BoSacks Speaks Out: Most of us naturally track our industry and know the score of what the plague and the media tech platforms (FANG) are doing to us. It is a toxic combination not only for our health but also for our careers and our business wellbeing.
I follow our industry very closely and read of layoffs and closures almost every day. We all read about them and absorb the data as shots from a sniper one information bullet at a time. The article Advertising Slump During Virus Crisis Hits Media Jobs brings it into focus as a shotgun blast of intelligence right to the heart of our media industry. The entire global media workforce is shrinking. The plague and the media stress are a wide-spread phenomenon.
We are all hoping for a relatively fast vaccine and an equally speedy economic recovery. When that happens, media will get back on track and rehire, reinvent and reestablish itself, but perhaps not as it was. We have all learned to do more with less. That is one of the new permanent conditions we will live with long after the new normal solidifies. Some of us might never work from an office again. Being self-employed I haven't worked from an office since 1996. This will be a change in lifestyles for many media professionals.
There are pluses and minuses. Between not commuting and lunches alone, I have saved a fortune in everyday expenses in the last 24 years. One of the minuses is the lost real-time relationships with co-workers and friends. The occasional drink together after work. But there is tremendous freedom working from a home office, and it can be accomplished from anywhere on the planet with a working internet connection.
As an example, in the last ten years I have been on the road for 920 days and visited 10 countries and 174 cities, some of them multiple times. (Data from Tripit.com.) In all that time, I have never missed my publishing news cycle.
So, when we start the new part of our careers working solo, it can be an enjoyable experience. We just have to get through our tales of two careers.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …” Charles Dickens
Is it possible that Dickens was prescient and from the 1880s was forecasting the publishing business of the 21st century? How better to describe the current conditions of our industry in this COVID crisis? Is this not the best of times and the worst of times imaginable? Does not the media industry reflect a tale of two cities – one of prosperity and one of deprivation? We have parts of our industry that are doing well, while in other sectors, there is great angst, job loss, and contraction.
Do you know that Dickens’ second to last paragraph in A Tale of Two Cities also forecast the modern magazine industry?
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.”
Dickens is correct we will rise from this abyss with experimentation, innovation and determination. We will continue to entertain, educate and provide for the needs of a reading public. I am confident this observation is part of the still evolving new normal of business models created and adjusted on the fly through a global pandemic.
Yes, our industry will never be the same. We will never be the same. But I think a strong case can be made that it will hopefully and eventually be a better, more stable, and once again a beautiful place in which to work.
BoSacks Speaks Out: There is a brief comment in the article How to shift towards a paywall that I sent out last night. It is an oft repeated expression throughout the industry that “We have to face it: people hate ads.” I beg to differ on that point. What people hate are bad ads and bad advertising campaigns. People hate intrusive ads that follow you everywhere tracking advertising.
There are plenty of ads people like and enjoy.
Here are just a few of my favorites in no particular order:
Nike: Just Do It.
Absolut Vodka: The Absolut Bottle.
Apple – “1984”
Wendy’s – “Where’s the Beef?”
Coca-Cola – “Meet Joe Greene”
Old Spice – “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”
Always – “Like a Girl”
Those were great ads, and I doubt they were hated by too many consumers.
Perhaps it is counting on an algorithm for success rather than creativity that is at the heart of advertising’s problems today. Could it be that corporate consumer surveillance has replaced innovation and imagination? I think so.
It seems little has changed and that it is obviously worse since 2016 when I wrote this still relevant article:
We are now deep into a relatively new and unresolved media phenomenon. I think it's fair to call it the "21st Century Ad Wars." There are four armies or protagonists in this war. They are the publisher, the advertiser, the ad blockers and, of course, "the mark." Oh no, I mean the coveted consumer.
The two most important factions in the battle for revenue romance are the advertisers who have the product for sale and the consumer who has the money and might want the product. The publisher is there to act as a conduit between the two primary flirters. The ad blockers on the scene with the proposed not-always-honest intention to protect the consumer. As Shakespeare said prophetically about the digital process, "what a tangled web we weave."
All was well in hand in the analog print days of yore until the web arrived and sales and advertising in printed products went south. So the Publishers, eager to reclaim lost revenue introduced new paths of monetary rewards and created along the way ever increasing intrusive and self-destructive projects that eventually broke the bond of trust with the reading public. That trust on the web is now long gone for most. Did all advertisers and publishers take the low road? Absolutely not. But enough web practitioners did to completely dirty the waters for all. Swimming with the sharks isn't always a pleasant experience, and you quickly learn not to trust anything swimming nearby.
The advertisers and the publishers abused their privileged position and actually started to think of the consumer as a mark, there to be taken advantage of in every conceivable way possible. Unwanted tracking, bloated advertising destroying the digital experience, and a general overarching abuse of the developing channels of communication. You might as well add to that mix the volatile hidden inclusion of downloading malware willingly or not into the public and consumer domain.
I see this as an unwinnable technologic trench war with one and only one path to digital peace in our time. The solution is for content to be worth paying for. Here is my question. Is your content worth the consumer paying for its full and fair value? If not, why not? Did I hear you say they won't pay enough for it and that you have to subsidize it with advertising? Yes, that was the path of the past and in an analog world was accepted by all - the publisher, the advertiser and the mark. That is one of the reasons that print is still the best ROI. The rules are fully understood by all, and the ads aren't bloated and ready explode upon command.
Here is the thing - and this comes from a long-time-and-still-practicing digital futurist who still sees digital as the predominant way people are and will be reading - digital is succeeding in grabbing most of our attention and eventually digital advertising will probably succeed, too. But that success won't take away from the experience of reading print.
The haptic or touch experience between print and digital is mainly a different feel, a different sensation and, perhaps above all else, a completely different expectation. Print doesn't offer distractions other than the words and thinking on the page, while the digital experience intends to and does offer distractions galore. I think a case can be made that reading on the web requires a modern kind of discipline to actually finish the article you started to read, whereas in print there is no place else to go but finish what you picked up to read. I'm not saying that just because we read a printed product we always finish it. In many cases we don't. That is also demonstrably true for the digital experience, only more so.
That is where I concluded my 2016 article, which brings me back to my question. Is the problem counting on an algorithm for success rather than creativity at the heart of the problem today? Could it be that corporate consumer surveillance has replaced innovation and imagination and has thus brought on the concept that people hate advertising? Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.
BoSacks Speaks Out: Sometimes I have to put the bourbon aside and deliver a sobering report to the industry. I do this because I love the magazine media industry, and I don't want anyone to misinterpret the facts and actual conditions of our industry.
In turbulent times, turbulent things happen. What I have to report tonight is a reflection of the turmoil of the times we live in. I was asked by those in the know not to say what I am about to tell you, and I would have kept that promise, but we live in an instant messaging age. A person I do not know tweeted today that Folio: Magazine is no more. Because of that tweet, I feel I am relieved of the responsibility of keeping my silence.
The demise is unfortunate but understandable. Our industry is under extreme duress, and so too are trade organizations that track our industry. Clearly, FOLIO: needed serious revenue to complete their journalistic task of monitoring and educating our industry. The logical choice before COVID 19 was for them to focus on the conference and awards business, a decent plan if not for the pandemic. Their plan was one that many publishers leaned towards to replace lost advertising revenue—a good idea except for the fate forced upon us by an epidemic.
What happened? Part of the answer for FOLIO: was vendor consolidation. In the mid-2000s many companies were spending serious dollars with FOLIO:, and there were in those days dozens of printers trying to reach the print publishing industry. That revenue stream went from lucrative to zero almost overnight. Other sectors of the industry also dropped out of sight. Gone were the fulfillment companies, telemarketing companies, and investment banks. Gone too was the revenue from the many reprint companies. Add to that the shrinking number of media companies. Years of magazine closures and layoffs left fewer brands and fewer people to enter the awards business and attend their events.
It is all a reflection of the realignment of the content distribution business formally known as publishing.
I must at this point add that Publishing Executive Magazine, the other magazine publishing trade publication, has stopped tracking the industry and is no more. Their site has not published anything new since mid-June. The only conclusion is that they are gone too, and the excellent staff displaced to new possibilities.
It costs a lot to host the staff necessary to track an industry. I believe that both publishers had a chance to make it in these crazy times and be prosperous if not for the pandemic. Now both are gone.
What does it mean? Everything and nothing, is my answer. The world will go on, and the publishing industry will go on too. Eventually new organizations and new trade publishers will grow and arise from the ashes of the old publishing community. You've heard me say a dozen times that entrepreneurs hate a vacuum. When the dust settles, there will be a huge trade vacuum that needs filling.
We are on a strange road toward what will be. It has twists and turns, dips and mountains yet to climb. Yet when we get to wherever we are going, if we will look back quickly, we will see nothing but a straight and level path to how we got here, wherever that new destination is. That is the way of life and business. The road is only evident when you arrive and not a moment before.
Someday we will all look back on this period of technological and pandemic turmoil and smile. Yes, I think we may quite possibly smile. We will laugh because we survived multiple tsunamis that the world had never seen before and persevered.
There are more ways than ever to consume media and more media than ever to consume. I see that as a good situation. I will only worry if and when people stop reading. If they don't' stop reading, then there is an opportunity for our industry to sell relevant thought for a profit. If there is a profit to be made, then that is an ideal place for a thoughtful and inquisitive publisher to be.
A few weeks ago, I reported that it seems apparent that COVID has placed us in a time machine, a machine that accelerates whatever was happening before. If your business was in decline, that decline is now accelerated. Sadly our trade magazines have suffered under the stress and conditions of the unforgiving time machine. My heart and best wishes go to the staffs of FOLIO: and of Publishing Executive magazine.
BoSacks Speaks Out: There was a time when I was a monthly columnist for Publishing Executive magazine. Each year my editor asked me to do a tips and tricks article offering suggestions for a healthy and successful publishing career.
One of the core elements I always suggested was that knowledge is power, and industry knowledge is employment power. If you can speak knowledgeably of the entire media process, you are a more desirable candidate for the job you have or, perhaps even more importantly, the job you want to have. Understanding what the other departments do is of vital importance. Inter-departmental communication and knowledge facilitate the teamwork of successful and efficient organizations.
On November 1, 2001 in that year’s Tips and Tricks article I fleshed out in some detail the following list.
1. Excellence matters, but not as you might expect.
2. Marketing yourself is part of your career goal.
3. Staying current is not nearly enough.
4. Be positive.
5. Network, network, network.
6. Have a plan.
7. You have a career, not a job.
What strikes me today is number 5 on that list. I wrote the following almost twenty years ago.
Network, network, network.
“People usually think about networking when they start looking for a new job, but in reality, it is your responsibility to your career to network every day. Networking is the correct path to a base of industry knowledge that is invaluable. You will make important friends, become knowledgeable about what is happening in other companies throughout the industry and just as important as everything else, you will become visible rather than anonymous.”
That was twenty years ago, I bring this up today, realizing that networking may be hard or near to impossible for an extended period of time due to COVID 19 and the increasing use of zoom meetings. If forecasters are correct, those industries that can now work mostly from home will continue to work from home. That puts a strain on making new industry friends and makes it harder to share industrial knowledge.
Additionally, in-person meetings and in-person conferences may, in large part, be a thing of the past. If that is so, it strikes a dagger in the ability to network. The loss of networking is a loss to both the industry and our careers. There is no technical replacement for the power of the schmooze. And that is a loss not only to each individual but to the totality of the industry. Cross-pollination of ideas happens when people schmooze and make new career friends.
Perhaps my personal vintage makes the loss of the ability to network seem a more significant loss than to some other generations, but at this point, I think those that have experienced the in-person meetings and association conferences will miss them dearly. Careers have been made by meeting the right person at the right time, mine included.
Another thing I wonder about, admittedly tangential to this conversation, is without in-person meetings how will specific aspects of our business be transacted. Will buying printing and negotiating with new vendors become a virtual process? Will visiting a printing plant before signing a printing contract become a zoom process? Perhaps it will. I could make a case that it would save modest amounts of money and, in some respects, could be more efficient. But I will stand on the principle that seeing a plant and its operations run is the only way for an accurate professional evaluation.
We will see many changes in the near and far future due to the pandemic effect on humans and on businesses. It is a cliché by now, but there will be a new normal and by extension perhaps a new way to effectively network and, more importantly, to schmooze.
Re: As print is being demonized, it's time to pull together Believe print is dead or not there are significant numbers of good people in your community who support their families, buy products from the local stores and pay their taxes by being in the print industry. As a retired printer I have for years supported the industry by taking subscriptions on print products of interest and I almost never pass a kiosk at the grocery story without picking up a copy of a magazine that is being distributed there. I always take a careful look at the "free copy" even if it is to critique the piece on its print quality. I still often find an article that is interesting and informative, and support the publisher and printer in doing so. It's easy... just do it!! (Submitted by a Retired magazine printer) FOR THE COMPLETE ARTICLE CLICK HERE
Jim Bilton: Our UK supply chain comes in for a lot of criticism because it's perceived to be a messy fudge that nobody really controls it. There is an old adage - there's half a link to many in our supply chain - but it's knowing which bit to take out. But that fudge has created a funny stability. We are midway between France and Germany who have really structured supply chains, where publishers have a legal right to distribute. And the Wild West of America, where you flipped and you flipped on your wholesale structure, your retail terms and pay-on-scan all at the same time and handed over control to the retailer. So, why have UK publishers been so scared of SBT? Is it because of the USA. Your complete package of absolute madenss all came together at once. So, what the UK has been trying to do is to find non EPOS based ways to reduce shrink and to try and streamline in-store processes in a more collaborative way. But we've got the added complication of newspapers and magazines going through the same chain. And they've got totally different dynamics.
One of the issues - because absolutely everything is on the table now during the pandemic - one of the big issues is whether to unstitch newspapers and magazines. Again, we're different in the UK. We have a very strong national newspaper market which is obviously based on 7 day a week deliveries – magazines are 6 days per week. So, there are things we can do in the UK, like daily sales based replenishment of magazines, which we can do because magazines piggyback on the national newspapers. Which the national newspapers hate!
The national newspapers are a fairly aggressive bunch in everything that they do - editorially, circulation wise, everything. And they've got a different system in two ways. Firstly, they negotiate terms direct with retail. Secondly, they are on a per copy handling fee, not on a percentage of cover price. They made that flick years ago. Magazine publishers are still on a percentage of cover price and they hide behind wholesale. So whenever retail comes and says we want to move off of 25 percent, magazines say that’s nothing to do with us. It's those nasty wholesalers who set terms. You've got to negotiate with them.
So, you've got two products that are completely different in their pulse rates. National newspapers clearly just go straight in, straight out, whereas magazines are about copy allocation, about storage, about ring-fencing copy for sales based replenishment and so on. Yet the fear is that if you pull the two apart, they'll be a massive explosion. And there are economies of scale of both going through the same network, So one of the Plan B's - or perhaps it's Plan C! - for the national newspapers, is that they deliver direct from their regional print sites to retail, and in some locations, direct to the consumer.
Sherin Pierce: They come right from the printer?
Jim Bilton: That’s one possible model for the future.
Sherin Pierce: Magazines still come through the wholesaler then?
Jim Bilton: Currently yes. Both newspapers and magazines currently go through the same wholesale network. There are a number of hub-and-spoke houses so there are smaller magazine-only houses and there are big hubs that handle newspapers. So, it's a funny mix. News UK has always been the most disruptive newspaper publisher and they do direct-to-retail through their own operation in London, at a loss everybody assumes. But if News UK got together with one of the other big newspaper groups and they shared their print sites around the country - that's one of their options, to pack, label and deliver straight from a satellite printer direct into retail.
Joe Berger: Who owns the magazine wholesale companies in the U.K.? Does it have anything to do with the magazine publishers or retailers or just independent companies?
Jim Bilton: They’re independent companies. And there are only two companies left – Smiths and Menzies. Which has pros and cons in all sorts of ways. Being a wholesaler is not a growth business that you’d mortgage your house to get into. So, there has been some talk about publishers buying out or supporting the two wholesalers in order to preserve a robust route to market.
Samir Husni: Aren’t the U.K. newspapers, the national ones, becoming more like magazines in terms of their style, their coverage, their writing and the analysis? It feels like whenever I get my hands on a copy, I am reading a magazine rather than something that tells me what happened yesterday. I always give the example of the UK newspapers as how the future of newspapers should be. It's more like a magazine on a daily or weekly basis.
Jim Bilton: There is a view that weekly is the ideal print frequency. Sunday was always our big weekly read day. Yet Saturday has become the new Sunday. Sunday, which had all the big supplements, has now shifted to Saturday. And Saturday is a stronger day of sales than Sunday. So, all the big supplements and big reads come out over the weekend. And if you look at the individual days during the week, there are some really weak days. Interestingly, the Financial Times is one newspaper that has some very high peaks and troughs in sales during the week. You wonder whether it could go digital-only on, say, two days a week, which some of the American regionals have done?
Samir Husni: Not a single newspaper that has kept its frequency is doing good. People are in that habit, they don't want to think about it. Do I have a paper today or not? Especially if they were used to a daily paper. But my other question is what's happening with Condé Nast and all the other media companies? I see it was the Me Too movement this year, then Black Lives Matter after Covid. Any of that taking place in the U.K. or are we the only ones?
Jim Bilton: Yes. These are big issues in the UK too. Perhaps not as extreme as in the USA. Remember that we are very British and tend not to go around shooting people too much. So, these are big issues. But to be honest, for media companies the really big issue is working from home. That's the massive change for publishing companies in where and how they operate. Lots of people do not want to go back to working in an office every day. Particularly in a big city like London. The reality is how do I get into the office? Where am I going to sit when I get there? Will I have to queue for the toilets? Are they going to be gender-specific toilets or not? It’s these practical pragmatic issues that are on people’s minds at the moment. CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE
BoSacks Speaks Out: Two weeks ago our Publishing Pandamic Roundtabe of Joe Berger, Samir Husni, Bo Sacks, Gemma Peckham, and Sherin Pierce was joined by Jim Bilton. Jim Bilton is the Managing Director of Wessenden Marketing. Jim’s knowledge of the UK and the European media supply chain is amazingly complete and thorough. This is admittingly a long but interesting and worthwhile conversation that I have broken up into two parts. Jim puts together a comprehensive monthly newsletter about the media supply chain with analysis of ongoing trends and observations. He has offered our readers a free issue, and I suggest you get one to see what is happening in the UK. I assure you you will walk away better informed with useful information you can use here domestically in the US. Just drop Jim a line at email@example.com.
Bo Sacks: Jim, did I read correctly in your last newsletter that the Travel sector was down 91 percent?
Jim Bilton: Actually it is 97 percent. WHSmith's Travel division only kept shops open at hospitals. Everything else worldwide, they closed down. They're beginning to open back up again and their High Street operation is also starting to come back. The health of WHSmith is a big deal for UK publishers – they account for around 14% of total magazine sales. But their whole business model has been turned upside down by the pandemic. A year ago, they were being praised for their smart strategy – investing in Travel, which has included some big acquisitions in the USA, and squeezing costs out of their declining High Street operation. Now everything has flipped. The High Street is the main way of keeping cash flowing through the business until Travel can come back on stream. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Joe Berger: Is this an example? This also showed up on my LinkedIn feed today. Weirdly enough, Hudson Retail just opened up two new stands in LaGuardia at Terminal B. I would guess, seeing as how there's nobody around, it's pretty easy for them to do all the work. This is a store called Madison Avenue Market, and it does have a fairly good size mainline rack and a fairly good availability of paperback books. But the rest of the store, as you can see, is just full of every other kind of tchotchke in the universe. This is another look at the Madison Avenue Market. And again, notice in a traditional Hudson retail store, this area around here will be covered with magazines. That's gone. Here's the outside of the Madison Ave. Market.
Bo Sacks: So, the reason they may be there at all is that the terminal is newly opened. They may have been legally committed to be there and open rather than actually wanting to be there and open?
Joe Berger: Probably. I would imagine that's the case. So, anyway, that's life here in the States with with us Zoom neophytes and all of the weirdness with our with our wholesale system.
Jim Bilton: Have you had a hard lock down over the same kind of period that we had? It was week 13 that we started.
Sherin Pierce:Yes, I think maybe in New York it was early.
Joe Berger: You might have a week or two earlier than here in Chicago. But I believe it was that New York locked down on a weekend. And Monday morning, our governor here in Illinois said, OK, everybody, stop it.
Sherin Pierce: In New England, we locked down on March 27.
Gemma Peckham: The last day open was March 17, which I think was a Thursday. And then we took Friday off and we haven't been back since.
Jim Bilton: And in the U.K., any shop that sells newspapers is classified as an essential retailer, selling an essential service - news. Magazines have ridden on the back of that. As a result, we lost only about 10% of our retail universe at the peak of lock-down. Yet that’s just the number of outlets, irrespective of their size. A chunk of that 10% included some big multiples – the biggest being WHSmith. The nightmare scenario is that WHSmith never fully comes back on stream again.
Bo Sacks: Italy declared any place that sells publications as essential.
Joe Berger: Well, not here in the States.
The other questions that I've been finding fascinating, and I put it in our pre-meeting notes, was, we're obviously very interested in the parent company of Barnes & Noble and how things look for Waterstones. And does this company that's now invested in B&N have the financial wherewithal to bring this chain back to life and make it a better Publishing corporate citizen?
Jim Bilton: Waterstones is a actually a very small magazine stockist. It has a very limited range. Not all their stores have got magazines. So, they're a bit of an irrelevance in our magazine business. But they seem to be doing the same kind of thing as B&N, which is to self-heal the print products. They go into the storeroom. They don't go straight back on the shelf. And the Waterstones’ outlets generally are a lot smaller than B&N. So, they're not reorganizing in a fundamental way as they don’t have that much space to play with. Coming back to WHSmith, space is their issue too. In their High Street business, they’ve been squeezing more and more margin out of their shops. They shove the gondolas closer together. The gondolas go up in height. Some of their smaller shops are really horrible places to shop in - claustrophobic. All this makes socially-distanced shopping a real challenge for them.
Bo Sacks: Is that a new situation or did it exist before Covid?
Jim Bilton: Oh, no, they've been doing it for years. They've been squeezing all the time. They've been performing the absolute impossible. As their top line has gone down and down and down, they still manage to squeeze more and more profits. Their High Street trading profit margins are now well into the double digits, which is a staggering achievement! Their star category is now stationary – high margin and taking up more space in-store. Their book range is tightly edited – with a focus on best sellers and travel and juvenile. Yet it’s newspapers and magazines that they’re still known for.
They're also into electronic items - peripherals, headphones, earbuds - that they're plonking in the front of the store and they're playing around with other things too. They'll do limited ranges until they sell out. They sell umbrellas. They push chocolate in your face at the tilI. I remember a few years ago when they started down this route, one of their store managers told me that when he started, he’d joined a quality retail operation: “Now it’s turning into Woolworths” CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL ARTICLE
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