Archive for the ‘Mainstream Media’ Category

Globe: Subscribe? Play our game!

August 12th, 2013

 

globA half hour plus with two subscription pros at the Boston Globe today brought home what a niggling, nettling surprise awaits new owner John Henry.

He’s a rich guy, principal owner of the Red Sox, builder of a grotesque, gauche, turreted mansion in Brookline, and bargain hunter. He’ll plunk down $70 million in cash for the paper, it’s online goodies and such.  In 1993, the New York Times paid $1.1 billion for the package.

He says he wants to keep newspapers vibrant in Boston. Here’s hoping he cleans house on customer service and subscriber interfaces. That’s something a rich guy’s minions should be able to do.

Simple made hard

I’ve been a technical communicator for decades, helped design user interfaces, and done usability testing for software, PDF files, websites and help systems. The Globe‘s subscription interfaces — human as well as digital — flunk.

A recap of recent interactions includes:

  • We were out of state for a couple of weeks and apparently I missed a previous bill.
  • Right before we left, I got a bill a couple of days after the home delivery stopped.
  • We got a bill right before we left. While it wasn’t at all easy to find the subscription options and current prices on the twisted website, I did notice that there was a senior rate. I had just entered that group and thought, “Swell, I’ll re-up at a lower rate.”
  • Not so fast. After going all over the site, I saw that this required copying a birth certificate or license and mailing it with a stamp.
  • When we returned, a subscription minion called to say they had gotten my senior paperwork, but would hold it until it cleared the check I told them I’d sent at the same time for delivery through 7/21.
  • We headed off for a week at the Cape with friends. The jolly sub lady said we’d talk again when I returned about starting again at the lower rate. I asked if I could return to paying annually as I had before. She said sure and there’d be a discount for doing so. She noted that while the NY Times continued to suck money from a credit card, her paper had stopped doing so because a card had expired, but they didn’t contact me for the new expiration date. Huh? Doesn’t everyone from ISPs to papers do that when there’s an expiry issue? Apparently not this one boner paper.
  • While we were gone, delivery restarted regardless of what jolly sub lady said.
  • In the mail pile when we returned was a Globe bill. It was for a full month in advance, at the regular, not senior, price, plus and inexplicable $29.64 for service “from 08/05/2013 to 8/04/2013″ which makes my head hurt to wonder how even an accounting program could generate that.
  • So today, I called. Sigh.
  • The first rep had a (not her fault of course) heavy subcontinent accent and was fairly unintelligible. More important, she couldn’t answer my queries or fix the problems.  Those would include, why did delivery restart when I had an agreement with subscriptions to wait until I returned; what the devil was $29.64 for an irrational billing period when we got no papers, retroactively or forward; if I’d been approved for the discounted rate, why was the bill for the standard; if I pay for a whole year, do I get a discount on top of my discount.
  • Instead, she tried to shut me up with a 12-week, new-subscriber rate. Nah.
  • Eventually, she switched me to another hold queue, this time for a subscriber advocate.
  • At this higher level, Walter was at first overwhelmed by the complexity of what his company had wrought. To his credit he persevered and nibbled away at each problem until he squashed them…all but my mentions of the utter lameness of the subscription site, both for potential subscribers and existing ones.
  • The short of it is that 1) he took off the absurd $29.64. 2) dropped the regular sub to the senior (not all that much of a discount, at $10.99 a week from $13.99 a week), 3) found there is no compounding of discounts, that it’s either senior, educational, or annual payment, 4) calculated a few ways to find that paying monthly by senior is cheaper than anything else, even annual, and 5) explained that when the Globe stops a sub on its end, it automatically restarts delivery immediately on payment and at the former rate, regardless of any commitment from even the sub folk.

Do you really want readers?

I’ll watch to see whether Henry wants subscribers. If so, he should sit on the site and try sub folk by phone. Bonk.

After my tedious but still relatively pleasant time with Walter, I checked the Globe site sub area again. Yep. It’s terrible.

Being fairly anal retentive as most tech communicators are, I also went to the NY Times, Boston Herald and Worcester Telegram versions. Each is a little sneaky. The Globe obfuscates to the point of fraud; it shows the least and demands the most to get even to the point of knowing what the cost and options are.

All of them follow the pattern of asking for your Zip Code to see whether they deliver in your area and to present an offer. That’s reasonable, but the marketing scams that accompany the following pages are sneaky and the worst among them for the Globe.

One might think that regs, particularly in a commonwealth with a strong attorney general, would mean pricing for a contract purchase would have to obvious, clear and understandable. Instead, the deal is, in this paper’s case, not to state on the signup page or in the FAQ, what the weekly, monthly or yearly rates are, nor any options, nor any discount programs, nor what the regular rates are after the teaser offer.

Instead, the Globe site presents three radio buttons, one each for:

  • 7-day delivery for only $6.99/week for the first 12 weeks
  • Thursday through Sunday for only $4.00/week for the first 12 weeks
  • Sunday delivery for only $1.99/week for the first 12 weeks

You can’t proceed until you fill in your vitals and commit to one of those three, and either asked to be billed or entered credit card info for immediate payment. Up in the right corner is a discreet button reading, INTRO OFFER 50% OFF. You can extrapolate that after your 12 weeks, the price doubles, but absolutely nowhere does it say that. Nor does it read whether that doubled price is ongoing or subject to change.

I’m sure all this is totally illegal.

The other papers’ sites are better. They tend to offer discounts for delivery for specified times, but they are clear about what the ongoing cost will be.

Henry’s challenge

Taking Henry at his word, that he wants the paper to survive and flourish as a newspaper, let’s assume he wants readers and subscribers. If so, his folk have a plain usability challenge or rather set of challenges. Specifically:

  • Put subscriptions prominently on all the site pages
  • Create both a FAQ and sub overview that lists the sub options and prices
  • ID potential customer issues and train sub support on them
  • Sweeten discounts and other incentives to get and retain long-term, recurring subscribers
  • Enable communicate across all areas that make subscription commitments and billing

None of those is hard. I’ve managed all those areas. Yet, the first and most important aspects are, first a commitment to customers, and second having employees who can think like customers. The second requires greater intelligence and sensitivity than most executives have. They can learn.

 

Pols With Blinders

July 13th, 2012

Candidate Deval Patrick suddenly made blogging significant in Massachusetts six years ago. Sure, he treated us new-media sorts like press/broadcast, but it was two way. He estimated smartly and rightly that what came to be called netroots could swing elections as surely as any ethnic group. It worked for him.

Two years later, it worked for his good buddy, a certain Barack Obama. Each guy ended up with adoring, earned support from bloggers and other new media types. Of course, we grubby bloggers were not alone in our support. Yet, the rising internet-related folk, largely teens and 20 somethings did make the difference in Obama’s victory. While other candidates seemed to snort at Patrick and Obama courting the young and the idealists, hey, it worked for them.

Gone.

At yesterday’s annual Boston Mayor Tom Menino’s ascendancy-to-office street party, I mourned the demise of visionary pols, replaced by academicians and biz sorts. Simultaneously, my Left Ahead co-host Ryan Adams has likewise drawn attention to the dwindling number of political bloggers, particularly locally. This whimpering little trend dovetails precisely with politicians’ indifference. Finally and obviously, following the Citizens United rape of the campaign system, candidates understandably look to bucks, bucks and bucks, and away from the direct and online interpersonal reactions that determined the results in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

I have a double fret for the 2012 election. First, I fear that the young voters are not sufficiently engaged to vote and to get others to do so. Second and more pervasively, I fear that voters weary of woes, recession, and fears of the future would vote the fantasy, that is, they’d go for a Reagan or Bush the Lesser jive about guns-and- butter or roe insanely trick-down economics. Regardless of decades of continual winger failures in economics and public policy, the siren call of the myth lives in the simple minded.

On the positive side for us lefty sorts, the Republican Party in general and Mitt Romney in particular are doing their worst to alienate voter groups. Any woman, African American, Latino or poor person would be an absolute fool to vote for Romney. Yet even with the evidence, we know that 40% or more will vote the fantasy way.

With November only a season away, I wonder about the strategies of the big shots, like Presidential and Senatorial candidates. They aren’t going for the netroots. In fact, all the candidates are viewing blogs, podcast shows and such as tertiary or lower addenda to their campaigns. They aren’t seeking out the influential and/or smart bloggers and other analysts.

Does this mean that the four years of bloggy influence has come and gone? Alternately, does this mean that the current crop of would-be office holders are not savvy enough?

To Ryan’s musing, there are fewer local blogs. Many of my old chums no longer publish the electrons.

As one illustration, I had an amusing set of interactions with US Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren and her handler yesterday on Chesterfield Street at Menino’s party. I wore my HICKS FOR ELIZABETH button. Warren saw it and said twice she love it, adding once again how great my yellow glasses frames are. In contrast, her handler did her best in the scrum to keep me away from the candidate.

Warren and I both worked the crowds from different angles. I chatted up political chums, such as Menino, MA Treasurer Steve Grossman and City Councilor Felix Arroyo, and other podcast guests. Relentlessly on her own, Warren worked the hamburger and ice-cream scoffing folk of voting age all around the booths.

As our loops intersected a few times, at one point, I handed Warren my HICKS button.

I tend to think of her as relatively straightforward and courageous. Yet, under the admonition of her handler, she got gutless. I asked the handler whether Warren still intended to go on a BlueMassGroup show; she said yes. I said that Left Ahead was still waiting for another visit, to which she said it wouldn’t happen. That kind of gun-shy behavior is nto suited to the valorous.

In fact, when I handed Warren my button, she said again that she loved it, but suggested I give it to her later and looked at the glowering eyes of her handler.

We can put it down to pragmatism or cowardice for the button and the Left Ahead re-visit. We must put down the cluelessness about new media to a simple lack of vision. The current candidates somehow missed Patrick and Obama’s lessons, relying instead on the dull and improbable ads and even newspapers.

I guess we can’t expect every election cycle to be filled with insight and wisdom.

Whitney Whitewash

February 22nd, 2012

No escape hatch to hide from Whitney Houston’s corpse and claque… We were positively British in our ghoulish celebrity tracking of her death, funeral and alleged celebrations of her life and career.

Honest to God, what was the live stream of her service on the net and TV?!

Yeah, yeah, there were time when she was a very good singer and times when she was great. She had long and publicly ruined all but the remaining recordings and archives shows. Say it with me, she was addicted to alcohol and other drugs, she lived the self-indulgent melodrama of the very wealthy and famous. Few anywhere have noted that many ordinary folk are likewise swirling the drain.

A fairer view of her decline and demise comes from Maer Roshan. His piece on her addictions and fatal spiral down appeared in The Fix and replayed in Salon. The tens of thousands, likely millions, of words and glam pix of Houston were largely devoid of the real and powerful message of her addictive mind and actions. Talk about teachable moments ignored!

Among his salient observations, Roshan wrote:

Even though decades of research proves addiction is a condition with complicated genetic and chemical roots, far too many journalists continue to see it as a sort of moral weakness. Their failure to actively report on the issue represents both a lack of initiative and funding. After all, covering Whitney’s last moments is a lot easier (and less expensive) than going up against the wrath of formidable lawyers and lobbyists employed by corrupt pharmaceutical behemoths. It’s also a lot more comfortable than venturing into the ravaged small towns of Iowa and Montana to witness firsthand the devastation wrought by poverty and crystal meth.

He notes the reasonable estimate of 22 million addicted Americans. Sure, everyone who dies youngish is a sad story. Sure, we overly identify with good looking celebs. Sure, de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Yet rather than attending the prolonged play at the Theatre of the Magnificent Dead, we could dig into how someone with so much and so many advantages could succumb. There are lessons and possible prevention for us lesser mortals.

Androgynous Sexpots

July 14th, 2011

Apologizing in advance for serving up dried rants from my bag of jerky, I have inspiration today from fill-in FT columnist Gautam Malkani. His Why sex isn’t child’s play for advertisers analyzes the business aspects of sexualizing kid’s clothes and other products. It also concludes with a keen cultural observation of how adults match kids in immature role play.

Hence, my jerky…

Many folk — bluenoses, plain old parents and more — are aghast at the now common pornification, as Malkani has it, of kids’ goods. Think the obvious thongs and bras for wee girls. Such hooker clothes look tacky and do-me enough on adult women.

He cites condemning studies as well as a toymaker’s assertion that kids are more literal. That is, they don’t interpret obvious-to-adults sexuality as sexuality.

Malkani gets to it though with, “Children will always want to act like grown-ups, while the middle-aged increasingly adopt a younger, more sexual identity. The infantilisation of adulthood, therefore, forms part of the same dynamic.”

Back to my own dried rant, a scan of the most popular overly sexualized ads would confirm the efforts to squeeze kiddies and 20- and 30-somethings into a pubescent mold. The concept seems to be an ideal of hairless, flat-chested, asthenic things, critters up for any activity that does not require too much exertion.

The androgynous creatures in most of these ads have lately lost much of their drug-addict appearance of shadowy eyes and totally emotionless gapes. Yet they remain almost to a one without secondary sex characteristics that define gender to the larger world. That is, the likely females have neither obvious hips nor real breasts, and the possible males lack muscle mass or broad shoulders.

We can each draw our own conclusions about why anyone would want to be or be with asexual looking androgynous types. Unfortunately for those with such fantasies, only a very small minority of adults is so scrawny, hairless and without other gender traits. Those who aim for that appearance are forced into crazy clothes, crazy makeup and crazy diets.

The harmless, hairless critters of advertising and pop culture are already becoming artifacts and atavisms. Soft science practitioners like sociologists as well as historians should have great fun recounting them, particularly with so much ad art available as example.

Meanwhile, the advertisers seem determined to find out how well they can jerk consumers, including parents, around on sexual ads. We may as a culture decry the G-strings for girls type of products, but apparently enough of a subset of us is buying them to create a business. That seems to be evidence that we have too much time, too much cash, and too much desire to be trendy.

About The Daily…

February 3rd, 2011

I have seen Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily…and it is OK. The big brains melded with the 79-year-old’s for a long time may have done their best. Yawn.

Last night, I installed the iPad app for The Daily and loaded the first issue. I gave it a solid workout. I confess though it doesn’t take long (the point, eh?) and my index finger wasn’t even tired.

Fortunately for us all, lots of folk were doing the same. If you want substance, Salon runs a good set of links for the yeah, bleeh, and no-way crowds here. Knowing those are collected, I avoided them to keep my indifference simmering low.

The aged caliph of media, to his credit, tries to stay relevant and influential. He’s most famous for making most of his billions on tabloid and other lowest-common-denominator journalism. This go is similar, but with an effort to incorporate this century’s technologies. Clearly, he wants to be known as the guy who figured out how to make some money from online news.

Here I grabbed a page from their promo instead of the first issue. This does not get into the sometimes confusing navigation. Rather it is typical of The Daily I saw last evening and you can watch in the promo.

Let me be plain. This is a magazine. It has short, graphic heavy articles, none with anything you can’t find elsewhere. It is what we in the print biz call toilet reading for the low time and intellect demands.

That written, The Daily delivers this stuff pretty well, for an online magazine. You can amuse yourself quickly, but you sure won’t be the center of attention among your coworkers or friends discussing the surface-level info here.

The initial load of a day’s issue takes a couple of minutes on an iPad. You’d think they could have loaded the contents and such more or less instantaneously, keeping your interest. Instead, it begins loading automatically and then updates on occasion throughout the day.

You can swipe through an issue in typical iPad/iPhone style. Good. You can touch a category (like news, sports, gossip, and even games/puzzles) to go to that sub-content. Good. You can go to the ToC and touch a headline to go to the article. Good.

Yet swiping through a whole issue or section doesn’t let you settle a piece easily. Pages flash or drop you into an article with the least inattention. Instead, electronically flipping the pages gives you an accurate sense of how short and LITE the articles are.

There’s lots of little navigation tricks — touch this to go here, this to return to the front and so forth. They take a little accommodation but do use the iPad features.

The app is free through Apple. The first two weeks of issues are as well. Afterward, it costs 99¢ a week or $39.99 a year. Now there’s model to scare the pay-wall types, like the Boston Globe! Basically as low as 11¢ a day, readers can ask, is it worth a dime or so?

The counterpart surely is that the content may be free to Murdoch. That is, there aren’t going to be offices of supporting journalists gathering expensive news and images to support this. There is so little stuff here and nothing unique, his folk surely cannibalize all from material they already produce. The reformatting is pretty much just cutting material.

It appears as though The Daily intends to make a little from subscriptions and much more from its ads. Its overhead is likely low enough that a few tens of thousands of subs will cover all costs, keeping the profits coming and growing. It won’t a high percent of newspaper readers sick of the ever-increasing price hikes and ever-decreasing content (quality and quantity) to say $40 a year is a lot better than $250.

Those who switch will continue the dumbing down of readers. They likely will be no dumber in the end than anyone who turns to TV news as the primary or sole source.

The Daily is pretty easy to use, gives the illusion of content, and comes in affordable. It should make it.

It is not anyone’s manifestation of a breakthrough though. Its profound effect will come as the many laggard pay-wall types try to imitate or better this effort.

Cross-post note: This appears at Marry in Massachusetts


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Becker Badgers Beeb Style

August 17th, 2010
Beyond winger media, the BBC style of guest badgering seems rampant. This very morning, I was surprised to hear WBUR’s Deborah Becker play silly adversary with Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea Cabral. Eh?

If you watch or listen to the Beeb TV or radio, you get the behavior that subsequently became the norm of FOX and more recently even MSNBC (think Hardball). The ill-bred plug uglies like Bill O’Reilly make their living at nasty irrationality and Chris Matthews is not far behind in exhibiting British-tabloid sensibilities.

The routine is to bring on knowledgeable guests, ideally one at a time, and hassle the devil out of them. This is asking a pointed question and then talking over the attempted answer. When the guest does state facts or positions, contradiction is in order, fast, repeated and at high volume. The talking head should act like the expert revealing hidden truth.

Yet what we should have learned from hearing and watching our parents, teachers and clergy sorts holds. Silencing someone with shouted, iterative gainsaying does not mean you are smarter or right. It means you are loud, repetitive and ill mannered.

I want the ideas and information out there. If the host’s aim is to end up feeling smug, that is a huge failure.

While it’s not daily or two hours at a stretch, we do our interviews at Left Ahead. For the past three and one half years, we’ve had someone join our podcast about every other week. We tend to have one guest at a time and explore in depth.

Even with those whose political and personal views are quite different, we aren’t in the business of gotcha. Perhaps that makes us wimps in contrast to the current style.

Nah, nah, nah

This morning’s example related to the Philip Markoff suicide was not as strident as a FOXNews segment, but close enough. You can catch the six-minute segment here.

Becker started out like a real journalist and quickly went tabloid on Cabral. She clearly came in with her conclusions and was not about to let truth or knowledge interfere.

The sheriff said several times and clearly that:

* Markoff had been on suicide watch over a year ago and exhibited no behavior to justify it since
* The sole psychiatrist for the jail, holding over 700 prisoners, had cleared Markoff
* Guards check on inmates every 30 minutes
* The jail has numerous mental health professionals in addition to the psychiatrist
* Suffolk’s suicide rate is less than half of most other jails – five in eight years
* Markoff exhibited zero signs verbally or otherwise that he wanted to do himself in

Becker’s increasingly hostile questioning showed her bias. One psychiatrist was not enough. 40% of inmates have “some sort of mental health” issues; I’d say that the general population is higher and criminals may arguably be nearly 100%. Becker somehow linked the hypothetical that Markoff might have been married for a year had his fiance not quit him after his arrest to his needing extra attention, even absent any acting out or statements. Becker clearly liked the concept of and term trigger.

To her credit, Cabral was cool in the face of iterative implications. When Becker seemed not to hear her stats and judgments, returning to Becker’s view that Markoff was somehow shortchanged of counseling and monitoring, the sheriff calmly said there might be a misunderstanding or that she (Cabral) was not sure “exactly what you’re asking.”

So it goes with the badgers. Don’t listen, come in with conclusions and stick to them, contradict when possible, talk over answers you don’t want, and above all, show that you know better than the expert.

It’s tiresome and I wish it would run its course. I don’t want my ideas pre-digested.

Cross-post: This also appears at Marry in Massachusetts.

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Papers Paywalls

February 1st, 2010

Windsor walls

Online payments are the big battle for beleaguered billionaires and their slightly poorer near peers. The Rupert Murdoch types cannot abide the idea that somewhere someone is getting something they touched for free.

No doubt that the basis of capitalism is that people or corporations own goods or services they make available for a price. Anything short of profit is called charity or foolishness (often the same to some capitalists). Yet publishers in this world only want conditions to be immutable so long as their profits are as higher or higher than they have been.

Lackaday,  that very naughty net has made them look up from their counting tables.

Kind of Disclaimer

I’m prejudiced here. I have always loved newspapers and want them to flourish.

Growing up, we had two to four dailies delivered, depending on the pickings where we lived. I was a newspaper delivery boy. I went to j-school, climbed the ladder as writer, columnist and editor of the student paper (high school and college) and then worked dailies and weeklies in the South. As an adult, I’ve always gotten daily papers, as well as numerous news, literary and specialty magazines. I’m a print guy first, one who has simply added computers and net technologies on top.

I love the feel and smell of good books and magazines.

Survival of the Most With It

All that written, I have no doubt nearly all U.S. newspaper publishers and top editors are atavistic.  They have also moved in recent decades with all the speed of a sloth and the judgment of an oat tree.

I’ve touched on this a few times, like here and part two here at Marry in Massachusetts. We got a different view in a Left Ahead! podcast with Martin Langeveld. He was a newspaper publisher and has quasi-retired into among other thing a principal at CircLabs, which aims to help publishers figure out this pay-to-view thing.  (Another slight disclaimer is in order; he and his wife were classmates of mine in high school. I disagree with some of his positions, but I know and like them both.)glacier

For this part of the discussion, the big point is that newspaper types saw the internet and its effects coming and coming and coming. It was much less like a train and more like a glacier. Unless you got out of the way or rode that glacier, it was going to take everything in its path. You had lots of time, but you had to decide what to do.

They have remained fairly paralyzed with inaction, indecision and more than a little delusion. Like watching that glacier, they saw new advertising options appear. They heard ad customers say Criag’s List was cheaper and more effective for classifieds and that online advertising offered highly targeted demographics with verifiable click through counts to ideal customers. They even heard to their humiliation that their favorite disdained group, bloggers, were getting snippets of ad revenue that should rightfully be theirs.

One type of response was to try to ride that glacier. Nearly all papers are online in one form or another. While screaming haughtily that they owned the news, damn it!, they responded to their declining ad money in exactly the wrong way — cutting expenses from the bottom, notably reporters.

Duh, as the yellowish Mr. Simpson says. Think, our product is better and worth reading and advertising in, even though we are giving you less of it, less local and foreign news, nothing unique, and nothing you can’t find in dozens of other places.

After slashing their differentiating advantage, reportage, they had yet other dumb tricks to perform. One we have seen even in our stodgy Boston Globe, is blogging.  While on the one had ridiculing and demeaning blogs, even refusing to link to those whose ideas and leads they steal, the glib Globe has its own set.

From the beginning of this reaction, we see how out of it newspaper editors and publishers can be. The model is to take decent reporters and columnists and heap blogging duties on them. At the same time there are fewer writers, the remaining ones are supposed to do that on top of their jobs. Rather than giving the writers a chance to pick up a new skill, this looks from the outside at least, like the old “you’re lucky to have a job at all and will do as we tell you” routine.

The blogs show the coercion. Their posts are uniformly boring, show little effort and take no advantage of the medium.

Money, You Say

There’s a credible argument that most existing newspapers need to and should die. Their functions actually would be better performed by new media that understand reasonable financial models, the technology to deliver great stuff in the right formats with the right content, and some courage. The latter would be to do what’s necessary to provide salable product, without being immobilized by a primitive capitalist’s terror that someone might get something of yours without paying for it.

Yet, almost to a one, print publishers seem to have tiny brain pans, more driven by emotion than intellect. You can see that in how lamely they try to extract money from readers and advertisers to make up for their losses in the past decade or so (don’t lose sight of that glacier!).

Consider the scheme too many tried to maintain their many decades old system of high cash flow and higher rates of return. Those are the realities that changed due to the net and most publishers refuse to accept that. Instead:

  • Some came online after many other papers and immediately put up a solid paywall. Almost all content was in headline or incomplete form, requiring a subscription or per-article fee to view.
  • Others, like the Boston Herald here,  showed its delusions like raggedly underwear. It tried to charge to read its columnists online. Let’s not even get into the value of a given piece by any of their writers, but suffice it to say, that failed quickly and totally.
  • Still others look at mixed models, offering full access to subscribers and small payments for beyond a monthly limit (the metered model). The FT reports that The Guardian has considered six paywall models.

For complete paywalls,  your content has to be damned superior and useful to make a go. The number one fantasy of net-come-lately publishers is that if they pay to produce content, everyone else should be delighted to buy every morsel from them. News Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch is the troll under the bridge here, threatening, popping up, then withdrawing. He rants everywhere that news is not cheap and that anyone putting anything from his publications online anywhere without his permission and payment to him is simply stealing.Page 3/free mix

He even wants to charge for online access to the sleaziest of his pubs, The Sun. Yes, the Page 3 bare breasted babe rag is that valuable, Murdoch would have it.

Amusingly enough, one of his properties, the Wall Street Journal seems to have learned enough from the Financial Times to make some cash online though.  In its announcement two months ago that it would copy these two somehow, someway, the New York Times seemed unsure whether it would be micro-payments or some other model. Its bosses do want some kind of paywall though.

A short-term answer may well lie in the partial success of the WSJ and FT experiments. They were not foolish enough to block and drive away casual surfers with solid firewalls and total blocking of content. Instead they provide an example that even the dullest publisher can profit by emulating. They charge for real value.

You don’t have to be in the financial press to consider what they do. Yet, it is obvious for them because it can translate into reader benefit. Some of their articles and columns have specialized and even unique information and analysis. Those who pay for a print or online subscription have a little (or arguably sometimes large) advantage. They are happy to pay.

So, while publishers watch the glacier some more and figure out in what direction to move, publishers can ask themselves what value they can add to attract paying customers (and loyal subscribers). The answer most certainly should not involve firing their writers. Honestly, what were they thinking?

Likewise, many local dailies and weeklies used to be best at hyperlocal content or sports or photography. They have done their best in efforts to cut costs that they eliminated the staff who could maintain those selling points.  Moreover, to use a local example, when Bostonians want hyperlocal content, they are more likely to click on UniversalHub, an aggregator of local blogs and other news, plus some original reporting. Such concentrations of news are what the net can excel at and newspapers have largely ceded.

They need to produce content so useful or so entertaining or so whatever they can be best at that people will pay for it. That may seem obvious, but publishers so far have largely tried to replace old advertising and subscription revenue with increased charges for diminished content. I like to compare that to switching your high-end chocolate chip cookie ingredients to milk instead of bittersweet chips, mystery fat instead of butter and while you’re at it, making them smaller. Oh, and raise the price. Think. Think. Think. Why would fewer people be buying your cookies?

Those who continue to fantasize that they can charge everyone for any crap they publish might think of The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger. As part of a recent talk, he included, “It would be crazy if we were to all jump behind a pay wall and imagine that would solve things.” He is looking at many financial models, including some version of limited paywalls, but he does not seem to delude himself.

(Tip of the toupee to the FT’s John Gapper for the source of that quote.)

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Pepsi’s New Space War

December 18th, 2009

Just let the term roll around in your cranium — space salesman.

From my many days as a magazine writer or editor, I knew dozens of them well. To a one, they had limitless ambition and zero shame. They sold advertising in inches, fractional and full pages, spreads and more. That was the space they sold.

Of course, what they really sold was both hope and fear. Advertisers anticipated that targeted displays of their products or services would bring sales and profits (hope). They also knew too well that their competitors would aim for the same customer in the same magazines, and just maybe grab market share if they did not match their ad quality and quantity (fear).

From my newspaper days, I had see similar drives by the soft goods/alcohol/toy and other advertisers. Chums in broadcast said it was much the same there.

This mass and ubiquitous selling of the intangible only works when media successfully sells its own value. Controlled-circulation magazines, for example, first prove they have only great potential customers reading their freely distributed issues. They get subscribers to qualify, which generally means filling out a postal card claiming to be in the business, thus a target for advertisers as well as worthy to read about the industry. As important, the magazines pay auditing companies to verify their circulation in numbers and qualification.

Trust Us

Then they set their ad rates to match the alleged value of say 32,000 or three or 100 times that subscribers, a.k.a. readers representing companies just waiting to buy your stuff.

TV and radio were much the same, with the added wrinkle of target demographics. They could claim the best age clusters or zip codes of audience and such. Then each show would be its own product offering so many of this and that and so much market share in a time slot and day.

We all knew it was kind of a house of cards or more accurately like the emperor’s new clothes. The claims that the space or time really translated into advertisers’ sales and profits have always been spongy. Except where advertisers can include a rebate coupon or such that they can actually count, who can really attribute greater sales to a particular ad placement.

What advertisers do know beyond coupons is that certain ad campaigns are more effective than others. They rarely have a control group that can isolate the effectiveness of placements in one medium or one network or magazine. They are too busy with scattershot advertising (fear again).  On the other hand, if they switch campaigns and see a big uptick or plunge in sales, pow, zap, that’s almost tangible!

So, to that PepsiCo of the headline, it is blowing off the Super Bowl, says the AP. That’s gutsy, surprising, risky, and maybe trendsetting. You can be damned sure that other advertisers — beyond sugary drink makers — are paying attention.

For background:

  • Pepsi has advertised at the SBs for 23 years
  • Its chip folk, Frito-Lay will have spots in this year’s game
  • Last year, it spent $33 million on SB ads
  • Those ads this year should average $3 million per 30 second spot

A Million Here…

Pepsi along with FedEx was plain about its reasoning. Those companies said ads were too expensive. Moreover, Pepsi’s Nicole Bradley said, “In 2010, each of our beverage brands has a strategy and marketing platform that will be less about a singular event and more about a movement.”

Instead, the company will concentrate on online efforts. You can buy a lot of online presence for the millions it would have spent in the highly competitive, even mind-numbing, SB ad undercard.

We are to look for its Pepsi Refresh Project beginning in January…on the net.

So there is Pepsi charging off almost solo on its own safari. If it brings back higher customer poll numbers and even holds or gains market share domestically, that will be huge. Others would be sure to follow. Perhaps the absurd SB ad costs might drop and some companies might say they have brand recognition and no longer want to spend there, rather they might look more to online and heavens above, print.

I don’t drink soda, or tonic as we say up here. I get my bubbles from seltzer, ale and occasionally champagne. Yet, I have a 16-year-old Mountain Dew doer and from business curiosity, I’ll be watching.

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Breasts, Docs and Perceived Reality

November 17th, 2009

 

Confusing Doctors Again


Not much funny about breast cancer, eh? However, the medical community is giving us a big yuk on mammogram schedules.

Like the ending of G.I. Joe cartoons, the moral of the episode invariably included, “And now we know…and knowing is half the battle.” In this case, the U.S. Preventive Health Task Force announced new guidelines for routine breast-cancer screenings. Fundamentally, instead of annual mammograms from 40, the new rule would be every other year from 50.

Alas for the medical community, this is only the latest care that exposes its frailty, its reliance on fungible vetting for diagnosis and care. Truth be told, most doctors have as much to do with medical science as pop journalists do. They wave the current perceived wisdom, call, “Aha!,” and congratulate themselves.

So in the media including talk shows, they find women to say this is putting their lives at risk. They find doctors who say they are confused. They find researchers who were behind the previous perceived wisdom implying that a massive die-off of U.S. women will follow. A few alarmists also say this is all insurance companies need to deny annual breast-cancer screens to women who want them anyway.

The joke here is that this is common, if less dramatic and less discussed, in the profession. With a herd instinct, nearly all non-specialist doctors have to rely on the best guesses from the most accepted reports and studies. That means they end up continually circling back pretending that each change of diagnostic or treatment protocol is a breakthrough and G.I. Joe style new knowledge.

I became aware of this first when I was in elementary school. My mother ran Red Cross chapter, putting her in charge of and teaching first aid, home nursing and such, with the accompanying textbooks. I remember her alternately laughing and complaining when the national organization revised those manuals every year or even less as the American Medical Association changed its mind.

One trigger was burn treatment. It was cover or leave exposed to air and use gooky medicine or let it form a scab on its own. Back and forth it went with one major reputable study after another.

With the imprecision of care and the reality that most primary care physicians — PCPs or what we used to call general practitioners or family practitioners (GPs or FPs) — are not particularly good diagnosticians. They reply on plugging symptoms into their experience or searching software or a book for the most likely fit. In all likelihood, they end up treating symptoms with drugs and never diagnose anything. That means 1) the body cures itself, 2) symptom relief is coincident with improvement, or 3) yet another patient on a long-term regimen of a drug which may or may not address the cause of the complaint.

We really can’t fairly call that medical science. Yet, we do cut docs some slack here. Much of the time they are pretty much the best health gamble around. We know they are not likely to discover or cure underlying causes, particularly of chronic problems. We also know that the system requires them to move a lot of patients through, so that they really don’t have time to muse or deeply investigate or even research beyond reading current medical journals. They aren’t scientists.

Moreover, they are easily misled by extrapolations from the research on which they rely. An obvious example is the silly reliance on body mass index (BMI) for individuals. While useful as a broad-brush measurement for big groups, it is often invalid per patient. Thin looking folk with little muscular development may have fine BMI but have organs swimming in their fat. Athletes with well developed muscles are often obese or overweight by BMI while being very healthy and having a great body fat level, much more meaningful than BMI.

It is easy to see how PCPs can fall back on the lazy solution of BMI though. Plug in a height and weight and there’s a number for comparison. Doctors worthy of their oaths would look at and palpate patients. They would take the same two measurements, but put them into a hand-held body-fat analyzer instead (those are very accurate and inexpensive at $25 to $50). Then nutrition and exercise recommendations would be meaningful. Oops, let’s not forget that most PCPs know little about diet or exercise.

So we are stuck with a system that hurries docs along, encouraging them to be reliant on easy ways out for diagnosis and treatment. We end up with increasingly unrealistic guidelines in many areas, while the population gets widely wide and heavy. Those guidelines have not resulted in greater longevity either, we struggle around 17th in the world, despite our disproportionate health-care cost and use of prescription drugs.

Treat Cause or Symptom?

A real solution would be a hard one, finding and treating underlying causes for conditions. As our system is now, that would happen only if considerable research was done asking such questions as is the mid-term and long-term outcome for patients better with treating symptoms pharmaceutically or changing the underlying cause of their problems. In a country where nearly all medical research is funded directly or secondarily by drug companies, you can imagine how likely it will be for such massive studies to occur.

In many areas, the research that our docs rely on seems misused as well. Consider for one, the famous Framingham Heart Study. It is a massive, on-going and very useful project, even though it has the limit of covering only men, only in a age range, and with rebutted results in the British Medical Journal among other places. Yet is is a hook to hang a medical hat on and as such used for various guidelines.

One such is that acceptable blood pressure has dropped from 140 to 130 to 120 to 115 upper number, for example. One effect is from the study that the recommendation is that over 90% of men should be on anti-hypertensive drugs by 60.

You needn’t be the worst cynic around to question the relationship between drug companies, doctors and that guideline. Think in contrast if PCPs worked with patients to reduce body fat, up potassium intake, reduce stress and such. would the patient be better off than a remaining lifetime of one or more drugs?

What would G.I. Joe say? Maybe, “Well, we’ll never know and not knowing leaves us unprepared for the battle.”

Cross-post note: I have other medical rants here. This one will also appear at Marry in Massachusetts.

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PC+PPT+Projector=Pandemonium

May 2nd, 2009

Rely on projected PowerPoint or even worse embedded video and you have a good chance of looking like a bozo. I was front row and snorting several times in two places over the past two days as hopeful presenters were reduced to squeezing their big red noses.

The amusing aspect in both cases is that the folk standing up were fairly bright. They had some decent content. They were just defeated by the technologies. Mac or PC made no difference, nor did PowerPoint  or video.

Otherwise professional speakers illustrated what presentation god Edward Tufte described in a 2003 piece, PowerPoint is Evil, in Wired:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

Sure, it’s easy to find I-hate-PowerPoint sites and I have my own aversion to people reading slides jammed with words when the audience has long since finished digesting the content. Yet, that was not the most obvious difficulty at both the Investigative Reporting/Freedom of Information workshop yesterday and the Slow Food Boston presentation today.

Some very nice people with some worthy information taxed the audiences severely. They had not tested their shows, either software or hardware in the setting. As happens all too often, video, sound or computer connections failed. The reliance on technology was yet again misplaced. It was compounded by the addition of the newish media video, sound and online material.

In the auditorium at the Boston Globe,  the workshop folk were fairly comical in their serial failures. The room has all the warmth and intimacy of a college survey-course class with a deep well up front for the professor. The telescoped focus on the speakers made the delays and blunder all the more obvious and intense.

Hot-shot Salon correspondent Mark Benjamin was one. He doesn’t need self-esteem classes, so he probably doesn’t think there was any problem, much less that anything was his fault. The showpiece of his session on getting information from the military was a grainy and often dark video shot with a helmet camera in combat. That was understandably of poor quality.

Yet he and some troubleshooters had the devil of a time getting the sound to play. The audio was even more important than the visuals.

Fumbling more were Matt Kauffman (Hartford Courant), Joe Bergantino (veteran TV news guy and now at Boston U.),  and Judy Rakowsky (free-lance after 14 years at the Globe). There were videos that wouldn’t start or those that started with no sound or that ran with one of two sound tracks audible or ran at ear-bleed volume. There were the wrong websites. There was the inability to use hotlinks in Word.

It was a technology clown car.

The delays piled up…10…20…30 minutes. The audience squirmed, giggled, and occasionally commiserated. Too many of us have given an off-course presentation and we’ve all attended them.

Then today at the West Roxbury library, a lone Slow Food lady, events volunteer  Nicole Nacamuli was caught. She’s nice. The library staff are nice. Together, they just couldn’t get their projector and her PC to put the signal and PowerPoint on the screen.

As at the workshop,  the audience watched as otherwise competent people bumbled and failed. After much delay, she admitted she had only yet another PowerPoint show. She had notes and hit the podium to do it the old fashioned way.

So, as I frequently ask my sons, what can we learn from this?

Technology Slavery

Most obvious is that hardware and software have a lot of ways to fail. The projector can fail. It’s $200 lamp can blow with no handy replacement. Your room or building can lose power. Your laptop drive can crash.

Software can be more insidious. Particularly if you’ve incorporated video with sound or count on accessing an online server, there are many ways for failure and only one for flawless presentation. Working well on your desk with built-in speakers is not the same at in a big room with someone else’s projector and sound hardware.

The laptops and projectors and sound systems are almost ubiquitous. We like to think they just work and keep on working. Yet, think back to how many times you’ve been in a room when something went wrong.

So, we can learn not to use the technologies unless they really add to the presentation of the content. We can learn to have an alternate way of delivering the show, as the Slow Food woman did. Perhaps most basic, we can learn to be there in advance and test our laptop and show with the visual and audio system in the room.

Eyes AND Ears

My PowerPoint and other presentation rants include, “Do not read your slides!” If the only thing you can do is recite your bullet points verbatim, give ‘em a handout and don’t bore them. You can be pretty sure they can all read on their own.

At the FOI workshop, too many speakers relied on squint-making slides with lists of URLs or other resources. Those belong online or in a handout.

After being in too many presentations, I found the memorable ones never, ever use crowded slides. Instead, they put ideas up in a few words or a graphic. Then they use the slide to open the glorious box of related ideas and facts. Oral is the operative word.

On the other end, Tufte‘s best work can present elaborate and analytic material brilliantly, sometimes even with presentation software. Most of have never had his resources, much less his keen design understanding. We simply can’t wow with brilliance.

What we can do is talk to the slides.  A graphic or phrase on a slide will give the audience something to watch will you spin your magic web of words, data and concepts. They’ll love you for it, particularly if you make the real presentation available online or on paper.