A stronger union

norma-tae Let’s talk about unions for a second. As a person who writes about media, I’m no expert on unions. But in the past week, I saw two articles that are interrelated—both reported by two local media outlets in two different states. You might have missed them, because as far as I can tell they didn’t garner much national attention.

The first headline is: Missouri Gov. Greitens signs right-to-work legislation

The second headline is: GM earns $9.43 billion in 2016; UAW workers get record profit sharing

So-called right-to-work laws basically strip labor unions of their powers. Those powers usually include worker benefits, profit sharing and wages that keep up with the rise of the cost of living.

Now, I say “so-called” because who doesn’t agree with a right to work? By God, that’s our due as Americans, to have a right to work!

But “right to work” is a misnomer. It’s a misdirection in the way that the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the National Center for Policy Analysis are. Who doesn’t want research and analysis of policy?

But when that “research” concludes that a five-cent plastic bag charge that seeks to help the environment (and save the city money) is “a radical scheme to harm New Yorkers,” well, one wonders. And when that “policy” includes congratulating a racist for becoming the attorney general of the United States while simultaneously coopting a hashtag that developed organically in support of opposition Senator Elizabeth Warren, one wonders.

Which leads us to “right to work,” which actually means something along the lines of “makes it more difficult to be protected as a worker.” It means, “It’s good for the bottom line of businesses but not for the pockets of workers.” It means, “Defunding and defanging unions that fight for workers.”

Missouri is the 28th state to adopt this type of law. Meaning more than half the states in our union have such laws. Meaning that Republicans’ strategy of picking off individual liberties state by state, bit by bit, law by law, district by gerrymandered district, has worked. (It has a corollary in a slew of restrictive and vile state abortion laws, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.)

Said the governor of Missouri, “For too long in the state of Missouri, for too long people bowed down to intimidation, they bowed down to powerful union bosses who acted to protect their own interests instead of protecting the interest of Missouri workers.”

I’m sad to report that the era of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” has fully taken root when unions are said not to protect workers but instead “intimidate” them. This is not unlike the lies about the inner-city wasteland dystopia that is Chicago—you know how those “inner cities” are, filled with crime and devastation and, well, nonwhite people all on welfare.

These types of lies caused the rise of Trump et al. in the first place. We are seeing the results of the hard work of the Republicans for the past quarter-century, if not longer. They convince poor people that a corporate fat cat has their best interests at heart; that laws that protect them from being poisoned by the water supply are just “a thinly veiled attempt to wipe out coal mining jobs”; that the unions that protect them are actually harming them.

So now for the other piece of news you may have missed. It’s related to the fallacy above.

Last year, GM earned a record $12 billion. That company’s union-sanctioned profit-sharing formula, part of a union-negotiated contract, stipulates that UAW workers receive about $1,000 in profit sharing for every $1 billion in profit.

“Today’s performance bonus announcement of a maximum of $12,000 each rewards our members’ dedication and commitment to building some of the most popular and high-quality vehicles in the world,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada. “They deserve every penny of that collectively bargained bonus check.”

Now, fair is fair. The article reports that “Workers received zero money in profit sharing from 2005-09 when the automaker was struggling.” But since then? $9K apiece in 2014 and $11K each in 2015. Does that seem like a lack of worker protections?

By the way: That’s just at GM. Ford’s “UAW-represented workers will receive $9,000 on average in profit-sharing checks before taxes thanks to a near-record profit for the automaker.” And “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said last month that UAW-represented workers will receive, on average, a $5,000 profit sharing check for 2016, or about $1,000 more than they did last year.”

So first, let’s cut the shit. The shit peddled by Republican, pro-business, richly paid CEOs who get stock grants and bonuses while regular workers get screwed. You want to know why we have the highest GDP of all time but suffer from economic stagnation? Just ask the “right to work” hawks.

Second, let’s hear it for the local media, in this case in St. Louis and Detroit, that are doing the work of documenting the day-in, day-out lives of Americans.

Third, the national media are working their butts off with no resources, skeleton staffs, closed bureaus and too many stories to tell.

But. But, but. Anyone could easily have found these stories. I’m not Carnac the Magnificent here (millennials, it was a Johnny Carson sketch).

So reliable mainstream media, I’m begging you: Make the connections. Tell the stories of Americans, not businesses. These laws, this administration, these governors and congressional representatives, these bullshit salesmen are bringing this country to the brink.

Or, as a matter of fact, maybe you should start believing your own bullshit: Let’s make America great again. Let’s start by bringing back unions.

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Now as then: The Grapes of Wrath

Kern County, California. Household equipment of Oklahoma family along highway in small construction camp. (National Archives)
Household equipment of an Oklahoma family along a highway in Kern County, California. (National Archives)

I enjoy reading before bed. But I’ve discovered that I can’t read most modern fiction or any nonfiction—it’s too interesting and keeps me awake. I save that stuff for commuting or when I otherwise want an escape hatch to a different world.

Over the past several years, I’ve discovered—and, in some cases, rediscovered—difficult fiction, mostly capital-L Literature and mostly long, to read before bed. I find that having to use my brain in this way exhausts it, for the most part.

Austen, Dickens, Trollope. Gissing, Tolstoy, James. Hawthorne, Cather, Fitzgerald. I read Gone With the Wind for the first time last year, and it is so good. So horrifically racist! But so good.

I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve learned a lot about myself. But mostly what I’ve learned is that much, if not all, of what these great authors wrote is universal, insightful and exceedingly relevant today. Anna Karenina is my emotional intensity. David Copperfield is my spirit animal.

I began reading The Grapes of Wrath in early November. After the election, I couldn’t pick it back up. I couldn’t do much, to be honest. The day after the heartbreaking loss, my spouse and I moved the TV and cable box into the bedroom and didn’t leave the bed until the following Monday, alternately crying, shaking our heads and otherwise going through the stages of grief. It’s fair to say I’ve been disillusioned. And I’ve been struggling.

I’ve turned toward history for explanations. I’ve been reading about Nixon and Boss Tweed. I’ve been trying to find precedent. Past is prologue and all that.

In mid-December, I rewatched the documentary The Dust Bowl, which is now streaming. It reminded me of the horrors of the worst man-made ecological disaster this country has ever experienced. It reminded me that I wrote a long blog post a few years ago, when I first saw the Ken Burns documentary on PBS, about how the media industry today is very much like farmers during the Dust Bowl (doing more with less, coping with disruptive technology, praying for a miracle solution, losing self-respect, folding up the tent and trying something new but not knowing what that is). And it reminded me that I should pick back up on The Grapes of Wrath, which, if you don’t know, concerns the Joad family, poor Oklahoma tenant farmers who are forced from their land by drought and nefarious bankers. They load up their possessions and travel to California seeking jobs but find only misery.

A family from Oklahoma works in a cotton field. Note the house, which is built almost entirely of packing boxes. (National Archives)

Reading this book now, knowing who will soon be president and who elected him; knowing there are refugees who need help, not hate; knowing this man will massively block immigration and massively increase deportation; knowing he will give tax breaks to the corporations and fat cats who need them least; knowing intimately the fear he strikes in the hearts of anyone who isn’t male, white, Christian and straight. This is the state of mind in which I read The Grapes of Wrath, and it was like Steinbeck fired an arrow in 1939 that landed at my feet in 2017.

I want to share some quotes from the book. Some capture my feelings about trying to forge a career in the media industry today. Some are about how it feels to be Other, to be struggling, to be forlorn, to be without hope. Most are about the America I forgot existed—the dark America whose hatred would propel it to elect to its highest office an unqualified, petty dictator with a history of sexual assault and deceit. The America that has seemingly not changed since 1939, when Steinbeck wrote these words, or since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or since Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015.

“If ya don’ wanta take what they pay, goddamn it, they’s a thousand men waitin’ for your job.” —Hooverville stranger to Tom Joad

“I ain’t no good anymore. Spen’ all my time a-thinkin’ how it use’ ta be.” —Pa Joad

In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything.

The great owners, striking at the immediate thing, the widening government, the growing labor unity; striking at new taxes, at plans; not knowing these things are results, not causes. Results, not causes; results, not causes. The causes lie deep and simply—the causes are a hunger in the stomach, multiplied a million times; the hunger in a single soul, hunger for joy and some security, multiplied a million times; muscles and mind aching to grow, to work, to create, multiplied a million times.

“If it was the law they was workin’ with, why, we could take it. But it ain’t the law. They’re a-workin’ away at our spirits. They’re a-tryin’ to make us cringe and crawl.” —Tom Joad

They live on beans, the business men said. They don’t need much. They wouldn’t know what to do with good wages. Why, look how they live. Why, look what they eat. And if they get funny—deport them.

“I’m learnin’ one thing good. Learnin’ it all a time, ever’ day. If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.” —Ma Joad

Repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.

This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, mistakenly sometimes. Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only a half step, never the full step back.

Families from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)
Families from Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas rapidly settled throughout Weedpatch, in Kern County, California, and brought their church institutions with them. (National Archives)

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Checking in on Facebook Instant Articles

fb instant Fortune media hound Mathew Ingram noted in May 2015, when Facebook’s Instant Articles format launched, that Big Blue saw it as “as a mutual exchange of goods, driven by the company’s desire to help publishers make their articles look as good as possible and reach more readers.” He went on to say:

But whenever you have an entity with the size and power of Facebook, even the simplest of arrangements becomes fraught with peril, and this is no exception. Why? Because a single player holds all of the cards in this particular game.

Around that time, Gawker’s Nick Denton, since brought low by a multimillion-dollar lawsuit loss you may have seen coverage about, went so far as to call the Facebook-publisher relationship not a distribution partnership but “abject surrender”:

So many media organizations are just playing to Facebook. They’re just catering to the preferences…expressed in some algorithm that nobody understands. It’s almost like we’re leaving offerings for some unpredictable machine god that may or may not bless us.

Almost a year after its launch, and a year’s worth of tweaks to the Instant Articles product, we have a more complete picture of the pros and cons.

Pros

Massive distribution open to many publishers
Following its closed launch with a limited amount of “partners,” including the New York Times and National Geographic, Facebook has opened the program to publishers big and small, in the U.S. and around the world, “giving every news organization the capability to publish their content on the social network,” according to Poynter.

WordPress plug-ins make it easier
After a rocky launch that required programmers to reformat every article especially for Facebook, the company was able to scale it to most new organizations through a WordPress plugin the company created, “essentially greasing the skids for mass adoption of the program among news organizations.” Per Poynter:

The plugin is being built in partnership with Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, and helps translate news stories to Facebook’s Instant Articles format. This removes a significant hurdle for news organizations.

New potential revenue streams
It’s no secret that magazines are continuing to fold and even digital-native sites can’t make the numbers work. We’ve also seen the rise of ad blockers and native/sponsored/branded content. Are content partnerships like these the answer, or at least an answer?

Cons

Only certain companies are seeing real benefits
BuzzFeed and Vox, to name two, are on board with the new format. Vox even hired media heavy hitter Choire Sicha to oversee its distributed partnerships (Facebook, Snapchat, Apple News and others, presumably). Per the WSJ, “Vox Media has long counted its own content platform as a key to its success. But now it says the future lies in platforms run by others, so it’s bringing in a digital media stalwart to help strengthen those ties.”

But others have yet to make hay from Facebook’s sunshine. As Fortune notes:

The media industry is in a “get big or go home” phase.

BuzzFeed and Vox are big, so they can play in Facebook’s Instant Articles world better than the smaller guys can.

It’s difficult (and costly) to track the audience
As AdAge reports, publishers have to pay more to track their audiences on distributed platforms. Yes, they get bigger distribution (theoretically, anyway), but ComScore apparently charges “$15,000, per platform, per year, to add tracking capabilities.” And six months post-launch, Apple News still doesn’t even have ComScore integration. This puts publishers in a tough position: In order to help their bottom lines, they want to reach the audience wherever the audience is, but doing so costs money they don’t have.

It’s not clear that publishers make money
Following on the point above, in the distributed content ad model, if you don’t know how much audience you have, you also don’t know how much revenue you stand to make. At this point, publishers are still crossing their fingers that this translates to revenue.

Jobs continue to be cut but not added back
Publishers are “re-allocating resources to build teams that produce content for specific social platforms,” per AdAge, but they’re cutting far, far more than they’re adding. Journalism is going through the kind of massive…transition, disruption, sea change, slaughter, whatever you want to call it, that is epic in scale. There are too many outlets that have closed up shop or gone through major layoffs to name. It’s especially chilling when digital-only publications like Mashable, IBT and Slant (just in the past couple of weeks) can’t even make the numbers work.

Distributed content alone isn’t going to save publishers. Maybe a combination of distribution, ads that escape blockers, native/sponsored content and cutting more staff will help. Also? Prayer. Honestly, prayer seems to be publishers’ main strategy at the moment: Please, Facebook and Google, don’t change your algorithms. Please, Snapchat and Apple News. Please, BuzzFeed and Vice. Please, someone figure this out for us. God bless us, every one.

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Yahoo’s painful (deadly?) cuts

yahoo-signage Yahoo is having an awful month. First it was sued by a former employee, then it had an awful earnings report, and now it has closed down nine content areas: tech, food, health, parenting, makers, travel, autos, beauty and real estate.

“Global editor in chief” Martha Nelson (I put her title in quotes because it’s so hilariously made-up sounding), who used to run Time Inc. editorial, said:

As we make these changes, we acknowledge the talent and dedication of an extraordinary group of journalists who brought new and newsworthy content to Yahoo.

If that’s not a eulogy, I don’t know what is. It’s too bad: More journos, mostly in the New York office, out of work. They join employees from Rodale, Time Inc., Bloomberg and any number of publishers who can’t make the numbers work.

Meanwhile, this week in London, the BBC cut 1,000-plus jobs, and the Independent closed down its print edition, which will result in layoffs. At least in the U.K. they seem to have a humane acknowledgment that people will be losing jobs. Unlike in the States, where CEOs release statements riddled with meaningless corporate jargon like “right-sizing,” the director general of the BBC, Tony Hall, said:

I recognise this is a very tough message. I’m under no illusion that what I’ve said today will cause great anxiety across many parts of the organisation. This is a lot of change and it will happen quite fast. But I want all of you to know that we’ll handle this decently and fairly.

It’s a sad time for those who used to and still do practice the noble profession of journalism—or at least those who do so at legacy shops. My next post will be about how BuzzFeed, Vox, Facebook and Snapchat are adapting much better than publishing’s old guard.

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Amazon goes back to the future

dbpix-company-borders-tmagArticleAmazon is opening brick and mortar stores! “What a world, what a world!” to quote the melting Wicked Witch of the West.

It seems that after spending its first 20 years putting local bookstores out of business, the company has realized: Hey, gosh, people really like local bookstores.

I should mention that Amazon.com put out of business not just thousands of local bookstores but also countless outposts of chain bookstores. Mall standbys like Borders, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, B. Dalton, and Waldenbooks are for the most part but a memory.

Perhaps Amazon can lease spaces formerly occupied by some of these businesses. After all, “Their goal is to open, as I understand, 300 to 400 bookstores,” said the CEO of a shopping mall who has apparently been in contact with Amazon.

Maybe Amazon can somehow make a go of brick-and-mortar stores. Maybe it knows something the defunct bookstores did not. Maybe it has enough time and money that it can afford to experiment. Maybe it has a long enough runway that it will figure it out. Maybe it has some secret algorithms that can help. Maybe Jeff Bezos himself will be stocking shelves in the back. Who knows?

But I think we can all agree that it’s spectacularly odd that the company that’s probably responsible for people even coining the term “bricks-and-mortar” is pursuing this strategy. What a world.

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Yahoo for sale! Any takers? Anyone? Anyone?

Yahoo-News-Digest-Logo

Boy, Yahoo this week, huh? First the company gets sued for instituting a quarterly performance review system that an ex-employee says has “been used to fire hundreds of employees since [CEO Marissa] Mayer joined the company,” per The New York Times. The accuser, Gregory Anderson, who worked at Yahoo News, says execs there “routinely manipulated the rating system to fire hundreds of people without just cause.”

Two things stood out to me in the article. First, this nugget, which every time I read it brings a wide smile to my face:

Ms. Mayer has steadfastly refused to use the word “layoff” to describe the thousands of jobs eliminated since she joined the company. She even forbade her managers from uttering what she called “the L-word,” instructing them to use the term “remix” instead.

Imagine! “We’re sorry to announce that everyone in this room is being remixed.” What?

The second standout bit is this:

The court filing said that managers were forced to give poor rankings to a certain percentage of their team, regardless of actual performance. Ratings given by front-line managers were arbitrarily changed by higher-level executives who often had no direct knowledge of the employee’s work. And employees were never told their exact rating and had no effective avenue of appeal.

Uh, that sucks. My advice to Yahoo would be: Careful what you wish for when you hire journalists. They’re gonna do what they do. And you will be called out.

Despite its left turn into eye-roll territory with this dude also claiming so-called reverse gender discrimination, it’s a hell of an interesting turn of events.

Meanwhile, The Hollywood Reporter notes that “Yahoo’s fourth-quarter earnings were overshadowed by the company’s announcement that it would cut staff as it explores a sale.” (If you’re keeping track, that’s more staff than it’s already cut illegally. Allegedly.)

In fact, continues THR:

Yahoo has outlined an aggressive cost-cutting strategy that includes reducing its headcount by 15 percent and closing offices in Dubai, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Milan and Madrid. Those cuts are expected to reduce Yahoo operating expenses by $400 million by the end of the year.

Jeez! That’s a ton of staff, 15 percent! We know from reports that this includes shuttering many of its “digital magazines,” and the company already shut down Yahoo Screen. That’s a lot of creative people out of work, which is really sad.

It seems that one bright note was for Yahoo was the growth of its new “Mavens” program, which somehow stands for mobile, video, native and social. Wow, mobile and native are growth areas? No kidding. Welcome to 2012, Yahoo!

I guess these kinds of good-idea-but-way-too-late decisions are why the board wants to sell, per Kara Swisher at Re/code, despite Mayer wanting to keep the company and keep trying to grow it:

Strategic alternatives is code for: Come on down, Verizon! Hey there, AT&T! All private equity guys welcome here!

I’m sure Mayer, like all of us, is wondering where it all went wrong with this venerable brand. (And also: WEHT Tumblr, man? No one ever talks about Tumblr anymore. So much for David Karp being the next media guru.)

I wish had an better answer than, “We’re living through a historic shift in the media and no one knows what will happen,” but I don’t. Meantime, media people: Gird your loins, prep your bunkers, and find a partner who’s a dentist or a pharmacist.

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The latest Dish, a sad tale indeed

Almost exactly two years ago, Andrew Sullivan broke off from the Daily Beast and announced he would transition his extremely popular and much-read blog, the Dish, into its own site—one not owned by a media corporation or supported by advertising.

Said he at the time:

We want to help build a new media environment that is not solely about advertising or profit above everything, but that is dedicated first to content and quality. We want to create a place where readers — and readers alone — sustain the site. No bigger media companies will be subsidizing us; no venture capital will be sought to cushion our transition (unless my savings count as venture capital); and, most critically, no advertising will be getting in the way…. Hence the purest, simplest model for online journalism: you, us, and a meter. Period. No corporate ownership, no advertising demands, no pressure for pageviews.

How’s that going for him? Not so great. Last week he announced his retirement from blogging; this week the Dish announced it was shutting down.

We…have come to the conclusion that the practical, financial and editorial challenges of continuing on are simply too great for us to bear as we are, let alone without me.

He cited his health as the biggest factor.

We’re all only human. At some point, the marathon has to end.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn? Perhaps that it’s a ton of work to churn out fresh content, whether you’re owned by a corporation or not. Perhaps when there are “no advertising demands,” you have to generate other kinds of revenue to stay afloat (beyond your savings account), and perhaps that’s a lot of work. Perhaps even if you grind away at it but still can’t find such an alternate revenue source, you have to do all the work yourself. Perhaps this is time-consuming and stressful.

This just in: Running a user-supported content site is time-consuming and stressful. It is a ton of work. You do have to do it all. And you will burn out.

It’s sad, for sure, to see a fallen comrade. Sullivan tried a new way of doing things, and that’s admirable. If there’s a lesson for the media at large from this affair, it’s that we have to keep trying new things. We must tackle new challenges, especially the hard ones (like how to run a site without corporate oversight and ads, for example), and we must keep going, keep reinventing, keep trying.

Not to be too dramatic, but to quote Samuel Beckett from The Unnamable, “In the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

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Media gut check: Gods (BuzzFeed and Facebook) help us!

It’s too late to be timely on this, considering January is now over, but I finally read Mat Honan’s Wired piece about media start-ups. I’ve called out some key passages below, but the highlight of Honan’s piece happened off-page. The setup of the print-article-about-online-media-startups thing was awkwardly funny enough, but the punch line of the whole situation is that this was Honan’s last feature for Wired because after interviewing BuzzFeed for the article, he left to take a job at BuzzFeed. In this Wired piece, he wrote, “Everyone wants a piece of BuzzFeed.” The irony either stings or tickles, depending on your perspective.

The best encapsulation of the piece comes at the end, but I’m going to put it right up front so as not to bury Honan’s conclusion. It comes down to this:

Here is the big secret: Nobody has it figured out. Everyone’s just hoping not to be totally fucked six months from now! There’s no retreating from the unbundled story. We aren’t going to start going back to the front pages of websites any more than we’re going to go back in droves to print. Times will change, but they won’t change back. Which means that, ultimately, the best and only way for publishers to win your attention is with really good stories. A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own.

Hey, that’s what I’m always saying! More from Honan:

The media has been so completely flattened and democratized that your little sister can use the same distribution methods as the world’s most powerful publishers. She has instant access to you—potentially to everyone—and she doesn’t need to invest in broadcast towers or a printing press, satellites or coaxial cable….Even Hearst never had to compete with corgi videos. But the thing is, the media isn’t just competing with your little sister—it’s co-opting her, using her as a vector to spread its content. She is the new delivery mechanism. The question for news publishers is no longer how to draw an audience to their sites, it’s how to implant themselves into their audience’s lives.

The must-see publication of the 21st century is the first vibration in your pocket. While news apps have to be fast, they also have to practice restraint. Vibrate a pocket too often and people will delete your app for being annoying. Gone from the homescreen! And good luck getting someone to try it again.

[BuzzFeed’s Dao] Nguyen sees BuzzFeed as a technology company as much as a media company, and that means investing in data and software. “When media companies think of growth, they tend to think of it as a marketing function,” Nguyen says. “We talk about growth as a technology function—building tools and products, and making changes in your platform.” …BuzzFeed has tools like a headline optimizer. It can take a few different headline and thumbnail image configurations and test them in real time as a story goes live, then spit back the one that is most effective. Once a story goes up, an algorithm looks at the early traffic and social activity and predicts whether it is going to be a hit.

“There’s a lot of precedent of distribution companies and content companies building businesses together,” [BuzzFeed’s Jonah] Peretti says. “[But] the algorithms are always changing. We have a very long-term view, and the only way to succeed in the long run is to make content people love to share with their friends, tell stories that are meaningful to people’s lives, and break news stories that have an impact on the world.”

Honan’s summary of the media’s (co?)dependence on Facebook…

When Facebook is the distribution mechanism, its whims dictate what your audience sees. A single decision about what kinds of content should appear in the News Feed could take away hundreds of millions of readers from BuzzFeed.

…leads nicely into Will Oremus’s Slate article about the same. Oremus’s piece is a well-done brief but complete summary of the way website publishing has evolved dramatically over the past not-even-decade, from the user typing in a URL to searching on Google to social sharing. He discusses how the media ran toward the ball each time, first gaming Google’s algorithms and then Facebook’s.

In fact, Facebook has flipped the script on the publishers, who are now utterly reliant on Facebook’s social media juju for their paychecks. Basically, Facebook has told publishers that videos will auto-play on Facebook users’ news feeds—but only if those videos were uploaded via Facebook, not via an outbound link to the publisher. So if a publisher merely posts a video link to its (probably very expensively produced!) own content, it will get dinged by Facebook. Oremus summarizes the problem thusly:

Facebook is now cutting your website out of the equation entirely when it comes to videos, the fastest-growing and most lucrative online medium. If you post a video on your site, it is likely to be received poorly on Facebook, and very few people will see it, so you won’t make much money. If you post it on Facebook, it may be seen by millions. But the advertisements in Facebook’s news feed belong to Facebook, not you. The side effect of posting a video on Facebook is to make Facebook the publisher of that video and to demote [publishers] to the role of producer. The only question is whether Facebook will deign to share any of that money with you.

His prediction?

Facebook will set the terms for the sharing of revenue from videos posted in its news feed, and those terms will be very favorable to Facebook. Each website will have to decide for itself whether to accept those terms. Many will resist, recognizing that they can’t possibly make as much money from videos posted on Facebook as they did back when Facebook generously linked out to videos hosted on their own sites. But some will accept, eager to be on the leading edge of the latest trend in content distribution. Some may lose money on the deal, but that doesn’t actually matter. Because those that accept will be, by and large, startups backed by venture capitalists who are willing to lose money for years as long as they’re winning market share. The holdouts will hew as long as they can to their outmoded practice of posting links on Facebook instead of full videos, but eventually they’ll either give in or lose out.

He goes on to predict that video is just the beginning, and you just know he’s right.

If Facebook and its users find that video works better when it’s embedded in the news feed, they might soon find that the same principle applies to gifs, listicles, photo essays, and even full news articles. Facebook could start by displaying a short preview in users’ news feeds, as it does now. Then, when the user hovers over the preview, the rest of the post could drop down. Posting full articles on Facebook, rather than just linking to them, would of course be optional for publishers. But it isn’t hard to imagine a Facebook blog post in late 2016 innocently advising partners in the media that full stories posted directly to the news feed appear to be doing quite well on the social network.

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Time Inc. parties like it’s 2009, makes an app

Image: Fiscal Times

Warning: This post contains unsafe levels of sarcasm and eye rolling.

You may have begun your winter vacation last week, but while you were enduring awkward conversations with your extended family, the Time Inc. PR department was working overtime to convince the public that the magazine producer is thriving in this newfangled technological world of ours. All those olde timey magazines? Who cares? Time Inc. is making apps now. That’s right: apps. Everyone knows that apps are the future! Ever since 2008, which was six years ago, when the App Store launched, apps have been the future. But now Time Inc. is getting into the game, so watch out every other app, of which there were 25 billion on iOS as of May 2013! Clearly we have all—all of us in digital media, and, well, all of us everywhere around the world—been waiting to see just what kind of technology the minds at the magazine company Time Inc. will devise.

Time Inc. doesn’t just want to be known and just to operate as the publisher of popular magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People any more. It wants to become a technology company too, launching its own products to rival the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce and even Tinder.

Does it now? I’ll bet those folks can do it! I mean, it wants to be a tech company. It wants to rival the biggest social networks on this planet. So it stands to reason that it can!

Ever since former owner Time Warner announced it was to spin off Time Inc. into a separately publicly traded company last year, Time Inc. has been making some loud noises that it’s not just a dusty old magazine publisher that doesn’t understand digital.

They’re making loud noises, people! About the assumption that they don’t understand digital just because their sites are still running on technology from the 1990s! Wha, wha, what was that? A loud noise, that’s what.

With so much change affecting the publishing industry—first with the move to web, then search, social and mobile—Time is saying “we don’t want to be surprised any more, we want to find ways to get ahead of that curve. They are working to get ahead of that curve and become a tech company.”

Oh, wow. They are working on being ahead of the curve to become a tech company! Did you hear that, all the other tech companies and websites? They are working on it!

M. Scott Havens, Time Inc.’s SVP of digital, told Business Insider “We are building [standalone] apps and businesses.”

No! They are building apps? Apps?! My god, apps! What a brilliant idea! Has anyone ever built—is it pronounced apps? Am I saying that right?

[The first app is] Cooking Light Diet, a mobile app that delivers customized meal plans on a weekly basis.

What! You’re telling me this team of hundreds was able to develop an app that updates once a week? Do they have push alerts? Because if this weekly app has push alerts…

The process started a year ago, when Time Inc. came up with the idea for the product last spring. By May, Time Inc. had 500 paying customers using the service (which, at $18.99 a month, isn’t cheap), giving it the confidence to push ahead with a full launch.

Holy moley! This once-a-week app took only a year to make! And they have 500 users! Yes, five hundred! Let’s see, 500 users times $19 each? Why, that’s almost $10,000 a year in revenue after only one year of development! So really it’s all profit, minus the roughly $5 million to $10 million in costs!

A “young guy” working on the Sports Illustrated editorial team recently had a great idea for an “utilitarian app,” which Havens describes as a kind of Tinder meets Yelp. The guy told his editor, who allowed him to work on the project (at the expense of his time working on Sports Illustrated) with Havens. The company is now working on a prototype.

Wait, what? A young guy had an idea? And they let him work on it?! Holy crap, this is a game changer. And it’s probably going to be more popular than Tinder and Yelp, because it meets them both, according to this one young guy.

Time Inc. is borrowing the tools (and buzzwords) of Silicon Valley with a fast, lean approach to product development. This “minimum viable product” has four digital product experts who work with people at the individual lifestyle magazine brands to develop new products in two-week cycles.

Oh, wow, they’re using Agile, Lean and MVP? I mean, “MVP”? Wow. Well, sorry digital companies, it’s over for you. Time Inc. has figured it out. They’ve hired four different experts, so…it’s kinda game over for everyone else.

Such a change in mindset and business focus requires a huge cultural reorganization. Processes are different, priorities change, even desk layout ought to be different than a traditional newsroom.

Wait, you’re saying that you just need to rearrange the desks in order to make this a digital company, not a “dusty old media” company? So easy! I’m not sure if the union will go for that, but they might just be right about the seating chart being the key to disrupting this whole industry.

Havens hints that everything from consumer apps, b2b technologies and content for watches, cars and refrigerators are all being considered.

Oh, wow. Is there anything this old magazine company that knows nothing about any of those industries can’t do?! Watch your back, all of those above-mentioned multibillion-dollar corporations that are also doing all of these things but with a working knowledge of their industries and without a legacy media business to run!

It’s easier for Time Inc. to adopt this approach now than it would have been a decade ago, though, said Reed Phillips, managing partner of media investment bank DeSilva & Phillips.

Yeah, totally! If they’d been able to develop social media a decade ago, they’d definitely have been ahead of the curve. Time Inc., your PR department makes it pretty clear that you have many great ideas (and plans!) on how to be an tech-industry leader. All I can say is good luck with that.

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Content management systems: Why we can’t have nice things?

In a rare but welcome turn of events, this week I read three thoughtful deep dives about content management systems.

1

I found myself nodding a lot at this Mediashift piece that discussed how magazines can better use analytics to determine their digital focus. Some highlights:

“We watch numbers on each of these platforms and determine what platforms can have a rich workflow and rich experience, and where we want to enhance the content with video. We also have replica editions where people are happy with just a flipbook. We make decisions on a per-platform basis [by considering] the return on investment of any of these.” —Kerrie Keegan, Reader’s Digest

“All of the different platforms — not even just production platforms like Mag+, Zinio, Adobe DPS, but also Apple versus Google versus Amazon versus Next Issue — all of those have a different set of analytics and metrics that can be obtained. Those really differ widely. It’s one of the core challenges for anybody trying to publish in this space and across those markets…. The challenges aren’t really technical at this point. The challenges are what I call infrastructure. In print, we all know what rate base is, what CPMs are going to be, what metrics we pay attention to. We don’t have the same infrastructure for monetizing digital. From an advertising point of view, does rate base matter, or is it interaction, engagement, time in app?” —Mike Haney, Mag+

2

This excellent piece from Neiman Lab gets into the inner workings of Scoop, the New York Times‘s CMS, with Luke Vnenchak. The parts I found most interesting had to do with something I always advocate: better integration of basic editorial functions, such as, oh, I don’t know, editing words, into CMSes.

Scoop incorporates a number of real-time editing options that might look familiar to Google Docs users. Different team members can work on different parts of a story at the same time: “For example, a reporter can work on the article while an editor is writing the headline and summary and a producer is adding multimedia. But one editor can’t work on the headline while another works on the summary.”

Isn’t it amazing that this very basic functionality is so hard to come by in most off-the-shelf CMSes? Additionally, for being content management systems, most CMSes are abysmal at actually managing content in the editorial sense:

One thing that is always handy in newsrooms is a system for tracking the status of stories as they move from assigning and writing to editing. Beyond knowing the status of an article, Vnenchak said they want the system to track when stories run online and in print, and how a story is performing once it’s published.

Our asks as editors are quite standard, if not primitive, from a content-making standpoint. Something as essential as status tracking being incorporated into a CMS should be common, not rare.

3

Finally, an intriguing post that could indicate the end of cobbled together, homegrown editorial CMSes. Much can be said about Google, but even its detractors have to admit that when the company puts its mind to doing something, it gets done. That something might soon be a CMS “that would unify editorial, advertising and perhaps commerce activities for media companies.”

The so-far-untapped opportunity that Google is chasing — articulated with greater frequency this year in ad tech circles — is to take a holistic approach to managing yield that spans multiple publisher revenue sources and screen form factors.

The idea that a editorial-based, unifying CMS hasn’t yet been developed is rather shocking in itself. But the arguments the article makes against Google developing such a product are the pinnacle of self-reproach and shame. It’s almost as though all of online publishing has been told by its shrieking mother, “This is why we can’t have nice things!” and internalized the message:

A CMS could be a tough sell for Google, especially as a number of publishers have lately staked their future on the strength of a proprietary CMS. Three prominent examples are Vox Media, whose vaunted Chorus CMS is considered its secret sauce, BuzzFeed, which has baked native advertising into its content platform, and The New York Times, where technology-powered storytelling is seen as core to its editorial and advertising mission. For such publishers, adopting a CMS from a large platform player like Google would be tantamount to outsourcing the very notion of innovation.

Additionally many established publishers have customized their content tools to integrate with legacy publishing systems. Many publishers use multiple CMSs, for instance a custom platform powered by Drupal alongside WordPress for blogging. So there’s a big technical hurdle to adopting any off-the-shelf solution Google has on offer. That’s setting aside the technical and human resources barriers required to migrate away from “good enough” content systems.

This last part reminds me of the great Aimee Mann song “Momentum”: “But I can’t confront the doubts I have/I can’t admit that maybe the past was bad/And so, for the sake of momentum/I’m condemning the future to death/So it can match the past.”

It seems obvious that we should embrace enhancements to CMSes for editorial, be they analytics, metrics, platforms, workflows, or appropriate ad-edit collaboration.

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