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March 20, 2013



On the heel of Pew’s new report on the “State of the Media 2013,” there’s been a good bit of hand-wringing over the future of journalism in general, and of newspapers in particular.  And not without reason:  in 2012 newspapers lost $13 dollars in print ads for every $1 dollar they’ve gained online (ads and subscriptions combined).  And that’s had a sad but understandable effect; as Pew reports, “estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.”

But as Matt Yglesias argues at Slate, what’s tough on the industry we’ve known might not be so bad for the society it’s there to serve.  The pessimism is…

…not wrong, exactly, but it is mistaken. It’s a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.

Just ask yourself: Is there more or less good material for you to read today than there was 13 years ago? The answer is, clearly, more…

In any case, it’s worth remembering that the future of newspapers has been a subject of contemplation for over a century… and as Smithsonian‘s Paleofutures blog reminds us, of predictions that have rarely been right.

Many of us here in the 21st century like to think of the newspaper as this static institution. We imagine that the newspaper was born many generations ago and until very recently, thrived without much competition. Of course this is wildly untrue. The role of the newspaper in any given community has always been in flux. And the form that the newspaper of the future would take has often been uncertain.

In the 1920s it was radio that was supposed to kill the newspaper. Then it was TV news. Then it was the Internet. The newspaper has evolved and adapted (remember when TV news killed the evening edition newspaper?) and will continue to evolve for many decades to come.

Visions of what newspapers might look like in the future have been varied throughout the 20th century. Sometimes they’ve taken the form of a piece of paper that you print at home, delivered via satellite or radio waves. Other times it’s a multimedia product that lives on your tablet or TV…

Visit “The Newspaper of Tomorrow: 11 Predictions from Yesteryear” for an instructively humbling trip back to the future.

“Special Glasses for Reading in Bed” source: Nationaal Archief

Much breath is being spent by the Chattering Classes predicting, debating, and otherwise worrying over the fates of the book, journalism, and publishing at large– broadly speaking: the creation, dissemination, storage, and use of knowledge itself.  Lots of jargon, a wealth of acronyms, and liberal use of facile analogies and constructs– it’s all a little dizzying.

Happily, Tim Carmody has ridden to the rescue. While he has mooted his own manifesto for the future of the book (eminently worth a read), his most recent contribution to the Science and Technology section of The Atlantic blog, is just what one needs in a Babel-like time such as this– some context.  In “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” that’s precisely what he provides as he recounts, for example, the move from rolled scroll to folded codex, the replacement of papyrus by parchment (and then paper), the shift from vertical to horizontal writing/reading, back to vertical…

It’s fascinating; it’s illuminating… and it’s a terrifically useful reminder that writing, reading– communicating– and the forms in which they’re done have always been in flux: “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books.”

The romance of retailing…

October 27, 2009

A guest post from (Roughly Daily):


But then, Zippy can console himself that, as recent honoree H.L. Mencken observed, “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

As we revisit our plans to open that book store, we might recall that this is the anniversary of the premiere (in 1954) of Walt Disney’s first prime-time television program (Disneyland, on ABC; later re-titled The Wonderful World of Disney), the second longest running television franchise in the country (as measured in seasons aired), and arguably the nation’s first major full-length infomercial (…though Bonomo, The Magic Clown, which ran on NBC from 1949 to 1954– and which was essentially an advertisement for Bonomo Turkish Taffy– has a defensible rival claim to that honor).


Your correspondent is headed for points antipodal, where, as it happens, the drains do not spiral in a different direction, but where connectivity promises to be uncertain…  consequently, for the next week or so, these missives are likely to be more roughly than daily.

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September 19, 2009

source: eHow

As Columbus Day heaves onto the horizon, it’s time to steel ourselves for the appearance of Christmas decorations– and displays and promotions– in retail establishments of every stripe.  For each of the last several seasons, the tinsel has come out earlier.  Last year, it was interspersed in some emporia with Halloween frights; this year, we’d best be prepared to see it even earlier…

A Christmas Peril

Even before the Downturn, retailers were working harder and harder to squeeze growth out of the Christmas Season (famously, the period during which many see up to 40% and their sales and as much as 75% of their profits); competition and online-enhanced transparency were taking their tolls.  But with the added pressures of a recession– one in which there’s been a tremendous contraction of the credit that funded both merchants’ stocks and shoppers’ purchases– the game has gotten much tougher still.

Factor in the prospect that the current stock market recovery (and accompanying lift in confidence) is a “suckers’ rally,” and/or that swine flu will take a heavy toll (on the economy, if not lives), and/or that the weather won’t cooperate…  it’s not a pretty picture.  Indeed, Grant Thornton’s Reviving Retail (PDF) report suggests that as many as 10,000 (more) retail stores could close across the U.S. by the end of 2009.

But even assuming that these dangerous dynamics don’t break bad, there’s another challenge to navigate, one that’s already baked into the Christmas Season as a kind of dilemma:

On the one hand… Retailers have, understandably, been reducing their inventory levels.  While there are some signs that confidence may be returning, and thus, that orders may pick up for/in the Dec quarter, the base on which those additions would be made is quite low.  And the conventional wisdom in the investment community (c.f., e.g., here) remains adamant that low inventories are the way to go.

On the other hand… We consumers have been “trained,” over the last 15 years or so, to wait later and later to make our Christmas purchases.  Repeated assurances from retailers that we can “order as late as December 23 for guaranteed Christmas delivery!”, coupled with the sense that, in a growing number of categories, that waiting means lower prices (as retailers begin discounting before Christmas to make their December quarter targets) adds up to an environment in which the cagey shopper waits until the last minute to fill Santa’s sack.

Those cagey shoppers already suffered a fair amount a frantic substitution, as “last minute” meant “out of stock.”  But this year, when it’s likely that there’ll be more shoppers trying to be cagey (or, under financial strain, sacrificing their commitments to frugality only late in the season), that seems likely to be a much bigger issue.

Exactly what all this will mean, of course, remains to be seen; we’ll only know how well inventories match up to demand, and how consumers react to the experience, after the fact…  And that “fact” is likely to emerge very, very late in the season.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come…

But beyond observing that the wise shopper might get his/her purchasing out of the way rather earlier this year , there is perhaps one confident conclusion we can draw:  this should be a good Christmas for online retailing (at least relatively).  Shopping for bargains in an environment of scarcity requires just the sort of ubiquitous access and transparency that on-line provides.

And if either H1N1 or horrible weather do materialize, shoppers are even likelier to retreat to their keyboards.

Which is all just to say that, while e-tailing (and what we might call “web-enabled shopping” from more traditional retailers) was already on the rise, the economic crisis and its manifestation in the retail environment seem likely to accelerate the shift.  I can’t imagine a retail landscape without stores– lots of stores– in my lifetime or in my daughter’s; but it seems sure that the center of gravity in retail will shift to the web (and to what the web becomes)… and, thanks to painful realities of post-Bubble life, that it will shift sooner than later.

The Mattress King is Dead!  Long Live!

It’s a challenging prospect, and, I believe, an exciting one…  if only because (barring too much consolidation in the industry) the same dynamics that are creating the pressure on retail– competition and transparency– are likely to make, ironically, for a return to an important old-fashioned principle.  They promise thoroughly to dilute the effectiveness of the merchandising and advertising that is devoted to selling “differences” that don’t exist…  leaving manufacturers, merchants, and marketers only one viable option, selling real value.

And if so, then, as Tiny Tim proclaimed, “God bless us, every one!”

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The Multiplier Effect…

August 22, 2009

source: fabely_67/Flickr

So, just how big is “the internet economy”?  And how big is it likely to get?

John Quelch, a past Dean of the London Business School who is now a professor at Harvard Business School,  and his HBS colleague John Deighton worked with Hamilton Consultants to answer that question for the Interactive Advertising Bureau.  Quelch summarizes their findings on the HBS site, explaining that he and the team approached the question in three ways:

1. Employment value. The Internet employs 1.2 million people directly to conduct advertising and commerce, build and maintain the infrastructure, and facilitate its use. Each Internet job supports approximately 1.54 additional jobs elsewhere in the economy, for a total of 3.05 million, or roughly 2 percent, of employed Americans. The dollar value of their wages is about $300 billion, or around 2 percent of U.S. GDP.

2. Payments value. The direct economic value the Internet provides to the rest of the U.S. economy is estimated at $175 billion. It comprises $20 billion of advertising services, $85 billion of retail transactions (net of cost of goods), and $70 billion of direct payments to Internet service providers. In addition, the Internet indirectly generates economic activity that takes place elsewhere in the economy. Using the same multiplier as for employment, 1.54, then the advertising-supported Internet creates annual value of $444 billion.

3. Time value. At work and at leisure, about 190 million people in the United States spend, on average, 68 hours a month on the Internet. A conservative valuation of this time is an estimated $680 billion.

Prof. Quelch adds that “…internet also helps the economy by fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, and productivity, particularly among small businesses that create most new jobs in the U.S. In addition, larger companies in this sector, such as Cisco, Google, or Adobe, have been a haven of relative stability through the current economic downturn and boost the U.S. balance of trade through their global sales.” (The full report is here.)

Big numbers, and (as broadband adoption in the U.S. is on the rise again after a period of stagnation) numbers that will surely continue to grow.

But as genuinely impressive as these numbers are, it’s important not to let them distract us from the (even) larger likely impact of the web.   Roy Amara’s much-repeated caution– “there is a natural human tendency to overestimate the impact of technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run”– seems to me to apply here absolutely.  Prof. Quelch’s snapshot of the internet economy is terrifically clarifying and helpful.  But as it is composed of a multiplicand (direct web/equipment revenues) and a multiplier (jobs/activities supported by the core), it’s critical to remember that as the core grows, the multiplier is likely to grow as well– and for an appreciable time, anyway, likely faster..

By analogy, consider telecommunications.  From their humble beginnings on the benches of Morse, Bell, Marconi, and Farnsworth, wireline and wireless telecoms services and equipment around the world have grown to sales of $1.9 trillion in 2008 (Dataquest).  A very big number indeed.

But when we stop to think about the businesses that telecoms have enabled or transformed– retailing, transportation, finance, entertainment… effectively every sector– we realize that the real impact of telecommunications is much, much bigger than the $1.9 trillion that they gross.   In 2008, the global sales of just the top 250 retailers (into every aspect of whose operations, in front of and behind the counter, telecoms have been woven) were $3.25 trillion (Deloitte); entertainment, well over $1 trillion now is projected by PwC to grow to nearly $2 trillion by 2012; and the world’s freight bill, even in the challenged economy of 2008, was over $ 4 trillion (World Bank)… and on and on.    While it’s difficult precisely to denominate it, it’s seems clear that a great deal of the $70+ trillion (PPP) to which the world’s GDP had grown by 2008 (IMF) is at least in important part a result of the connectivity– and with it the coordination, the conquered complexity, the confidence– that telecoms have provided.

Which is to say that, while fortunes were made investing in wires, transmitters, and the direct provision of services with them, many, many more fortunes were made doing what that infrastructure enabled.  For every Marconi, there was a Sarnoff, a Paley, and a Goldenson; and for each of them, a Sloan, an Ogilvy, and a Woodruff; and for each of them…  You get the point.

Surely the same phenomenon accrues as the web weave its way into our lives.  Or perhaps I should say “the phenomenon continues,” as there’s a way in which the internet is “just” an extension of telecoms (though, as my old man used to say, “there are differences in degree that amount to differences in kind”).  In the end, the semantics don’t so much matter.

What matters is recognizing that the multiplier that Prof. Quelch and his colleagues used– the 1.54 he cites above– is unlikely to be static.  It’s likely to grow as the internet insinuates itself more deeply into our lives and our economy; it’s likely to grow manifestly.

And as it does, the experience of telecoms suggests that, while there will continue to be growth in (and money to be made in) internet-specific businesses, the the larger and faster-growing opportunities, at least in aggregate, lie in what the net enables, in what we can do with the web.

Put another way, the IAB report is a powerful reminder that all of us in organizations– for-profit or not-for profit; however seemingly far removed for the web– need to be thinking about ways that we can use the internet to transform our products and services.  Because that transformation will happen; if not by us, to us.

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source: Lee LeBlanc

The story recounted in “Textbook stuff…“– “United Breaks Guitars,” now sitting at over 2 million views, up from 250,000 two days ago– continues to unfold.  United has responded, offering belatedly to pay for the damages.  Dave Carroll, leader of Sons of Maxwell and composer of the song, has responded (see it here on Youtube), proposing that, after all this time, United should just give the money to charity.

United has also suggested (for instance, to the Chicago Tribune, in an interview featured in this coverage of the incident) that the carrier could use the video internally to help change its culture– a prospect that Carroll applauds: “It could be used to improve the way passengers are treated around the world.”

But for all the hits on Youtube, has there actually been a meaningful hit to United?

Kevin May, writing at Travolution, suggests not: “…the reality is that the ‘complaint’ has probably done more to boost the profile of Canadian rockers Sons of Maxwell than it has impacted on the ticket sales of United Airlines.”

In the short-run, I suspect that’s right: Carroll and crew have certainly gotten a lift, and United ticket sales are likely holding.  But then, ticket sales these days are largely made via constraints–  corporate travel deals that result in policies restricting employees to a single carrier; dominant/sole carriers offering the only option on many routes, etc.– or as a product of cut-to-the-bone promotional pricing.  And as bad as United’s service is, the universe of choice on most routes in the U.S. offers very few real service alternatives.  I typically fly 100,000-150,000 miles domestically per year and would suggest that, with the exception of a few relatively small carriers like Virgin America, the level of service is pretty uniformly terrible and continuing to deteriorate.  So, United breaks guitars…  but where are you going to go?  (I’ve written before about this “race to the bottom” and why, I believe, it is happening.)

But does this kind of “default impunity” mean that United and the other underdelivering members of their competitive class breeze through episodes like this with no damage at all?  I think not.  There seem to me at least three ways in which being called out in this way will take its toll:

  • While much/most of United’s traffic is prescribed, a good bit of it’s most profitable traffic is on more competitive international routes.  “United Breaks Guitars” has suggested to millions that, given the choice, it’s better to fly Virgin or Singapore or BA or Lufthansa…  And when these travelers do take foreign flag carriers (if their experience is anything like mine over the last several years) they will realize that there are airlines with decent service… they’re just not the big U.S. carriers.  And so more and more of these travelers will make their future decisions for travel on those more lucrative routes accordingly.
  • It’s no fun working for a company that is the butt of jokes (or worse, as in the case of Northwest in Detroit for example, the target of focused customer hostility).  Employees can feel defeated, can become cynical, or both… and when they do, service tends to deteriorate further.  But more immediately painful to United, it aggravates relations with their employees.  In my experience, United’s line employees are neither stupid nor evil; they are, in their own ways, prisoners of the same broken system that victimizes travelers.  Indeed, increasingly as I travel I’ve seen defensiveness about “the way things are” give way to defeated embarrassment…  and when one’s job is an embarrassment, one tends to take it out on the company.  In the past, that’s taken the form of asking for more money, “battle pay.”  In this economy, it appears to be accruing as a general “uncooperativeness.”  In either case, it severely impacts United’s ability– the ability of any company in this kind of situation– to act effectively.
  • In the longer run, United (and all of the hub-and-spokes legacy carriers) are vulnerable to a different approach to delivering air travel (see here and here). That threat will become a reality when both the emergent alternatives and consumer demand for them reach critical mass.  Episodes like “United Breaks Guitars” move consumers toward that critical mass, toward affirmative willingness to make the switch.  (And, as the experience of ATT through “deregulation” and break-up suggests, it also contributes to a political climate in which incumbents are vulnerable…)  When a shift like this happens it can feel surprisingly fast and complete– and thus likely feel to the legacy carriers in the U.S like an implosion. But in fact, it’s been steadily building, via incidents like this.  In the end, it is the festering of disappointed demand, finally enabled by new solutions, that creates “catastrophe” for incumbents like United–c.f., e.g., the “inevitable surpirse” of newspapers in the U.S.

So in the short run, “United Breaks Guitars” may just be another flash across the web, with little or no immediate effect on United’s bottom line.  But more fundamentally it– and the systemic issues the episode illustrates– could prove deadly.

Textbook stuff…

July 9, 2009

…  in the next generation of marketing textbooks, anyway:

Sons of Maxwell on being “serviced” by United Airlines. (Read the details of the episode in the sidebar on the right, or here.)

Up for under two days as I write this, and  already seen by well over 250,000 (growing rapidly), with a solid five-star rating…

Which is more than we can say for United.

Just a(nother) a reminder to those marketers aggressively  promising service they’re not prepared to deliver that the implicit protections of the “old” broadcast communications world are gone; the web will out their failures, and fast.  So more money invested in empty messaging– however elegant, as in United’s animated spots– is worse than wasted:  it concretely confirms consumers’ suspicions of hypocrisy.

Increasingly, when it comes to advertising in all its forms, you can (still) run, but you cannot hide.


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