Thursday, December 01, 2011

Facebook apps: News brands beware

Facebook's "social news" strategy is just another way of sucking the remaining life out of news brands.

I posted some comments on the new Facebook apps recently. At the time these apps were so new there was no real data about useage.

Now there is some early stage information about take up and response.

Problem is, the data appears conflicting and the commentary is just plain confusing. Added to which Facebook users, when asked, say they don't like the apps. Yet effectively they are corralled into using them because of the way Facebook has deployed them.

The Next Web reports that The Guardian app has had 4 millions instals since its release. The article acknowledges that the app lets "Facebook’s 800m+ users read the guardian’s articles online without actually leaving the social network".

However, despite this the app generates "almost a million extra page impressions a day".

How does it do this if users don't leave Facebook?

The only way that I can see it does this is by promoting other Guardian Facebook fan pages alongside the ringfenced content within the app. So, it is possible to navigate from the app to, say, The Guardian Media fan page and from there to an article on

But that's an extra two clicks, and effectively another drag on user numbers heading off to the parent news site.

It's all enabled by Facebook's Open Graph framework, which is a clever way of connecting content with Facebook users and functionality through API's. It's a seamless user experience, but one that is actually encouraging news consumers to care less about the news brands they are engaging with.

So Facebook's claim of success here, on behalf of their news partners (Guardian, Washington Post, Yahoo!News, The Independent etc) is disengenuous.

It is a great success for Facebook, but it presents a serious dilemma for news publishers. In reality, Facebook's "social news" strategy is just another way of sucking the remaining life out of news brands.

Publishers should go there at their peril. And to my mind executives like Donald Graham (Chairman of Washington Post and board director at Facebook) have such a conflict of interest that they should remove themselves from any publishing decisions to do with Facebook.

Everybody else needs to get a lot smarter about how they manage their news partnerships with Facebook.

Right now Facebook is sending traffic to news sites, but after the feast comes the reckoning.

What would Facebook do with $10 billion cash? 

That's the number being bandied around as its initial raising target as it mulls an IPO. The answer, I suppose, is anyone's guess right now.

So, what would be the chances of them buying up news media? Mark Zuckerberg has been upfront about his interest in, even need for, content. Would he spend some of that change on buying a content generating organisation? Would his Chairman, for example, offer up the Washington Post?

Or closer to home ... would Fairfax be of interest?

A cashed up Facebook might well consider making a play for the newsroom of a traditional media company (or two). They'd have little interest in the production and distribution mechanisms, so effectively it would mean junking those assets and stripping out the journalism.

It's an unpleasant thought, but one that could conceivably happen.

All the more reason for news publishers to value their brands more effectively in their relationships with Facebook.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

APN: Can closing papers be offset by digital?

The closure of APN regional papers in NSW and SE Qld comes as no surprise.

Nevertheless, it is a sad indication of the ongoing shrinkage of regional media choices. The fact is, that current indicators suggest digital will not save APN's regional news franchises.

APN announced yesterday that it would close the Gold Coast Mail and Robina Mail, and reduce the Tweed Daily News to a Saturday paid print edition only and the Coffs Coast Advocate to a twice weekly freesheet.

It's worth mentioning that the Robina Mail only launched this year.

APN Regional Media CEO Warren Bright told the SMH yesterday "We will probably improve our focus on news because we will be breaking it online and will provide people with strong weekly newspapers, and we'll be relaunching weekend editions.

In an official statement Bright said, “We also have strong digital audiences in each market so it makes sense to combine a constantly updated digital news service with this modified print offering.”

That is either a triumph of optimism, or a cynical piece of corporate spin.

Here's what I know:

The Tweed Daily news has been losing money for years. In 2009 APN considered selling or closing it down. The only likely buyer was News Ltd and the view at the time was they might pay $5. Closing the paper meant taking a write-down hit that then CEO Martin Simons wasn't willing to take. So they "relaunched" it, effectively kicking the can down the road.

The TDN web site ( gets something in the vicinity of 30-40,000 UBs per month, average page duration of 45 seconds, time on site of about 3.5 minutes. In online news terms that is not a commercial amount of traffic, and without a newspaper to promote the web site the audience is unlikely to grow. So on it's own it is not the solution.

One of the original printing presses in the office at the Tweed Daily News

Meanwhile, the Gold Coast Bulletin is rubbing its hands in glee. They can expect to pick up, not only the few readers who were still buying the Tweed Daily News but the real estate advertisers and what is left of retail, auto and jobs in the Tweed market.

Free kick to News Ltd.

Further south in Coffs Harbour The Coffs Coast Advocate has been free two days a week for some time, whilst paid the other three, but will now only be available twice weekly. This is probably where most of the job cuts will come from as the Tweed office has been gutted already. All APN offices run on a shoe string, but Coffs had been able to maintain some strength due to its recent success against the Fairfax owned Independent and the relative size of the Coffs area footprint.

Still, that hasn't been enough to save it.

Can the Advocate web site rescue things? Again, it has a similar problem as Tweed.

The averages 40-50,000 UBs per month, with an average page duration of 41 seconds and time on site of 3.3 minutes. These numbers will not deliver much in the way of advertising revenue on their own. And note, only about half these number will be local readers. In other words about half this audience is of any value to local advertisers. the same is true of most of APN regional news sites.

Taken in isolation, the future of APN's Tweed and Coffs businesses is bleak. The next round of closure - my guess probably some time in the middle of next year - will be final.

The question has to be asked: How does a previously profitable business running multiple monopoly franchises across some of the country's strongest regional centres get to this point? And we can be sure it's not over yet, the Warwick Daily News will be at risk, and certainly the Sunshine Coast Daily is in a very precarious situation.

In 2006 APN regional newspapers had revenue in the order of $125m. In 2010 it was something like $55m. That's a helluva drop in four years. Some of it has been explained by the GFC, some by extreme weather events and the effects on tourism and agriculture. But at the heart of this company's problems is a failure of management.

At the beginning of this year a new CEO took over at the APN Group level, and in turn appointed a new CEO to the regional newspaper business. Both men were touted as being digital immigrants, at least.

The digital structure these men inherited in Qld was significant. In the previous four years APN had invested substantially (and appropriately) in building a web platform and an infrastructure of expertise to drive training, sales and distribution at both a local and national level.

For some reason this does not seem to have been leveraged effectively.

Meanwhile, print circ and revenue is still dropping and the only mitigation strategy seems to be cost reduction.

APN is often described as the biggest (Australian) media company no one has ever heard of. For years that anonymity served it well as it went about its work as a serious cash generator shipping substantial amounts of that revenue offshore to the O'Reilly's and INM News & Media. Since the O'Reilly's reduced their holding in 2009, and then a flurry of shareholder activism generated some media attention around the AGM in 2010, APN's inner workings have become more exposed.

Still, it's a story that hasn't yet been fully told. As a diverse media holding, the APN group had enormous promise in the late nineties and early noughties. Since then, and despite commendable efforts from some corners of the operation, it has failed to live up to that potential.

[Disclosure: I was GM of APN Online from 2007-2010]

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Modern media: Necessary evil or saviour of democracy?

I sat in on the Media Inquiry in Melbourne this afternoon, and listened to the ever thoughtful Paul Chadwick.

It was an absorbing session, and whilst it is probably clear that the most likely outcome is some increased influence for the Press Council, and not much else, nevertheless the process seems to have been worthwhile. And, in fact, that outcome may be just about ideal.

Who wants more media regulation, anyway?

But amongst all the talk of the threats to democracy and the power of the media, it struck me that an important historical point has been lost.

Inquiries like this start from the point of view that the media is a necessary evil, that it's a loose cannon needing to be controlled or regulated in some way. The underlying theory is that some influence needs to be brought to bear against the worst excesses of greedy moguls or uncaring shareholders.

All of that may be a fair cop, guv. But it does overlook one glaring positive.

Since the rise of a global media in the second half of the twentieth century – whether that be international wire services, CNN, the BBC, blogs, Twitter or digital radio – we have lived in an Age of Communication.

Digital only defines the latter part of that age. So let’s not get hung up on “citizen journalism” or Twitter.

What struck me as I listened to the discussion this afternoon – particularly as Paul Chadwick, who is clearly a student of history, referenced aspects of the long cycle of media influence and its roots in pamphleteering – was that a key aspect of post-industrial revolution western democracy, up until the mid-twentieth century, was militaristic.

I’m not suggesting that things are particularly peaceful in all pockets of the globe at the moment, but within and between western democracies it is true to say there is no threat of imminent war. And when you contrast that with the first half of the twentieth century the difference is startling.

Right now Europe’s economy is under greater stress than it has been since the 1930’s. The US economy is marginally better. These zones have been the driving forces of economic growth for hundreds of years. And yes, we know the centre of influence is moving from West to East.

But the point is that before the rise of global media, these economic stresses – and the communication technologies of the day – resulted in an inward nationalistic mindset that led to devastating wars. Two world wars were fought, millions died. Today no one is predicting that will be repeated.

Of course there are many influences to which this political stability can be attributed, but it is worth acknowledging that one of the very important components is ... the media.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What's your Facebook strategy?

Most news organisations have Facebook pages that correlate with their brands. These pages may have tens of thousands of friends. Which is all well and good, but how much traffic is this delivering to news sites?

I'll bet it's not much, at least as a percentage of overall site traffic.

Yes, every eyeball counts and there's a good argument that says Facebook friends are more engaged readers than a user who surfs Google to a news story. But whilst having a Facebook presence is an essential requirement for online news publishers, I suspect publishers are getting themselves mired in another low return exercise and training readers to never even visit the "parent" news site.

Publishers have to use the social-networking giant more effectively than they currently do. If we don't, we can be sure Facebook will use us.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes no secret of the fact he wants media content, and lots of it.

“I hope that we can play a part in enabling … the companies that are out there producing this great content to become more social,” he said at an e-G8 forum in Paris earlier in the year. “We’re going to see a lot of the transformation in these industries over the next three, five years.”

Another way to look at it is that Facebook wants to become the "operating system of the web," as Mashable's Ben Parr puts it.

The recently unveiled new Facebook apps from publishers including Yahoo News, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Gizmodo, and a number of others, are a clear step in that direction.

The apps will tie in with Facebook’s new Timeline user interface as well as the new Ticker sidebar to let users read news stories within Facebook and easily share their reading histories.

It’s worth emphasising that these apps keep the reader wholly within the Facebook domain. They make no effort, other than via brand awareness, to steer the reader towards the originating masthead.

That so many traditional and online publishers have given the go ahead for their content to be fully replicated within Facebook, sacrificing page views on their own websites, is a big coup for Facebook. And it smacks of publisher desperation.

Washington Post CEO Donald Graham said in a statement that his company expects to see better user engagement and ultimately more reading activity by putting its stories within Facebook. “If you know that several of your friends have read a story, you’ll be more interested in it. We encourage people to try it out with their friends and keep up-to-date on the news,” he said.

That is a very brave move. And more than a little ironic given that not so long ago some publishers were accusing Google of stealing their content. (Google, by contrast, delivers a large percentage of traffic to news sites.)

Either way, publishers need to ask themselves who is really benefitting here. Facebook apps, such as the Washington Post’s and The Guardian’s simply play straight into Zuckerberg’s hands by lending their brand to the goal of keeping users within the Facebook universe.

The compounding factors to date for publishers, in product terms, are the disappointing results from iPad apps and the apparent failure of Google+ to steal market share from Facebook.

Whilst it is still early days, all Google+ seems to have done is prod Facebook into fasttracking its product releases and entrenching its 750 million users even more firmly within the site.

Google+ is a fine product, but as a social networking site it doesn’t offer anything to compel users away from Facebook. One social network is plenty for most people, and as long as Facebook keeps a focus on user experience, and manages the privacy debate maturely, it will be hard to displace.

iPad apps are a slightly different story.

Apps just haven’t taken off as many expected they would. Given the level of investment required to build and maintain news apps that can attract paying subscribers the question has to be asked whether that effort should be directed towards improving and marketing web sites.

Apart from the potential channel conflict that a news iPad app sets up, most sites already render adequately on a tablet browser.

Perhaps, now is a time for some different thinking. Instead of driving ahead with news apps, focus on optimising news web sites for access from any device and limit tablet apps to classifieds and transaction products.

And get back to figuring out how to outsmart Facebook.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Working for Rupert

In 2005 I was appointed editor of In November that year I was invited to attend the News Ltd editors conference in Adelaide, where I was briefly introduced to Rupert Murdoch. It was the only time I met the big chief, though it wasn't the only time I felt his influence.

The editors conference is an annual, or twice annual event held in different capital cities where News Ltd has metro daily papers. It brings together all the editors of the metro and regional newspapers - as well as the most senior columnists - and over a couple of days of presentations and workshops, thrashes out the critical issues shared across the Group.

The headline agenda is set by the CEO and then fleshed out by Corporate Affairs chief Greg Baxter and his office. The topics are inevitably current and often controversial. Debates go on all day and well into the night over dinner and many drinks at the most expensive restaurants in town.

It's a big deal within News Ltd, and it's fair to say that in and of itself it's a positive thing. But it's not something you'll see reported anywhere, so outside speculation always tends towards assuming the worst.

I attended a few of these conferences during my time at News and invariably they were focused on how to manage the transition from a print centric to a digital world.

The Adelaide conference in November 2005 was otherwise notable for a couple of reasons. Rupert was in town to open the new Adelaide Advertiser building, and the conference coincided with the inaugural News Awards of which the Murdochs were very supportive.

I was scheduled to speak on the morning of the second day. My brief was to describe the online opportunity for News in Australia in terms of new audience and new approaches to doing journalism. There was real interest at the most senior management levels in trying to come to grips with the implications of digital for every aspect of newsroom organisation, reporting and news production.

The other key point of interest at that time was Myspace. News Corp had just paid $580 million for the social networking site but very few people in the Australian arm of the business knew what it was, how it worked, or how it made money. For Australian print executives it was a confusing and even threatening addition to the business, but the signal was loud and clear: digital is the way of the future.

The session took place in the boardroom situated on the top floor of the glittering new Advertiser building, opening on to a roof garden with views of the city. Twenty five people sat around a large U-shaped table. It was a warm, sunny late spring day.

After opening comments and introductions from CEO John Hartigan and then my immediate boss (one of the sharpest minds I've had the privilege of working with), it was my turn to speak.

At that stage I'd been with the company for about three months. I'd had some experience editing a major news site, having been editor of for the previous three years, so I felt confident about what I had to say albeit somewhat daunted by the audience I was addressing.

There was a web connection in the room, so I was able to project examples of online news coverage from a range of different outlets covering the London bombings, Hurricane Katrina, and other major news events of recent months. A the time there was a clear trend toward user generated, or audience contribution and it was something I was really keen to get working at

Another bugbear of mine at the time was linking out. I was directing my team to put at least one external link into each article. Australian news sites still don't do enough of this, but at we were trying to use the medium to give our readers background or further information that would otherwise not run in the actual copy of an article. The web is perfect for this.

And one of the sites we used - with caution - was Wikipedia. I emphasized caution because there are some topics you cannot rely on Wikipedia for, but by and large historical or science based topics, for example, tend to be fairly safe sources of basic information.

In today's terms I was stating the bleeding obvious. But to an audience of News editorial executives in 2005 the whole issue of audience participation was a bit confronting. And as soon as I mentioned Wikipedia arms shot up around the room.

Chris Mitchell, editor of The Australian, was the first to object. For Chris it was a legal issue. "I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "I have my lawyers looking at it."

It was difficult to respond to that, and of course Mitchell wasn't looking for a response from me. I've occasionally wondered since whether The Australian's legal team has had any luck against Wikipedia ...

The second objection came from Daily Telegraph columnist, Piers Akerman. For Piers it was a journalistic issue.

"I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "They're not journalists. We are the journalists and editors. We are the ones who check and verify information. Wikipedia is unreliable and full of mistakes."

I replied that a) the Wikipedia model has a strong self-correction mechanism, b) we used it very carefully, mostly on non-controversial topics, and c) the scientific journal Nature had just published the initial results of a comparison with Encyclopedia Britannica which put Wikipedia in a favorable light against the venerable Britannica.

Nevertheless, Piers seemed unconvinced.

The third objection came from Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt. For Andrew it was a personal issue. "I don't like Wikipedia," he said. "They write bad things about me."

Legal and journalistic complaints were one thing, but this was something altogether different. I wasn't sure how to respond, but rashly decided to pull up Andrew's wikipedia entry live on the projector screen.

Suffice to say the entry was long but bland, and there was nothing in the first few paragraphs that could be immediately described as insulting or biased. Luckily for me.

As I was wrapping up my presentation Rupert came in and stood at the back of the room by the tables that were laid put for morning tea. Afterwards we broke for coffee and biscuits. Rupert mingled with old colleagues like Terry McCrann and was introduced to the few newbies like myself who were present.

Following morning tea, Rupert addressed the room. He spoke for about 30 minutes without any notes. He was quick to say that digital is the way of the future.

"As you know," he said, "we've recently purchased Myspace and we will continue to look for other suitable acquisitions.

"The web is the great disruptive technology of our time. It's where our audiences are moving to, and it's where we have to be.

"When I get up in the morning I can check the news from all over the world. I am constantly amazed by the rich variety of offerings on the web. Sites such as Wikipedia ..."

At which point I looked down the table and saw Andrew Bolt put his head in his hands, and Piers Ackerman nod wisely in agreement.

John Hartigan, whom I was sitting next to, leaned over and whispered, "I'll bet you're glad he said that!"

Indeed, I was.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Chris Lilley is neither Jesus nor the anti-Christ

Chris Lilley polarizes opinion, but as an artist he has more in common with David Williamson than Austen Tayshus or the team at Working Dog.

In today's Sunday Age Bruce Guthrie is indignant about Chris Lilley's tastelessness and questions whether the the ABC has breached its charter by airing Angry Boys. Although he does still think Mr Lilley is "supremely talented".

If he was a letter writer he'd be "Outraged of Moonee Ponds" and we'd all just roll our eyes. But Mr Guthrie's a paid columnist and you've got to wonder about manufactured froth and bubble such as this.

Still, he knows there's something going on here. He can sense that what Lilley is doing is interesting, but he doesn't quite know what that is. So he has a bet each way, which is hardly guaranteed to get the passions flowing.

There's been a lot written about Lilley's new show, much of it glowing. But a good deal of it perplexed about the nature of his comedy.

One of the most intelligent critiques of Angry Boys comes from Waleed Aly
"Typically from Lilley, there's plenty of discomfort here. His bigoted characters are extreme but presented with an unnerving realism and an editorial silence that raises tricky questions."
Waleed hits the nail on the head with the reference to realism. Lilley's social commentary is sharply observed, and  the work is all the more powerful for it.

Lilley addresses this directly in a recent interview with FHM:
FHM: Is Australia becoming more humourless and uptight? 
CL: I don’t know… I’m not sure if I want to make a statement about that. You might be right.

FHM: I’m sure I’m right. It’s why you’re so successful, because your shows remind people of the way we used to be. We used to be unafraid.

CL: I see what you mean. But I also think there’s this really patriotic thing going on in Australia at the moment. That’s what I was trying to tap into with Daniel and his Aussie flag obsession, and the Southern Cross business. Younger people really identify with that now: you’re white, you’re Aussie and you’ve got to have your Southern Cross tattoo. When I was younger that didn’t exist. It was almost embarrassing – you didn’t want to be associated with that old school “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie” thing. It was cringeworthy – but for some reason now it’s back.
One of the mistakes reviewers and commentators seem to be making about Lilley's work is that they insist on reading him through the prism of "comedy". As a writer or actor he's regularly described as a comic genius, but he then confounds these assumptions by not being drop dead funny all the time.

And that reaction is not about his comedy being more or less sophisticated, or the audience being more or less receptive.

As a playwright David Williamson has similarly confounded critics throughout his career. His comedies and dramas are always character driven, but the characters are often types or stereotypes. Lilley is dealing in the same kind of material, albeit in a different milieu.

The one thing on which all commentators concur is that Lilley is a big talent. As David Williamson might agree, it's a talent that deserves a better class of criticism from our cultural elites.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The app is not the savior of news

The iPad is now one Christmas old and with the benefit of more devices in more hands publishers are readjusting their projections and re-evaluating the success metrics.

The weight of expectation of a whole industry is a lot for one small device to bear. So how is it holding up?

The iPad is doing just fine, thank you very much. But it doesn't look like it is going to singlehandedly save the media publishing industry any time soon.

To get a feel for how apps are being received by consumers, I did a small, informal survey of recent iPad converts, including a few longer term users. Of the ten people I spoke to, all are high consumers of news in other formats, and range in age from their twenties to seventies.

The verdict, unsurprisingly, is that everyone loves their iPad. Some use it more than others, but each said they were spending more time online as a result of it.

But they remain underwhelmed by the available news apps and the device hasn't made any real difference to their media consumption habits yet, nor has it convinced them to pay for news where they had previously not been doing so.

There appear to be two elements at work here. One is that the iPad provides an adequate web browsing experience. It's not perfect, and there are plenty of sites that, for example use Flash extensively, that don't work properly on the iPad's Safari browser. But by and large it is a satisfactory news browsing experience.

The other element is that news apps just aren't up to scratch. Most of the survey sample had tried one or other of the available paid news apps but had dropped the subscription after an initial period of trialling it, making do with the available free versions.

The complaints were fairly consistent. All felt that while they were willing to pay for news, they resented having to pay for something they felt was sub-standard The complaints ranged from "It doesn't have everything that's in the paper" to "It's too slow, the news is out of date" to "It looks too much like a paper", there was some criticism of the technology as slow or buggy.

Breadth and timeliness of news delivery was the most important element. The web has taught consumers to expect instant breaking news, and the expectation is that the app will deliver the same, as well as being a luxurious reading experience. The app is seen as potentially combining the best attributes of print and online.

Early iPad news app usage data pointed to early morning and late evening activity. I expect we will see that change as the tablet finds its way into the routine of people's lives. The expectation follows that we should see increased audience numbers and more frequent session times.

But that puts a spotlight back on the real motivation of publishers in producing iPad apps. Are publishers still defending print circulations, or are we honestly trying to build new audiences with our iPad apps? My small survey group felt the publishers really want them to go back to buying the newspaper. Why else, they argue, would an app look and feel so much like a print product, or even in one case look exactly like a replica of a newspaper?

And why would it be so slow with the news? Queensland's flood and cyclone disasters were a case in point. Major rolling news stories were not available on some news apps as fast as they were on news web sites. Paying customers were right to feel ripped off.

Much was written in 2010 about publishers' embracing the tablet as a way of reviving the habit of paying for news. At the same time the consensus was that the new offering needed to be compelling enough to encourage the habit. With a little bit of time and plenty of apps in the app store, it is painfully obvious that few, if any of the news apps currently available are compelling enough to attract and keep paying readers.

The message from the market is - Yes, we'll pay for it, but it had better be good.

First published in the PANPA Bulletin February 2011.