online publishing

The 2010 Media Watch List

No predictions, just a few of many hot topics for the newborn year.

Paywalls. 2010 could see a significant number of newspapers jumping into the paid-for option. Among the conditions to be met:

- Grouping around a toll collector. It could be Journalism Online in the US, a big media group in Europe, or even Google — should a truce occur between the search giant and publishers. From the user’s standpoint, the payment intermediary must be friction free, able to operate on any platform (web, mobile) and across brands.
Publishers will have to devise a clever price structure. If a knee-jerk move takes them back to the tired basic-content vs. premium-content duality, they are doomed.
- State-of-the-art web analytics affords much more refined tactics around users, platforms segmentation, etc. In addition, a paid-for system must be able to deal with many sources of income, such as monthly subscriptions, pay by-the-click, metering system based on downloads, time spent, etc.
- Publishers must act in concert. In every market, the biggest players will have to carefully coordinate their move to paid-models: everybody must jump at the same time. This is easier said than done: there is always the risk a rogue player will “cheat”, that is break the pact in order to secure a better market position. Also, too much “coordination” could encourage a disgruntled competitor to sue on anti-trust grounds.Daily newspapers shifting to periodicals. How many dailies in the world will shift from seven or five issues a week to three or two? Undoubtedly, many. This is a better trend than it sounds. For breaking news, print is no longer relevant, but it will remain the medium of choice for long-form pieces. Newspapers publishing a few times a week will gain by becoming more magazine-like in their news coverage; they’ll save their story-breaking capabilities for web versions. In this regard, the mobile web will soon become bigger than the original, PC-based variant.
The “instant web” such as Twitter and its offspring will thrive in 2010. The likeliest offshoot is video-twittering as pocket size camcorders continue to spread (see Gizmodo comparison here). These will be supplemented by an upcoming generation of high-definition devices with Net connectivity through wifi or 3G networks.

Advertising Disintermediation. The media buying side is definitely not the sector to be in for the next decade. First of all, ad spending will continue its adjustment to the actual time spent on various medias. In 2008, print captured 20% of advertising dollars for only 8% of the time spent; in comparison, digital got 29% or our time but 8% of ad spending. Those numbers, those discrepancies tell us the correction is far from over.
Unless they devise smarter ways to analyze web audiences (see below, the audience measurement issue) and, as a result, clearly define the true value of each group of users, there is no longer a need for the media buyers’ costly intermediation. The trend is there: the most agile web sites will go directly to brands and advertisers, they will propose sophisticated integration mechanisms for their sites and mobile platforms. So do social networks such as the 25m users French Skyrock (see our case study).
Anyway, Google will settle the intermediation issue as its boss candidly puts it in Ken Auletta’s books (1): “Google wants to be the agent that sells the ads on all distribution platforms, whether it is print, television, radio or the internet. (…) As our technology gets better, we will be able to replace some of their [large companies] internal captive sales forces”. Media buyers, consider yourself notified: you’re toast.
As for the creative side, we hope advertising agencies will, at last, wake up and think of new ways to integrate their messages in digital media layouts (as in print), rather than trying to divert users away from media sites (see previous Monday Note on the inherent design flaws of the internet). More

Learning from free Classifieds

What can we learn from classifieds web sites? Are there some features, strategies that could apply to online news media? On Google.fr, one of the most searched terms is “Le bon coin” (the good spot). (1Leboncoin.fr, is a free classifieds site that ranks n°7 on the French market. It generates stunning monthly numbers:

  • 4bn page views (a big news site makes between 100-300m pages views)
  • 9.4m unique visitors
  • 1:10 hour spent per visitor (vs. 16-20 minutes for online newspapers)
  • 38 pages views per visitor
  • for each visit, a viewer will look at 37 pages, and will stay 16 minutes on the site
  • every single day, 300,000 new classifieds are posted by 200,000 users
  • in a single month, more than 2m people will place a classified ad.
  • the site carries an inventory of 9.5m classifieds (vs. 0.8m for ebay.fr).

All of this has been achieved in three years and by a team of 15. Leboncoin is part of a European strategy developed by the Norwegian media group Schibsted ASA: it started with Blocket in Sweden, and expanded to Segundamano in Spain, Subito in Italy, and more recently Custo Justo in Portugal. In France, Leboncoin is a co-owned with Spir Communication (2).

After a careful look at this business and lengthy discussions with Leboncoin’s general manager’s Olivier Aizac, here are some ideas worth considering for news sites. More

Not on the same page. Ever.

Could Google and Publishers one day understand each other? Frankly, I doubt it. Two weeks ago I was in Hyderabad for the dual assembly of the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forums (1).
There, Google-bashing was the life of the party. As I told in last week’s Monday Note (see The Misdirected Revolt of the Dinosaurs) the climax was the “debate” between WAN’s president Gavin O’Reilly and Google’s top lawyer Dave Drummond. One comes from Alpha Centauri, the other from, say, Pandora. For those who want to get to the bottom of the argument, the publisher’s statement is here and Google’s top lawyer defense is here.

Dave Drummond after his speech (photo FF)

In a nutshell, publishers keep complaining about Google’s relentless copyright violations. Tireless Google robots crawl the internet, indexing and displaying snippets in Google News, without paying a red cent for the content they post. As a result, said Gavin O’Reilly, “Google makes tons of money on our back”.
Dave Drummond’s reply: “We send online news publishers of all types a billion clicks a month from Google News and more than 3 billion additional visits from Search and other Google services. That’s about 100,000 business opportunities – to serve ads or offer subscriptions – every minute. And we don’t charge anything for that!” He added that Google practices were fully compliant with the Fair Use principle.
Fair Use is “A tired rhetoric”, snapped O’Reilly.

At this point the discussion gets technical. And interesting. At stake is this a crucial evolution of copyright, from a binary form (authorized ≠ forbidden) to a more fuzzy concept (use is allowed but restrictions apply). This evolution of copyright is tied to the Creative Commons (coined by Law professor Lawrence Lessig), which define a sort of shape-adjustable notion of intellectual property. More

The misdirected revolt of the dinosaurs

The junkies are rebelling against their dealer. The dope is the traffic, and the dealer is Google. For years, the search giant flooded the market with an ideology built on the early 2000′s, ill-fated, get all eyeballs you can, the rest (i.e. monetization) will take care of itself.
Publishers have invested tons of money, energy and brainpower in order to follow The Google Way: designing sites, structures, pages, even setting editorial rules to gain audience. Any kind of audience, by any means necessary. Legions of Search Engines Optimization (SEO) consultants were enrolled to help implementing the new click-to-Grail.  At the same time, the so-called Search Engine Marketing (SEM) made a lot of expensive noise as media organizations were buying keywords to improve their ranking in search results, some of them spending as much as €100,000 a month in this digital heroin. At some point, for many sites, clicks coming from Google thanks to SEO compliance and aggressive SEM were contributing to 40% or 60% of their entire traffic.

Then, the tide reversed.

Publishers soon realized the Google windfall was not as high as expected. As the search giant kept thriving, their own revenue plummeted. Over the last 12 months, newspapers print and digital advertising revenues have melted: -16% in Western Europe, -19% in Central/ Eastern Europe and -21% in North America.  At the same time, Google is still cruising at a 35% operating margin altitude. The economic crisis and the structural problem of web sites (endless inventories inducing low prices) caused CPM (revenue of an ad per thousand viewers) to drop. This convinced publishers the advertising-based free model wasn’t going to fly. They told themselves that sometime, somehow, readers will have to pay, and that Google, with its all-you-can-eat, free-for-all system, was in fact “doing evil” to they dying business.

That was the backdrop for last week’s 62nd Conference of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) Congress and for the 16th World Editors Forum (WEF) I attended and spoke at, in Hyderabad, India. More

Negative-sum games

As if current economic conditions weren’t dire enough, several forces conspire to push the media sector’s financial performance further downward. These factors are an obsession with market share, price wars, and first movers’ ability to set the tone, often for the worse.

Take the iPhone application market as an example. At first, publishers were elated: at last, a content distribution platform with an embedded transaction system. They saw it as the first step to make customers pay for content. Then, another idea took over: market share. Like “eyeballs”, the old Internet Bubble de rigueur metric, market share is today’s mirage: once you get it, profit is (almost) sure to follow. Never mind there are zillions of companies that have once and for all severed the connection between market share and profit (Apple for computers, BMW in the auto industry, Nucor in steel production, name but a few).

Unfortunately, the first one who shoots for market share sets the standard, sometimes with surprising twists and turns. Take the Wall Street Journal: first-rate web site, highly successful business-wise with one million paid subscriptions (about $100/yr). When it came to the iPhone opportunity, guess what: they went for a free application loaded with pathetic ads — apparently locked on the saturation mode, the same banner kept showing endlessly. Just a few weeks ago, seeing a steep drop in profits, the WSJ.com reversed itself and restricted access to its app. More

The hype(r) local digital journalism

Everybody wants to go local. Internet-wise, it sounds like the new flavor of the month week. Going local is a digital and idealistic version of Mao Zedong’s “hundred flowers blossom”. (The Chinese dictator did actually encourage the expression of dissenting opinions; this turned out to have unpleasant consequences for those who took Dear Leader to his word). So, fine. Let’s see thousands of European and US cities generate a flurry of local websites covering city councils, local controversies, urban planning, etc. Every committed citizen will be able to monitor the community’s pulse just by clicking on a URL; it will be easy and efficient to launch (or to join) grassroots campaigns against the construction of an ugly overpass or for the clean-up a hazardous landfill. All of this is real.

As I write this, I listen to NYU professor Clair Shirky’s lecture delivered last September at the Harvard University Shorentsein Center (transcript and Video here). Always brilliant and convincing, Shirky revisited the 1992 pedophile priests scandal in Boston, one that was heavily covered by the Boston Globe, but died out due to a lack of resonance in the public. Evidently, today, things would have reverberated very differently.  So, yes, there is a useful future for local digital media.

Having said this, allow me to express a slightly skeptical view.

First, people tend to celebrate the hyperlocal web for the wrong reasons, that is the depletion of local coverage by traditional media. Last Thursday, I was at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston (UK) for its 12th Digital Editors Network. There, the British news agency Press Association presented a “Public Service Reporting” project. The PA would recruit legions of citizen journalists, they would be asked to comply with the agency’s ethics standards as they report on local issues. As for now, the PA is building several pilots and is looking for funding. Tony Johnston, The PA’s training chief who presented the case, stated its ambition: a network of 500 to 800 journalists costing £15m to £18m a year (€17-20m, $24-29m). In a preamble, he explained that the British newspapers’ shrinking local coverage paved the way to such an initiative (details in Journalism.co.uk here).

Well. There are two ways of considering such move. One is to say: Great, community members take over the coverage that matters to them, they use all available tools: social network, live blogging, Flip-camera produced videos, to give local stuff the exposure it needs.
Another view is this: Doing local journalism is as complicated as any other kind of reporting. Poring over local financial records requires the same amount of time, dedication and expertise as digging into a national political party’s finances. Yes, citizen-like journalists will do fine reporting on “lighter” issues such as the state of schools or of the sewage system. But uncovering and preventing what really matters, such as the misuse of public funding, rigged bidding procedures for large projects and so on is a very different story.

More broadly, a professional journalist is required to avoid take sides in doing his or her job. Leaving such coverage to self-appointed journalists is opening the pandora’s box to all kinds of agenda-driven reporting. More

The Long Tail: Coming Up Short.

The Long Tail is a beautiful intellectual construct. Beautiful, therefore right. Who wouldn’t want to see it succeed? Chris Anderson coined the term back in 2004, in a Wired magazine article. A skillfully marketed book followed, which turned out to be a bestseller (i.e. the the Tail’s profitable head). When the concept began to gain currency, we all experienced an epiphany: visions of soon-to-be revealed bonanzas lying in our stashes of books, music, or for us journalists, news material buried deep in the bowels of our web sites.

Five years later, doubt is setting in. Fact is: very few businesses have been able to extract money from the Long Tail. Of course, as Anderson predicted, when entire inventories become accessible online, some of the lowest selling items in catalogs do get their Day in the Sun. But, when it comes to converting exposure into cash, the result is a pitiful rounding error. Last week in Oslo, friends and I were discussing the Long Tail theory’s impact on the news business. It turned out everyone around the table shared the same suspicion. One such doubter directed me to a recently released research paper by two Wharton scholars. To challenge Anderson’s theory, Professor Serguei Netessine and his student Tom F. Tan pored over Netflix data.

For Monday Note readers outside of the US, Netflix is a (some say The) DVD rental company deploying a huge physical delivery system (2 million DVD sent each day, $300m a year in postage fees). For Anderson, Netflix is the Long Tail’s poster-child: a vast inventory made easily accessible thanks to the internet, with users smartly rating forgotten gems. Three years ago, Netflix launched the Netflix Prize, a crowd-powered contest aimed at improving its user ratings recommendation algorithm by 10% (quite a leap, actually). $1 million would go to the winner. To feed the math-freaks, Netflix opened its data vault, a boon to the Wharton scholars who hungrily dug into the 200-2005 numbers. Their study is called “Is Tom Cruise Threatened? Using Netflix Prize Data to Examine the Long Tail of Electronic Commerce,” (full text here , presentation  here). The key finding:

“The Wharton researchers disagree with Anderson’s theory and its implicit challenge to the Pareto principle, or so-called 80-20 rule, which in this case would state that 20% of the movie titles generate 80% of sales. Anderson argues that as demand shifts down the tail, the effect would diminish. Using Netflix data, Netessine and Tan show the opposite — an even stronger effect, with demand for the top 20% of movies increasing from 86% in 2000 to 90% in 2005″. More

A Case Study: Le Figaro’s Advertising Gamble

Let’s start with a counterintuitive move: At a time when, all over the world, publishers are  tired of the red-ink their printing plans produce and dream of dumping the dinosaurs, the historic French daily Le Figaro fires up this Monday a brand new €80M printing facility to launch a redesigned edition. Behind this apparently irrational decision lies a gutsy but calculated bet to change French advertising habits.



French  newspapers love what they call
Une Nouvelle Formule. As the Fall approached, the left-leaning Libération launched its own, then Le Monde retooled its weekly magazine. “Libé” is betting on an elegant graphic redesign; fine, but this is merely a diversion, a way to avoid painful challenges such as editorship, insightfulness, content relevance.
Le Monde Magazine wishes to reconnect an excellent but elitist magazine to the advertising market and, incidentally, to its readers. To beef up its mag operation, Le Monde brought in a new seasoned editor, a new art director and relies on an abundance of journalistic or photographic talent at and around the paper in order to produce high-quality content.
How these two initiatives will fare is too early to tell. Le Monde’s mag was launched Friday, as for the redesigned Libé, it is barely a week old.

Le Figaro’s move is both more ambitious and much riskier. First, let’s have a look at the company’s fundamentals. More

How to make readers pay for news

An idea is gaining momentum: online readers must open their wallet. In recent weeks, several suggestions for moving from wish to implementation have popped up. The latest one comes from Google. The company proposes to give a boost to its not-so-successful Checkout service by harnessing it to online newspapers interests. Quite a change here. Only a few months ago, Google’s haughty advice to the newspaper industry was : You’re on your own guys ; Darwin is in charge here ; adapt or face extinction. Last November in Paris, I personally witnessed Googlers’ poor performance in front of media barons — an embarrassing mixture of unpreparedness and arrogance. Some of us felt really sorry the search giant screwed up so badly.

Google was slow, but it finally got it. It understood that its position — “Thank us to the billion clicks a month we send to your sites, we bring value to your businesses, the rest is your problem” — was no longer defendable. Google can no longer ignore the dramatic deterioration of the news media sector. 
Here are key figures for the US market:
- The best recent period was 2005 ; that year, US newspapers reported a total advertising revenue of $49.4bn. 96% from print (35% from classifieds) and 4% from online. Since then, between 2005 and 2008, things changed dramatically :
Total ad revenue :…….. -23.4%
Print:………………………..-26,7% (and a drop in classifieds of -42.4%)
Online:……………………..+53,4%
It looks like this :

Now, to get a more precise and recent representation, let’s compare the last available quarter (Q2 2009), with the recession’s impact, to Q2 2005. Here is the evolution over four years :
Total ad revenue:……………-44%
Print:…………………………….-47% (classifieds dropping by : -64%)
Online:………………………….+30%

An important precision for the online ad revenue: it peaked in Q4 2007; since then it has dropped by 23% in Q2 2009. More

Web + Print: A Powerful Combo

In today’s context of massive revenue depletion, everyone (almost) agrees on one thing: digital media revenue sources will have to be diversified. There is no magic bullet, no dominant model that will guarantee, by itself, a sustainable revenue stream. Time to think the hybrid way.  Free will coexist with paid-for, different users (occasional vs. intensive) will be discreetly assigned different revenue models, platforms will diversify as technical standards for publishing or transactions emerge, opening new fields for monetization. Old churches and ideologies will crumble.

The biggest stimulus for such creativity is the collapse of the internet advertising model. On average, CPM (cost per thousand viewers) have dropped by 30% – 40% during the last twelve months and very few expect a recovery.  As far as booking rates are concerned, they are dropping as well. It is frequent to see only a mere 30% of pages inventories actually sold to advertisers. Unlike prices, this latter percentage is likely to bounce back at the first sign of economic relief.

But the classical advertising model’s weakness is more structural. The “old” banners / display stuff doesn’t fly as expected. People simply don’t click enough on those items and even sophisticated targeting yields minor relief. The only “healthy” segment is search ads, but it is dominated by the Google Way — a massively deflationary one. Successful medias will be the ones who manage to shake off the old cobwebs and proceed to rethink their relationship with the advertising sphere. It will be fairly easy for social or non-hard news sites, but true information content vehicles are likely to struggle with ethical issues…

As far as platforms are concerned, last week, we looked at smartphones: they’re on their way to become the main vector for news, whether it is for text or video. Numbers looks good: last year, according to IDC, on the 1.19 billion mobile phones sold worldwide 155 million (13%) where smartphones. In 2013, says IDC, 1.4 billion handsets will be sold, among them 280 million (20%) smartphones. And if anyone harbored any doubt regarding the ecosystem’s health, just consider the 65,000 applications available for the iPhone and the state of the competition. As explained in this Fortune magazine story, the sector is red-hot: since the iPhone introduction in june 2007, Blackberry quarterly sales have more than tripled. Even Google joined the fray with Android phones — and following a trajectory than will put the search engine to a collision course with Apple (see Jean-Louis’s column War in the Valley; Apple vs. Google).

Coming back to the title of today’s column, let’s talk about paper, the pulp, dead tree version. I can see many reasons why some sort of paper version can help. More