The Big One-Seven

Happy 17th wedding anniversary!

Thanks to a brief family trip last weekend to Steelers Training Camp I decided to take a vacation from posting. This week I’m going to steer clear of media talk for the most part. Not that things have been quiet on the media front.

Between a major acquisition announcement, Facebook offering millions to get publishers back on the platform, and continued questions on how online platforms handle hate speech, I have a lot of opinions. But this week I want to focus on something more personal – which speaks to my personal privilege, I know.

This week I want to focus on something more important to me personally. Today, August 10, 2019, is my 17th wedding anniversary. I guess technically it mine and Angela’s 17th wedding anniversary. It’s impossible to do this alone.

Angela Jake Volcsko – August 10, 2002
She’s adorable, but my head is massive!

Yup, the big one-seven.

Okay, so it’s not one of the more notable anniversaries, but if you know me you know that’s also right on-brand.

It still feels weird that we’re only married 17 years. It feels like much longer – which I do not mean in a negative way at all. We started living together the year prior to getting married, so I’ve reached the point in life where my time spent living with her has eclipsed the time I lived with my parents, siblings or anyone else.

That feels like an important milestone to me.

Through the years we’ve moved a lot. More than most military families I would venture to guess. For reference, from the time we moved in together, July 2001, through when we moved into our current home in May of 2015, we moved 12 times in 14 years.

During that time the longest stretch we stayed in one home was from April 2006 to May 2008 in Wooster, OH. Otherwise we never stayed in the same place more than a few months.

And despite musical tastes that are … different, we’ve seen a fair share of concerts.

While my first choice in concert attendence wouldn’t be Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift in Greensboro, NC, 2011

The Avett Brothers

The Avett Bothers in Bethlehem, PA

or Mumford and Sons

Mumford and Sons, Camden, NJ, 2013

(twice)

Mumford and Sons, Camden, NJ, 2018

I did enjoy seeing them all with her.

Plus, I’m sure she’s not really that interested in sitting on a hillside in the summer heat watching grown men practice football.

Not once

Steelers Camp, Latrobe, PA 2013

Not twice

Steelers Camp, Latrobe, PA 2016

But three times

Steelers Camp, Latrobe, PA 2019

But whether we are interested in these things, or whether they are our first choice of entertainment doesn’t really matter. We enjoy these things events with each other because it brings us closer together.

That’s why, if you check my Spotify playlist, you’ll find songs from all of the musical acts, as well as others we’ve seen together. None are my first choice in music, but hearing them makes me smile because their music makes her smile.

So, here’s to the next 17 years. Hopefully with more concerts and sporting events – and a hell of a lot less moving.

Happy anniversary, Angela. I love you!

It’s scorching hot outside and I’m not hating it

I don’t hate the heat, and I kind of feel guilty about it, Netflix will be just fine, the worst kept secret in media

The eastern United States, from South Carolina to Maine, and parts of the Midwest, are dealing with heat advisories and excessive heat warnings this weekend as heat indexes rise over 100 degrees. While this isn’t the most pleasant weather, I for one am not hating the heat. Thanks to my Raynaud’s phenomenon, I’m cold around 90% of the time, and right now walking outside feels like a dream.

Heck, I’ve even considered wearing shorts. Outside. To a location other than a pool.

That’s a wild concept for someone who hasn’t worn shorts for reasons other than sleeping or cutting grass (and only because I wore them the night before while sleeping) in years. Yes, the humidity still sucks, but the warmth of the sun feels stupendous.

I do realize that I’m outside of the norm on this one. Thankfully it looks like the heatwave will break by Tuesday.

My love of the heat does come with some guilt. I love the heat, and extreme heat is becoming more common. The problem is that these things are true because of the damage we’ve done to our planet.

My wife and I used to say that when the kids graduate from high school we’re moving south so I can be warm. But, as the average temperatures continue to climb, the next 20 years in the area we live in now will look more like the areas we would have considered moving to when we graduated college (almost) 20 years ago.

Map: Climate Impact Lab, 1981-2010 Historical Temperatures.
Map: Climate Impact Lab, 2020-2039. Projected temperatures with moderate emissions and median probability.

At some point the leaders of our country will have to put aside their petty differences and start to legislate serious change. Our nation has a history of coming together and doing what’s right when pushed to the brink, hopefully history repeats itself.

The sky is falling! (for Netflix)

After its most recent price increase, and the impending end to several content streaming deals, for the first time in eight years Netflix had a quarterly loss in U.S. subscribers. Predictably media pundits have declared this the end for Netflix and streaming.

Just as they did eight years ago.

I remember because I made the argument wrote on my now-defunct former blog that, despite the loss in subscribers and some negative press, the price increase was good for the company. At the time, the increase injected much needed cash that would allow Netflix to produce more original content.

I’ll make the same argument now. Or at least a similar one.

Note that I recognize that my argument doesn’t consider Netflix’s own projections for the quarter of 5 million new subscribers worldwide. A projection that they missed.

Netflix has just over 60 million U.S. subscribers. During the quarter they lost less than 0.5% of these subscribers, about 160,000. It’s safe to assume that they still have around 60 million U.S. subscribers.

If we assume that the price increase lead to a monthly yield of $2 per subscriber, that’s an additional $120 million dollars a month, $1.44 billion annually. What’s more is that this new revenue comes with little to no expense. It all drops straight to the bottom-line.

The price of Netflix’s standard package is now $13 a month. Which puts it above Disney+ ($7), Starz ($8), and Showtime ($11). It’s still below HBO ($15), and will offer a large, more diverse, lineup than any of those.

I’m certain that during this next quarter Netflix will again see U.S. subscriptions grow. It will continue to invest more money into creating or buying original content, and will be just fine. They’ve proven again and again that they know how to navigate these waters.

The worst kept secret in local media

Ken Doctor, who writes for and runs Newsonomics.org, and writes on niemanlab.org, has been writing about a possible GateHouse/Gannett merger since reports about Alden Global Capital’s bid to take over Gannett. Now, as Ken wrote this week, and has been reported by several sources, it appears as though the merger is going to happen. It sounds like it’s a matter of when, not if.

Unfortunately for the employees and their respective local communities, this is not a merger meant to spur innovation, creativity, or increase local news. This is a merger of financial necessity. All it merger does is buy the new company a few years to try and figure it out.

As Ken notes:

Simply put, these companies’ leaders think a megamerger buys two or three years — “until we figure it out.” The “it” is that long-hoped-for chimera of successful digital transformation. Gannett and GateHouse, like all their industry brethren, look at ever-bleaker numbers every quarter; the biggest motivation here is really survival, which in business terms means the ability to maintain some degree of profitability somewhere into the early 2020s.

Source: Newsonomics: It’s looking like Gannett will be acquired by GateHouse — creating a newspaper megachain like the U.S. has never seen

For those in the industry tough times and end-of-days projections are nothing new – people have been talking about the end since at least the mid-90s – I get the feeling this could be different. This merger will represent 1 in 6 newspapers in the country. Putting a lot at risk if they don’t figure it out. On the bright side here, as I noted above, Americans tend to come up with the best solutions when pushed to the brink.

The appetite for local news and professionally sourced content has not dissipated, it’s increased. It’s the means of distribution that have changed, thus decimating the methods through which newspapers could monetize content and pay workers.

I’m not sure what the solution is (although I’m certain the megamerger will not find it), but I’m sure those involved with local journalism left in the wake of this merger will. It won’t come with 30% profit margins and 75% market penetration, and it probably won’t gain national prominence, but many will (and probably already have) figure it out on the local level.

Weekend Media Threads, June 1, 2019

My new adventure begins, what’s a media company to do?, and some of my favorite links from the week.

Despite this being a holiday week it’s been a whirlwind week for me. I ended one job, and left an industry, on Tuesday and started a new job on Thursday with a travel/paperwork day in between.

For the first time in my career I started my workday working for an organization not involved in newspaper publishing. No need to worry about web breaks and missed deliveries.

via GIPHY

Thursday did feel a little surreal at first. Suddenly I’m working in radio and TV. How would a newspaper guy fit in?

Turns out – as deep down we all know – no one really cares where you come from. Sure people are interested, but the current destination is more important than the journey that preceded it.

Also, once I started to meet people and got to listening, I realized that no matter the legacy distribution channel, news is still news and digital media presents the same challenges. Most of us in the media industry are asking – and struggling with – the same questions. Even fewer of us have the right answers.

Some of us look internally, opting for mass consolidation, ‘efficiency’, extreme pricing actions, and the like. Mostly ignoring external data signals from audience.

I know that no media organization would admit to the above, but if you work for one of these organizations, you know it’s true. Every conversation starts with some variation of, “how do we do this without disrupting ourselves? Oh, we can’t? Okay, let’s just do it the same way we always have then.”

Fewer of us, it seems, are starting with audience and building out from there. It doesn’t mean we ignore real efficiency and revenue streams, but it is a fundamentally different way to look at our challenges, and leads to a different culture.

Discussions around whether Amazon is a monopoly and what they’ve done to circumvent competition aside, at its core, Amazon a customer-focused organization. As much as many like to hate on the company, it’s hard to break away from them.

Why?

Because they make it simple to do business with them. And they do that by addressing the customer’s pain points. They are relentless with data and test every part of the funnel from discovery to your porch (or couch in the case of OTT). They make it easy for you to do business with them, then they address internal pain points without disrupting the customer experience.

Think about it, Amazon makes changes daily, when was the last time these changes negatively impacted your experience with them? I can think of a few poor delivery experiences, but each time their customer service will do whatever it takes to make it right.

As a result over the past five years Amazon’s stock has increased over 450%. For comparison the Dow is up 48% over that same period. They’ve outpaced the index by 402 points!

Compare this to how many media companies do business.

  • They start with internal structures and legacy business systems;
  • Then they figure out what fits into their workflow;
  • Then they distribute to the platform that is easiest for them;
  • Then they wonder why the audience didn’t show up.

This isn’t brain surgery.

If media wants to survive they need to stop thinking about internal pain points and begin addressing customer pain points.

Links from this week

Speaking of audience first, Pico launched what is basically a CRM for media companies. According to this TechCrunch article, it’s “an identity layer for media — offering a way to implement paywalls, checkouts and analytics while actually knowing who your customers are.”

Did you say audience data? This article from Publishing Executive discusses how B2B Media is leading the way in first-party data, and opening up new revenue streams.

And then there is this. If you’re in media you’ve seen this by now, but it looks like Gannett is in talks with GateHouse, McClatchy and Tribune on a possible merger. This will be good for the shareholders, I just hope they start looking to audience.

As reported on Nieman Journalism Lab, After four years of handing out money for European news projects, Google is expanding its funding to North America. You can see the post from Google here.

Also from Nieman, Why local foundations are putting their money behind a rural journalism collaborative.

Media Threads April 27, 2019

Did Buffett really say newspapers are ‘toast,’ or was he parroting an interviewer? Does that even matter if we haven’t innovated the process?

Last week I mentioned Ken Doctor’s post from his Newsonomics blog regarding the newspaper industry and how it’s looking as though it will try and merge its way out of trouble. In it Ken gets into the details, and speculates, on possible mergers and what they could mean for the industry.

The discussion is mainly around Gannett, Digital First, Tribune, and GateHouse, which got me to thinking about where this leaves chains like Lee Enterprises and BH Media? Lee and BH Media reached an agreement in June of 2018 for Lee to run the business operations for BH Media. Since that time not much has come from either camp. At least nothing I’m aware of.

This week, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, Berkshire Hathaway’s (owner of BH Media) Chairman and CEO, Warren Buffett said that the newspaper industry is “toast.” At least that’s the headline you see.

What the article above fails to mention, as well as any story that I’ve read on it, is that while Buffett said “toast,” he was actually repeating what the interviewer suggested.

The conversation went like this:

Buffett: The world has changed, hugely. And it did it gradually. It went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to …

Interviewer: Toast.

Buffett: Toast.

Interviewer: Yeah.

I’m not trying to say that Buffett has a rosy outlook for newspapers, he does say that newspapers, other than the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, will disappear. But to write a headline that Buffett says newspapers are ‘toast’ is a little disingenuous – but it did get me to click on it so …

You can watch a video of his comments here.

Regardless of what he said, I’m largely disappointed in what BH Media has brought to the table since it began acquiring newspapers. I had hoped with the backing of Berkshire Hathaway that the chain would do something innovative to try and transform smaller newspapers to compete in the modern media landscape. But, from my perspective, it looks like they just continued to be legacy newspapers. There is nothing wrong with that, but when you hear that Buffett is moving into your industry, you expect more.

And I don’t disagree that newspapers – as we know them – are going to disappear. Except for a few, I think they will. Unfortunately that’s part of progress.

However, the desire of audiences to continue to get local news is not going away, it’s only growing. I think newspapers with strong leadership will continue to evolve into something that has the journalistic integrity of a newspaper, but the culture of a digital startup with diverse profit centers.

Innovate the process

I read a great article written by Jennifer Brandel with Hearken that I put out on my various social media feeds this week. It’s an interesting take on what newsrooms need to do in order to remain relevant. Brandel argues

But we haven’t changed our process: the way that we make decisions is as old as the printing press. We still gather a small group of people (finite inputs) in a closed room to make decisions on what the rest of the public deserves to know. And we make the product in isolation, and present it to the public once we’re finished and move on to the next product. No feedback or improvement along the way …


… So what then? Instead of using tech to fuel a news strategy about more, faster, everywhere, we need news to be about better, more relevant, where and when we want it. And it must be more representative of the narratives of those not in power.


https://medium.com/we-are-hearken/newsrooms-are-focused-on-innovating-the-distribution-of-news-the-process-not-so-much-802d7b5d8e77

If you’re in the business of creating content I suggest you take some time and read the article. Compare this to how you’re doing things and see if there is a better way. Spoiler: There is.

Is more better?

I had a conversation with someone this week on the merits of member-supported media versus that of commercial media. The basic point being that in commercial media there is a belief that more is better while member-supported media believes that better is better.

While I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, given the evidence I understand the sentiment and agree 100%. But the conversation got me thinking, which is the tread that ties today’s post together.

What can I do to innovate the process of creating and distributing better content in order to bridge the past to the future?

It starts with having the right leadership, which starts at the top. Look at BH Media. Buffett loves newspapers. He was a paperboy and still gets multiple print editions delivered to his home. There is nothing wrong with that, but he seems to like the idea of a newspaper more than he does innovating an industry.

He’s a great leader. Just not the one the industry is looking for.

Once you have the right leadership, you have to begin to understand the needs and wants of your audience. Which includes the fact that these needs and wants will change with technology and generations.

Once you understand your audience, you can rebuild your legacy systems and processes in order to address your audience. Too often systems are built around internal processes with no thought given to the audience. Then we wonder why audience adoption lags?

Once you have the leadership and audience-focused systems for your processes, start to listen and engage with your audience. Journalists can no longer just scream from the mountaintop, hoping someone will listen.

If we start to do these things, creating better content and distributing it quickly will come easy.