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Dec. 15, 2017, 11:19 a.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: 15 terms that summed up 2017 in news and news coverage

From “meltdown” to “roll-up” to (of course) “fake.”

This is the year America wishes it could take a shower long enough to wash away the scum of daily mud-slinging. Remember 2016? Last year, it seemed as if Tronc was the most memorable word of the news year, a new media name seemingly invented as self-parody. In 2017, the memorable words tumble onto the page. Let’s briefly catalog those that have pushed their way into our lexicon.

Duopoly: Google and Facebook dominate the field of digital advertising — which is now the largest category of ad spending, surpassing TV in North America and the U.K. Google and Facebook have been taking almost 90 percent of all the digital ad growth in the market in the U.S. The remaining 10 percent or so is supposed to help support news media, as well as all other businesses dependent on advertising.

The immense damage done to news media by the duopoly is only collateral damage, but it’s immense damage nonetheless. It doesn’t matter if you are smartly diabolical in your intent, or a useful idiot, or even out to make a better world.

Consumer revenue: Inflated by the Trump bump, consumer (read: reader) revenue came out of the shadows in 2017.

Readers now supply The New York Times Times with 62 cents of every dollar it earns. Print advertising has become only the fourth-largest category of Times revenue. Subscription surges have been seen everywhere from the Times and Washington Post to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Minnpost, and the big regional local-news-supplying public radio stations.

As the meltdown in digital news media (see below) has surfaced, reader revenue and reader-related revenue (from events, e-commerce, and more) becomes utterly necessary. News organizations like CNN, Business Insider, and The Athletic reflect that reality in their decisions to ask readers for direct payment.

Roll-up: This was the year that long-time family newspaper companies said “uncle.” Gatehouse bought the Morris and Calkins companies, among other smaller companies, bringing its total of dailies to more than 140 — or more than a tenth of the remaining daily newspaper industry. In fact, Gatehouse, Gannett, and Digital First Media now own a quarter of those 1,350 or so dailies. In magazines, the Big Four is shrinking to the Big Three as Meredith swallows the larger Time Inc.

With digital disruption a primary force, the quest for scale reigns in almost all media enterprise. Fewer companies are deciding what we will — or won’t — get. And it’s worth noting that even the acquirers — Gatehouse and Meredith, for instance — are running negative in the year-over-year revenues in their core print businesses. Roll-up is more an exercise in profit-squeezing and cost-cutting than it is a strategy to build bigger, better products for customers.

Second paper: Just this week, Gatehouse scooped up the remains of the bankrupt Boston Herald for a scant $5 million. That once-independent voice will form part of Gatehouse’s megacluster business strategy and likely be reduced as a second daily Boston voice.

In the last year, a civic group of investors saved, for now, The Chicago Sun-Times as an independent voice. In the Twin Cities, we have to wonder how long owner Digital First Media will keep the Saint Paul Pioneer Press (one of my alma maters) alive; it’s already seen its staff sliced by more three-quarters to 50.

With formerly monopoly dailies seeking survival, it’s no surprise that “second papers” are becoming a vestige of another time. But it’s worth marking.

Viscera: This headline made my insides hurt: “LA Weekly staff ‘eviscerated’ by layoffs, says editor.”

2017 was a year of reckoning for some of the alternative weeklies. The Village Voice stopped print. The Houston Press abruptly closed. And, yes, L.A. Weekly’s staff was eviscerated, amid the fast pruning of much secondary print media in greater L.A.

Daily newspaper layoffs and buyouts have become almost too numerous and routine to report on. (Besides, how many people are actually following the demise of the local press?)

I regularly get emails from distraught staffers. Last week brought one saying another 10 journalists had been laid off at The Denver Post, bringing the staff to 90 at the single remaining daily in the country’s 19th-largest metro area. ASNE no longer conducts an annual census of jobs lost, but I’d guess there are no more than 24,000 daily journalists working their beats at print dailies — a cut of 33,000 since 1990, when the country had 80 million fewer people (and we thought we had resolved forever the Russian threat, as the Berlin and other Cold War walls crumbled).

It’s hard to say who’s essential to the newspaper enterprises these days. Alden Global Capital (well-described in “How many Palm Beach mansions does a Wall Street tycoon need?”) has made cutting an art form. It has laid off numerous editors and publishers, as well as hundreds of reporters, but this year, it outdid itself: As CEO Steve Rossi retired, it declined to fill his position, opting for a (presumably lower-priced) COO “reporting to the board.”

Cross-ownership: Nothing’s surprising about the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of decades-long regulations except its alacrity. Deregulation advocates — led by both newspaper industry and TV industry trade groups — have advocated for the dropping of rules against media ownership concentration. Even they, though, have been surprised by FCC chair Ajit Pai’s supposed casting-off of media ownership shackles — with net neutrality overthrow just one more major “side” issue for publishers.

The media cross-ownership rules — which have prevented dailies from owning major local TV stations, and vice versa — pose the biggest question. In a world of already advanced roll-up on the TV side as well as in newspapers, who will actually merge local properties, and how quickly? We see right-leaning interests lining up, but precious few individuals or groups that appear to have the wider public, and democratic, interest in mind and heart.

2018 is the year to watch as strategists assess “value” and “combination” anew. The “new convergence” — a smart combination of local text and video, TV and print — is certainly possible, but unproven. As likely: a disharmonic convergence against the public interest.

CasualFans: That’s a Tony Haile construct, one known among the news industry’s growing roster of audience development executives. In September, I asked, “Is that all there is to reader payment?” Would more than two or three percent of digital audiences ever pay for news content?

Haile, the founder of industry standard Chartbeat and now entrepreneur behind Scroll, aims at the next 10 percent, a group he identifies as “casualfans.” “It’s taken from cable TV bundling language where Superfans and Casualfans are pretty common usage,” he said.

As advertising craters, we’ll be looking to Scroll, LaterPay, and Jim McKelvey’s Invisibly to see if there’s a new cohort of people who will pay for news.

I’ve long liked Voice of San Diego’s construct. The intent of its membership program is to moving The Informed (all its readers) to The Involved (those who receive email newsletters, comment on the site, or attend events) to The Invested (those who buy memberships).

Listen: Kicking off with The New York Times’ The Daily, it was a big year for the newsy podcast. We’ll see what the regionals, including Gannett and McClatchy, produce from their own fledgling investments in audio.

Useful idiots: We weren’t so sophisticated in years past in cataloging our types of idiots. Yet this term — used by the Russians well back into Soviet times — is a phenomenon unexpectedly reborn in 2017. We don’t yet know how many of these useful idiots —
people who blunder into furthering foreign aims through their own stupidity, avarice, or gullibility — Robert Mueller’s team will identify, beyond the Flynns, Manaforts and Papadopouloses.

As Facebook, Google, and Twitter executives got hauled before Congress, they had to acknowledge their own complicity with the Russians, however clumsy and unintentional. Said Sheryl Sandberg: “It’s not just that we apologize. We’re angry, we’re upset. But what we really owe the American people is determination” to do a better job of preventing foreign meddling.

While these executives have been off doing other things — digital world domination for the most part — nefarious evildoers (to borrow a term from another era) eagerly exploited the systems they had built.

Fake: Now an epithet that Trump tosses at news he doesn’t like, “fake” is related to the odious “alternative facts” (though that now seems so early 2017). We can add alt, or alternative, to the list of spoiled language: Once signifying pleasant choice or another view, it’s become a battleground word, its usage more ascendant among neo-Nazis than the old “alternative press.”

Our “fake!” affliction doesn’t just hurt Americans. As the Times recently pointed out, “Meet the strongmen who’ve started blaming ‘fake news’ Too.” Such linguistic nonsense has real-world impact, not just on our discourse but on lives of those opposing authoritarianism around the world. In Myanmar, the government called its genocide against the Rohingya “fake news.”

Trust: The antidote, right? We can take some solace in the assertive, aggressive reporting led by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. While many trust movements, commercial and nonprofit, have taken flight, it is the big, old brands whose names themselves stand for trustworthiness among tens of millions of readers.

It seems like an eon ago that Times executive editor Dean Baquet talked to me about using the word “lie” in print, but it was only October 2016. As USA Today pointed out in its statement of horror: “Trump apparently is going for some sort of record for lying while in office. As of mid-November, he had made 1,628 misleading or false statements in 298 days in office. That’s 5.5 false claims per day, according to a count kept by The Washington Post’s fact-checkers.”

Another word: “Mistake.” As Carl Bernstein observed last week on CNN’s Reliable Sources, “Journalists make mistakes.” But serial mistakes by CNN, ABC, MSNBC, and CBS, well-cataloged by The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, provide fuel to the arsonists who would just as soon set fire to the news media as we know it.

Meltdown: Talking Points Memo publisher and editor Josh Marshall made his point in mid-November: “There’s a digital media crash. But no one will say it.” He called attention to the suffering businesses of digital ad–dependent “startup” news media. In the age of duopoly, there simply aren’t enough digital ad dollars to support what’s been built.

Advertisers are shifting their strategies as well. Take this week’s news about giant Unilever: It’s cutting its digital ad spend by about 30 percent as it better figures out its return ad investment. Reliance on digital advertising alone won’t work.

Arc: Throughout this turbulent year, The Washington Post has moved forward with the licensing of its next-generation content management system/digital platform. The Boston Globe and Tronc’s chain of properties will deploy Arc in 2018. We’ll see how much difference it can make in helping these publishers more effectively grasp new digital opportunity. With no real competitors, it could become an industry standard.

Truth. At year’s end, we may not realize quite how much we’ve been battered by nonstop news cycles, stalked by push notifications. It can be hard to stop and absorb a particularly insightful piece of writing or reporting before something else replaces it in our consciousness.

Still, Slate’s legal correspondent Dahlia Lithwick’s piece from earlier this month has stuck with me. Asking “Is it too late for Robert Mueller to save us?” she wrote:

In weeks like this one, when it seems the Mueller investigation is quite literally the only authority and sanity we can look to, it’s hard to tell whether the net losses outweigh the wins, or whether the massive national game of deconstruction and deflection and deception is even the littlest bit disrupted by news that the special counsel is closing in on a legal conclusion. Maybe it’s really too late in the slide toward authoritarianism for any major legal outcome to change the game. We crave nonpartisan and serious authority figures like Mueller because we believe they can guide us through. But having seen this White House shatter norms around the free press, civility, international diplomacy, and truth-telling, it almost defies belief that the line in the sand, the stopping point, is Mueller…

At this moment when all options remain open, we should accept the possibility that Mueller may come to represent the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America. We also must acknowledge the reality that the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America might not matter enough, to enough people, to bring the Trump train to a stop.

Lithwick correctly identifies the weakness of so many checks and balances we thought were in place. Yet she underplays the role of the national news media. Our top journalists, with brave and smart leadership, have managed to stay focused on the stories of the year, and their work still drives much of the national conversation.

We don’t know which way these teeter-totters between the rule of law and those who would trample over it will go. Which way will the American seesaw move? How strong, and smart, will its news media be in applying fair and accurate pressure?

Photo of vertical stack of newspapers by J E Smith used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 15, 2017, 11:19 a.m.
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