May 152017
 

Next Saturday, on the 21st of May, I’ll be sitting on a panel for the Talking Justice series on how digital disruption is impacting on journalism, individual rights and social justice. This is an early draft of what I plan to be saying about the topic.

The series will be held at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre in regional Victoria, tickets are available from the Loddon Campaspe Community Law Centre website.

In the middle of last year I stopped writing for The Australian after their budget for freelance tech journalists ran out. Over the previous two years the newspaper had been my main source of income.

To be fair to The Australian’s management, this was not surprising as at the turn of the century the paper’s IT section was the bible of the nation’s technology industry, often running to 64 pages as standalone liftout. It was a true river of gold for News Limited that employed over a dozen staff and contributors.

Now, on a good week there’s a couple of adverts in the single page section and it employs two and half full time equivalent staff.

The decline of The Australian’s IT section is not in itself remarkable – almost every newspaper has the same story as advertisers have moved away. In the case of the Australian IT, the employment adverts that funded the section’s heyday long ago moved to dedicated online sites.

How a million flowers didn’t bloom

For the broader media – including most news websites – Google and Facebook’s dominance in online advertising has meant even the digital dimes have become scarcer. Many of the ‘born digital’ or ‘web native’ publications are just as cash starved as their incumbent competitors, albeit with far lower cost bases.

The drying up of advertisers’ cash has left the media model in tatters and the early promise of the internet allowing millions of new media sites to bloom has long ago proved false leaving the world of journalism a hungry, desperate place.

For cyber utopians like myself who believed the web would usher in a new era where power  could be held accountable through citizens’ websites, blogs and social social media accounts, that disappointment is even greater as the internet is seeing power further centralised with extensive data dossiers being collected on every individual.

An example of just how comprehensively data is being collected and used is shown in this clip from the 2008 US Presidential election campaign.


That description is almost innocent by today’s standards as there are many, many more data points with social media, connected devices and – most of all – our smartphones tracking every moment of our lives and activities.

Imbalance of Power

A good example of how data is being used against citizens is the recent Not My Debt debacle where the government and Centrelink misused information to harass social security recipients.

Stung by the public outrage, the agency saw fit to leak a critic’s confidential personal data to a journalist, an action later justified by a departmental secretary as necessary to protect their organisation,. A view seemingly legitimised by both the Australian Federal Police and the responsible minister who both saw no legal or ethical problem with such behaviour.

That a experienced and long serving journalist along with a metropolitan newspaper saw fit to publish that lady’s personal circumstances also tells us the mainstream media, struggling as it is with both money and ethics, may not necessarily the protector of our civil liberties.

Rights and data brokers

Governments are not the only risk to our civil liberties, our connected lives give businesses huge control over what we say and do as well.

With the Internet of Things our cars, smoke alarms, electricity meters, even toasters and fridges are gathering information on everything we do and this information can be used in ways we don’t expect, from denying credit to identifying us as employment or credit risks.

Added to this is the end of ownership, where a purchase is only a license to use a product and that right can be cut off at any time.

In the US, farmers are downloading pirated Ukrainian firmware for their tractors so they can maintain them. In many countries, including Australia, even that may be illegal.

Should a consumer find their product is remotely shut down, they may have few legal remedies as many agreement insist on compulsory, and expensive, private arbitration rather than using the courts or tribunals to settle disputes. The terms and conditions underpinning the software licenses are so restrictive that it’s almost impossible to hold any supplier to account.

Ultimately to protect the general public from these corporate and government excesses, a strong media is required to publicise official malfeasance and equalise the power imbalance with the rich and powerful.

Where will a strong media come from?

Right now it’s hard to see where that strong media will come from with today’s broken advertising and revenue models. However it was equally hard a hundred years to see how people would make money from producing radio programs yet the broadcasting industry turned out to be one of the Twentieth Century’s most profitable.

To the question of ‘is everyone now a journalist?’ the answer has to be ‘no’ – the risks and costs are too high for the ordinary person who has to worry about keeping their job in a world where timid managers, not just at Centrelink, are frightened of even the mildest criticism.

Coupled with that are the high legal barriers, from defamation to confidentiality clauses the barriers to reporting on matters are steadily being increased and the costs of defending oneself from plaintiffs who’d rather not see stories written are punitive and beyond the means of all but the richest media organisations.

Rethinking journalism

It could well be that we’re returning to an earlier period of journalism where the trade was poorly paid and regarded, it was only during the post World War II years that the occupation became something that supported middle lifestyles.

With the stakes so high in an increasingly data driven world, it’s essential we do define the role of journalists is in today’s world along with give citizens the technological and legal tools so we can hold the powerful to account in the connected and data rich 21st Century.

Digital disruption has deeply affected the media and it is redefining our rights as corporations and governments use technology to amass more power. We as citizens, voters and consumers have to exercise what influences we can to ensure our rights in a digital word.

May 102017
 
Kennedy Nixon Presidential Debate 1960

One of the notable things about the media’s collapsing business model is how television has suffered nowhere near the same downturn in advertising revenues as the other channels.

This has been baffling for many of us pundits so a series of interviews I’m doing with media executives on digital disruption was a good opportunity to discuss why television is holding the line where print has dismally failed.

While the executive has to remain anonymous at the moment, the series is for a private client, their view on why television has so far avoided the advertising abyss is simple – accountability.

We have something, as do my friends at other media companies, that YouTube and Facebook don’t have which is we create quality content. What will differentiate us is we have premium, locally produced content that is one hundred percent brand safe and one hundred percent viewable and, most importantly, is independently measured by third parties.

My view is that advertisers in that environment is a much more powerful experience than advertising in Facebook or YouTube

While many of us may laugh at Australian commercial TV being described as ‘quality’, it does appeal to audiences far bigger than the typical YouTube channel or Facebook Live stream.

The advertising industry’s established systems also, unsurprisingly, work for the television industry in giving the sector accountability that the online services lack in a world where ‘click fraud’ – software tricks to report false web impressions – is rampant.

Even more importantly for the new media giants is the ‘brand safe’ message being pushed by the incumbents. The advertising crisis for Google is real and the established players intend to exploit it.

While the TV executive is pushing their own product, it’s clear the fight for advertising and marketing dollars is far from over.

May 042017
 
different technology standards like video cassettes cause problems

The race to rescue VHS tapes, how Ford lost Google and the fascinating world of London legal clerks are among last week’s interesting links.

London clerks

Inside the antiquated, but very lucrative, world of London barristers’ clerks.  A fascinating a look at one aspect of the English legal profession where old traditions have conveniently merged with modern fees.

Saving VHS tapes

One of the banes of modern culture is shifting standards. As VHS tapes decay, researchers are racing to preserve the culture of the 1980s and 90s, reports US National Public Radio.

Google and Ford clash cultures

Joint ventures and business partnerships are often problematic, as Ford found in their abortive autonomous vehicle project with Google.

Mar 182017
 
How are magazines and newspapers surviving in a digital world?

Could schools help combat the scourge of ‘fake news’? The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, believes so.

Schleicher runs the organisation’s PISA international comparison of educational standards that will introduce tests in 2018 on global competency alongside the existing measures of literacy and numeracy.

The questions of what fake news is and who it affects are relevant to the discussion of dealing with propaganda, slanted reporting and the internet’s echo chambers.

I’ll be discussing this shortly on BBC5’s Up All Night. It should be an interesting discussion.

Jan 302017
 
the web is new neon sign

With media companies around the world struggling to make money, the publishing platforms on Facebook and Google promised to bring in much needed income streams. They appear not to have worked.

Business Insider reports how US based premium publisher trade body Digital Content Next surveyed its members on their online platform income and discovered some disappointing answers.

On average, premium publishing companies generated $773,567 in the first half of 2016 by distributing their content on YouTube. Content published to Facebook earned an average of $560,144 in the period, Twitter generated an average of $482,788, and Snapchat generated $192,819 for each publisher in the sample.

To call these returns derisory is an understatement and it illustrates how the current media model is unsustainable as it’s impossible to sustain a basic newsroom, let alone produce investigative features with those sort of budgets.

It isn’t just the media model that’s unsustainable, Business Insider cites the CEO of Digital Content Next, Jason Klint, who flagged in a blog post last year that all the growth in digital advertising is being accounted for by Facebook and Google – the rest of the industry is shrinking.

 

Even Facebook and Google aren’t immune from the unsustainable model that’s currently in place, Klint points out that fraud and intermediaries further skew the model which undermines advertisers’ confidence in the platforms and online media in general.

For the moment though, the intermediaries seem to be doing okay. Klint cites IAB research which claims AdTech companies are making 55% of the online advertising industry’s revenues while publishers are only getting half.

That illustrates how the tail is currently wagging the dog with publishers and content creators losing out while middlemen who add little in the way of value get the bulk of the revenue. That too is not sustainable.

We’re still in early days for online media and the models are still being worked out. While we wait for the 21st Century’s David Sarnoff many sectors are threatened including the advertising, marketing and PR industries. At least the publishers aren’t alone.

Jan 052017
 
the web is new neon sign

How do you make money from online publishing? Medium’s Ev Williams shows he is as far away from the answer as the rest of us.

In a blog post yesterday Ev announced his company is firing fifty staff as online advertising revenues fall short.

Online advertising’s disappointing revenues are no surprise to pretty well anyone observing the online publishing industry for the past five years, it seems to have come as a revelation to Ev and the investors who’ve staked an estimated $140 million in the venture.

That money, which most online publishers would gag for, seems to have gone on a bloated headcount given the company can afford to fire fifty people. It’s a shame the company’s investors didn’t appoint a board that checked management’s hiring practices.

Something that should worry other publishers is the organisation’s Promoted Stories division is being shut down as part of the restructure. This underscores how branded content doesn’t scale the same way traditional advertising does and won’t represent a major revenue stream for online publications.

It isn’t the first time Ev Williams has got it wrong, in founding Twitter he and his team turned their back on ordinary users and developers to focus on courting celebrities in the hope big brands would pay large amounts to be associated with them. It didn’t work.

Contrasting Ev’s Twitter and Medium experiences with that of Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti is interesting. While Buzzfeed still hasn’t found the formula for profitability, Peretti and his team have gained a deep understanding of what works in online publishing.

To be fair to Ev, we’re all trying to figure out the revenue model that will work for online media, his travails with Twitter and Medium show just how hard it is to find a way for publishers to make money from the web. What is clear though is burning a lot of cash on sales staff is not the answer.

Aug 112016
 

Consumer goods giant Proctor and Gamble has announced they will be dialling back their targeted advertising on Facebook, as they discovered being too precise turns out to stifle sales.

It turns out that big companies need scale, not precision, so to grow sales they need to be engaging with more people and not restricting their message to niche groups.

Given the different natures of businesses it’s not surprising to see strategies that work for one group fail dismally for others, but it’s interesting how targeting turns out not to work so well for mass market products.

The losers though in the P&G story are smaller websites as Wall Street Journal quotes the company’s Chief Marketing Officer as saying they will focus more on the big sites and move away from niche players.

Mr. Pritchard said P&G won’t cut back on Facebook spending and will employ targeted ads where it makes sense, such as pitching diapers to expectant mothers. He said P&G has ramped up spending both on digital sites and traditional platforms. One category the company is scaling back: smaller websites that lack the reach of sites such as Facebook, Google and YouTube.

 

Again we’re seeing the early promise of the web failing as economic power continues to be concentrated with a few major platforms. This is also terrible news for media organisations as big advertisers – P&G are the world’s biggest spender – focus on a few sites and increasingly ignore local or niche news publications.

There’s also the quandary of where the content that Facebook’s users share will come from, with the advertising shifting away from media companies – new players such as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post as well as the old established mastheads – to Google and Facebook, there’s less funds to create interesting and shareable stories.

P&G’s move is very good for Facebook’s and Google’s shareholder but the future media models still seem a long way off.