The 132-year-old Canadian newspaper has dumped its weekday paper. From now on, its only vectors will be its iPad app and the Saturday paper. This move is the culmination of a process started five years ago.
The 132-year-old Canadian newspaper has dumped its weekday paper. From now on, its only vectors will be its iPad app and the Saturday paper. This move is the culmination of a process started five years ago.
Behind Blendle’s facade lies a complex set of tools aimed at expanding the reach of paid-for editorial: a recommendation engine; the possibility for publishers to use parts of Blendle’s back office for content optimization; a revisited transaction system, all of which could have serious impact on the news ecosystem. Here is a peek under Blendle’s hood.(This is the second part of a series. Part one is here.)
The Dutch micropayment platform for articles is taking off in spectacular fashion. Its foray into the German market delivers another proof of publishers’ interest in the kind of business model Blendle embodies. But, down the road, Blendle sees itself as the main transactional infrastructure provider for quality journalism. In this first of two articles, we’ll look at Blendle’s key success factors.
An analysis of download times highlights how poorly designed news sites are. That’s more evidence of poor implementation of ads… and a strong case for ad blockers.
Forget the 70-30 split for subscription between publishers and distributors. Today, for publishers, the new norm is a 100%-70% split of ad revenues, depending on who sells the ad. For news distribution, re-intermediation will be intensely competitive.
Monetizing digital journalism requires one key ingredient: Causing quality contents to emerge from the internet’s background noise. New kinds of Content Management Systems and appropriate syntax can help in a decisive way.
by Frédéric Filloux
My last column about new valuations in digital media triggered an abundance of comments. Here are my responses and additions to the discussion.
The most revealing part of argument used by those who tweeted (800 of them), commented or emailed me, is how many wished things to remain simple and segregated: legacy vs. native media, content producers vs. service providers, ancestral performances indicators and, of course, the self-granted permission to a certain category of people to decide what is worthy. Too bad for cartesian minds and simplifiers, the digital world is blurring known boundaries, mixing company purposes of and overhauling the competitive landscape.
Let’s start with one point of contention:
Why throw LinkedIn, Facebook and old companies such as the NYTimes or the Guardian into the equation? That’s the old apples and oranges point some commenters have real trouble seeing past. Here is why, precisely, the mix is relevant.
Last Tuesday February 17, LinkedIn announced it had hired a Fortune reporter as its business editor. Caroline Fairchild is the archetypal modern, young journalist: reporter, blogger with a cause (The Broadsheet is her newsletter on powerful women), mastering all necessary tools (video editing, SEO tactics, partnerships) as she went from Bloomberg to the HuffPo, among other gigs. Here is what she says about her new job:
LinkedIn’s been around for 11 years and today publishes more than 50,000 posts a week (that’s roughly 10 NYTs per day) — but the publishing platform is still an infant, debuting widely less than a year ago. The rules and roles are being defined and redefined daily; experimenting is a constant.
Here we are: LinkedIn intends to morph into a major business news provider and a frontal competitor to established business media. Already, scores of guest columnists publish on a regular basis on LinkedIn, enjoying audiences many times larger than their DeLuxe appearances in legacy media. (For the record, I was invited to blend the Monday Note into LinkedIn, but the conditions didn’t quite make sense to us. Jean-Louis Gassée and I preferred preserving our independent franchise.)
For a $2.2bn revenue company such as LinkedIn, creating a newsroom aimed at the business community definitely makes sense and I simply wonder why it took them so long to go full throttle in that direction — not only with an avalanche of posts but with a more selective, quality-oriented approach. If it shows an ability to display properly value-added editorial, LinkedIn could be poised to become a potent publishing platform eventually competing with The Economist, Quartz, FT.com or Les Echos. All of it with a huge data analytics staff led by world-class engineers.
That’s why I think the comparison with established media makes sense.
As for Facebook, the argument is even more straightforward. Last October, I published a column titled How Facebook and Google Now Dominate Media Distribution; it exposed our growing dependence on social media, and the need to look more closely at the virtues of direct access as a generator of quality traffic. (A visit coming from social generates less than one page view versus 4 to 6 page views for direct access.) Facebook has become a dominant channel for accessing the news. Take a look at this table from Reuters Institute Report on Digital News Report (PDF here.)
There’s no doubt that these figures are now outdated as media’s quest to tap into the social reservoir has never been greater. (In passing, note the small delta between News Lovers and Casual Users.) It varies widely from one country to another, but about 40% of the age segment below 35 relies on social as its primary source for news… and when we say “social”, we mostly mean Facebook. Should we really ignore this behemoth when it comes to assess news economics? I don’t think so.
More than ever, Facebook deserves close monitoring. No one is eager to criticize their dope dealer, but Mark Zuckerberg’s construction is probably the most pernicious and the most unpredictable distributors the news industry ever faced.
For instance, even if you picked a given media for your FB newsfeed, the algorithm will decide how much you’ll see from it, based on your past navigation and profile. And numbers are terrible: as an example, only 16% of what the FT.com pushes on Facebook actually reaches its users, and that’s not a bad number when compared to the rest of the industry.
And still, the media sector continues to increase its dependence on social. Consider the recent change in the home page of NowThis, a clever video provider specialized in rapid-fire news clips:
No more home page! Implementing a rather bold idea floated years ago by BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith, NowThis recently decided to get rid of the traditional web access to, instead, propagate its content only via, from left to right: Tumbler, Kik, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. We can assume that this strategy is based on careful analytics (more on this in a future Monday Note.)
Among other questions raised by Monday Note readers: Why focus solely on the New York Times and why not include the Gannetts or McClatchys? It’s simply because, along with The Guardian or the FT.com, the NYT is substantially more likely to become predominantly a digital brand than many others in the (old) league.
To be sure, as one reader rightly pointed out, recent history shows how printed media that chose to go full digital end up losing on both vectors. Indeed, given the size of its print advertising revenue, the Times would be foolish to switch to 100% online — at least for now. However, the trends is there: a shrinking print readership, fewer points of copy sale, consequently higher cost of delivery… Giving up the idea of a daily newspaper (while preserving a revamped end-of-the-week offering) its just a matter of time — I’ll give it five years, not more. And the more decisive the shift, the better the results will be: Keep in mind that only 7 (seven!) full-time positions are assigned to the making of the Financial Times’ print edition; how many in the vast herd of money-losing, newspaper-obsessed companies?
Again, this is not a matter of advocating the disappearance of print; it is about market relevancy such as addressing niches and the most solvent readerships. The narrower the better: if your target group is perfectly identified, affluent, geographically bound — e.g. the financial or administrative district in big capital — a print product still makes sense. (And of course, some magazines will continue to thrive.)
Finally, when it comes to assessing valuations, the biggest divide lies between the static and the dynamic appreciation of the future. Wall Street analysts see prospects for the NYT Co. in a rather static manner: readership evolution, in volumes and structures, ability to reduce production expenditures, cost of goods — all of the above feeding the usual Discounted Cash Flow model and its derivatives… But they don’t consider drastic changes in the environment, nor signs of disruption.
Venture Capital people see the context in a much more dynamic, chaotic perspective. For instance: the unabated rise of the smartphone; massive shifts in consumer behaviors and time allocation; the impact of Moore’s or Metcalfe’s Laws (tech improvements and network effects); or a new breed of corporations such as the Full Stack Startup concept exposed by Andreessen Horowitz’ Chris Dixon (the man behind BuzzFeed valuation):
Suppose you develop a new technology that is valuable to some industry. The old approach was to sell or license your technology to the existing companies in that industry. The new approach is to build a complete, end-to-end product or service that bypasses existing companies.
Prominent examples of this “full stack” approach include Tesla, Warby Parker, Uber, Harry’s, Nest, Buzzfeed, and Netflix.
All of it is far more enthralling than promising investors a new print section for 2016, two more tabs on the website all manned by a smaller but more productive staff.
One analysis looks at a continuously evolving environment, the other places bets on an uncertain, discontinuous future.
The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn — The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde — we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline.
By contrast, native digital players propose a much brighter (although riskier) future wrapped in high octane concepts, such as: Transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone (Uber), or Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful (Google), or Redefining online advertising with social, content-driven publishing technology, [and providing] the most shareable breaking news, original reporting, entertainment, and video across the social web (BuzzFeed).
No wonder why some are big money attractors while others aren’t.
With its idea of creating “iTunes for the press”, Blendle rattles the news industry’s cage. In spite of blessings from The New York Times and Axel Springer, the shiny new thing might just be a mirage.
Last week, two young Dutch people came up with a string of magic words: “iTunes for the press”, “New York Times”, and “Axel Springer”. The founders of Blendle, Alexander Klöpping and Marten Blankesteijn, were promising a miracle cure to a sick industry: a global system for the distribution of editorial products (the iTunes reference), backed by the gold standard of digital journalism (The New York Times), and also supported by the European leader of the rebellion against Google (Axel Springer). Great casting, great promises. Like handing out Zmapp doses in an Ebola ward.
Blendle’s principle is to unbundle publications and sell stories by the slice, for €0.10 to €0.30 ($0.13 to $0.38) each. (Actually, on Blendle.nl, some articles shoot up to €0.89 or $1.11, publisher’s choice). Basically, you register and get €2.50 credit, browse a well-designed kiosk (or an equally good app), and cherry-pick what you want. Blendle added unique features such as the possibility of a refund for a story you don’t like; its founders saying its a mandatory feature for any e-commerce business (“returns” account for around 4% of transactions). Launched in April on the Dutch market, the service is a success: 135,000 subscribers so far. According to the founders, 20,000 to 30,000 are added each month. Not bad for a 16-million-people country that enjoys an internet penetration of 94%.
This indisputable success spread beyond Netherlands when Blendle announced The New York Times Company and Axel Springer SE had invested a combined €3m ($3.8m) in the startup. (For more on the subject, see coverages by Les Echos (in French), The Guardian, Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)
I see many reasons to cast strong doubt about Blendle’s sustainability as a global business, and I see no benefit for digital media. The idea of unbundling news content is an old one. I recall a 1995 conversation with Nicholas Negroponte, at the time head of MIT’s MediaLab. Back then, he envisioned exactly what Klöpping and Blankesteijn are trying to implement now (both were 8-year old at the time.)
Negroponte’s vision never materialized and there are many reasons for this.
The first one is the hyper-abundance of free content, especially in English, a notion completely overlooked by Blendle’s advocates. Years ago, I used to tell my colleagues at Schibsted ASA in Norway that their country was so small (4.5m inhabitants) and their market position so dominant, with the huge traffic machines of their large print and digital publications, that if they put out online text in Pashto, it would still drive serious audience numbers. (Schibsted became a $2.2bn global player thanks to a strong diversification strategy served by a remarkable execution.) In the case of Blendle, the Dutch language serves as a cordon sanitaire, a kind of firewall mostly shielding publishers from the interference of free contents. In other words, it makes a relative sense for De Volkskrant, NRC, or De Telegraaf to join Blendle since they are already well-positioned on a small market.
This cannot work for the English language and its 1.2 billion speakers spread across the world, including 350 million native speakers. Pick any subject in the news cycle — say, Blendle precisely. In a few clicks, I will get a 800 words story from the Economist, a 900 words one for the Guardian, another 700 words article for BusinessWeek and a 1600 words piece from TechCrunch. And I’m not mentioning the… 24,400 other “Blendle” references that pop-up in Google News. In this list, only The Economist intends to join the Dutch service. Hence my question: Would you pay even 20 cents to get the Economist story while a profusion of good coverage is available just one click away for free? Me neither.
Second reason for discounting the Blendle model: News media have always built their business on a “cross-subsidy” system. Quite often, high audience stories — that don’t even cost much to produce (sports as an example), support low audience but costly reporting such as foreign coverage or “enterprise journalism” (that is when editor decide to assign large resources to go after a worthwhile subject –needless to say, this concept has become an endangered species.) Granted, a media powerhouse such as The New York Times still produces unique contents that justify paying for it (about the recent NYT economics, read Ken Doctor’s piece on NiemanLab). But I doubt that a buy-by-the-slice Blendle revenue will contribute for more than a fraction of a percentage point to the $200m a year cost of operating the Grey Lady’s 1300-staff newsroom.
Third reason: Lack of serendipity. A well-edited media — print or digital — is a clever assemblage of diversified subjects aimed a triggering readers’ curiosity for topics outside their usual range of interests. That’s not likely to work in Blendle’s model, because it relies on three entry points — Trending, Realtime and StaffPicks — that actually transfer the classical user-induced serendipity to the editors of the service. I doubt lots of media are actually willing to give up the opportunity to capture reader’s attention on the widest possible spectrum by leaving the reins in Blendle’s hands.
Fourth reason: Advertising loss. While digital ads is mostly a failure for the news industry, separating ads from content sounds like a weird idea. Today, publishers are working hard to get a more granular profile of their audiences in order to serve them with more relevant contents, tailored ads, and ancillary products. Content dissemination won’t help this process.
Why then do the NYT and Springer, both strongly attached to the value of their editorial production, jump aboard this boat? For the Times, it might have to do with the idea of diversifying revenue streams in every possible ways by extracting more dollars for its vast supply of occasional readers. Axel Springer’s motive is different. The German giant is literally obsessed with undermining Google’s de facto position in the news sector. Hence the bets it takes here and there, buying the French search engine Qwant or taking over the babbling Open Internet Project. Both choices are far from promising high potential, scalable moves.
Publishers who are tempted by the Blendle model also choose to ignore the damage suffered by the music industry. Once the user was given the opportunity to buy each song separately (for a dollar, not 20 cents), the ARPU quickly collapsed, and there was no turning back. Also, at the time, the paid-for music was not competing against free content — except for piracy — in the way that today’s paid contents have to face a profusion of free editorial, sometimes excellent.
And finally, let’s not forget that the original “iTunes model” is not as shiny as it used to be. For Apple, its ARPU went from $4.3 per user for Q1 2012, to $1.9 per user for Q1 2014, a 56% drop. The reason: Users are massively switching to the flat-fee/no ownership model of music streaming (hence Apple bet on Beats.)
Even before it reached news media, the iconic iTunes system was already seriously damaged.
Ten years. That’s how far away in the past the Google IPO lies. Ten years of explosive growth for the digital world, ten gruesome years for legacy media. Here is the lost decade, revisited in charts and numbers.
The asymmetry is staggering. By every measure, the digital sphere grew explosively thanks to a combination of known factors: a massive influx of capital; the radical culture shift fostered by a “blank slate” approach; obsessive agility in search of new preys; flattened hierarchies; shrugged-off acceptance of failure; refocusing on the customer; a keen sense of competition; heavy reliance to technology…
By showing neither appetite nor will to check theses boxes, the newspaper and magazine industry missed almost every possible train. In due fairness, some were impossible to catch. But legacy media stubbornly refused to overhaul their culture, they remained stuck in feudal hierarchies, invested way too late in tech. And, perhaps their cardinal sin, they kept treating failure as an abomination instead of an essential component of the innovation process.
Consequences have been terrible. Today, an entire industry stands on the verge of extinction.
Le’s start with stock performance:
At last Friday’s closing, Google was worth $390bn, the New York Times Company $1.85bn, Gannett $7.62bn (82 dailies and 480 non-dailies, TV stations, digital media properties, etc.) and McClatchy $392m (multiples dailies, digital services…)
In 2003, Google was minuscule compared to the newspaper industry:
Between 2003 and 2013, Google revenue grew by 60x. In the meantime, according to Newspapers Association of America data, the total revenue of the US newspaper industry shrank by 34%. While sales (newsstand and subscriptions) remain steady at $11bn in current dollars, print advertising revenue plunged by 61%.
For the newspaper industry, the share digital advertising, despite growing by 180%, remained way too small: it only grew from 2.6% to 14.5% and was therefore unable to offset the loss in print ads.
The split in valuation and revenue, inevitably reflected on investors perception in terms of funding :
In the chart above, Flipboard’s huge funding (and an undisclosed but tiny ad revenue), was used mostly to grab market share and eliminate competition. Flipboard did both, swallowing Zite (a far better product, in my view) for a reported $60m, i.e. $9 per user (the seller, CNN, achieved a good upside, while, regrettably, it had been unable to build upon Zite). The Huffington Post was acquired by AOL for $315m in 2011, an amount seen as ridiculous at the time, but consistent with today’s valuation of similar properties. In the newspaper segment, The Washington Post was acquired last year by Jeff Bezos for $250m; Le Monde was acquired by a triumvirate of investors led by telecom magnate Xavier Niel for $110m on 2010; and the Boston Globe was sold by The NYT for $70m when the Times purchased it for… $1.1bn in 1993.
For the newspaper industry, the only consolation is the reader’s residual value when compared to high audience but low yield digital pure players:
In the chart above, Vox Media’s reader value differs widely: Google Analytics grants it 80 million unique visitors per month; Quantcast says 65 million; and ComScore sees 30 million – such discrepancies are frequent, a part of the internet’s charm. As for Le Monde, thanks to the restoration of its P&L (even if its finances seem a little too good to be true), it’s fair to say its reader’s value could be much more than €7, a number based on the 2010 price tag and a combined audience of 14.9m viewers. These numbers include duplicated audiences of 8.8m in print, 7.9m for the fixed web and 3.2m on mobile (source Audipresse One Global, July 2014).
The reader value gap between between digital players and legacy platforms also raises the question of investment attractiveness. Why does VC money only flocks to new, but low yield digital media?
This is a matter of discussion for next week.