Rick Edmonds

Researcher and writer for Poynter Institute on business and journalism issues. Co author, State of the News Media 2006. ExSP Times and Phil Inquirer


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Parse.ly kicks its digital analytics toolkit up a gear

Parse.ly, one of the major players in the growing business of sophisticated measurement of digital audiences, is out with a new suite of services this morning.

“The conversation around what success means and how we measure it” continues to develop, CEO Sachin Kamdar told me in a phone interview. Eleven new Parse.ly metrics, like “breakout of traffic recirculation” aim to give publishers a range of tools they can match with differing objectives, he said.

The Parse.ly rollout is way more advanced than the general overview of analytics trends I provided in a post earlier this month — but consistent with it.

The concept, according to the company, is to unify insights on growth (as still measured by uniques and page views), engagement (as typically demonstrated by time spent) and the newer concern with loyalty (described by several as “time well spent” in my earlier piece).

In an essay on Medium January 9, responding to an earlier post by Medium and Twitter founder Evan Williams, Kamdar commented:

Just as we’ve heard an almost exhausting amount about “engagement” in 2014, I expect we’ll start to hear much more about actual value in the coming year. The VCs (venture capitalists) and meta-media are starting to look for blood in the water, and businesses won’t be able to defend a strategy that only has high engagement metrics to show for its troubles.

Kamdar told me the new service, already tested in beta with top clients, will supplant rather than supplement Parse.ly’s existing offerings within a matter of weeks.  Publishers will have flexibility in which features they order so the service could end up more or less expensive than its predecessor.

In a demo, Kamdar showed a sample breakout that would show reporter performance  over several weeks as measured by uniques and time spent per story.  One reporter might be bringing in more traffic, another engaging greater attention of the audience.

The company’s release describes multiple goals:

Beyond precise measurement of views, visitors, shares and time, the platform now includes breakouts of on-page attention, mobile devices and visitor retention. Publishers can use this data to identify high-quality long-form content, engaging images/videos, new traffic sources for distribution and audience interest segments that lead to loyalty.

Digital publishers use Parse.ly data throughout their organization, including: editorial teams that use Parse.ly’s reporting suite as a basis for weekly meetings with reporters; developers that create products to encourage on-site recirculation; analysts that use it to identify evergreen content; or, sales teams that create sponsored content reports for native advertising clients.

The release includes an endorsement from Conde Nast, among the most prominent of a client group including Fox News, Advance Digital, Reuters and Upworthy.  Coincidentally, Conde Nast, earlier this week, announced expansion of its native advertising/sponsored content efforts with editorial writers producing some of the pieces and expanded video capacity.

For a publisher focused on sponsored content, Kamdar told me, the metrics would let a publisher show a client how a campaign did over a period of weeks, which pieces performed best — and thus allow for adjustments and improvements.  His demo included such a dashboard for a Microsoft 3 series of sponsored content ads in November.

I’m not enough of a user of analytics to assess the merits of Parse.ly’s offering compared to those of competitors like Chartbeat or Google Analytics.  My editor Seth Liss uses all three and finds them helpful in different ways — so it is not necessarily an either-or decision for digital publishers.

Kamdar facetiously described Parse.ly as “an older company” among startups.  It was founded in 2009 as a news reader that could link a user to deeper content on a given subject.  But it morphed by 2012 into an emphasis on analytics. “The software (of the time) was not really built for publishers,” Kamdar said.  “They might be trying to adapt an Excel report for data that was really important to managing the business,” he said, and the tools were not well-matched to getting audience feedback.

The main purpose of the expanded service is to measure audience in more ways and finer detail, but Kamdar said there are various applications to other business challenges as well. “The ad industry is not going to change (from raw measures of traffic) as quickly as we might wish…,” he said, “but that’s not the only way to make money.”  The metrics could be applied to paid subscription strategies or pitching sponsored events to target audience segments, Kamdar added.

While trends start and stop unexpectedly, I would be very surprised if the interest in improved metrics (and the business opportunity) went anywhere but up over the course of the year. Read more

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Clark Gilbert is leaving Deseret News

(Updated noon, Jan.28, to include comment from Gilbert)

Clark Gilbert, one of the most influential thinkers and practitioners in the digital transformation of newspapers, is leaving his job as CEO of Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media

In April, he will become president of BYU-Idaho, where he had worked for several years before joining Deseret in 2009. He succeeds Kim Clark, also formerly dean of the Harvard Business School, where Gilbert started his career as a professor.

A successor at Deseret was not immediately named.

Gilbert (a close professional friend, I should disclose) was a ready-made story as he took the reins at Deseret. Academic-puts-theory-to-practice was my take after visiting Salt Lake City and interviewing Gilbert as he was starting out.

In the years following, Gilbert made a series of big changes in rapid order:

  • He brought in non-newspaper executives with backgrounds in other digital ventures to manage that side of the company and created a digital ad sales force.

 

  • He reduced print staff and hired and transferred reporters and editors to digital (before that was standard strategy).

 

  • He directed both the newspaper and its various websites to give special focus to a few areas and try to be best in that field. That included coverage of faith and family values targeting not just Utah readers but Mormons around the country and worldwide.

 

  • He has syndicated some of that content to non-Mormon publications and done collaborations on special projects with other news organizations including The Atlantic.

Most recently, he started an  “innovation wire” and in December contributed a detailed summary of lessons learned in five years at Deseret. It wasn’t labeled as a valedictory but that’s what it was.

The piece opens with an answer to two things skeptics have said about the transferability of Deseret’s experience across the industry — that it had unusual access to a valued target audience and the advantage of backing from the fabulously wealthy Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Deseret Digital Media (DDM) launched five years ago this January. Over those years I have seen many observers dismiss the transformation at Deseret Digital Media with claims that we are “different.” The comments range from “They must be subsidized” to “Their religious orientation somehow compels their markets to buy their products or subscribe to their websites.” If only either of these misperceptions where true!

The reality is we operate in competitive markets and are very much a for-profit entity. And while we are different, it is not on the dimensions many imagine. As Harvard scholar Michael Porter has described: “Strategy is about making choices, tradeoffs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” But even as we swim against that current, there are a host of other companies we admire, benchmark, and even share innovation practices with quite regularly.

Gilbert did not have the combative edge of fellow digital innovator John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media.  But he was blunt in criticism of the legacy newspaper business model and the industry’s sluggish pace of digital change.  More than once I’ve seen his message greeted with folded arms and skeptical eye-rolls from newspaper professionals.  (He is on the program, for a second time, of the Newspaper Association of America’s annual Media x Change conference in March).

Gilbert’s doctoral thesis was on disruptive innovation in media. He and mentor Clayton Christensen at Harvard also had heavy input on the Newspaper Next report, an influential future-gazing project of the American Press Institute published in 2005.

His tenure at Deseret, despite many well-documented successes, has not been without controversy. In 2013 he renegotiated a joint operating agreement with the Salt Lake Tribune effectively buying out the controlling share and making Deseret the dominant partner — a move viewed with some suspicion by Tribune journalists.

I was never a Mormon bigot, but I have learned a lot about the religion from Clark and his colleagues, who helped with a Poynter conference on faith and politics in Washington we produced on the eve of Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

In private conversations Gilbert, a self-described devout Mormon, he spoke enthusiastically about his time at BYU-Idaho and changes he was able to make at the newer spinoff of Brigham Young University. I didn’t see it coming but am not surprised that Gilbert made the change and is exiting media — at least for now.

Update: After this story was posted, Gilbert offered these comments on his old job and new:

Anyone who knows our teams at the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media will realize that the leadership…remains deep and broad. I have every confidence in the editorial, product, and business direction of our teams and expect this organization will continue to see growth well into the future.

One of the reasons we have seen so much growth…is that we have been able to recruit and cultivate talented people who believe deeply in the idea that there is a gap in faith and family news coverage in this county.

In many ways, the challenges facing higher education in the U.S. are similar to the challenges facing media. The call for innovation and new models is particularly acute at a time of growing costs and increasing questions about impact. I am grateful for the opportunity to join a university that is committed to the idea ‘Rethinking Education’ from the foundation up.

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4 reasons the New York Times Company won’t be sold anytime soon

New York Times Sales
We learned last week that Michael Bloomberg would like to buy the New York Times Company. He even spoke to Chairman Arthur Sulzberger about it a couple of years ago. So what else is new? Rupert Murdoch covets the Times as well.

The only live question is whether the Sulzberger family would sell.  Through a spokesman Sulzberger said Friday, as he has many times before, that the company was not on the market whatever the offer.

Case closed?  Not quite.  The Wall Street Journal was not for sale until Murdoch’s News Corp. made the Bancroft family an offer — 67 percent above their shares’ trading value — they felt they could not refuse.  Nor did any but the inner circle know the Graham’s Washington Post was for sale until Jeff Bezos bought it in August 2013. Ditto, the Chandler family’s late-1990′s surprise decision to sell Times Mirror to Tribune.

With that one qualifier, I think the Times’ and the Sulzbergers’ situation are so different that a sale anytime soon would be extraordinarily unlikely.

For a seconding expert opinion, I checked by phone with Alex Jones, executive director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, and co-author with his late wife, Susan Tifft, of the definitive book on the Times, The Trust.

“If anything has changed, and some members of the family (are willing to sell), I’m not aware of it,” Jones said, “and I think I would be aware of it.”

The structure of the family trust is the heart of the matter, he added.  “It would be almost impossible unless there was unanimity” among family shareholders to sell the company to an outsider.  Even were there a block of dissident family members, Jones said, stock in the Trust would have to be offered first to the other Class B Trust shareholders before it could go to anyone else.

So that’s a big difference.  The Bancrofts were divided on whether to sell in 2007 but those in favor persuaded some holdouts and outvoted others to accept Murdoch’s offer.

Also no Bancroft family members were still working in management.  The opposite is the case at the New York Times Co, where Sulzberger’s cousin Michael Golden is vice chairman.  Spokesperson Eileen Murphy told me that besides Sulzberger’s son, Senior editor for strategy Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, five other cousins of his generation are in management track jobs at the company.

Circumstances were very different at the Washington Post as well.  The newspaper was losing money with fast-declining revenues.  It had become a small part (about 14 percent) of a much larger company with several very profitable divisions.  Chairman and CEO Donald Graham said he could not justify to shareholders carrying the Post, and making big investments in its digital reinvention, at the expense of the rest.

So Graham and his niece, Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, concluded that the paper needed the infusion of capital and new ideas that Amazon tycoon Bezos could provide — “runway” as Bezos later described it.

The Times as a company is practically the reverse.  As a strategic decision, it has sold all other holdings to concentrate on the New York Times, its digital versions and its international extensions.

Public New York Times shareholders know the score, and while the stock has fallen after a rocky third quarter earnings report, it trades up slightly from its value when the Post was sold 18 months ago.

The newsroom buyouts and layoffs late last year were read in some circles as a sign of major trouble. But the impact of a shave of less than 10 percent of the newsroom budget is not a huge event financially for the company.   Further, the Times has indicated a number of those positions will be reallocated to hiring for digital expansions.

With fourth quarter and full-year results due February 3, the company’s prospects as a business are mixed. Through three quarters, it was showing a 1 percent revenue increase and operating at a tiny net loss (though quite profitable on a cash flow basis).

The Times has shifted its revenue balance away from print advertising, booking big increases in circulation revenue with its digital paywall and smaller ones by growing digital advertising.  Its balance sheet is healthy with $300 million more in cash on hand than debt.

Management’s discussion of the third quarter results did indicate slowing in the potential for another wave of circulation revenue growth and a dilemma as the Times experiences  lower revenue per customer as the reader/subscriber base shifts from print to digital and now to mobile.  But those are challenges are way less severe than the company faced in 2009 when it sought a high-interest loan (with options to buy company stock) from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu.

After the fact of the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal sale it came out that Dow Jones CEO Rich Zannino, while putting a positive spin on results and strategies publicly, was advising the Bancrofts privately that they would never get a better offer and should take it.

Years down the road, Times CEO Mark Thompson or a successor might make a similar recommendation to Sulzberger, Golden and the rest of the family.  But not now.

Disclosure:  Arthur Gregg Sulzberger is a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, and I spoke with him at some length at the group’s annual meeting here earlier this month. He struck me as smart, current, grounded and fully engaged in the next steps in transforming the company.  As his responsibilities increase, all the more reason to think family control is here to stay for the long haul. Read more

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Corporate raider Carl Icahn sets his sights on Gannett

Gannett has yet to complete the split of the company in two, spinning off publishing from television and digital, but the prospect already has a famous corporate shark nibbling.

Carl Icahn, who controls 6.6 percent of Gannett stock asked in a letter Wednesday for two seats on the board.

He also expressed particular concern that each of the new companies be open to takeover bids and not adopt any of the defenses management can use to fend off unwelcome offers.

His letter to Gannett CEO Gracia Martore charges that the capital structure and plans for the publishing unit have been badly communicated to the market, resulting in an 8 percent decline in Gannett stock since plans to divide the company were announced in August.

Icahn further wrote:

We have spoken with many large Gannett shareholders since we first announced our position. Everyone seemed please by the company’s spin-off announcement, but many expressed dissatisfaction with the company’s governance profile and poor communication with the market.  We believe that many of these shareholders will be supportive of our proposals and our director nominees…

That claim indirectly addresses an important point.  A 6.6 percent share does not give Icahn much leverage to make demands on the company.  But if he can bring along other large institutional investors, his chances of success would increase.

According to Gannett’s latest filing (as reported by Yahoo Finance) the top 10 institutional investors control more than 40 percent of Gannett stock.  But top of the list is Vanguard, which most likely includes the stock in the huge portfolio of retirement funds it manages and has no beef with how the company is run.

Gannett responded first thing this morning with both a press release and a letter to employees.  Marge Magner, non-executive chair of the Gannett board, characterized Icahn’s maneuvers “as an overreaching campaign to advance his own agenda,” not necessarily in the interests of the rest of shareholders.

Martore’s letter to employees warned of more accusations to come:

We don’t know how Mr. Icahn will conduct himself, there is likely to be press coverage of his comments about Gannett in the weeks and months ahead. I urge you not to be distracted by whatever he chooses to say about our company. Gannett is in a very strong position, and the best thing we can all do is to stay focused on our business and our day-to-day responsibilities.

Shareholder activists have a mixed record in influencing board-level decisions at media companies.  When three longtime holders of large stakes in Knight Ridder lost confidence in management in 2006, they forced a sale even though they controlled less than a majority of shares.

Two speculative investors assembled more than 20 percent of New York Times Co. shares and tried to put the company in play, but they were rebuffed.

However, the Times had the protection of family control of the majority of voting shares.  Gannett does not.

Icahn also has the option of acquiring a larger stake if he feels his effort is gaining momentum.

He can be counted on to be persistent.  His most recent campaign was to persuade e-bay to spin off PayPal as a separate company.  E-bay directors resisted for nine months but agreed to the move in September (to be completed later this year).  Icahn’s share in the company was less than 1 percent when he began demanding changes.

Gannett stock was up 2.25 percent for the day at the close of trading.  But that should not be read as market excitement about Icahn’s move.  It was a strong day for the market  generally, and shares of the New York Times Co and McClatchy were up by a much larger percentage.

 

 

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Time spent or time well spent — how to think about Web traffic

The search for meaningful digital audience metrics took a turn for the better in 2014 when Chartbeat and others began touting time spent and engagement as a superior measure to uniques and page views.

In recent months, though, time spent is coming in for criticism of its own as too blunt a metric that shortchanges brief and engaging news summaries and potentially rewards time-wasters like clickbait photo galleries.  The newer audience metrics question is now whether “time well spent” can be quantified.

(Screenshot/chartbeat.com)

(Screenshot/chartbeat.com)

An opening shot in this little counter-revolution was fired last September by Cory Bergman, general manager of MSNBC’s Breaking News site and a former member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board. For a service like his built around speed and compact  summaries, Bergman said, he would rather focus on “time saved”  rather than time spent.

Good measures of that are tricky, Bergman conceded but he thinks combining a count of daily active users, retention/churn, app stores reviews and other indicators should give “a good sense of how well we are meeting consumer needs.”

Serial digital entrepreneur Jim Brady sounded a similar theme at Poynter’s NAB meeting earlier this month when he said his new BillyPenn.com site aims for “time well spent” reader satisfaction.

Brady elaborated in a phone interview.  “You need not to be too tied to what your dashboard says (about uniques and page views),” Brady told me. “We’re trying to stay true to mission…with no pop-ups, no slide shows.”  As for time spent, he said, better for a visitor to scan headlines for 15 seconds and feel up to speed, than spend 60 seconds in a cluttered environment searching unsuccessfully for something worth reading.

For right now, Brady continued, “we’re tossing the term around” as a goal without any very exact methodology for determining success on the “time saved” dimension.

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile was a leading evangelist last year for time spent/engagement as a better way to look at digital audiences.  So I thought Chartbeat might be defensive about the recent criticism, but that proved not to be the case.

Time saved and time well spent are also worth aiming for and trying to measure, brand manager Lauryn Bennett wrote in an e-mail exchange.  She said:

Absolutely you can and should focus on both (time spent and time saved). It completely depends on what your goal is. If you’re looking at single sessions, someone reading one news piece — like a breaking news article — your goal is not going to be to get someone to read that article for 40 minutes. You want a reader to get the information they need and feel like they accomplished that goal, they come away from that visit informed on what they wanted to be informed on.

The question editors should be asking is did someone read/engage at all, for say, 30 seconds or a minute, enough to get that information and move on. Or did they just click the headline link and not engage at all or for three seconds and bounce. That’s the difference between time well spent or time not spent at all in a single visit.

Some of these discussions are over-focused on single articles, Bennett continued:

Most publishers are thinking about return rate and building a loyal audience as their goal… They should be considering total aggregate time someone spends across a month or defined period of time — how often are they coming back and reading when they do come back. How well are you building your brand of content people like and come back to read? That’s how you know you’re building an audience.

I asked whether advertisers are coming on board for this view, and Bennett replied that progress has been slow.

In theory, advertisers want to put a brand message front of mind to a given audience.  But that is tough to measure directly.  Also, as I noted in a post in October, agencies and clients have put uniques and page views first in buying and pricing decisions for more than a decade. Shifting abruptly to a different concept would upset a well-established status quo.

Still, Bennett said, the case can be made:

A campaign may have a smaller number of impressions than the agency/brand may have expected, but looking at time metrics, they’re seeing a higher number of impressions in view for 6-10 seconds vs. 1-2 seconds. In the past, the brand may have seen this campaign as less than successful, whereas now they can see that actually, they’re reaching the right people for the right amount of time.

The ground may be fertile for reform with fresh attention to basic issues about whether ads counted as served are actually viewed and whether uniques and page views, imprecise in the first place, are being inflated with bot traffic and other forms of click fraud.  Also, Chartbeat last year cast doubt on social media shares as a metric, finding large numbers of users forwarding content to a friend without actually looking at it themselves.

Some newer Chartbeat studies are finding that comprehension and retention (measured by propensity to return to the site) increase markedly if a visitor engages an article beyond a quick glance of a couple of seconds.

For an elegant summary of the state of play in digital metrics I would suggest an essay (“A mile wide, an inch deep”) by Evan Williams, founder of Medium and one of the co-founders of Twitter. Simplifying his argument, Williams is not for jettisoning page views and uniques but prefers as “our top line metric” total time reading — whether that be of a couple of long stories or many shorter ones.

But, he allows that there is “a problem with time” if that means the expense of an ad is pegged to time spent reading a story.  Time spent “is not actually measuring value.  It’s measuring cost as a proxy for value.”

Advertisers don’t really want your time — they want to make an impression on your mind, consciously or subconsciously (and, ultimately, your money)….

At Medium, we don’t really want anyone’s time. We want to create a platform that enables people to make an impression on others. To make them think. To change their minds. To teach them something or connect emotionally. It’s hard to measure any of that.

For that matter, wasting people’s time, Williams writes “is actually the opposite of the goal” and traffic to such features create only “the illusion of success.”

To which I’ll add one other rude question.  I would like to believe that well-crafted journalism, long when it needs to be and succinct the rest of the time, puts readers in a receptive mood for brand messages.  But is that demonstrably true?

We are going to need to live with ambiguity in digital metrics for a while longer, Williams concludes, making for still more interesting times in the digital news space, however measured. Read more

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Sorry, journos: Heavy use of social media is not stressful, study says

The Pew Research Center’s latest internet study, out this morning, uses some intricate survey methodology to come to a straightforward finding: heavy users of social media, Facebook particularly, are not stressed by the experience.

That’s noteworthy in light of a spate of think pieces and entire books arguing that digital information overload is messing with our minds and lowering the quality of life for many.

But a survey of 1,800 people, using a established scale for measuring stress, found that internet/cell phone/ social media users are not finding “that their life is is overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable” as a result.

I asked whether the study tried to measure the impact of heavy news consumption via social media. Co-authors Lee Rainie of Pew Research and Keith Hampton of Rutgers University both said no — but that might be a good question for another day.

The report noted one interesting exception to the overall finding: heavy Facebook users, especially women, said they are now more likely to learn of adverse events like illness, breakups and job loss among friends and family.  They find themselves saddened by some of that  — a phenomenon the authors describe as “the cost of caring.”

However, pressure to participate and “not miss out” via social media is not viewed as stressful by those who do it, nor does hearing about the successes of others via Facebook make them anxious about their own situation.

UPDATE, 11 a.m.:  Coincidentally Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for the Edelman public relations firm, has just posted a related story on journalists and social media, based on a survey of 250 journalists.  He finds that three-quarters of journalists now feel pressure to produce stories that will be shared on social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter. Read more

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Reuters loses Tribune but is not quitting yet

General view of a Reuters building at Canary Wharf in London, Tuesday, May 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

General view of a Reuters building at Canary Wharf in London, Tuesday, May 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

Reuters attempts to build a competitive wire service to the Associated Press suffered a major setback over the holidays when the Chicago Tribune and six sister papers ended a two-year relationship and switched back to the AP.

That was a double sting. Besides being Reuters’ biggest and most prominent client, Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern had spent several years helping build out the substitute service before it formally launched (as I recounted in a detailed story last summer),

But Steven Schwartz, global managing director of the Reuters news agency, told me in an e-mail interview that he is not throwing in the towel. He wrote:

We are grateful for all of the Tribune’s insight and input in the early days to help make the Reuters America service exceptionally strong and we expect they will be back as a customer sometime down the road.

Schwartz added that Reuters recently signed its 50th U.S. customer for the service and that 40 of those are daily newspapers.

Those numbers, however, indicate that Reuters has a long hill to climb to challenge AP, which claims 1,400 newspapers clients (also owners of the non-profit cooperative). So two years in, Reuters has less than a 3 percent market share.

The change, first reported by Jim Romenesko, has been confirmed but not formally announced to readers of the seven newspapers as final deal points are being settled. Chicago-based Romenesko noted a January 2 story in the Tribune with an AP credit line.

None of the parties is offering an explanation of the change.  Tribune Publishing corporate provided this anodyne comment:

The AP delivers premium content that our readers across all platforms expect. We made our recent news service choice based on a number of key criteria, including: meeting our readers’ content expectations, achieving the balance of cost and value, and a desire to secure one primary news service for all Tribune Publishing business units.

(The Los Angeles Times had stayed with AP when the seven other Tribune papers switched to Reuters at the beginning of 2013).

The reversal roughly coincides with Tribune Publishing’s spinoff as a separate company from Tribune’s TV and digital businesses.  It is probably a fair assumption that the reconsideration came from new corporate leadership.  Kern, while avoiding any criticism of AP, had told me in July that he and other editors were satisfied with Reuters.

AP is heavily invested in sports and election coverage, so another factor may have been that the 2014 mid-terms highlighted its strengths compared to more rudimentary Reuters coverage.

Reuters main attraction to potential clients is much lower prices at a time when regional newspapers continue to look for ways to control expenses. Most devote much less effort and space to national and international news than they used to.

But AP has countered with improvements to its state reports (which Reuters does not try to duplicate) and more flexibility in levels of service and prices offered.

Huff Post founder Arianna Huffington told staff in a year-end memo that she plans to drop AP when the contract expires at the end of 2015.  But that leaves the service a year to negotiate and many who give notice decide to stay in the end.

Reuters has some history of starting, stopping and reorganizing initiatives. It is planning a customizable Live TV video service in 2015, and I asked Schwartz whether that project might divert attention and resources from the national wire.  He said not:

Reuters America is but one of the many initiatives we have launched around the world in recent years as we continue to innovate and adapt to the changing economics of news and shifting needs of our global media customer base. Whether it is providing a market alternative as we have with Reuters America, expanding our bespoke TV programming efforts around the world or investing in state of the art multimedia news delivery Reuters will continue to innovate and help its media customers engage their audiences wherever and whenever news breaks.

While I don’t doubt Schwartz’s commitment, priorities change, and Reuters’ national wire probably needs to pick up momentum quickly to be a survivor.  Clayton Christensen notwithstanding, disruptive, “good enough” challengers do not always prevail.  This could be a faceoff in which Goliath AP proves the winner.

 

 

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Advance claims digital ad growth will outpace print declines in 2015

Advance Publications’ much debated five-year-old strategy of discontinuing some days of daily print editions to devote added resources to digital is poised to achieve a critical crossover point in 2015: digital advertising gains will exceed print newspaper ad losses, the company claims.

In a bi-annual letter to employees today, Advance Local President Randy Siegel, writes:

Our local sales and marketing teams have leveraged their entrepreneurial abilities and expansive digital knowledge to prove they can grow digital ad revenue faster than we’re losing print ad revenue.  In 2015, our local leadership teams plan to generate higher total ad revenue in every one of our markets, reversing a longstanding trend of decline.

I asked Siegel by e-mail whether he was including national advertising in that calculation, and he said yes.  That would make for an even more noteworthy achievement since regional newspapers have typically been suffering deep losses in print national, in the range of 15 to 20 percent for the last several years.

The better digital sales and 2015 prospects mirror digital audience growth, said Siegel.  The Advance Local sites have averaged 55 percent traffic gains year-to-year as measured by comScore, he wrote. Two of the more recent conversions to the company’s digital emphasis — Cleveland.com and SILive.com (Staten Island) — more than doubled their audiences year-to-year in November, he added.

Since Advance is privately-held by the Newhouse family, it does not disclose revenue and earnings figures in dollars, as is required of publicly-traded counterparts like Gannett or The New York Times Co.  Generally the industry has been reporting progress year-to-year in plugging print ad shortfalls with digital ad growth, higher circulation revenues and other revenue streams like digital marketing services or events.

However based on results through three quarters, 2014 is expected to show total revenue at most companies and the entire industry down again — a significant negative to investors even at companies with a strong story of operating profit margins and innovation.

Other newspaper/digital companies may also be able to achieve revenue growth in 2015, though to my knowledge, Advance is first to make that promise.

There’s an important qualifier.  Siegel’s letter makes no mention of circulation revenue.  Advance’s main websites are all free — hence no digital subscriptions or print + digital revenue gains.

And with the lesser frequency of publication (or in some markets cuts in home delivery days), Advance doesn’t have the same leverage for print or bundled subscription price increases as most of the rest of the industry.  So it did not benefit from the successive 5 percent industry increases in circulation revenue recorded in 2012 and 2013 (2014 totals are not yet available).

On the other hand, Advance has been clear about its strategic goals since it began revamping and emphasizing websites while reducing print at Ann Arbor and other Michigan properties in 2009.  The bet was that digital ad revenues could grow from a small base, and that print declines were irreversible.

Advance has been proven right on both points.  And in theory, it now has leaner operations well-positioned for growth into the future. More expense cuts are coming, Siegel’s letter says:

It’s clear we’re on the right path to building sustainable, thriving media organizations. But this journey will take a little longer and be a little harder than we originally anticipated, which is why we continue to need to recalibrate our expenses

Read the full Siegel letter

The Advance way provoked a wave of protests from journalists and local readers when It cut frequency of the New Orleans Times Picayune and made NOLA.com its lead news product.  The Advocate, based in Baton-Rouge has launched a daily New Orleans edition, and an old-fashioned  newspaper war is in progress — with fresh shots being fired as the New Year begins.

The changes have now been introduced in all of Advance’s 25 markets.  None drew the same level of resistance as in New Orleans, but journalists and some citizens in Cleveland and Portland have complained of mass dismissals of print veterans with a few hired back and others replaced by younger staffers on the expanded websites.

NOLA.com and the others Advance sites post frequent news updates in a blog-like format through the day, rarely holding stories for the print paper.

Few companies have followed Advance’s lead to date, but many industry analysts think print frequency cutbacks may be coming, especially if the strategy is a demonstrable financial success Read more

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Unfinished media business for 2015 — will non-broadcast news video become a force?

I am neither a fan nor a maker of sweeping future-of-media predictions. But I will lighten up this holiday season with a few thoughts on business trends of 2014 likely to gain momentum in 2015.

Top of my list — by a wide margin — is whether non-broadcast video can mount a serious business challenge to the news offerings of the networks, local stations and cable.

This one takes a little explaining. Leading national news outlets — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Associated Press — have been offering video reports online for at least a decade.

CNN, the Today show and a host of other news/talk programs have well-trafficked digital sites.

And by now we all know of a little company named Vice, whose principal news product is longish first-person video reports, many from abroad.

A trio of lurking questions intrigue me:

*How close are we to a build-your-own newscast from a single provider or multiple ones? Is that even what users want, as opposed to self-contained stories?

*Does smart-phone ubiquity juice up the market for watchable segments, arguably a better fit for how people use the device with quick bursts of consumption than for broadcast or desktop/laptop?

*Is there a chance that a year hence digital news video will be positioned to disrupt broadcast/cable just as digital text reports have already done to print newspapers and magazines?

For an established, if imperfect version of an easy-to-assemble newscast, one could check out AOL’s main report. It consists of a slide-show formatted deck of 40 stories, from a variety of sources, most including a text and video version, the latter running 45-seconds to two minutes. And each of the videos is preceded by a non-skippable 3-second pre-roll ad.

After a couple of hard news items, the selection veers to soft topics — health, fashion, celebrities, wardrobe malfunction. You could allot 10 or 15 minutes to a browse or instead watch several stories on your smart phone while waiting in line. The ad-to-content ratio is not user-friendly, but I assume AOL and partners are making money with every click.

More ambitious and serious-minded digital newscasts have had a checkered record. For instance, The Washington Post launched Post TV with a substantial investment in the summer of 2013. Its centerpiece was a group of three shows with regular hosts, formats and sets.

It soon became evident, though, that these digital shows were not developing much audience. The Post closed them down within months and reverted to segments displayed carousel style.

Yahoo’s high-profile hire of Katie Couric hit the same wall, according to last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine take-down of CEO Marissa Mayer. Couric’s reports, appearing on an aggregation site with little other original content, haven’t gotten much traction.

Vice has become too big a business to ignore, spawning a number of efforts to define what makes it successful. My own tentative list would include access in a number of formats, deals with brands and other services like YouTube, a home for Vice News with a number of racier sister sites and the little share button at the bottom of the window for cuing up a segment.

As legacy sites try to figure how they might borrow the best of Vice’s best practices, CEO Shane Smith’s answer in an October 2013 interview with Fortune is noteworthy:

You can’t retrofit it. If there’s a bunch of old dudes in a boardroom that go, “OK. Let’s start making video,” what they try to do is hire pedigreed people. What you get is a shittier version of TV. You really have to rip out the pipes. You have to make things in a different way, hire people who have never worked in TV or commercials or film, get people straight out of schools, get people who don’t know what they’re doing, form your own school and train these kids. The reason I’m telling you all this, the reason I’m giving away my secrets, is that’s it’s nearly impossible to do.

If you think you’re going to raise $50 million or $100 million and go out and hire people who’ve done it before to do TV online, you’re going to fail.

Late 2014 brought a flurry of moves to establish a digital news presence.  A representative example — Reuters announced in October it would reconfigure its video services as Reuters TV, an algorithmicly-assembled digital broadcast targeting 27 to 47 year-olds, I was invited to a gala rooftop cocktail launch party in Manhattan in November. But when I called to ask about details, I was told the product was still under construction and executives preferred to wait until early 2015 for a demo and discussion.

So there will be lots to watch in 2015 — not just more digital video but competition for audience and ad dollars that should yield both winners and casualties from an array of players.

A half-dozen more ongoing media business stories on my radar for 2015:

*Do the big guys like Google and Facebook get into generating their own content or stick with refinements of their aggregation offerings?

*Has the “less is more” style of Internet news begun to displace a superabundance of choices that has become unmanageable.  If so, the aggregators, human or algorithmic, stand to become “gatekeepers” like the dominant legacy editors who were theoretically overthrown by the digital revolution.

*Newspapers will become fully unbundled in 2015 from from local broadcast at companies like Gannett and Scripps-Journal. Will that help find them find their footing with enough growth in assorted digital revenue streams to outweigh continued print advertising losses? For that matter, will local broadcast continue to look like a juggernaut in a down year for political advertising?

*Native advertising continues its boom but with standards of disclosure (and possible regulation) no closer than before. The Federal Trade Commission, mostly silent since a December 2013 workshop, promises a report and suggested practices in the new year.

*Likewise broader digital audience metrics made progress in 2014, but I am betting on slow rather than transformational change in 2015.

*The health of the non-profit news sector and its ability to revitalize community news “ecosystems” merits close attention in 2015 and beyond.

You may notice that my list does not include whether 2015 will be the year of mobile, as has been predicted each year since this decade began. In retrospect, mobile got big year-by-year rather than in one swoop, but that still leaves on the table the question of how it can best be monetized for news applications.

Disclosure: Poynter has a grant application pending with the Knight Foundation to study non-broadcast video. Read more

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New Pew study finds most people OK trading privacy for valued digital services

The Pew Research Center this morning released the last of seven studies on where digital life is headed in the next decade — this one focused on privacy concerns.

A survey of experts revealed split opinion on whether there will be a trusted privacy-rights infrastructure in place by 2025.  But there was strong consensus on both sides that for right now people accept a degree of tracking as a fair trade for getting services, typically for free, that they value and use daily.

What’s the implication for media, with many outlets betting the franchise these days that they can develop higher priced advertising as they harvest data on what you prefer and perhaps where you are?

That is not addressed directly in the report, Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Pew’s Internet research and co-author of the study with Janna Anderson of Elon University, told me in a phone interview. But the implications are clear.

“The Internet of things,” will up the ante on privacy, Rainie said.  The mobile era is rapidly generating more and more data on where we are, and where we have been. Soon, “your car knows when you are in it; your house knows you walked into the room.. In effect, our devices are tattling on us.”    .

People have general worries about how broadly this data is collected, analyzed and sold for commercial purposes or accessed by government, he said, but getting targeted advertising messages “is not what’s most worrying them.”

Conversely “new sensitivities in the mobile environment” are on the upswing.  If norms develop on what’s all right, what’s out of bounds and what needs to be disclosed, media outlets will be swept along and need to comply, in Rainie’s view.

One specific change in the offing, he added, may be in what he called “media flow.”  We are getting accustomed to being served the right news stories for our personal interests, but for now “people launch the engagement.”  Will they welcome or resent a next step — a sort of news alert system on steroids — where a service or algorithm tells them news they need to look at now?

Already that issue is popping up as Facebook and Google tweak their news recommendations systems and some users find the methodology less transparent than it ought to be,

The survey makes for good scanning.  I found particularly of note comment from two Google execs.  Chief economist Hal Varian summed up privacy prospects this way:

There is no putting the genie back in the bottle. Widespread sensors, databases, and computational power will result in less privacy in today’s sense but will also result in less harm due to the establishment of social norms and regulations about how to deal with privacy issues. By 2025, the current debate about privacy will seem quaint and old-fashioned. The benefits of cloud-based, personal, digital assistants will be so overwhelming that putting restrictions on these services will be out of the question. Of course, there will be people who choose not to use such services, but they will be a small minority. Everyone will expect to be tracked and monitored,since the advantages, in terms of convenience, safety, and services, will be so great.”

 

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