Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Digital Dawn, Advertising Born, and Forbes to the Head of the Class

The word on the street is that About.com, purchased from Primedia by the NYT in 2005 for $410 million, will be sold to Answers.com for $270 million.  Ten years ago, About.com sounded like a great idea.  Put 500 content specialists in a room to write about every special interest under the sun from cross-stitching to how to throw a knuckle ball and you surely have a winner.  About’s entre into content farming might have seemed like a good idea until Google’s algorithm change hurt site traffic.  The company’s business model was also hurt by declining revenues from cost-per-click and display advertising, a trend not unique to this business.

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes astutely describes About.com as a company “caught between its past and its future.”  I recall at a luncheon, right before the NYT acquisition, a Primedia executive talking about the endless business prospects in the content verticals.  As someone who has cut his teeth in the verticals, I thought he was absolutely right.  The verticals would survive any digital onslaught.

Recently the NYT’s David Carr, addressing the recent dismal news from the Audit Bureau of Circulation about the almost 10% drop in newsstand magazine sales, refers to this downturn as “existential.” “Magazines, all kinds of them, don’t work very well in the marketplace anymore.”  Even Cat Fancy is down 23%!

Magazine publishers have experienced all sorts of “digital dawns” during the last fifteen years, from the dot com fantasy, to the browser wars, to the tablet age and have muddled through reasonably well, thanks in part to the power of the magazine brands.  During my stay at MPA, we struggled with the definition of a magazine that always seemed to begin with the phrase: “a magazine is branded, edited content,” as if that would be a defensible last line of defense.  But what if other reputable brands entered the content business with reputable offerings that found particular favor in social media?

It’s a natural, and perhaps inevitable, psychological bias that we view business opportunities through an existing lens.  Magazine publishers have almost necessarily been caught between its digital past/present and the future, forever enshrined in the phrase, “exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes.”  This doesn’t mean that publishers have not made huge advances in the digital arena.  It’s that the disruptions we have faced to date might pale in comparison to what is around the corner.  That is the gist of a recent article by Lewis D’Vorkin at Forbes.com: “The advertising trend that will shake up 100 years of journalism.”

According to D’Vorkin, this trend is a product of the marriage of social media and content marketing.  He defines the latter as “brands using the tools of digital media and social sharing to behave like original content publishers.  They want to break out of the silos (full and partial-page display ads, 30-second spots and Web banners) that both traditional and new media forced them into.  The idea that a company—as a brand and a marketer–can be an expert content creator and reach an audience by disintermediating reporters is confusing, threatening and scary to an entire profession that had its way for a century.”

Forbes has entered this brave new world with a product called AdVoice, “a fully transparent way for marketers to publish and curate content on Forbes.com and in our magazine.”  SAP, Microsoft, Dell, Merrill Lynch and others have published on this digital platform; Toyota, Northwestern Mutual and United Airlines have done so in print.  D’Vorkin notes that Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and Gawker have offered content marketing opportunities.  Of course, social marketing campaigns are at the heart of the Facebook business proposition.

This seems to represent a fundamental shift in the Forbes business eco-system; and not just another platform chasing available advertising.  At the heart of this enterprise is the belief “that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda.”  According to D’Vorkin, these include the voices of the Forbes brand, the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer.  “In the digital era, each can produce content at will in an effort to be heard.  That leads to a corollary principle: content is content, and transparency makes it possible for many different credible sources to provide useful information.”  Go to the Forbes home page to see how this delineation plays out.

Congratulations to Forbes for an enlightened content strategy that gets us out of the church/state cul-de-sac and into our new world order.  This is a conversation well-worth having.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Greek Cautions, In Vogue, and Out of Fashion

I’ve been reading around in Greek literature for a psychology class.  I keep bumping into works that seems to still resonate in our language and culture, and not only during the Olympic season:  Hubris, Nemesis, and Hamartia.  All have currency in our language except hamartia, which means falling short.  In his Poetics, Aristotle defined hamartia as a “fatal flaw” brought about by ignorance or a mistake.  I don’t think the eight badminton players booted out of the Olympics for cheating can hide behind the idea of hamartia, perhaps because hundreds of millions of people worldwide were watching their comic and slow-motion antics in real time.  At this time, their motivations seem closer to mendacity.

It would be tempting to transition now to the story of the New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who admitted to fabricating quotes for Imagine, a book about Bob Dylan, but Aristotle would probably not approve of a predictable commentary, already abundant on the web.  Most writers and editors have fallen short at one time or the other.  I did when I was a new and young editor of Bicycling magazine.  By virtue of an advertising and promotion deal with Olympic sponsor, the Southland Corporation/7-Eleven stores, Bicycling had a closer relationship with the 1984 Los Angeles Games than would usually be the case.  It was a very good event for cycling as Americans won nine medals.  This narrative was later tarnished when we learned that some cycling team members had “blood doped” to increase red cell counts.  It was Sports Illustrated, the Rolling Stone, and others that made this story public.  Bicycling was too cozy with the sponsor, the cycling federation, and the good news Olympics.  My editor, who was at the Games, was slow to bring this to my attention and I was slow to act on editorial and management issues.  I fell short of the mark.

Like most Americans, I have followed the Penn State scandal with horror and sadness.  I learned the other day that the football stadium in Happy Valley seats more than 106,000 fans or around three times the population of State College, where the university is located.  It is now easy to see this as a massively grotesque and symbolic overhang, representing the collective Football Hubris that was in plain sight.  But that was not my opinion on numerous trips to State College to visit family and friends and work on projects with PSU professors.  I bought into the official narrative.

Jack McCallum is one of my favorite Sports Illustrated writers.  McCallum wrote a piece about Coach Jerry Sandusky after his curtain call as coach before a game against Michigan State, November 13, 1999.  He would then move on to the Second Mile charity.  McCallum wrote: “If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be temptations around Happy Valley to canonize him. Saint Sandusky, leader of linebackers, molder of men.”

In fairness to McCallum, he was quick to write on November 8, 2011, after the scandal broke: “Jerry Sandusky fooled a lot of people over the years-including me.”  He recalled that Sandusky didn’t seem at all joyful about what he was doing.   Penn State might have been on the moon.  It was a “perfect place for a predator like Sandusky.”  The author was not the only one to feel like a “jerk” after the truth came to light.

Everyone associated with this scandal seems to have fallen short in one way or another.  McCallum’s narrative is actually far less extravagant than some of the pieces coming out of the Philadelphia newspapers at the time, though it’s clear that the mention of sainthood sticks in the writer’s craw.

As writers we live in a hyperbolic world and are tempted, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, to draw large and startling figures, an observation she offered with her usual pinch of irony.  I’ve read with interest and sadness the saga about the Vogue article by Joan Juliet Buck published in March, 2011, about Asma al-Assad, wife of the President of Syria.  The Daily Beast and Newsweek have done a masterful job on this story.

This would not have been such a big story if the Arab Spring and government retributions had not begun in early 2011.  The public response was withering.  Vogue pulled the story, entitled “A Rose in the Desert,” from its web site, fired Buck and offered an apology.

Mrs. Assad probably would not have been the subject of the Vogue “Power Issue” if she wasn’t very attractive, born and educated in England, and according to French Elle in 2009, one of the best-dressed women in the world.   Paris Match suggested she was an “element of light in a country full of shadowy zones.”  The PR firm behind the Vogue story said that the President “speaks English and his wife is hot.”  She was ripe for celebrity treatment.

Author Buck claims that Mrs. Assad duped her, presumably expecting the focus of the interview to be more about Syrian culture, antiquities and museums than politics.  Joan Buck does note in her article some of the darkness of the regime, such as a prison on wheels, but the article overall suggests, in Tina Brown’s words, that the author drank “the Vogue Kool-Aid.”  In my time at Hachette, then publisher of Elle, I had an occasional whiff of that wine. 

James Hillman, one the most interesting psychologists and philosophers of the last fifty years, published an essay, “Aphrodite’s Justice,” shortly before his death in 2011, about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  In his view, we cannot separate beauty from morality, “since beauty works as a calling to better things, pulling at the heart to love, to the mind to imagine more vividly.”

Aphrodite is not only just another pretty face.  Nemesis is part of her constellation and stands ready with a kind of righteous anger, to return order to the cosmos.