotted by the Tribune, I must have voice on some sort…’ In doing so, the Tribune will be able to vacuum up about a quarter or a third — that’s a credible rate of follow-back — of the Gazette followers. Later, the Tribune will “unfollow” the defectors to cover its tracks.

Compared to other more juvenile shenanigans, that’s a rather sophisticated scam. After all, in our example, one media is exploiting its competitor’s audience the way it would buy a database of prospects. It’s not ethical but it’s not illegal. And it’s effective: a significant part of the the followers so “converted” to the Tribune are likely stick to it as the two media do cover the same beat.

Sometimes, only size matters. Last December, the French blogger Cyroul (also a digital media consultant) uncovered a scam performed by Fred & Farid, one of the hippest advertising advertising agencies. In his post (in French) Cyroul explained how the ad agency got 5000 followers in a matter of five days. As in the previous example, the technique is based on the “mass following” technique but, this time, it has nothing to do with recruiting some form of “qualified” audience. Fred & Farid arranged to follow robots that, in turn, follow their account.  The result is a large number of new followers from Japan or China, all sharing the same characteristic: the ratio between following/followed is about one, which is, Cyroul say, the signature of bots-driven mass following. Pathetic indeed. His conclusion:

One day, your “influence” will be measured against real followers or fans as opposed to bots-induced accounts or artificial ones. Then, brands will weep as their fan pages will be worth nothing; ad agencies will cry as well when they realize that Twitter is worth nothing.

But wait, there are higher numbers on the crudeness scale: If you type “increase Facebook fans” in Google, you’ll get swamped with offers. Wading through the search results, I spotted one carrying a wide range of products: 10,000 views on YouTube for €189; 2000 Facebook “Likes” for €159; 10,000 followers on Twitter for €890, etc. You provide your URL, you pay on a secure server, it stays anonymous and the goods are delivered between 5 and 30 days.

The private sector is now allocating huge resources to fight the growing business of internet scams. Sometimes, it has to be done in a opaque way. One of the reasons why Google is not saying much about its ranking algorithm is — also — to prevent fraud.

As for Apple, its application ecosystem faces the same problem in. Over time, its ranking system became questionable as bots and download farms joined the fray. In a nutshell, as for the Facebook fans harvesting, the more you were willing to pay, the more notoriety you got thanks to inflated rankings and bogus reviews. Last week, Apple issued this warning to its developer community:

Adhering to Guidelines on Third-Party Marketing Services

Feb 6, 2012
Once you build a great app, you want everyone to know about it. However, when you promote your app, you should avoid using services that advertise or guarantee top placement in App Store charts. Even if you are not personally engaged in manipulating App Store chart rankings or user reviews, employing services that do so on your behalf may result in the loss of your Apple Developer Program membership.

Evidently, Apple has a reliability issue on how its half million apps are ranked and evaluated by users. Eventually, it could affect its business as the AppStore could become a bazaar in which the true value of a product gets lost in a quagmire of mediocre apps. This, by the way, is a push in favor of an Apple-curated guide described in the Monday Note by Jean-Louis (see Why Apple Should Follow Michelin). In the UK, several print publishers have detected the need for independent reviews; there, newsstands carry a dozen of app review magazines, not only covering Apple, but the Android market as well.

Obviously there is a market for that.

Because they depend heavily on advertising, preventing scams is critical for social networks such as Facebook or Twitter. In Facebook’s pre-IPO filing, I saw no mention of scams in the Risk Factors section, except in vaguest of terms. As for Twitter, all we know is the true audience is much smaller than the company says it is: Business Insider calculated that, out of the 175 million accounts claimed by Twitter, 90 million have zero followers.

For now, the system stills holds up. Brands remain convinced that their notoriety is directly tied to the number of fan/followers they claim — or their ad agency has been able to channel to them. But how truly efficient is this? How large is the proportion of bogus audiences? Today there appears to be no reliable metric to assess the value of a fan or a follower. And if there is, no one wants to know.


Strange Facebook Economics

Exactly three years ago, Charlie Rose interviewed Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape and Facebook board member. In his trademark rapid-fire talk, Marc shared his views on Facebook. (Keep the February 2009 context in mind: the social network had 175 million users and Microsoft had just made an investment setting Facebook’s valuation at $15 billion.)

About Mark Zuckerberg’s vision:

The big vision basically is — I mean the way I would articulate it is connect everybody on the planet, right? So I mean [there are] 175 million people on the thing now. Adding a huge number of users every day. 6 billion people on the planet. Probably 3 billion of them with modern electricity and maybe telephones. So maybe the total addressable market today is 3 billion people. 175 million to 3 billion is a big challenge. A big opportunity.

About monetization:

There’s a lot of confusion out there. Facebook is deliberately not taking the kind of normal brand advertising that a lot of Web sites will take. So you go to a company like Yahoo which is another fantastic business and they’ve got these banner ads and brand ads all over the place, Facebook has made a strategic decision not to take a lot of that business in favor of building its own sort of organic business model; and it’s still in the process of doing that and if they crack the code, which I think that thy will, then I think it will be very successful and will be very large. The fallback position is to just take normal advertising. And if Facebook just turned on the spigot for normal advertising today, it’d be doing over a billion dollars in revenue. So it’s much more a matter of long term (…)  It could sell out the homepage and it would start making just a gigantic amount of money. So there’s just tremendous potential and it’s just a question exactly how they choose to exploit it. What’s significant about that is that Mark [Zuckerberg] is very determined to build a long term company.

In another interview last year, commenting on Facebook’s generous cumulated funding ($1.3 billion as of January 2011), Andreessen said the whole amount actually was a shrewd investment as it translated into an acquisition cost of a “one or two dollars per user” ($1.53 to be precise), which sounded perfectly acceptable to him.

Now, take a look at last week’s pre-iPO filing: Marc Andreessen was right both in 2009 and in 2011.

Last year, each of the 845 million active members brought $4.39 in revenue and $1.18 in net income. Even better, based on the $3.9 billion in cash and marketable securities on FB’s balance sheet, each of these users generated a cosy cash input of $1.53 dollars.

How much is the market expected to value each user after the IPO? Based on the projected  $100 billion valuation, each Facebooker would carry a value of $118. Keep this number in mind.

How does it compare with other media and internet properties?

Take LinkedIn: The social network for professionals is fare less glamorous than Facebook, a fact reflected in its members’ valuation. Today, LinkedIn has about 145 millions users, for a $7.7 billion market cap; that’s a value of $57 per user, half a Facebooker. A bit strange considering LinkedIn demographics, in theory much more attractive than Facebook advertising wise. (See a detailed analysis here). Per user and per year, LindkedIn makes $3.5 in revenue and $0.78 in profit.

Let’s now switch to traditional medias. Some, like the New York Times, were put on “deathwatch” by Marc Andreessen three years ago.

Assessing the number of people who interact with NYT brands is quite difficult. For the company’s numerous websites, you have to deal with domestic and global reaches: 43 millions UVs for the Times globally, 60 millions for its guide site About.com, etc. Then, you must take into account print circulation for the NY Times and the Boston Globe, the numbers of readers per physical copy, audience overlaps between businesses, etc.

I’ll throw an approximate figure of 50 million people worldwide who, one way or the other, are in some form of regular contact with one of the NYT’s brands. Based on today’s $1.14 billion market cap, this yields a valuation of $23 per NYT customer, five times less than Facebook. That’s normal, many would say. Except for one fact: In 2011, each NYT customer brought $46 in revenue, almost ten times more than Facebook. As for the profit (a meager $56 million for the NYT), each customer brought a little more than a dollar.

I did the same math with various media companies operating in print, digital, broadcast and TV. Gannett Company, for instance, makes between $50 and $80 per year in revenue  per customer, and, depending on the way you count, the market values that customer at about $50.

Indeed, measured by trends (double digit growth), global reach and hype, Facebook or LinkedIn are flying high while traditional medias are struggling; when Facebook achieves a 47% profit margin, Gannett or News Corp are in the 10% range.

Still. If we pause at today’s snapshot, Facebook economics appear out of touch with reality: each customer brings then times less than legacy media, and the market values that customer up to five times more. And when News Corp gets a P/E of 17, Gannett a P/E of 8, Facebook is preparing to offer shares a multiple of 100 times its earnings and 25 times its revenue. Even by Silicon Valley ambitious standards, market expectation for Facebook seems excessive: Apple is worth 13 times its earnings and Google 20 times.

Facebook remains a stunning achievement: it combines long term vision, remarkable execution, and a ferociously focused founder. But, even with a potential of 3 billion internet-connected people in 2016 vs. 1.6 billion in 2010 (a Boston Consulting Group projection), it seems the market has put Facebook in a dangerous bubble of its own.


Refining the Model

Let’s come back to the business model question. My January 15 column featuring a Simple Model for digital newspapers triggered a number of emails and comments, many  questioning my assumptions (my thanks to readers of the Monday Note who take the time to make insightful contributions to the discussion).

Let’s see if we can sort through the questions and come up with a few helpful answers.

1 / Advertising revenue. Let me set the backdrop here. My model projects what I’ll call a mature market. First and foremost, time spent vs. ad spending for print, web and mobile, which currently looks look this…

Source: Internet Trends, Mary Meeker, KPCB Oct 2011

… will have morphed into a graph showing more balance between categories. In my projections, ad spending converges to time effectively spent on various medias. Also, we’ll see a sharp rise of the mobile segment, and a sub-segment made by tablets will carry its specific business model (apps, subscription, ads).
This will happen at the expense of the print media, a sector that, considering the time people now spent on it, is still vastly over-invested. Dailies are bound to suffer more than weeklies (or Sunday editions) because their primary function (delivering news) collides with mobile devices. Having said that, newspapers will survive (after further shrinkage) thanks to an unabated base of loyal readers ready to pay almost any price for their favorite daily. This is the rationale behind recent price hikes (see Cracking the Paywall). In Europe, I see all quality papers priced at 2€ within two to three years and I don’t believe such prices will accelerate reader depletion. Holding print prices up might be critical for survival.

On this topic, this is the email I received from Jim Moroney, publisher and CEO of the Dallas Morning News:

  • On May 1, 2009, The Dallas Morning News raised home delivery rates across the board by 40%. The price increase was even greater for the most geographically distant delivery.
  • We doubled daily single copy price to $1.00 and Sunday single copy price to $3.00 in two steps each.
  • Today we yield 93% of our retail rate, i.e., we are doing very little discounting. Lots of papers claiming to raise their home delivery rates and then turnaround and offer discount after discount. If the most valuable asset we have is the content we originate, as an industry, why do we keep deeply discounting it as if it were damaged goods?
  • Our home delivery rate is $36.95 per month, making it the third highest priced metro in the U.S. after NYT and Boston Globe.
  • In March, we made all access to what we distribute digitally paid access.
  • Website, iPad and smartphone are $9.99 each per month. All digital access is $16.95 per month.
  • So there is a lowly metro doing something akin to the NYT and FT.

Also, because of its unique advertising value proposition, I won’t sell short print media. In a nutshell, no one expects a Dior campaign to look as gorgeous on the screen of a computer or on the 4-inches display of a smartphone as it does on quality print. For such high-priced ads, print is likely to remain vastly superior for a long time — and should therefore be part of any well-rounded business strategy.

Coming back to digital media, in my view, a mature market also means a clean one. Today, many news websites URLs have very little to do with editorial. In places, the number of URLs whose only purpose is to gather “eyeballs” represents as much as 30% to 40% of all page views.
Look at what Le Monde does: when you look at a web page through Readability (an app that basically extracts relevant text), you see every verb appear in red and linking to… Le Monde’s grammar conjugation service:

That’s good for SEO shenanigans. Nothing is too petty to churn audience numbers (and Le Monde is no worse than its competitors)

To sum up, here is why I think prices on the internet are likely to go up in a near (2-3 years) future :

  • a cleaner internet will yield a much better performance advertising-wise than it does today,
  • inventories will have to be limited (read: closed down). No market whatsoever can withstand the type of unlimited supply we see today on the web. In our current oversupply situation, we often see more than half of the pages sold for a CPM below one dollar or euro,
  • as discussed before, we can expect a strong adjustment on ad spending vs. time spent, it will benefit digital media,
  • the ad market suffers greatly from current economic conditions (debt,  political tensions abroad, elections in several countries, uncertainties everywhere…) Those won’t last forever.

My mention of a $20 CPM sounded overly optimistic to many readers? It is by today’s standards, no doubt. But once a number of adverse factors are attended to, I think the $20 assumption will hold (and, by the way, I’m referring to revenue per page, not per module).

2 / Subscription revenue. Many are challenging my 10% transformation rate (one reader out of ten willing to pay $10 a month in my model.) Objection taken. Again, my projections go beyond today’s deflated market. It will take a while to get to 10% when a large site such as the New York Times is at 1% or 2%. And converting readers to pay something/somehow will require imagination beyond single pricing; I’m told large newspapers charging $15 or $25 a month are considering low-cost subscriptions plans as low as $5 per month to capture young readers and boost their conversion rate. From an editorial product perspective though, I’m a bit skeptical. What will such a downgraded offer look like: stricter paywall; low-cost apps?

3 / Mobile apps. Although I explored this issue in previous Monday Notes (see The Capsule’s Price and Mobile First, and a Mag), I should have been more forthcoming about mobile apps. My belief is this: overtime, thanks their greater ability to carry subscriptions and high yield ads, apps, not web sites, will be the path to decent ARPUs.

I will acknowledge another misconception in my plans and leave it to Vin Crosbie, new media professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, New York, who commented my piece in the Guardian.

Here’s the crux: Even if Federic’s model could work for a national daily, will it scale to work for the average newspaper? Maybe NYT, WSJ, or USAToday could eek out 2% profit margin using it, but what of the other 1,412 daily newspapers in the U.S., the average-sized of which is 18,000 daily circulation? Do the math. [...] Look at the paltry signup rate NYT has achieved. Scaled to a 18,000 circulation daily, NYT’s results would mean less than 180 paying online subscribers.

Vin is basically right. One of the tragedies of the digital media model is this: unlike the newspaper model, it doesn’t scale down well. There are plenty of local web sites faring well, but none comes close to supporting a 200 staff newsroom costing $25 or $27 million to operate.


Piracy is part of the digital ecosystem

In the summer of 2009, I found myself invited to a small party in an old bourgeois apartment with breathtaking views of the Champ-de-Mars and Eiffel Tower. The gathering was meant to be an informal discussion among media people about Nicolas Sarkozy’s push for the HADOPI anti-piracy bill. The risk of a heated debate was very limited: everyone in this little crowd of artists, TV and movie producers, and journalists, was on the same side, that is against the proposed law. HADOPI was the same breed as the now comatose American PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) and SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). The French law was based on a three-strikes-and-you-are-disconnected system, aimed at the most compulsive downloaders.

The discussion started with a little tour de table, in which everyone had to explain his/her view of the law. I used the standard Alcoholic Anonymous introduction: “I’m Frederic, and I’ve been downloading for several years. I started with the seven seasons of The West Wing, and I keep downloading at a sustained rate. Worse, my kids inherited my reprehensible habit and I failed to curb their bad behavior. Even worse, I harbor no intent to give up since I refuse to wait until next year to see a dubbed version of Damages on a French TV network… In can’t stand Glenn Close speaking French, you see…” It turned out that everybody admitted to copious downloading, making this little sample of the anti-Sarkozy media elite a potential target for HADOPI enforcers. (Since then, parliamentary filibuster managed to emasculate the bill.)

When it come to digital piracy, there is a great deal of hypocrisy. One way another, everyone is involved.

For some large players — allegedly on the plaintiff side — the sinning even takes industrial proportions. Take the music industry.

In October 2003, Wired ran this interesting piece about a company specialized in tracking entertainment contents over the internet. BigChampagne, located in Beverly Hills, is for the digital era what Billboard magazine was in the analog world. Except that BigChampagne is essentially tracking illegal contents that circulates on the web. It does so with incredible precision by matching IP numbers and zip code, finding out what’s hot on peer-to-peer networks. In his Wired piece, Jeff Howe explains:

BigChampagne’s clients can pull up information about popularity and market share (what percentage of file-sharers have a given song). They can also drill down into specific markets – to see, for example, that 38.35 percent of file-sharers in Omaha, Nebraska, have a song from the new 50 Cent album.

No wonder some clients pay BigChampagne up to 40,000$ a month for such data. They  use BigChampagne’s valuable intelligence to apply gentle pressure on local radio station to air the very tunes favored by downloaders. For a long time, illegal file-sharing has been a powerful market and promotional tool for the music industry.

For the software industry, tolerance of pirated contents has been part of the ecosystem for quite a while as well. Many of us recall relying on pirated versions of Photoshop, Illustrator or Quark Xpress to learn how to use those products. It is widely assumed that Adobe and Quark have floated new releases of their products to spread the word-of-mouth among creative users. And it worked fine. (Now, everyone relies on a much more efficient and controlled mechanism of test versions, free trials, video tutorials, etc.)

There is no doubt, though, that piracy is inflicting a great deal of harm on the software industry. Take Microsoft and the Chinese market. For the Seattle firm, the US and the Chinese markets are roughly of the same size: 75 million PC shipments in the US for 2010, 68 million in China. There, 78% of PC software is pirated, vs. 20% in the US; as a result, Microsoft makes the same revenue from the Chinese than from… the Netherlands.

More broadly, how large is piracy today? At the last Consumer Electronic Show, the British market intelligence firm Envisional Ltd. presented its remarkable State of Digital Piracy Study (PDF here). Here are some highlights:
- Pirated contents accounts for 24% of the worldwide internet bandwidth consumption.
- The biggest chunk is carried by BitTorrent (the protocol used for file sharing); it weighs about 40% of the illegitimate content in Europe and 20% in the US (including downstream and upstream). Worldwide, BitTorrent gets 250 million UVs per month.
- The second tier is made by the so-called cyberlockers (5% of the global bandwidth), among them the infamous MegaUpload, raided a few days ago by the FBI and the New Zealand police. On the 500 million uniques visitors per month to cyberlockers, MegaUpload drained 93 million UVs. (To put things in perspective, the entire US newspaper industry gets about 110 million UVs per month). The Cyberlockers segment has twice the users but consumes eight times less bandwidth than BitTorrent simply because files are much bigger on the peer-to-peer system.
- The third significant segment in piracy is illegal video streaming (1.4% of the global bandwidth.)

There are three ways to fight piracy: endless legal actions, legally blocking access, or creating alternative legit offers.

The sue-them-untill-they-die approach is mostly a US-centric one. It will never yield great results (aside from huge legal fees) due to the decentralized nature of the internet (there is no central servers for BitTorrent) and to the tolerance in countries in harboring cyberlockers.

As for law-based enforcement systems such has the French HADOPI or American SOPA/PIPA, they don’t work either. HADOPI proved to be porous as chalk, and the US lawmakers had to yield to the public outcry. Both bills were poorly designed and inefficient.

The figures compiled by Envisional Ltd. are indeed a plea for the third approach, that is the  creation of legitimate offers.

Take a look at the figures below, which shows the peak bandwidth distribution between the US and Europe. You will notice that the paid-for Netflix service takes exactly the same amount of traffic as BitTorrent does in Europe!

US Bandwidth Consumption:

Europe Bandwidth Consumption:

Source : Envisional Ltd

These stats offer a compelling proof that creating legitimate commercial alternatives is a good way to contain piracy. The conclusion is hardly news. The choice between pirated and legit content is a combination of ease-of-use, pricing and availability on a given market. For contents such as music, TV series or movies, services like Netflix, iTunes or even BBC iPlayer go in the right direction. But one key obstacle remains: the balkanized internet (see a previous Monday Note Balkanizing the Web), i.e. the country zoning system. By slicing the global audience in regional markets, both the industry (Apple for instance) and the local governments neglect a key fact: today’s digital audience is getting increasingly multilingual or at least more eager to consume contents in English as they are released. Today we have entertainment products, carefully designed to fit a global audience, waiting months before becoming available on the global market. As long as this absurdity remains, piracy will flourish. As for the price, it has to match the ARPU generated by an advertising-supported broadcast. For that matter, I doubt a TV viewer of the Breaking Bad series comes close to yield an advertising revenue that matches the $34.99 Apple is asking for the purchase of the entire season IV. Maintaining such gap also fuels piracy.

I want Netflix, BBC iPlayer and an unlocked and cheaper iTunes everywhere, now. Please. In the meantime, I keep my Vuze BitTorrent downloader on my computer. Just in case.


Trying a Simple Model

Advertising still dominates the newspaper revenue model. Depending upon the particular country, it is not uncommon to see print dailies getting 70% to 80% of their revenue from advertising. In the early days of the digital era, when business plans were driven by “eyeballs”, everybody hoped to replicate the tried and true print advertising revenue model. Now, the collective hallucination has dissipated; a more down-to-earth vision prevails: publishers willing to preserve high quality (read: costly) journalism recognize they have no choice but getting their users to pay for it, one way another. The pendulum has swung back.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. You’ll be able to charge readers if you put yourself in a position to propose exclusive, unique contents. To do so, you’ll have to put together an strong line-up of professionals, as opposed to a blogger army whose output no one will ever pay a dime for.Next questions include: how much to charge ? Is it 10 (dollars euros, pounds), 20 or more?  What free-to-pay conversion rate to aim at? Can we shoot for 5%, 10% or more of the overall audience? How does a full digital operation look like?

Let’s dive into numbers for a back-of-the-envelope exercise.

First, assumptions: The following is based on my observations of markets in Europe (France, UK, Scandinavia) and the United states; numbers may vary but I trust none are widely off the mark.

In the print world, costs break down as follows:

Production, printing............25%
Marketing promotion.............20%

Now let’s move to a fully digital operation derived from a traditional one in terms of journalistic firepower and standards.

To produce it, we’ll settle for a 200 staff newsroom, with writers, editors, data journalists, information-graphic designers, videographers, etc. We removed the staff working on the dead-tree model. With 200 dedicated people working for an online operation, you can really shoot the for stars. Such a setup costs between $25 and $30 million a year, all expenses included. Let’s settle for a middle $27 million.

Production costs fall sharply as the carbon-based version is gone. The old 45% production and printing line morphs into a conservative 15% for serving web pages and applications. We’ll assume all other costs (marketing, promotion, administrative) remain at the same level.

The cost table now looks like this:

Newsroom...............27M$......40% of the total
Production, technical..10M$......15%
Marketing promotion....20M$......30%
Total Costs............67M$ 

Now, let’s turn to the revenue side.

First: advertising revenue. We assume a real audience of 5 million Unique Visitors per month. By real audience, I mean no cheating, no bogus viewers, reasonable SEM and excellent SEO. People come to the site, stick to it and come back. Each user sees at least 20 pages a month. That’s on the high side. By comparison, Google Ad Planner gives the following page views per UVs:

NYT.........15 pageviews per user and per month (distant paywall)
WSJ.........14 (some paid-for section)
FT.com......11 (strict paywall)
Guardian....14 (free)

20 pages is therefore an ambitious goal. I’m convinced it can be achieved through high-performance recommendation engines (look at what Amazon does in terms of its ability to get people to click on related items).

5 million UVs multiplied by 20 pages views gives (thank you) 100 million PV. Now, let’s assume each page generate a CPM (for several modules) of $20. That’s an average as not all pages yield the same amount: parts of the inventory will go unsold, but pages served to high value, paid-for subscribers will generate twice that amount. This translates into a yearly revenue of $24 million, that is around 5 advertising dollars per visitor per year.

Again: it will vary, but it is consistent with what we see on the market for high quality, branded, publications. (By contrast, even the greatest blogs only yield one or two dollars per user).

Two, subscription revenue. Since our audience is solid and loyal to the brand, we will assume 10% of all readers will be willing to pay. Make no mistake: that is the transformation rate a newspapers such as the New York Times is aiming at (it is currently at 1%, still a long way to go). My take is a general news operation will be price-sensitive, meaning the transformation rate with a $9.99 a month price will be significantly higher than with $15 or $20 per month; by contrast, a specialized publication is less rate-sensitive and can be pricier.

In my model of a general news product, I set the price to $10 a month, which makes the one-tenth conversion rate more realistic. Then, I factor in two items:
- 15% taxes (it ranges from 8% in the US to 20% in France)
- a 13% cost of platform including transaction, database, etc (that’s should be a goal as Google OnePass charges 10%); this line is distinct from the technical costs applied to the entire digital operation.

All of the above taken into account, a digital subscriber paying $10 month will generate a net ARPU of $89 a year for the company. Multiplied by 0.5 million paid-for users (i.e.10% of the global audience), this translates into a revenue of $44 million for digital subscribers.

The revenue table now looks like this:

Advertising......24M$...35% of the total

$68 million in revenue for a cost of $67 million (all numbers rounded), leaves a mere 2% operating margin. Nothing to brag about. It could easily translate into an accounting loss, especially since it will take a while to reach several of these goals: a 10% free-to-paid transformation rate, a high number of pages per viewers, both are several years (of losses) away for many publications.
But these are the only dials I set on the ambitious side; the rest (subscription price, audience), is rather conservative; for instance if you simply set the subscription rate at $12 a month instead of $10 — that is fifty cents per weekday — the operating margin jumps to 13%.
And I also set aside many things I firmly believe in, like keeping some print operation in the form of a compact, high-end weekly for instance (with a staff of 200, it sounds feasible), developing ancillary products such as digital book publishing, etc.

Once again, while I feel my numbers are well-grounded, others will find this little model simplistic and questionable. The simulation is aimed at showing there is a life after the death of the daily print edition. Success is a “mere matter” of persistence.