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January 12 2012

16:30

The newsonomics of the long goodbye: Kodak’s, Sears’, and newspapers’

No old-world icon is safe. Just in recent weeks, both Kodak and Sears have percolated back into the news, offering headline writers a dilemma borrowed from the classic Saturday Night Live Weekend Update line, “Generalíssimo Francisco Franco is still dead.”

How long have these companies been dying? Yes, it was a surprise sometime a long time ago, that digital media was challenging Kodak and that Walmart, Target, Kohl’s, and later Amazon were making life difficult for one of America’s retailing pioneers.

Ask an American in 1990 if they could imagine a world without Kodak. Or a shopper of a world without Sears. Now, in 2012, it’s a lot easier to imagine. These are companies ebbing away, drip by agonizing drip. Which reminds us, of course, of the newspaper industry, and the question still on some lips: Can you imagine a world without newspapers? Now two years into the tablet, it’s much more easily imaginable. I always laugh when asked the question, “Will newspapers exist in 2015 or 2020?” Papyrus is a durable medium. It’s just that digital is rapidly replacing print, and in the process rapidly restructuring the nature of news ownership, news creation, news employment, and more. We’ll have some kind of print for the rest of our lives, but it will be the sidecar to the revving engine of digital news and information, as more and more publishers call it quits on print.

We like to think of change in the world as an on/off switch. This….or that. In fact, the world changes both in an instant and agonizingly slowly.

Let’s call the slow disappearance of familiar brands the newsonomics of the long goodbye. Take companies that have huge imprints in our culture and habits — and cashflows to match — and their disappearance from our lives can seem like it is moving in glacial digital time. But that disappearance is no less real. It is a fact of the news landscape that newspapers, and to some extent consumer print magazines, will disappear over time. We can take bets how much more quickly they’ll continue to vanish. By continue, I mean that data shows 44 percent less newsprint usage (and about 75-80 percent of all newsprint usage is attributed to newspapers) over the past four years, according to The Reel Time Report. (And for more on the industry-leading Michigan Meltdown, check out Alan Mutter’s column at E&P.)

So we can see this goodbye is both real and long. At some point, though, you see this message (on one medium or another), “Kinograph to cease production of silent films,” as borrowed from the neo-silent film The Artist. (Perhaps someday we’ll be talking about “neo-print”?)

Let’s ask a couple of questions about the relationship of Kodak, Sears, and newspapers. How do their revenue slides compare? What lessons apply across the three?

On revenues, take a look at the chart below. I’m tracking revenues from Kodak, Sears, and all U.S. dailies through 2010 — with final 2011 data not yet in, though the year wasn’t kind to any of the three.

What stands out most prominently is that U.S. newspapers’ ad revenue decline is worse, percentage wise, than either Kodak’s or Sears’. Yes, although Kodak and Sears are now poster children of legacy businesses gone wrong, newspapers — as counted through their main revenue source — are doing worse.

Ad revenue is down 53 percent over the period shown, while Kodak’s overall revenues are down 49 percent. Sears’ overall revenues (I removed Kmart revenues, which became part of the Sears Holding Company in a 2005 merger) are down 31 percent over the same period.

The savings grace for newspapers has been circulation revenue, down a relatively low 6 percent in the last decade. Circulation has continued to plummet, but continuing price increases have moderated the revenue losses. Circulation revenue now makes up about 30 percent of all U.S. daily newspaper revenue, so it’s significant — but not enough to stabilize companies reeling from ad revenue loss.

If you combine ad and circulation revenue, over the decade, newspapers have lost 45 percent of the two tentpoles of their business overall, four points less than Kodak.

Share prices will tell us a similar story, as investors — slow to the understanding of the long goodbye — head for the exits.

What are the threads among our three cases? Digital news pioneer Steve Yelvington shared a similar thought about Kodak/newspapers relationship, this week, noting that “brands decay” and “disruption doesn’t happen just once,” among other lessons.

Let’s extend the metaphor. Remember those “Kodak Photo Spots,” where tourists were encouraged to stand and take the exact same picture that tens of thousands had taken before them? Let’s put the newspaper owner — or buyer, given that there’s been a spate of recent purchases — on that spot, and see what they can see about this landscape.

The viewing is hugely important. Why? While we may say newspapers are dying, we can say long live the news. Those owning — or buying into or creating news franchises — do still have time to pivot and learn from failure. History is not fate; this Kodak/Sears history is simply a big cautionary tale from which to learn, a slomo Kodak moment.

With that in mind, let me suggest five points of learning deeply applicable to news management decisions of 2012:

  • Don’t believe your own b.s. Public companies carefully apply their makeup as they talk with analysts and shareholders, as do politicians. Too often, though, they begin to believe what they see in the mirror. Trumpeting the future of the department store, or of “photography,” or of community newspapering doesn’t solve the fundamental issues of disruption plaguing them. Give credit to the few change agents who publicly proclaim that the clock is ticking and that the current business model will explode sooner rather than later.
  • Cutting costs ≠ innovation. Simple, right? Yet Sears chairman Eddie Lampert, heralded early as a whiz by some in the business press when he took over the company in 2005, cut and cut and then cut some more, making the unattractive Sears floors even more moonscape-like than before. Most newspaper companies have cut so much, while driving out nodes of innovators here and there, that they are left half-staffed for the apps/HTML5/digital circulation revolutions playing out before them. Innovation means at least fast-following; otherwise, you’re left in the dust.
  • Constant re-organizing and re-structuring doesn’t mask deeper problems; it just diverts time from consumer focus. Kodak is now reorganizing its units; Sears has done the same in recent years. How many times have newspaper companies shifted back and forth from standalone digital units to integrated operations, in the process losing time and focus, no matter the potential benefits of reorganization?
  • Selling assets is a short-term band-aid. Kodak, as it makes a last stand, is busily trying to sell off its intellectual property, though the value of much of that IP is in question. The sale may raise some cash, but it won’t solve long-term issues, and it will sap ability to innovate. Newspapers don’t have much IP (they have intellectual capital, perhaps), so they are selling their only real assets, their buildings and land, and leasing back quarters. That may buy time — but not that much.
  • And, finally, perhaps the biggest parallel: The old companies are still stuck in a manufacturing mindset. Kodak creates film and products. Sears sells products. Newspapers print products and far too many “print” websites. The new world is about service. iPhone photos are about capturing moments, sometimes for family scrapbooks, but far more often adding to our individual and collective memories, of events, places; they are the kinds ofextensions to our brains that we’ve lately come to accept. Retailers like Target (“Expect more. Pay less.”) are about about price, but also attitude and service. News is about getting what I want now, not a physical product. Of course, it’s tough to change such a manufacturing mindset — one that produced profits to drool over for decades. The manufacturing mindset, though, is oh-so-last-century, and those that adhere to it are going down with it.

One newer victim of the old mindset may give us pause: Best Buy. Best Buy built expensive and dominating superstores, eating alive the CompUSAs and Circuit Cities. Now Amazon and a hundred websites have made buying a 62-inch TV cheaper and as easy to deliver to your house as a sweater. Faced with disappointing financial results in an otherwise booming holiday season, Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn, like his Kodak, Sears, and newspaper counterparts before him, is left to sputter: “This misguided perspective [that electronics buying is moving profoundly online] is especially troubling for me, because it blatantly and recklessly ignores overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” His irritation is understandable — but history is proving increasingly hostile to those failing to adapt fast enough.

Kodak camera photo by Kevin Stanchfield used under a Creative Commons license.

January 03 2012

16:34

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 3, 2012

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. The Internet changes how we remember (Scientific American)

2. Larry Downes: Why Best Buy is going out of business...gradually (Forbes)

3. The verified Twitter account for Rupert Murdoch's wife was fake (ReadWriteWeb)

4. Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after work hours (BBC News)

5. Laura Hazard Owen: What's 2012 holds for book publishing (paidContent)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

16:34

Daily Must Reads, Jan. 3, 2011

The best stories across the web on media and technology, curated by Nathan Gibbs


1. The Internet changes how we remember (Scientific American)

2. Larry Downes: Why Best Buy is going out of business...gradually (Forbes)

3. The verified Twitter account for Rupert Murdoch's wife was fake (ReadWriteWeb)

4. Volkswagen turns off Blackberry email after work hours (BBC News)

5. Laura Hazard Owen: What's 2012 holds for book publishing (paidContent)



Subscribe to our daily Must Reads email newsletter and get the links in your in-box every weekday!



Subscribe to Daily Must Reads newsletter

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 24 2011

15:30

The Newsonomics of the digital mercado

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

It’s as old as organized humanity itself: the mercado, the bazaar, the marketplace. We love to visit Old World marketplaces as we travel abroad. At home, our own shopping is now a mish-mash of malls, big box stores, neighborhood shops, and online commerce. Amazon, itself, is now a $34 billion business, and its Prime delivery program can deliver just about anything (my favorite buy: an electric mower) right to your door, seeming so local.

We can research almost any purchase. We can compare prices. We can get advice and reviews from hordes we’ll never meet.

Yet it’s far from nirvana. Navigating the byways of web commerce, other than great walled gardens like Amazon, can be frustrating. Numerous culs-de-sac interrupt us. Price-comparison sites like Price Grabber, Google Product Search, Shopzilla, and UK’s Kelkoo only seem to give us a partial view of what’s available. It’s tough to know when reviews may be gamed. Sites like preprint-digitizer Shop Local (“Your Local Weekly Ads, All in One Place”), owned by Gannett, seems curiously backwards, like replica E-Edition newspaper products for reading. Trying to compare model numbers, on sites like CNET or Best Buy, can give us digital nervous breakdowns.

Within the infinity of shopping choice, a lot of us would like some order.

That’s what the new Find n Save product aims to provide, and for the benefit of newspaper companies. Find n Save is the latest effort from newspaper companies to reclaim what they consider to be their birthright, maybe a third generation of such marketplaces following the ShopLocals and the earlier Storerunners.

Find ‘n Save focuses us on a decade-old-plus newspaper company problem.

While the daily newspaper — with its display and classified ads, its Sunday circulars, and its Wednesday food coupon – used to be the leading local marketplace, it now is just part of the pack. One number — print ad revenue halved in 10 years to $24.8 billion in 2009 (no final tally is yet in for 2010, which was still lower in single-digit decline) in the U.S. — gives real meaning to this splintering of commerce.

Digital media, with its search-led research/price comparison abilities and, now, with the new couponing craze, has wrought havoc with the newspaper business model.  All of that digital commerce has been disruptive and disintermediating. Yet there’s been more disintermediation (of traditional publisher/merchant relationships) than remediation.

We turn to lots of digital media to research and shop, but we have few go-to places of habit, again with Amazon making the greatest inroads into our shopping lives so far.

From a customer-centric perspective, it’s never been more confusing to find good deals. Yes, they seem to come from every quarter — print circulars, the web overall, direct mail, eBay alerts, Amazon “notifications” — but they’re disordered.

A recent study by the BIA/Kelsey group puts a number on the proliferation of marketplace choice. The annual study points to consumers using an average of 7.9 different media to make buying decisions in 2010, compared to only 5.6 in 2007. Buying’s gotten more complex.

The flipside, of course, is that merchants’ own choices about how to market have gotten more complex (“The Newsonomics of  Eight Per Cent Reach“), with small- and medium-sized businesses using 4.6 media to reach customers in 2010, as compared to 3 in 2007.

So taking a look at Find n Save, let’s look at the Newsonomics of the would-be new mercado, and what it will take to make these new marketplaces bigger business for local media.

McClatchy’s newspapers are the first big clients for Find n Save, a product of Travidia, a long-time player in the print-to-digital ad conversion business. Find n Save replaces Marketplace 360, the company’s former regional marketplace product.

Two big McClatchy papers — its hometown Sacramento Bee and the Kansas City Star — launched Find n Save in November. The company’s other big sites, from the Miami Herald to its North Carolina properties (Charlotte and Raleigh) and the Fort Worth Star Telegram, should feature it by July 1, with the rest of the company’s 30 markets putting Find n Save in place by year’s end. MediaNews’ flagship Denver Post will also launch it soon.

It’s not the only new effort at a regional marketplace.

Find n Save will soon by joined by another regional commerce portal. FYI Philly will launch this spring, in the greater Philadelphia region, two of its principals tell me. It’s conceived as a commerce portal, details to come. Significantly, it’s the result of unprecedented cooperation among four newspaper competitors in that region: Philadelphia Media Network (the new parent of the Inquirer and Daily News), the Journal Register company, Gannett, and Calkins Newspapers.

For Chris Hendricks, McClatchy’s VP/interactive, the Find n Save push is about a grand goal: reclaiming retail advertising. While the destruction of print classifieds has been well chronicled, the steady decline of local retail has been less so. You can figure that retail advertising has declined about $7 billion annually since its 2001 height. Yes, online display advertising has yielded some retail revenue, but doesn’t come close to recreating the lost revenue — or the lost sense of marketplace. 

So Hendricks talks about “blowing up retail” — and reordering it with Find n Save. “People are searching more and more for local services and products,” he says. “And they’re getting more and more confused.”

Find n Save aims to bring some simplicity to that confusion. Take a look at it, and you can see it’s a work in progress. What we notice about it — very prominently — is the deal of the day. Yes, Find n Save aims to take advantage of the Groupon revolution. Some Find n Save sites are partnered with Groupon, while others offer their own deals of the day. The idea is that the deal of the day isn’t just a new ad play, a new revenue source, for news sites; it’s also a new gateway to local commerce. The rest of Find n Save shows its ambitions:

  • It gives prominence to other local couponing, deals without the social must-buy incentives of the daily deal. Subway sandwiches, vacuum cleaners, lots of restaurants, and car care — but all in one place.
  • It incorporates product search, as have previous versions of the product. Consumers can search by product, brand, and store, among other attributes, narrowing or expanding search as they wish, and see where that product is available locally. The big allure, here, is the ability to check whether a product is in stock, at multiple, close-by locations. Search for lamps or shoes or spas, and you’ll find a motley assortment of offers.

So far, the November-launched sites have seen their marketplace traffic “quintuple,” says James Green, chief marketing officer of Travidia and an alum of Raleigh’s pioneering Nando Media. He says that’s due mainly due to “product-centric search engine optimization,” providing a new level of prominence in Google search results. If that base can keep growing, Chris Hendricks sees the sites becoming commercial magnets. Possible new, related streams can include display ads, offering prominence and placement, charging local retailers for ingestion of their inventories and conversion of their print material generally and topical directories, he says.

“Deals are the content,” says Hendricks. He notes, for instance, that news sites’ attempts to connect up editorial content with restaurant directories — using newspapers’ unique and core strengths — hasn’t produced the dividends many of us thought they would. Forget the packaging of feature content with ads; just focus on the ads.

So what can we make of this step forward?

Well, it’s a step, but probably many more are needed. Fronting a site with coupons makes some sense, and will pull in additional audience. Yet the overall research and shopping experience will have to be fuller if these are to become go-to sites with masses of local buyers.

It’s hard to know how many years we are away from the perfection of commerce — you know, getting each of us the kinds of timely and meaningful shopping offers that bring order out of the digital shopping chaos. Certainly, though, here is some of what will be needed:

  • Broader, deeper databases of products: That’s simple to say, and hard to achieve. I asked James Green whether Find n Save is a breakthrough product. Not yet, he said, saying that there’s not yet “enough conversion.” That translates as product search being too spotty; provision of retailers’ real-time inventories is still a work-in-progress. If we as consumers run into more dead-ends than usable deals, we’ll stop coming back.
  • Reviews and recommendations: Find n Save contains none. In a world of imperfect knowledge, we love seeing what dozens of others think of products and services, just like in the early mercados. What’s new, good, and fresh? Throw out the reviews that are outliers, and we’ve got a better-than-even shot of making a better buying decision. Sites without them lack the critical component found in sites from Amazon to Best Buy to Yelp.
  • Preferences and customer knowledge: While some of us are highly concerned about privacy, many others say, ‘Just use your tracking to give me what I want — including deals — and stop spamming me with useless ads.’ So the ability to state preferences and to have my digital behavior intelligently watched — for my benefit — will be a big differentiator.
  • A great tablet product. James Green says Find n Save’s mobile app will be ready soon. Apps are, of course, becoming a price of admission for mobile customers. More importantly, the winning local marketplace will figure out how to combine deep, broad shopping info, social reviews, deals — and to fully embrace the interactive and visual capabilities of the tablet. Just as the iPad — and its newer cousins — are the big do-over opportunity for news companies’ reader business models, they’re also literally a blank slate for the new mercado.

Who will build it? It could be a Travidia, or an Amazon or a Google or a Facebook or a Flipboard-for-commerce so far unborn. There are billions of dollars baiting the hook.

June 10 2010

15:00

The Newsonomics of tablet ad readiness

[Each week, our friend Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of the news business for the Lab.]

Are you ready to receive? That’s the question news company should be asking themselves this month, as the second half of the year — with its unexpected flow in mobile ad dollars — beckons.

The numbers are mostly anecdotal at this point, though as some of us forecast, tablets promise a new, significant source of revenue for the companies that are ready to play the tablet game, and play it well.

Among the early evidence, reported by AP’s Andrew Vanacore, are:

  • $50 CPMs ($50 per each one thousand views) for USA Today’s iPad ad, as compared to maybe $10 for its web ads.
  • Irrational exuberance! Brian Quinn, WSJ’s VP/general manager for digital ad sales, says overall ad spend is increasing because of the iPad version, not just switching dollars from one platform to another. “Out of the gate, there was an exuberance about this,” he says.
  • Chase Sapphire, which is a New York Times iPad sponsor,  says its ads are getting a remarkable 15 percent clickthrough rate. That’s 150 times the rate of an average web ad.

Add to that the July 1 launch of Apple’s iAds, which will introduce ads within iPhone and iPod Touch (but not yet iPad) apps, and which will begin with $60 million in sales, with such companies as Disney, AT&T, and Best Buy participating. You can bet that when the program launches on the iPad, a vastly superior ad medium given the screen size, it will do well. Even just on the “phone” side of the business, the iAds launch should give Apple — and, importantly, apps — almost half of the mobile ad spend in the U.S.

Want a little flavor to understand advertiser enthusiasm? Check out this Steve Henn Marketplace report featuring a VP for The Gap. She’s near-ecstatic in describing her enthusiasm for the iPad/tablet as a way of selling stuff and gaining customer knowledge.

So, yes, maybe the iPad ad euphoria should come with a few grains of salt. But, still, the “multi-touch” immersive future, painted by Steve Jobs and talked up by the big digital ad agencies (themselves looking for new reasons to be in the supply chain) is upon us.

So, are publishers ready?

I had a conversation recently with someone who runs a digital division for a major newspaper group — smart guy, a pioneer in the field. I asked: “So are you working on an iPad app?” Answer: “We’ve looked at our logs, and we’re seeing increasing traffic from the Kindle, but not much yet from the iPad, so we’ll wait awhile.”

I felt a rant coming up, but suppressed it then and will channel it now: If not now, then when?

We can look at each of the major revolutions in digital news and commerce, and see how news companies responded.

Search. Late.

Paid search. Way too late.

Video. Late.

Social. Too late.

Mobile. Largely too late.

News companies have used old yardsticks to measure new technologies, and the results have been, predictably and disastrously, too little, too late.

Now with the iPad, the advent of tablets generally, and the invention of the app metaphor as a way of navigating the digital life, news companies have another chance. The newsonomics of tablet ad revenue are uncertain — will iAds simply flood the ad market with more low-cost ads, as developers happy to get any ad revenue price their ads low? — but the tablet offers the biggest do-over potential for engaging readers anew and re-engaging advertisers, at rates somewhere between the laughably low of the web and the near-impossible-to-sustain-long-term highs of print.

The digital division head told me that the logs told him that there was insufficient customer demand to justify investment in an iPad app. This, I think, is like managing by rearview mirror.

The whole metaphor of the iPad is the app; ask anyone who uses it, and they’ll tell you they are surprised how little they use the browser and use search. So if you are counting browser views of your website coming through the iPad browser, you have no idea how a reader might use your product if it were built to take full advantage of the tablet’s abilities. In addition, consider that the sale of iAds require an app — not a browser-available site.

If this sentiment were uncommon, fine, but I fear it’s too commonly held. Wait and see. Wait — until it’s too late. That’s what I generally see happening among regional and local newspaper companies. They talk about early adopters and the high cost of a state-of-the-art iPad app, and most are waiting.

The big guys — what I’ve called the Digital Dozen — aren’t waiting. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Thomson Reuters, The Guardian, BBC, and AP are in the game — some with better apps than others — and all planning the next generation of products. We’re seeing impressive sales in the thousands for the WSJ paid app and can wonder about the applicability of Wired’s impressive sales of 73,000 (which are on a trajectory to beat print newsstand sales) to news and newspaper companies.

We’ve already seen a great separation in product development, audience engagement, and ad revenues between the nation’s and world’s biggest news companies — each with struggles of its own — and the other guys. Yet as they struggle, they’ve gotten most of the ad revenue smartphones have so far generated, as local news media has failed to get any revenue of scale. At this point, the iPad era looks like it the opening of an even greater divide among the largest media — and the rest.

[Ken will be on vacation the next few weeks, but back in July. —Josh]

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