Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
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Sept. 29, 2011, 10:30 a.m.

The newsonomics of disruption

Welcome to a world of disruption, with twists of generational difference, tectonic ad spend changes, and lots of confused citizens.

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.

Okay, it’s 11 p.m., and you are in bed.

What do you reach for? There’s no wrong answer here, but if you are in the news/information mode, you may reach for your Android smartphone or scoop up your iPad. So many choices, at this oddly news-consuming time of day. We know that evening is when tablet usage peaks, and, yes, such companies as Zite tell me that 11 is a top hour. An Ericsson study shows that usage is heaviest in the early and late evenings, when over 60 percent of users are active, with 40 percent using their smartphones before going to bed.

Digital disruption is now increasing. Audiences are even more up for grabs than they were a couple of years ago.

As Ipsos OTX President Bruce Friend recently put it: iPhones and Androids are, yes, our lovers. “It’s almost always turned on. It never leaves you. You have an intimate relationship with it.” Yet love is so short-term these days: “The tablet is rapidly becoming a companion or even a competitor to the smartphone. Tablets reduce smartphone as entertainment devices. The tablet will take the place of that.”

We’ve got so many emerging studies of our fast-changing habits that comparing them can leave you dazed and confused. What they all add up to, though, is a simple learning: Digital disruption is now increasing. Audiences are even more up for grabs than they were a couple of years ago. Advertising and sponsorship dollars, pounds and euros, are also being more greatly swayed by these disruptive winds than they were in 2009.

Let’s look at some of this emerging data, and begin to make sense of what it means and where revenue is likely to flow into the next several years, in the newsonomics of disruption.

Consider local news disruption. In a report this week pointedly and smartly entitled “How People Learn About Their Local Community,” Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism and its Internet & American Life Project gave us a picture of reader disruption, if not downright confusion.

Among Pew’s conclusions:

Most Americans (69%) say that if their local newspaper no longer existed, it would not have a major impact on their ability to keep up with information and news about their community. Yet the data show that newspapers play a much bigger role in people’s lives than many may realize. Newspapers (both the print and online versions, though primarily print) rank first or tie for first as the source people rely on most for 11 of the 16 different kinds of local information asked about—more topics than any other media source.

The worth-a-read-report analysis points out that Americans aged 40+ are those most interested in civic issues (many of those 11 info types above). Non-newspaper sites, though, snare more of the younger people, and therein lies the further local disruption to come:

Web-only outlets are now primary source of information on key subjects like education, local business and restaurants. And greater disruption seems to lie ahead. For the 79% of Americans who are online, in addition to Americans ages 18-39, the Internet ranks as a top source of information for most of the local subjects studied in the survey.

Yes, in the digital din, we don’t know what we’re getting from what — or its relative importance.

Consider tablet disruption of smartphones. Remember, in late 2009, when tablet naysayers said, “It’s just a big smartphone, and do you want to hold that big thing up to your ear?” Well, they were at least half-right. The tablet is, in part, a big smartphone — but, oh, what a difference several inches make. Inevitably, minutes eat into minutes, and we’re just learning which devices we prefer to use for which activities.

Consider emerging tablet news disruption. For 18 months, the tablet and smartphone news environment has been single-brand-oriented. Early top-drawer brand winners include: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the BBC, NPR, the Financial Times, and CNN.

Three start-up news aggregators have popped up their heads. Zite, a product that has pushed the concept of “fair use” taut, has been scooped up by CNN. Flipboard, with a revamped publisher relations strategy in place, and backed by $60 million in venture capital, would like to be the tablet news aggregator, as would Pulse.

We’ve wondered where the big guys are — those winners in the online web derby. We won’t have to wonder much longer. Google Propeller and Yahoo Livestand will soon join AOL Editions, as Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft all up their various tablet aggregation plays, as well.

2011 may well be remembered as a short time of innocence in the tablet news landscape.

Consider tablet disruption of laptops. Several forecasters have said tablets will surpass laptop sales within a year.

Consider tablet disruption of tablet. Kindle Fire has unexpectedly sped through the “less than $200 tablet price point” barrier, one pointed to way back in 2010 by analysts as a key to the tablet becoming a mass product. So Kindle Fire, with its deepening bench of Amazonian media products, will update the American promise: Two tablets in every house, and a shiny new hybrid in every garage (as soon as the recession lifts). As if Apple, forecast to sell 100 million iPads worldwide by the end of next year, hadn’t already done the unthinkable.

So how will these developments affect the two hopes of the news industry: digital ad and digital circulation revenue?

Consider digital circulation plans. “Paid content” strategies were well underway before the iPad hit the market, but the iPad made them swerve. Now publishers are seeing longer-term print replacements more rapidly making the digital jump.

For newspaper execs, now increasingly placing all-access circulation strategies at the center of their 2012 budgets, the thrill and chill of tablets replacing print (“The newsonomics of the tablet as missing link“) is only accelerating. Further, Amazon’s instant emergence as a #2 player in the field offers new partnership/store potentials for the news industry, even as it races to the agnostic technology of HTML5.

The faster the disruption of print by tablet happens, the faster newspaper owners can jettison print expenses and get closer to sustainable (but not yet proven) mainly-digital business models.

Consider how ad revenue trends are moving. Now, mobile audience patterns are way ahead of advertising revenue splits. That’s often the case: Audience precedes slower-moving (standards, technologies, due diligence) spending moves.

Many publishers privately report that mobile news access now accounts for 10 to 20 percent of overall digital usage.

Yet only 3 percent of digital advertising spend — about $1 billion in the U.S. and $264 million in Europe — will be spent on mobile this year. If usage matched spend, we might see a quadrupling of that mobile spend sooner than later.

So in the mobile ad spending disruption, where will the spending come from? Will it come from other digital — or print, or broadcast — and in what proportion?

Indeed, in this device-eat-device race, we have to wonder the extent to which tablets will supplant smartphones, which are now headed toward a 60-percent penetration of U.S. and European cell phone users by some time in 2012.

(I’ve noticed at the body inspection pit also known as airport security an increasing trend: business travelers placing MacBook Airs, iPhones, and iPads into the gray trays. That’s a $3,000 business play, but it may be a leading edge.)

Five digital native companies now control almost two-thirds of U.S. online ad spending, now drawing 63 perecent of digital ad dollars. Within that trendline, though, we’re now seeing an increasing divergence of winners and losers. Yahoo and AOL continue to lose market share, while Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are all gaining. The disruption within those top five is eye-opening, looking at net ad revenue growth after companies have paid their partners for obtaining traffic, according to eMarketer:

For 2011, here’s the scorecard:

Facebook, to be up 80.9 percent

Microsoft, to be up 29 percent

Google, to be up 27.3 percent

Yahoo, to be down .4 percent (following declines of 5.2 percent in 2010 and 12.5 percent in 2009)

AOL, to be down 2.4 percent (following declines of 11.5 percent in 2010 and 12.4 percent in 2009)

Facebook’s disruptive impact will only be augmented by the multiple-front, market-invading forces of f8. Remember Microsoft’s decade-old bid to become the hub of our entertainment lives, as evidenced by its futuristic Consumer Electronics Show displays? Facebook has taken that metaphor, socialized it, and updated it for years to come.

2011 may well be remembered as a short time of innocence in the tablet news landscape.

Look at it this way: Facebook, with about $2 billion in digital ad revenues this year, will be two-thirds of the way to equaling the total digital ad revenue — about $3 billion  — of the entire U.S. newspaper industry. (And the print newspaper total of maybe $20 billion this year is less than two-thirds of Google’s total revenue of maybe $34 billion in 2011.)

Digital advertising? It’s an infant. Check out PaidContent Staci Kramer’s interview with Neil Mohan, Google’s VP of product management. Mohan talks about the $200 billion digital display industry to come, almost 10 times what it is today. (Of course, Google potentially has lots to lose in a mobile disruption if that disruption continues to play havoc with its revenue engine, search.)

Finally, in disruptive revenue, let’s look at app revenue — which, of course, didn’t exist five years ago. According to Forrester Research, smartphones and tablets will reach $38 billion, globally, by 2015. (As a yardstick, $38 billion is about half of what we’d consider the worldwide newspaper industry to take in four years from now.)

This disruption to come seems Rubik’s Cubean. There’s the mobile disruption, and the mobile-on-mobile disruption, with twists of generational difference, tectonic ad spend changes, and lots of confused citizens. While it seems late in the game for some, it’s early for others. We may not yet be into a new “the first one now will later be last” era, but be careful placing your bets too early.

Image by David Robertson used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 29, 2011, 10:30 a.m.
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