Thursday, May 7, 2009

Reviewing an AdAge

I picked up the May 4 issue of Advertising Age because of its story on the death of Portfolio magazine. AdAge, like NewsTech (formerly Newspapers & Technology), is always a blessed antidote to read, because its concern is things involving the exchange of money and not the Future of Journalism. Therefore, while it does its share of endless theorizing, it is more of a voice that sees things as they are and says why, less of seeing things that are not and saying why not. You need both, but lord, do we have a lot of the second these days.

The story on Portfolio was blessedly free of any references to "no new print product will ever be developed," "no one will ever read print again," "how stupid Newhouse was to invest in print," etc. AdAge's take: Took too long to roll out, content was at variance with the times. But magazines are not the main interest of TTPB. Pay attention to these stories:

"Newspapers Build Digital Portfolios": While everyone is talking about print editions sucking air, newspaper companies are finally putting their money into digital companies and applications that are actually digital companies and applications, instead of simply "newspapers on the Web," which, as we now know, don't work very well. The story reminds us that "Myth: newspapers stuck their heads in the sand and just hoped the internet would go away. Reality: Newspapers took some of the biggest, earliest swings on the web, most turned out to be misses, and then got steamrolled by Google just like everyone else." Of classified, it notes: "The newspaper business is crippled -- along with broadcast TV and radio -- and frankly, doesn't have the firepower to make huge digital investments beyond attempting to keep what revenue it has left from walking out the door. Part of that is attempting to keep at least some classified revenue that left for the web. Ironically, this is where newspapers have had some digital success." What this has to do with journalism, of course, is yet to be seen -- but if it were to put newspaper companies on a more solid and widespread financial footing -- but of course, it might lead them to abandon journalism altogether. At any rate, this is a story you won't read on most discussions about the Future of Newspapers.

I can't find this one online, but its headline is "How Personality Can Predict Media Usage," culled from a study by a company called Mindset Media. This could all be hooey, but the company alleges that it knows what type of people read newspapers: Optimists, dynamic people, and leaders. "Essentially what you're seeing here is, what TV doesn't have, newspapers do," said Mindset's John Durant. The least-likely to read newspapers: "Bravado fives," who "can be stubborn and show a willingness to be sharp-tongued." Take this study on its own terms: Would that mean bloggers are the least likely to read newspapers? (Heck, would it mean journalists are among the least likely to read newspapers? This could shed new light on our self-loathing articles about the newspaper business.)

For those who point out an attribute of digital -- its ability to produce reams of data -- columnist Jonathan Salem Baskin writes, "Digital stuff is alluring and frightening, and we've been dared to embrace it by a Greek Chorus of enablers who incessantly yell, 'Do it faster and more often, or you'll be out of a job.' Lots of the successes promoted as cases to emulate are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies for selling digital services." The point: Never forget that everyone has a dog in the hunt.

Finally, read this column by Simon Dumenco and you may never see the "triumph of social media" in the same light again. As he notes: Twitter "still lacks a revenue model and just burns through more venture capital every time a new user signs up." Other nuggets: "Susan Boyle has been on what I called the "Google Dole" -- her fame fueled in a nonsensically nonprofit manner by Google's YouTube unit, which hemorrhages cash serving up too much video with nowhere near enough advertising support." And: "Getting million of new users in the Third World, it turns out, really sucks, because Facebook will never really be able to meaningfully monetize those eyeballs. It's tons of cash out (bandwidth, data storage, personnel) with little hope of cash in."

He builds himself to a crescendo here: "Weirdly, some of the management at these companies don't even seem to be trying that hard to make money -- a consequence, perhaps, of still being awash in millions of dollars of VC money. ... You've got to admit that at some level the boys at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are actively choosing to redistribute the wealth. They're taking money from venture capitalists and deploying it so that millions of people far beyond Silicon Valley can get something for nothing. Entertainment, information, and self-marketing opportunities, mostly. And, oh yeah, a sense of 'connectedness' -- cyber companionship -- which makes this particular era of VC-wealth distribution all the more ... touching. (Let's all be friends -- on someone else's dime! Let's all be perpetually jacked into the hyper-insta-now global hivemind of human consciousness -- for free!)" Gee, sounds like "let's give everyone our news -- free!" Let's put "Antitrust" into the DVD one more time.

His point: "The digital Robin Hoods can't keep redistributing the wealth forever, because eventually the wealth runs out. Investors get sick of propping up private ventures that don't have viable business models."

To which this comment is interesting: "Many start-ups today are really non-profits that just have a different legal structure. I am not a tax expert, but given the tax bracket many VC's belong to, there may be better tax advantages to a failed investment than a charitable contribution. Fewer Non-profit start-ups fail than profit based start-ups because they are typically fueled by leaders passionate for their cause who can typically find donors equally interested in supporting the cause. Shaping culture can be terribly satisfying, more so than any profit." I suspect fewer non-profit start-ups fail primarily because they do not have to produce a profit. And the passionate leaders still need a paycheck. But when we're talking about the business of newspapers in the digital age, perhaps we are talking about two different universes more than we think. The comments go back and forth between "Monetize!" and "Social good!" Increasingly I think that the argument over "print" has just been a metaphor.

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