Reflections On Life, Publishing, And Bridging Reality in 2013 - 2014
Like most everything else on this planet my newsletter "Heard on the Web" has been an evolutionary process of unscripted events, plan-less right from the very beginning (circa 1992).
I had no other mission in my mind in 1992 except perhaps my Star Trek-like fascination with somehow sending words over the telephone lines. I also thought there was the very real possibility that, if I understood the new digital technologies, I might be a more valuable employee in the large publishing corporation where I was working. It seemed to me that if I learned, practiced, and understood how to distribute information through a Hayes modem, I might speak a language my publishing peers didn't yet know and would have a skill set that could be lucrative to my employers. However, I don't think it would have been possible at that time to forecast that my pre-web tinkering would eventually become a reliable, daily, must-read resource to the publishing community, ultimately reaching 16,000 people globally on a daily basis.
At this time of year it is only natural for all of us to reflect on the trials and successes of the past year and all the wonderful hopes for the coming new one. For Carol and me this past year has been a time of great change having left the shores of Robinson Pond, in Copake, NY for a hillside home in Charlottesville, VA with a view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Mountain. Although we love our new home and especially being so close to family now, in 2013 I made 31 trips and was away from Charlottesville for 128 days, covering 85,418 miles, 41 cities and 6 countries. As far as I'm concerned, I have the best job anyone can imagine especially as I get to communicate with all of you on a daily basis.
But what about the industry? What have we seen this year that will offer guidance for the next few years?
In February, John Harrington reported in The New Single Copy "that total newsstand unit sales for 2012 were 724.4 million, down 9.0% and retail dollars were $3.46 billion, down 7.4%.... For audited magazines, unit sales were off 9.4% to 510.5 million and retail dollars declined 7.7% to $1.99 billion." He went on to share data that "Over 10 years, magazine retail units have fallen 34.4%, and dollars slipped 26.5%." Later in the year John Harrington also reported that at the Retail MarketPlace Conference, the COO of Hudson News Distributors, said, "Tell everyone, if something doesn't change, we will be flat out closed!"
I don't believe that this data as a damming as it first appears. Is it sobering? Yes. Is it shocking? Of course. But it isn't about everybody. Those figures are an average of all titles. In an era of reading ubiquity, where we carry the Library of Alexandria in our pockets in a device wrongly named a smartphone, something had to give, and that something for print was in most cases the marginal, non-niche titles. Sure the newsstand is in a mess with a terrible 100-year-old business plan. But as odd as it sounds, newsstand is still a money maker for many. My take on this and into the future is, "Ya gotta be very good to survive in print. Poorly written and poorly constructed magazines will continue to die on the vines. The rule of thumb for success on the newsstand is be expensive and be worthy of the price, or be gone."
This year we also found out that the NSA and government surveillance reached unprecedented Big Brother levels. The fact that most executives in the media business were falling all over themselves in the first half of 2013 about the use of big data and our industry's ability to nail exactly who the customer is and precisely what they wanted and when they wanted it, seems to no longer be part of the surface conversation. Industry data collection is, of course, still happening, but I guess we feel that when our commercial retailers are spying on us to get money from our pockets, it's OK; when the government does something very similar for its own reasons, we find its smell offensive and repugnant.
Another set of big media events were the multiple tragedies of shootings and bombings in 2013. Strictly from a media perspective it wasn't the actual deplorable facts of what happened but rather the detailed immediacy of the reporting by professionals and rookies alike that was new. We learned that real-time, up-to-the-minute coverage has pluses and minuses, including the use of social media in such a way as to keep the authorities and the public competitively informed and updated as the situation developed, but also distributing misleading "facts" and false accusations. Via a twitter feed I was able to listen to the real time hunt and capture of a bombing suspect as it happened. I was "there" when we got him. Is that true democracy or an unwanted invasion into parts of the policing process that are better not put on display? And what of reporting and reporters in this process? Are they now to become redundant reviewers of stories of the past? Do we still need printed "news" that happened completely in public view 12 hours ago?
In 2013 Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, bought for himself the Washington Post for $250 million. In an era of concentrated worry about the death spiral of print, what are the on-going implications of a move like that by a digital genius on an industry that is in dire need of reinvention? It shouldn't escape our notice on the same topic what billionaire Warren Buffett, who suggested in 2000 that newspapers were a dying breed, and was quoted as saying, "For most newspapers in the United States, we would not buy them at any price," did. In 2013 Buffett bought 63 dailies and weeklies. What are the plans of Bezos and Buffett? Is it to lose money on philanthropic properties? No, not in any way. They have seen opportunity in print where others have practiced failure and lacked comprehension of modern trends.
In 2013, an age old advertising process which we used to call advertorial took a new guise and developed new deceptive properties and is now called by the nom-de-plume native advertising. Stressed publishers everywhere seem to be offering up their integrity for a few shekels of misleading faux advertising disguised as professional editorial. I sadly believe that native advertising will continue to spread through 2014 and hit a peak in 2015, when those who have continued to deceive the public will be chastised by that same public and lose whatever foothold they had on the slippery ad dollar base. It is a known fact that brands don't have the same loyalty to publications as devoted readers have. When the native advertising fad is over, some publishers will find that they have nothing firm to stand on and will simply dissolve from this media universe.
Another news item of note in 2013 was the internship fiasco at major publishing houses such as Hearst and Condé Nast. Many people have weighed in on this topic for and against. Even in my own household there are different opinions. My take is that from the outset internships are an agreement that either will or will not be paid and are usually understood to be temporary positions. If whether or not an intern is to be paid was understood and agreed to from the start, why was there all this uproar? If you are a novice and agree to enter into a deal with a company to learn on-the-job as an unpaid apprentice, where does the system go awry? How can you make a deal to work and learn and then say, hey, I don't like the deal I agreed to, so I am suing you. If the deal is unacceptable, shouldn't you just quit?
Apparently there are no black and white answers to this question. For me it is the agreement part that sticks. Agree to work for free or do not agree. No one is forcing the intern to make that decision. It is a loss of apprenticeship opportunities that I, for one, am sorry to see end.
Lastly I think we are going to see 2014 solidify into what has been happening for several years. I think we will finally and firmly move into the era of the "internet of things." We expect our computers and "smartphones" to be connected; but did we really expect our cars, refrigerators, our watches, our glasses, our electric grids, our music libraries, our photos and our increasingly interconnected lives to be woven into instantly available bits and bites? Today the web and the internet work quietly behind the scenes and are ubiquitous.
All that being said, I expect 2014 to be like 2013: rapid unforeseen changes and more rapid deployment of technologies we hadn't considered before and more on-going ubiquity of the reading everywhere experience.
I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to my sponsors' continued support, for it is they that actually make the production of this newsletter possible. This newsletter is now in its twenty-first year and if the publishing spirits are willing, I hope to do it for as long as I have a keyboard to fly by.
Perhaps my friend Anonymous said it best when he offered the following: "Here's to the bright New Year, and a fond farewell to the old; here's to the things that are yet to come, and to the memories that we hold."