Monthly Archives: October 2014

Could Facebook become to news publishers what Amazon is to book publishers?

I couldn’t have been the only one who, while reading David Carr’s New York Times piece on Facebook’s attempts to woo news publishers into hosting their content on its mobile platform, drew a parallel to Amazon’s relationship with book publishers. It’s easy to forget sometimes that Amazon, before it reached such a dominant position with the bookselling marketplace, was viewed by publishers in the 90s as an opportunity to expand their market beyond brick and mortar bookstores. They never considered the possibility that Amazon would one day drive those physical bookstores into the ground. For me, the most striking resemblance to the two relationships (Amazon vs book publishers and Facebook vs news outlets) came while reading this paragraph in Carr’s piece:

It is a measure of Facebook’s growing power in digital realms that when I called around about those rumors, no one wanted to talk. Well, let me revise that: Many wanted to talk, almost endlessly, about how terrible some of the possible changes would be for producers of original content, but not if I was going to indicate their place of employment … It’s not that Facebook has a reputation for extracting vengeance, so far as I know; it’s just that the company has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers.

Sound familiar? This is the same mealy-mouthed not-for-attribution tactic that many book publishers employ when bashing Amazon because they don’t want to risk offending the golden goose. And to be sure, Facebook is becoming a larger and larger golden goose for publishers. Here’s a chart via Business Insider’s Lara O’Reilly showing traffic referrers to BuzzFeed properties over time:

buzzfeed referrers

And this chart, courtesy of GigaOm’s Carmel DeAmicis, shows that Facebook now accounts for up to 20 percent of referral traffic for many websites:

facebook referrers

But while 20 percent is a hefty amount of traffic, that still leaves 80 percent from other sources. In fact, media watchers were posting very similar charts to show Google’s dominance just a few years ago, and now you’re seeing headlines that some publishers are paying less and less attention to SEO. A lot of people go to Facebook every day, but it’s not a single-destination property on the web. Companies still have email, Twitter, Pinterest, and even their homepages to continue marketing their content.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a true choke point. Not only does it have a database of millions of credit cards from its users, but consumers are primed to think of it when they’re looking to purchase a book online. When have you ever thought of visiting a book publisher’s website when seeking out a title? Do you even known who published your five most favorite books? Do you follow any book publishers on Facebook or Twitter? And when it comes to ebooks, Amazon has a 70 percent market share, giving it even more negotiating power to bend book publishers to its will.

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So does Facebook have any potential choke points for news companies that it can use to bend them to its will? Perhaps. Here are two of them:

The first is mobile. Unlike with the internet, which wasn’t taken seriously for several years as a potential moneymaker, both large corporations and entrepreneurs latched on to mobile’s importance pretty soon after the debut of the iPhone. No one took mobile more seriously than Facebook, which now has 654 million daily mobile users and generates 66 percent of its revenue from mobile advertising. It seems clear that banner advertising doesn’t work on tiny mobile screens, and Facebook is one of the few games in town that has nailed mobile advertising. News publishers, meanwhile, haven’t even effectively monetized desktop advertising very well. It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario in which Facebook begins luring publishers onto some kind of advertising network by promising generous revenue splits, and then, once it’s lulled them into a state of dependence, begins using that dependence to continue pursuing its own agenda.

The second choke point is the Facebook News Feed itself. Because it’s algorithm-based, it can incentivize different kinds of actions on Facebook. For instance, Facebook could start giving more preference to content uploaded natively to its platform and less preference to links to outside source, thereby rewarding news publishers that choose to host their content on Facebook. As Marcus Wohlsen at Wired posited:

Imagine a publisher posts a YouTube link to Facebook and gets a few “likes” and clicks. Then imagine that same publisher uploads a video to Facebook, and gets a lot more views and “likes.” Maybe it’s a fluke. But over time, a pattern emerges. The videos posted straight to Facebook get watched more. Soon enough, all their videos are going straight to Facebook. Perhaps over time, the process repeats itself for other kinds of content.

We don’t have to imagine it because we’ve already seen it happening. Facebook started showing favoritism to photos uploaded to its own platform over link-based posts years ago. That’s why you saw Facebook page owners start uploading photos and then posting a headline and bit.ly link to their content, so it could get more visibility. And with Facebook’s recent heavy push into video, we’ve seen the same thing with YouTube. As Todd Wasserman reported at Mashable, the share of YouTube posts on Facebook is declining while Facebook video posts are poised to overtake them in the near future. This is likely because Facebook page owners have noticed they see much more engagement when they upload directly to Facebook.

Facebook isn’t the only social network playing this game. LinkedIn, for instance, used to send truckloads of traffic to it news partners, but after LinkedIn opened up its blogging platform to the public, publishers suddenly saw way less traffic as LinkedIn began favoring its own natively-produced content. “It’s dried up to almost nothing,” a source told BuzzFeed’s Myles Tanzer.

Reading of all these instances of social networks shoring up their user bases to keep as many users on-platform as possible, I couldn’t help but think of the folklore myth of Lorelei. She’s a mermaid who sits atop a cliff and, like the sirens of The Odyssey, lures sailors with her song, causing them to crash into the cliff and hastening their deaths. When news publishers read that Facebook wants to lure them onto its platform, they likely recognized the cliff for what it was. The question now is whether they can resist its song.

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What Taylor Swift’s 8 seconds of static tells us about media consumption

taylor swift 2

The world collectively snickered when, last week, a Taylor Swift track consisting of 8 seconds of just static was released on Canadian iTunes for $1.29 and subsequently shot to the top of the charts. But while this instigated a number of jokes about Swift going avant garde and Jimmy Kimmel dubbed it her “White Noise” album — a nod to the Beatles’ White Album — there’s a sobering lesson here for any hopeful singer:  That 8 seconds of static represents a mountain every new entrant into the music business, every aspiring star, has to climb before they can get noticed.

There’s this common assumption that the internet is the great democratizer of content that, because it removes nearly all friction between the consumer and content, has shattered all barriers to entry. But that lack of friction has created a paradoxical barrier in which there are now so many content creators in the world that developing a returning audience, the kind that will blindly purchase a music track just because it has your name on it, is increasingly difficult.

This isn’t to say that a new entrant can’t achieve viral spikes, but those bursts are fleeting, and you’ll quickly find your baseline readership returning to its previously unremarkable heights. Those within the advertising industry have long known that it isn’t enough for a commercial or ad to be shown to a consumer just once; depending on its stickiness, a television commercial needs to be seen at least five times before its messaging is absorbed by a consumer. For website banner ads, the picture is even more dire, with it requiring sometimes dozens of impressions of the same ad before any branding is transferred. The same can be said of developing a returning audience for your content, whether it’s music, video, or news.

This lesson was brilliantly demonstrated in a 2013 Pando Daily column from Bryan Goldberg, the founder of the sports news website Bleacher Report. The site has been enormously successful, listed among the top 50 most popular sites on the internet and purchased for $200 million in 2012 by Turner Media. Given Bleacher Report’s meteoric rise, a true David and Goliath story that any future media mogul can find inspiring, one would think that there was some major breakthrough moment when the site shot past its lesser competitors to stand among the ESPNs and SBNations of the world. “Whenever I pitch a VC, one of the most common questions I get is this one: ‘When did Bleacher Report really take off?'” Goldberg wrote. “The answer is never.”

He then posted this chart of Bleacher Report’s traffic:

bleacher

Here’s Goldberg again:

Now, I challenge any reader to pull out a pen and put an “X” over the spot in which Bleacher Report achieved escape velocity. What you may find is that it cannot be done. There was never a moment in which we “took off like a rocket.”

It was only through consistent content creation that the site developed momentum, leading to readers eventually bookmarking the site or subscribing to one of its social media profiles. There’s a content funnel for every website that turns casual drive-by readers into subscribers and then into evangelists. And it’s nearly impossible to convert a drive-by reader into a subscriber with one piece of viral content.

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The good news is that once you’ve converted that reader, it becomes easier to carry him or her to your new endeavors. In 2013, Neil Patel wrote a column explaining how he grew three separate blogs to 100,000 monthly visitors. Not only did he find repetition to be key to his growth — he published several new posts a week — but the 100,000 visitor mark was easier to achieve with each subsequent blog he launched: For the first it took him four years and nine months. By the third, he had reduced the time to one year and six months. “Luck has nothing to do with this achievement,” he explained. “I actually have a formula, which works every time. And if I leveraged it again today, I bet I could achieve similar results in less than 12 months.” Not only did Patel carry institutional knowledge with him for each new blog, allowing him to avoid repeating mistakes, he had also built up personal brand recognition within the content and social media marketing industry, hastening each new blog’s rise.

In August, Politico’s Dylan Byers reported that Vox.com, the explainer news site launched by Vox Media, had achieved 9 million monthly uniques after only five months. How could there be such massive traffic growth if there’s no such thing as an overnight success in media? Well that’s because Vox, though new, is not an overnight success. While it certainly creates great content and deserves the attention it has received, it simply wouldn’t have risen that quickly if it had simply been launched by a bunch of unknowns with similar editorial talent.

Vox has the benefit of two marquee names heading the site: Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias. Currently, Klein has 690,000 followers on his personal Twitter account, 219,000 likes on his Facebook page, and 1 million followers on Google+. Vox was also launched by a media company that already heads several other popular web properties, including the Verge and SBNation. Last month, longtime This American Life and Planet Money producer Alex Blumberg launched a brand new podcast that debuted at number three on the iTunes store. But again, this wasn’t an overnight success in the classic sense of the term. Blumberg had been building a brand on TAL and Planet Money for years, and both shows ran promotional excerpts from his early Startup episodes to their massive audiences. Each subsequent project that Blumberg launches — and he plans to produce several new podcast shows in the coming year — will be that much easier to get off the ground.

In essence, Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and Alex Blumberg are their own miniature Taylor Swifts (I’m sure that’s a first-time comparison for each of them). The three of them could team up and co-release a new podcast that consists of just several seconds of white noise, and many of you would download it. I know I would.

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Image via Taylor Swift Web Community

Infographic shows spikes in Google searches for “voter registration” and “early voting”

Though cable news outlets and DC newspapers like Politico cover politics 365 days a year, the vast majority of Americans only really become intensely interested in an election in its last leg. Only then do they seek out a closer look at who’s running for office and, more important, where they stand. Unsurprisingly, many of them turn to Google to ferret out this information.

For the past few months, my colleagues at Beutler Ink have worked closely with the team at Google Politics & Elections to comb through Google’s extensive search data and surface interesting trends that give key insight into the voting public. For instance, the infographic below shows a sharp spike in interest in recent weeks for both “voter registration” and “early voting.”

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keywords

How a New Jersey lawyer created a scalable model for online local news

tapinto

Recently, a New Jersey woman named Theresa Kuhns called a local gymnastics studio to reserve space for her son’s fifth birthday party. When she visited the studio the next day to sign the paperwork, however, she noticed a line on the form stating that any “special needs” children  would not be permitted to participate at the gym. Kuhns’s son, for whom she was throwing a party, has Down syndrome. After confirming with an employee that her son really was barred from the gym, she later went home and, understandably upset, posted about the incident to her Facebook profile. The post quickly generated interest, and it eventually caught the eye of Jackie Lieberman, the owner of a local news website called TAP into Westfield. “It just so happens that I was busy that evening and I wanted to do the story right away,” she recalled in a phone interview. “So I called my reporter Jill and she did a fantastic story.” Once TAP into Westfield published the piece, the story exploded, promulgating across social media and eventually getting picked up by news outlets across the state. Within days, the studio reversed its position and allowed Kuhns to hold the party for her son.

That Lieberman and TAP into Westfield were able to bring so much attention to the story is no fluke. For over a year now the local news site has become an integral part of the Westfield community and has dominated the town’s news coverage. It is just one of over 30 branches of TAPinto, a network of local community news sites that has been slowly spreading across New Jersey and even into Pennsylvania, proving definitively that scaling profitable online local news is possible.

The network was launched by Mike Shapiro, a Stanford-educated lawyer who, in 2008, had been practicing law in New Jersey and living with his family in a town called New Providence. “When my son was 1, we found out that he needed open heart surgery,” he told me recently. “I was trying to think with my wife what we could do where we could help our community and I could also see my wife and son every now and then, because working in the city and commuting back and forth I barely saw them.” Shapiro, who had always been involved in his local community, noticed that New Providence, which has a population of about 11,000 people, only had one news source devoted to it, a print newspaper that only published once a week. “I thought to myself, ‘Don’t people want to know what’s going on in town more quickly? And isn’t there a better way to do something like this?’” Shapiro had no prior journalism experience, but he thought he could offer a superior product. In October 2008 he launched what was then called The Alternative Press, a local news outlet that covered New Providence, as well as neighboring towns Summit and Berkeley Heights.

That first year, Shapiro was handling both the writing and the ad sales, attending local government meetings and reporting on them while also networking with local business owners. It wasn’t an overnight success, but eventually residents of the town began to take notice and the site amassed a following. And with that following came interested advertisers. As the site slowly generated money in its first year, Shapiro used it to hire freelance journalists to expand coverage. By the middle of the second year The Alternative Press reached break even, and by the end of that year he started turning a profit.

As the readership grew, Shapiro began receiving requests from residents in other nearby towns to launch Alternative Press sites in their communities. But he faced a problem; he knew that much of his success was owed to the fact that he lived in and interacted with his local community. In other towns, he didn’t possess this advantage, and so attempts to expand much more would create a watered-down product. “What I realized was that it’s much better if you can find someone locally to do the site,” he said. “About two years ago I started thinking that maybe what we can do is see if people would be interested in licensing. We would basically rent our platform to people, and they could start their own TAP in their own town.”

Darlene Cullen was one of these early license holders. She and her husband, like Shapiro, aren’t trained journalists, but she was a former town councilwoman for South Plainfield, New Jersey and her husband is the CFO administrator of the town. In other words, the two fit the perfect profile of what Shapiro envisioned for a license owner. The three scheduled a meeting and Shapiro went over all the topics and beats a TAPinto site should cover. “We did hit on everything that Mike suggested but then plus more,” she told me in a phone interview. “We covered everything having to do with the schools. We didn’t necessarily want to target just everything that was popular. Of course we covered football, but we also wanted to cover the tennis team, the gymnastics team, anything that anyone wanted us to cover, because we just wanted to make sure we were bringing joy to the town.”

TAP into South Plainfield launched in June 2013, and Cullen told me that by September she knew they were going to be successful. “I would say within the first month we had three advertisers that came on board,” she said. “They knew us from the town and they knew we were definitely people who were movers and shakers, and that if we were investing our time and money into this product then it would be successful.” One of those initial advertisers now places ads across 13 TAPinto sites, bringing in significant revenue for the company.

She and her husband Glenn remain at their full-time jobs (she’s a bank executive), and so they split up reporting duties at night. She attends every town council meeting and he goes to as many local sporting events as humanly possible. The rest they divide up among freelancers.

How does TAPinto generate revenue? Unsurprisingly, it offers banner advertising, but it incentivizes advertisers to sign up for year-long contracts. Once you have, you gain access to a bevy of benefits that in all probability outweigh the positive effects of the banner ads. “If they have a 12 month contract, with that they have a lot of service,” said Lieberman. “I write a feature story about them —  that’s their advertorial. We promote them on Facebook and Twitter. And throughout the year I’ll keep in touch with them. I ask what’s going on, do you have something interesting I could write about.” Year-long advertisers also receive their own column in the newspaper, and they’re allowed to have as many listings as they want on the weekly events page. Does this all sound familiar? TAPinto has essentially erected a highly effective native advertising platform that’s led to an advertising renewal rate of about 85 percent, according to Shapiro.

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mike shapiro

Mike Shapiro

Though Shapiro was able to start scaling the company via licensing, he was still experiencing growth pains — it turned out that it takes a lot of energy and training to get a new TAPinto site up and running. So in order to scale more effectively, he switched the company over from a licensing model, where participants paid a monthly fee, to a franchise system that allows someone to purchase and open their own site. “The main difference is that we can provide unlimited support,” he explained. “Another is that they actually own the business and they have the right to sell it at a later date.” Now that the publishers were fairly autonomous, they could focus on the content and ad sales while Shapiro took care of all the infrastructure — website upkeep, billing, running the ad network across all sites, and training new recruits.

Shapiro described the growth of the TAPinto network as “exponential.” In the past year, he said, the sites generated 2.8 million unique visitors, and in September they saw a combined 1 million pageviews. His success has come as some media pundits have written off online local news as unscalable. To be sure, there’s no shortage of failed local journalism startups, the most widely-cited being AOL’s Patch, which AOL CEO Tim Armstrong finally gave up on earlier this year, laying off hundreds of Patch journalists.

TAPinto actually competed with several Patch sites from the very beginning. “The first sites that launched were in South Orange, Maplewood, and Milburn,” he said. Milburn just happened to be one of the early TAPinto sites. “When they launched, we didn’t know they were owned by AOL. They started to expand to other towns in our area. By the time we learned they were owned by AOL, they’d expanded all over the country and were spending hundreds of millions of dollars. We said well, we can’t compete in terms of their money or their staffing, but where we can compete is we can try to put out the highest quality local news, and let’s make that be kind of our main objective.”

Why did TAPinto succeed while Patch failed? Well, for one, TAPinto’s growth was much more organic. It would start in one community, grow in influence, and then by the time it spread to a nearby town it already had some name recognition (this sounds familiar to how Facebook originally spread, opening up to one university in a state and then spreading to surrounding universities once it had become firmly entrenched). Patch seemed to drop into communities at random, chosen because of some combination of demographics and business concentration. “We leave it to the franchisee to suggest their territory to us,” Shapiro said. “In some cases it’s one town, in other cases it’s a cluster of towns on one site because they’re all in the same school system and it makes sense for these towns to be together. We didn’t use some algorithm to decide that. We actually put it in the hand of the potential franchisee who suggested their territory to us.”

TAPinto’s most important feature, however, is that it relies entirely on local reporters. In the case of Patch, sometimes an editor lived in the town he was covering — and those Patches tended to do well. Remember that 10 percent of Patch sites were profitable — but just as often he could live 40 minutes away, and that seemingly short distance made all the difference. “It was an  employee who didn’t necessarily have any connection in that town,” Shapiro explained. “And they weren’t invested in the success of the site. They could be laid off at any moment.”

Perhaps Patch’s biggest drawback is that it sat underneath a corporate behemoth, and so lacked the nimbleness needed to find its niche. “We have literally no bureaucracy,” said Shapiro. “One thing that hurt AOL is that their overhead costs for just administration was something like 40 percent. Here, it’s next to nothing. It doesn’t take a lot for a TAP site to be profitable. If they sell two or three ads, they’ve paid their franchise fee and more for the whole year, anything after that is profit.” TAPinto also doesn’t have impatient shareholders, many of whom are looking for some quick growth so they can flip their investment.

Of course, the more a company grows, the more essential that bureaucracy, however unwanted, becomes. For now, Shapiro can place nearly all his focus on improving the reader experience. He’s about to launch a new version of the site; one of its features will be that it’ll remember which town you’re from and will always revert to that town’s TAPinto site.

As for revenue, the company is a shining light in an industry that’s seemingly faced decline: the local newspaper, the kind that sends reporters to government meetings and covers the nitty gritty ins and outs that are increasingly ignored by besieged print newspapers.

To be sure, nobody is making millions of dollars from these sites, but then again that’s not why most journalists get into this business.

“I’m making a decent amount of money,” said Jackie Lieberman. “And as a journalist, that’s a hard thing to do.”

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What happens when LinkedIn promotes your blog post on LinkedIn Pulse

linkedin pulse

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how business professionals are flocking to LinkedIn’s recently-opened-to-the-masses blogging tool. The folks I interviewed for the piece describe the LinkedIn blog as a robust platform that had the potential to expand business thought leadership to the masses. Several of the blog platform’s users mentioned that at least one of their posts had been chosen by LinkedIn’s internal media team (headed by Dan Roth), which combs through thousands of user-submitted posts each day and chooses several to be amplified by LinkedIn Pulse. LinkedIn Pulse, they told me, sends a gargantuan flood of traffic and leads to a sharp increase of profile views and subscribers.

Last week, a blog post I’d published to LinkedIn was chosen for LinkedIn Pulse, and what happened next is fascinating. Here’s my recounting of the experience:

About once a week, I cross-post one of the columns I’ve written for my blog to LinkedIn.  In most cases, the post receives between 30 and 50 views, but for some reason the column I uploaded last Monday, about how layoffs have taken on a new meaning in the media industry, garnered some extra attention. In its first 24 hours, it generated about 10 to 12 “likes” and about 100 views. I’m not sure what caused this increased interest, but it tapered off in a day or two.

Still, this was significantly more engagement than I’d seen on any previous post, so I continued to keep an eye on the post throughout the week. Then, on Thursday evening sometime around 5 p.m., I happened to log on to LinkedIn and saw that I had several notifications. They alerted me that the post was collecting likes and comments, and that people were hitting the “follow” button on my profile (meaning they were subscribing to future posts). Bewildered, I began hitting the refresh button on the post every few minutes. Within the first 20 to 30 minutes, the post had generated about 3,000 views.

People weren’t just viewing the post; they were interacting with it in all kinds of ways. To date, 86 people have liked the post and 79 commented. Reading through the comments, some of them were off-topic and a few even outright spam, but a surprising number of them were on-topic and very thoughtful, forcing me to reconsider some of the viewpoints I’d taken in my column.

I began noticing an impact off LinkedIn as well. People shared my post on Twitter, resulting in a few dozen tweets that mentioned my Twitter username (I’m pretty sure that’s because they were hitting a tweet button on the LinkedIn post that auto-loaded my Twitter handle). This eventually led to about a dozen new Twitter followers.

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In the piece itself, I’d linked to an article on my blog about the Forbes contributor network. According to Google Analytics, that article received about 100 additional views.

The traffic fire hose seemed to cut off within about 24 hours. But during that time the post collected around 49,000 views. Perhaps more important, my profile received about 150 new followers, a 33 percent increase over my following a day earlier. Though the post received the overwhelming majority of its traffic during those 24 hours, likes, comments, and follows have continued to trickle in.

So why was my post chosen? My guess is that initial rush of interest in its first day, however small, sent some kind of flag to LinkedIn’s internal editorial team, and that someone from that team finally got around to reading that post on Thursday.

It seems pretty clear to me that being chosen for LinkedIn Pulse has tremendous benefit. There are few websites in the world that can send you 50,000 views in 24 hours (and I’ve seen other examples of posts generating several hundred thousand views). The fact that it had effects outside LinkedIn, including an increase in Twitter following and traffic to my website, shows that LinkedIn is sending you an engaged audience. And the 150 new followers will certainly be beneficial in helping me spread future posts. Even though I have no idea why my post was chosen or if I’ll ever be picked again for LinkedIn Pulse, the experience was a real eye opener for me in terms of the potential LinkedIn holds when it comes to thought leadership and personal branding. I have a feeling that the budgets and focus of social media marketing professionals will start to shift to this platform when they discover how influential its readership is for their clients.

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YouTube needs to start worrying about Facebook video

key and peele

On a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, the duo produced a skit on the dangers of concussions in football. Shot in a hyper-dramatized, cinematic style, it shows Keegan-Michael Key playing a high school quarterback who’s been sacked by a defensive lineman, resulting in a concussion. Afterward, he tries to rally his teammates for the next play but digresses further and further into a state of complete gibberish and confusion as his brain turns to mush. It’s hilarious.

As Comedy Central has been wont to do lately after a show airs, it not only uploaded the skit to its custom video player, but also to YouTube and directly to its Facebook page (via Facebook’s video player). What happened next should worry the executives at YouTube.

To be clear, the YouTube version, with over 700,000 views, had the largest audience. But the Facebook version, with 200,000 views, is a not-so-distant second, and it represents the massive strides Facebook has made at growing its video offering into a formidable opponent to YouTube.

Just a few short years ago there were basically three kinds of video you encountered on the internet: YouTube, Vimeo, and various custom platforms used by entertainment and news sites. The custom players were often clunky and had limited viral spread. Though some had embed features, allowing one to embed the video on his own website, they weren’t very intuitive. Vimeo has always been a beautiful product and has a hardcore fanbase of documentary and short filmmakers, but it’s a rather niche platform that never seemed to pose much of a threat to YouTube. So for seven or so years, YouTube was the reigning king of online video, with no other company even approaching its viewership numbers.

Facebook’s video player has been available for a few years now, and I remember uploading videos to it back in 2012 or 2013. The tool was glitchy, sometimes taking multiple attempts to upload something. And encountering Facebook video in the newsfeed was a somewhat rare occurrence.

Due to a confluence of events in just the last few months, however, that scenario is much different, and now it’s nearly impossible to scroll through the Facebook newsfeed without seeing video. So what changed?

Well, Facebook obviously began to favor video in its newsfeed algorithm, emphasizing it over text, image, and link content. And once Facebook page owners realized this by viewing their analytics dashboard, they had an incentive to start uploading more video. Facebook also started to auto-play video, making it harder to ignore (and also possibly inflating viewership stats, which I’ll get to in a second). And then lastly we had the Ice Bucket Challenge, the month-long viral campaign to raise money for ALS. Not only did it crowd the newsfeed with videos, it also allowed millions of casual Facebook users to upload video to the social network for the first time.

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It also helps that Facebook has, at last count, about 1.2 billion users. And it turns out many of those users are consuming video. The company recently announced that it’s serving 1 billion video views a day. It’s hard to find an apples to apples comparison for YouTube, but back in 2012 YouTube announced it was seeing 4 billion views a day, and we can only assume that number has grown considerably since then. An executive from web analytics company ComScore recently claimed that Facebook video had surpassed YouTube views on desktop, but this should be met with a skeptical eye, since this includes auto-plays, and Facebook auto-plays every single video in the newsfeed regardless if you stop to watch it.

Still, there are enough eyeballs for Facebook that it can now make serious inroads in luring stars off YouTube. Recently it has reached out to some of YouTube’s most famous personalities, offering them higher ad rates and significant advances if they leave YouTube and come to Facebook. It knows that these stars can create a domino effect, leading to other midlist stars trying out the platform. At the very least, if it can get some of these stars to cross-post their videos to their Facebook pages rather than simply embedding links to YouTube (what Comedy Central is currently doing with Key & Peele), then this could become a gateway drug to convince them to start investing more in Facebook and less in YouTube. And as Hameed Yousuf recently pointed out, the way Facebook displays videos uploaded natively vs embedded YouTube links is vastly different; the latter has far less visibility in the newsfeed.

That all being said, Facebook video still has significant weaknesses. For instance, though it works well within Facebook’s ecosystem, it doesn’t get much play outside of Facebook. I can only remember one or two times when I came across a Facebook video embedded on a blog or news site. YouTube is still the default tool for easily embedding video.

But even more important is the fact that it’s incredibly hard to discover Facebook video. Facebook’s internal search functionality sucks, and the site isn’t crawled well by outside search engines. YouTube’s search is amazing, and it’s the second most popular search engine in the world next to Google. And speaking of the G word, it’s the elephant in the room. Because it owns YouTube, it can not only crawl its metadata more efficiently, but it can also give it preference in Google search results. Do a search for “Key & Peele, quarterback” in Google.  The Facebook video doesn’t even show up in the first page of results.

Facebook is now over a decade old. It kills me that it for some reason hasn’t figured out how to provide a valuable search tool, something Twitter developed long ago. It keeps hinting that it will, but it’s forever on the horizon. Look what happens when I try to use its semantic search to search public posts for mentions of Key & Peele:

facebook search

“This search isn’t available yet,” an indication that someday, we don’t know when, but maybe, hopefully, we think there just might be a public search feature. Until that moment arrives, Facebook will always be hindered when it comes to discovery — for its video and any other type of content — a problem that the rest of the open web solved long ago.

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Why YouTube is much more disruptive than Netflix

Netflix-vs-YouTube

You have to give Netflix its due. It began as a mail-order video rental service, then pivoted to a mail-subscription video service. In just a few years it decimated the video rental industry, leaving Blockbuster a bankrupted carcass. But instead of standing and gloating over its spoils, it quickly recognized that the future of home television consumption was via internet streaming and began securing the streaming rights to hundreds of television shows and movies, all of which were grateful for the extra revenue. Then, when other corporate giants began moving in on its turf — Amazon Prime, Hulu — driving up competition for streaming licensing, Netflix decided to make itself indispensable and invested in expensive, high quality original content that would lock users in. It’s clear that the company is innovative and has forced the slumbering cable industry to react; it’s unlikely that HBO would have committed itself to a standalone HBO Go service if it weren’t for Netflix. And when the history of cable is written it will be credited for being a major impetus for millions of consumers to cut the cable cord (though I have to agree with Ben Thompson that the “great unbundling” won’t happen nearly as quickly as people think it will).

But as much as Netflix has impacted the television and cable industry, you have to admit that the more it has pivoted, the more it has begun to resemble a traditional cable network. Many networks, for instance, syndicate reruns of shows (why you’re still able to see episodes of Seinfeld despite it being off the air for more than a decade) while producing a steady stream of original programming. Netflix’s licensing of shows is its own version of syndication. And as Netflix has moved toward this more traditional model, it’s found more competition encroaching on its user base. As James Surowiecki wrote recently:

Once content providers saw how popular streaming was becoming, they jacked up the price of their content. Netflix’s success also attracted new competitors to the market (like Amazon), and encouraged existing competitors (like HBO) to invest more in streaming. “The calculus here is simple,” Ulin told me. “There’s lots more competition for viewers. That means it’s harder to get content. And the content you do get costs more.” In the past few years, Netflix has lost thousands of movies as licensing deals expired, and this year it will pay at least three billion dollars for content.

When journalists write about cord cutting and cable unbundling, they often cite Netflix as the catalyst for this industry shift. But there’s another company, I think, that both cable companies and networks should worry about more: YouTube.

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Nextflix may be producing a few of its own shows, but the majority of its money is still going into the coffers of network television companies. AMC may be losing some cable subscribers to Netflix, but then Netflix is at the same time paying millions of dollars to license Breaking Bad and Mad Men. YouTube, on the other hand, is producing millions of hours of programming outside the television ecosystem,  and though it has played around with various licensing deals with traditional television companies, the vast majority of its viewership is on non-television videos. Even worse, it’s seeing some of its strongest growth with teenagers and is conditioning these future cable subscribers that a world without cable is not only possible, but preferable. Witness the hordes of screaming teens who mob YouTube stars at online video conventions.  These are YouTube personalities that you and I have never heard of, and yet they have millions of subscribers and television channels are clamoring to give them their own shows. In some cases, they’ve rejected lucrative TV offers because they can make more money on YouTube and enjoy more creative freedom.

Because of this homegrown talent and programming, YouTube faces massive growth potential. Netflix is projected to hit $5.5 billion in revenue with its 37 million U.S. subscribers. Its CEO hopes to eventually reach between 60 and 90 million subscribers, after which its revenue will have presumably doubled to $11 billion. YouTube, on the other hand, is projected to reach $7 billion in 2015, and Bernstein Research thinks it’ll reach $30 billion in annual revenue within just a few years. YouTube also has a much more impressive lead over its competitors than Netflix. As Quartz reported, “Facebook says it gets 1 billion video views per day. YouTube had 4 billion views per day back in 2012, and has grown significantly since then.”

All these numbers don’t get at YouTube’s real strength, which is that it’s a hotbed of user generated content and therefore brewing its own homegrown talent. And because it’s built like a social network, it sees much more engagement with its users. YouTube comments may be a cesspool, but content creators have much more intimate relationships with their audience than television or movie stars.

So yes, cable and television industries, worry about Netflix. Devise ways of offering better streaming services so customers can consume your content on multiple devices. Improve your great television programming. But while you’re busy duking it out with Netflix and Amazon Prime, don’t ignore the rising giant that is quickly convincing many of your future customers that they don’t need you and never will.

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Why Twitter is such an ideal platform for trolls

twitter troll

Though the term “#GamerGate,”  what can only be described as an amorphous battle over issues ranging from misogyny in the gaming community to “ethics” in gaming journalism, has proliferated across nearly all media platforms, both online and off, most of its intensity and raw anger has been concentrated on Twitter. And that’s not a coincidence. For all that is wonderful about Twitter — and I do love the platform — there are few tools on the internet so conducive to trollery, allowing a small number of individuals to spread mass hate and havoc aimed at increasingly fearful targets.

Slate’s David Auerbach touches on one of the reasons for this: that Twitter’s immediacy and 140 character limit encourages users to quickly dash off barbed tweets that, because of their brevity, lack subtlety and therefore must resort to absolutism.

After cartoonist K. Thor Jensen got much flak for tweeting that all gamers should die, he apologizedand concluded on this wise note: “Hashtag activism is an ineffective way of pursuing those goals. It literally gets you nowhere but pointless arguments with turds like me.” Even Jensen’s attitude that “Ed Champion has always been human shit and should be flushed down a toilet,” however accurate, would probably be phrased a bit more tactfully and substantively anywhere else. Twitter is a verbal minefield that encourages harassment while discouraging productive conversation, bringing out the worst in everyone from Leigh Alexander to Richard Dawkins to Donald Trump (not hard, admittedly).

This is all true, but there are other platforms that allow you to dash off opinions without much thought or effort. To understand why trolls thrive on Twitter you must first consider why they are less effective on other platforms. Facebook, for instance, is a much bigger target in terms of audience yet #GamerGate supporters have had limited effect there. Facebook, unlike Twitter, forces users to use their real names, which at least mutes somewhat the vehemency that can spring forth when you know you won’t be held accountable for your actions. But, perhaps even more important, Facebook has terrible discovery functionality, making it difficult for a swarm of a few dozen trolls to monitor for new mentions of their pet issue and pounce all at once, thereby magnifying their voice. If you’ve tweeted at all about #GamerGate within the last few weeks, chances are you’ve experienced a drive-by barrage of @mentions from Twitter accounts with only a few dozen followers each, many spouting off a few generic pro-GamerGate catchphrases and supportive links. Within minutes, they’re gone, on to swarm another user like a cloud of gnats. After I tweeted a fairly anodyne tweet to a ClickHole article about #GamerGate, for instance, this tweet appeared in my @mention stream:

gamergate tweet

This guy and a few other dozen like him are simply sitting at search.twitter.com with #gamergate plugged into the search bar and hitting the refresh icon. Few other networks offer this kind of real-time discoverablity.

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Twitter is also a magnet for trolling because it sets all interactions as equal. On Facebook, it’s easy for me to toggle my account so only my friends can comment on my post, and if a vituperative comment does make its way onto my wall, I can delete it. On Twitter, anyone can @reply you, and the @replies appear in reverse chronological order, giving preference to those able to swarm you with the most messages. And you can’t delete a reply on Twitter like you can on Facebook (and virtually every other platform) because the reply exists on the commenter’s profile, not the profile on which he’s commenting. While you can mute or block a user, the initial damage has already been done, and you know that those hateful tweets will continue to exist for others to see even if you can’t.

Of course, trolls also like to hang out in article comment sections and message boards, but article comment sections are relegated to the bottom of articles, skipped over by most users, and easy to ignore. Message boards aren’t visited by the majority of people and are, if moderated well (and the best boards are), adept at weeding out and banning trolls.

All that being said, the attributes that make Twitter a magnet for trolls also make it great for news and entertainment. I love hearing  about a news event that interests me and then utilizing search.twitter.com to see real-time commentary and jokes. The reason news out of Ferguson proliferated on Twitter and not Facebook is because it was easy to find and surface tweets from on-the-ground protesters. In some ways, the victims of trolls are the collateral damage of a wonderful real-time conversation ecosystem. The question is whether these benefits outweigh the real damage caused when vulnerable users are threatened with rape and death. And the worst supporters of #GamerGate are making it increasingly difficult for this question to be ignored.

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Why zombie novels written by indie authors do so well on Kindle

zombie covers

In some ways, Jeremy Laszlo owes much of his career as a novelist to an intern in New York whom he’s never met before. Back in 2012, after speaking to literary agents and conducting research on the publishing industry, Laszlo submitted some of his manuscripts to several large book publishers. And then one day soon after, he received a reply in his email inbox. “It was supposed to be an interoffice email from the publishing house I had submitted to,” Laszlo told me in a phone interview. “And it was a couple of their interns joking back and forth. One of them said, ‘I just batch-rejected 600 authors.’ But they accidentally hit reply all and all the authors were included. They were joking about how they weren’t even reading any of the submissions. At that point, I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to bother with that anymore.’”

Though Laszlo had written off traditional publishing, he was still determined to see his work in print. He briefly considered vanity publishing, in which an author pays to have a large number of copies of his self-published book printed, but quickly dismissed the notion. “An author should never have to pay to publish,” he explained, noting that there’s a large stigma attached to vanity publishing. But then he began reading stories about Amazon’s self-publishing tool on Kindle, and how some independent authors were seeing considerable success on the platform. Eventually, he released several books in a dark fantasy series he’d written, and, after playing around with various pricing points, he at one point began pulling in between $5,000 and $6,000 a month in revenue.

But Laszlo soon discovered, as have many within in the publishing industry, that just as Amazon giveth, Amazon also taketh away. Without even telling him, the company deleted the category his books were listed under, and virtually overnight it became nearly impossible to find them. “I’ve always been a huge fan of fantasy, and that was my plan all along to write fantasy books,” he said. “And then Amazon started changed things and I realized that I needed to diversify, and to do that I figured I would move into other popular categories, like zombies.”

I was first clued in to the zombie phenomenon on Kindle a few months ago while visiting family in Texas. My aunt mentioned she was addicted to reading zombie ebooks. I asked her which ones. “I just do a search for the word ‘zombie’ and start downloading them,” she said. She mentioned that most of the authors she read didn’t have a publisher. Intrigued, when I returned home I did a search on the Kindle store, and, sure enough, I found an array of zombie ebooks, nearly all by self-published authors, and many with hundreds of customer reviews (an indication that a title has sold well).

Why do zombie novels do so well? “Zombie fiction is a strange beast,” said Al K Line, author of an ongoing series called Zombie Botnet. “At first glance you may think it is just about the blood and the guts, but it goes far beyond that … The undead are the perfect platform for social commentary, to write stories about friendship, love, the human spirit and how people react under extreme duress.” With Walking Dead taking the throne as the most-watched cable show and a proliferation of zombie-themed movies in recent years, it seems sparkly vampires have been replaced by their more grotesque genre brethren.

The success of self-published ebooks has been well-documented in the press. Self-published authors used to be the laughing stock of the publishing industry; they were viewed as naive, talentless writers who couldn’t break into real publishing. Many of those rejected authors claimed that the game was rigged, that agents and New York publishers didn’t even bother reading the manuscripts of unknown writers before tossing them onto the rejection pile. The industry catered to a cabal governed by cocktail parties and prestigious MBA programs, some believed, and trying to break in based on merit was a waste of the time. At the same time, many midlist authors who did manage to get books published complained that their publishers treated books by non-bestselling authors like a lottery, blasting them out into the ether with the hope that a few of them would stick. They would openly wonder why they had to carry the burden of marketing and promoting the book for only a 10 percent cut of all sales.

The stigma of self publishing began to fall away, of course, with the debut of the Amazon Kindle and the vast ebook marketplace that opened up as a result. Suddenly, publishing your work was only a few clicks away, and Amazon was incentivized to promote these titles because it received between 30 and 70 percent of the revenue while also serving up a higher cut of sales to the authors. Soon, we began hearing of successful Kindle authors like Amanda Hocking who, after receiving more than 50 rejections from literary agents, eventually went on to sell hundreds of thousands of her self-published ebooks on Amazon. In 2012, Amazon announced its top 10 bestsellers for the year, and, as Gigaom’s Laura Hazard Owen noted, “four of the authors on Amazon’s 2012 adult top-ten list — which counts Kindle and print copies together — either originally self-published their books or published through very small publishers.”

One of those successful authors, Hugh Howey, has been collecting data on 120,000 of the most popular ebooks on the Kindle store. In a report published this year, he found that indie-published books comprised 25 percent of these bestselling titles. Books put out by the big five New York publishers made up 16 percent. He also discovered that genre fiction — genre meaning non-traditional categories like romance, science fiction, fantasy, and horror — did particularly well. Of the bestselling romance novels sold on Amazon, 66 percent were by indie authors, and 56 percent of science fiction and fantasy bestsellers were self-published. Some industry watchers believe that the Kindle allows readers to engage in the guilty pleasure of consuming genre fiction in public without having to worry about the judgemental stares of others who would otherwise be able to see the covers of print versions.

Whatever the reason, horror fiction is thriving on Kindle, and a sizable portion of ebook readers are drawn to the zombie subgenre. What’s more, most of the authors I interviewed for this story stumbled into their success, navigating by trial and error until they suddenly found themselves with thousands of ravenous fans, eager to consume the next books in their series. Bobby Adair first got the idea to try out writing in the genre from his wife. “I was reading a zombie book that I didn’t like,” he recalled. “The ebook was rated fairly well on Amazon, and I was like, ‘This isn’t very good,’ and I  was complaining to her about it when we were driving on the road. I think I might have said, ‘I can write better than this,’ and she said, ‘Why don’t you?’ She kind of put me on the spot. I thought, ‘Well why not?’”

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slow burnHis first zombie novel, Slow Burn: Zero Day, took him about six weeks to write. While finishing the book, Adair also began combing through how-to articles on ebook publishing for tips on how to market his work so that it would stand out among the millions of titles available on Kindle. Two common pieces of advice he encountered repeatedly for genre fiction writers: Write an ongoing series and release the first book for free. The idea is that if you can entice a reader with a free download and he becomes hooked, then he will buy virtually every subsequent book of the series and be willing to pay an ever-increasing amount to obtain them. “It’s crack dealer marketing,” Adair joked.

Amazon currently doesn’t offer a “free” option for pricing, in fact the lowest you can price an ebook is 99 cents. But it will price match any competitor, so writers will exploit this loophole by listing their books as free on another platform — usually Smashwords — which will result in a free listing on the Kindle Store about a week later. “I was probably selling 20 books a day for 99 cents,” Adair said. “Once it flipped to free, I had 1,200 downloads on the first day.” There are also a number of websites that specialize in alerting readers to free or discounted books, the most popular of which, Bookbub, has millions of email subscribers. For a set advertising fee, you can have a link to your free ebook blasted out to this entire list and by doing so entice a prodigious number of readers into trying out your book. In its first month after being released for free, Adair’s book received 38,000 downloads.

From there, it was just a matter of writing the second book in his series. He published it a few months later, priced at 99 cents (he would raise the price with each subsequent book, eventually settling at $2.99). In the first month, he sold 3,800 copies, and every month after that his sales would fluctuate between 2,700 and 4,500. Of those who downloaded the first book, 45 percent purchased the second, and then for each book after that the conversion rate was around 95 percent.

Obviously, this model only works if you’re willing to write a series, and, more important, write it quickly. If you were to release a free book and not follow up with a sequel until a year later, by then most of those readers will have forgotten you. This means pumping out a new book every two or three months. Many of the authors I spoke to said they’ll often have at least three books in a series completed before releasing the first one. Often, all three will be published on the same day, allowing the writers to hyperlink to the sequel at the end of each ebook.

As their sales increase and they have more disposable income to invest in their careers, writers will often begin outsourcing the publishing and production work, in essence launching operations similar to what you’ll find in a traditional publishing company. Kyle West, author of the Wasteland Chronicles zombie series, realized pretty quickly that he needed to hire professional copy editors to review his work. “I started reading some negative reviews [of my book] about grammar and stuff,” he told me. “I thought I was good at editing but apparently I’m not.” It’s not uncommon for them to hire professional cover artists or third-party companies to handle the entire production side of the equation, allowing the author to focus solely on writing.

These authors all have to handle their own marketing as well, and over the years they’ve gotten better at providing ways for fans to subscribe to alerts for when new books in their series are released. Adair, for instance, began by erecting a Facebook page, and has done everything from running regular contests to paying money for ads. He now has over 3,700 fans. “Every time I release a book, a large number of those people will go out and buy it over the next few days, and that turns into a lot of visibility on Amazon” — books gain momentum when they make it onto Amazon bestseller lists — “which results in more sales.” A few months after he launched the Facebook page he had been listening to a publishing podcast where authors mentioned that their most important marketing tool was their email newsletter. “I was like, holy crap, I don’t even have one of those. We set up a subscribe page on my website right around the time my third book in the series came out, and then probably over the first six weeks we got a thousand subscribers to the email list.”

Nearly all the authors I spoke to eventually began to sell so many books that they are now able to sustain themselves with just their writing. West, who only just graduated from college in 2010, began to focus full time on writing starting in April. Adair, who had been working as a software developer, quit his job in August. But what struck me most about their success was that it was achieved so far outside of the traditional publishing apparatus that the New York publishers don’t even seem to know they exist. Adair’s books regularly make it to the top 100 bestsellers list on Amazon — at one point he made it into the top 10 bestselling horror writers, his name right next to Stephen King and Dean Koontz — and he told me that he’s never been approached by a publisher or literary agent. “There are a lot of people who are just quietly making money under the radar by just having a small fan base,” said West. “It’s kind of amazing because five years ago this wasn’t possible.”

Not all of the zombie novelists have chosen to quit their non-writing jobs, however. Jeremy Laszlo has been working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Marine Corps before that, and though he now produces up to 20 novels a year that sell thousands of copies each (“I pretty much gave up sleep,” he replied when I asked how he managed to work a full time job and complete so many books), he told me that he has no plans to leave his federal government career behind. Why? It all goes back to the lesson he learned when Amazon changed its algorithm without telling him. “The last time they made major changes, I went from $4,000 to $5,000 a month to a couple hundred dollars a month, at least until I could adapt and figure out new strategies to market and promote my work. You’re investing a lot on an entity that you have very little control over.” And with Amazon grabbing as much as 70 percent of ebook market share, many independent authors have realized that even though they’ve overcome the barriers long held in place by traditional New York publishers, they’re still beholden to a corporate behemoth that may not always have their best interests at heart. While the Kindle introduced the capacity for scaling self-publishing ventures, it’s also a potential choking point, one that may not always take kindly to the growing list of authors dependent on it to make their living.

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The term “layoff” is gaining a new meaning in the media industry

pink slip

Back in 2007, a journalist named Erica Smith launched a website called Paper Cuts. Using a combination of Google Maps and media reports, she tracked announcements of layoffs within newspapers and mapped them across the United States. These were the darkest days of journalism, when the Great Recession drained companies of their advertising budgets and the internet made strong inroads at eroding the display and classifieds business that had previously allowed newspapers to maintain a strong profit margin. By early 2009, Smith had documented 26,000 layoffs — with over 15,000 in 2008 alone. She seems to have ceased updating the site in 2012, but she left behind a chronicle of carnage, one that an aspiring journalist could look at and reasonably conclude that a job wouldn’t be awaiting her when she graduated college.

Since then, with the economy picking up steam, the outlook hasn’t seemed as dire. Budgets are still tight and newspapers are still hurting, but several publications have announced their first revenue gains in years. Forbes went from a magazine unable to pay its rent to a profitable publishing company. The New York Times launched a pay meter that generated real revenue and gave many journalists hope that the industry was adapting and that readers would pay for content after all. Venture capitalists began to drop real money into news-centric companies, investing millions of dollars everywhere from Buzzfeed to Circa.

And yes, we’re still treated to news of media layoffs. Recently, Conde Nast, the New York Times, CNN, and Yahoo have all announced they’re letting people go. But instead of signalling the death knell of journalism, they often are the result of a corporate restructuring in which one division of the company faces layoffs while a separate division — usually digital — is still actively hiring.

Take CNN, for instance. It recently announced 150 job cuts. This is how Brian Stelter addressed the layoffs on Reliable Sources:

It is unfortunately happening all over the place. Conde Nast, the publisher of Vogue and Wired, is laying off 70 to 80 people this fall. My former employer the New York Times is cutting 100 from the newsroom.

And yet they, like CNN, have been hiring people, too, lots of people, mainly for online jobs. That’s for new apps, for new web sites, for new ventures.

Now, there is some overall shrinking going on. But the better word for what’s happening in media today is “reshaping.” Through layoffs, through cuts, through new investments, “reshaping” for the digital future that really feels more like the digital present. It’s already here

The same can be said for the other companies I listed. The New York Times announced 100 newsroom layoffs, but it came as the company is expanding in many areas; its newsroom headcount, 1,330, is “approaching its largest size ever, according to the company, up from about 1,250 at the end of last year.” Sure, Yahoo let go of 400 people in India, but Marissa Mayer is also sitting on a $5.8 billion war chest that she plans to use for acquisitions and acquihires. With the hiring of journalists like David Pogue and Katie Couric, as well as the purchase of blogging platforms like Tumblr, Yahoo is putting significant weight behind digital content.

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In other words, unlike the layoffs in the late-aughts, which were interpreted as the result of an industry in decline, many of the most recent layoffs can be seen through the lens of an industry in transition. Media companies are freeing up capital to reinvest in their digital properties. Of course, this could all just be hopeful optimism and an example of me taking corporate spin at face value, but it has seemed evident to me for at least the past year that media entities, for the first time, have begun accepting the fact that display banner advertising will never yield significant return and that they need to develop new business models and revenue generators if they’re able to turn their ships around. And this influx of capital due to a rising economy may indeed be their last shot at doing so.

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