When does a media property cease being informative and relevant? When it becomes an amalgam of clever native advertising and calculated content designed to keep young nonreaders reading.
We talked recently with a couple of gentlemen who once figured prominently at the New York Times but whose positions were eliminated. They weren't really bitter; mildly ironic would be the best way of describing their demeanor as they told in vivid detail of a tense newsroom, with every employee wary of that tap on the shoulder that signals instant redundancy.
We reminded them of an old saying in the cable industry — “don't take anything away from the viewer” — which stood the industry in good stead as it grew. For decades, cable just kept adding to its value proposition, and its penetration rates kept improving. That motto is being breached every day in mainstream media now, but particularly in print, where the infamous Chinese torture, the death of a thousand cuts, is being systematically applied.
One has only to look at the Times to see this as rigorously relevant. Section after section, from Automobiles to the Home section, have been dropped or cut back. The Real Estate section is a shadow of its former self, even in a robust market. You could shave with the Times Magazine, as a publisher friend used to quip, referring to its razor-sharp thinness. And the main news section, once fat with department store and auto ads, languishes. Meanwhile, Dean Baquet, the top editor, plans a round of new buyouts, and the newsroom lives in fear.
You could ask, “Who cares?” The Times does matter, though. And this downward spiral is set amidst an array of programmatic and native advertising innovations at the Times (and other media) guaranteed to make it bland and indistinguishable from other media working the same avenues.
Case in point: the Times’ use of mobile-targeted “Flex Frames,” in collaboration with DoubleClick, for native advertising they call Mobile Moments. We can imagine the meetings going on at the Times as they ponder clever slideshows distributed by Taboola and Revcontent that attract huge audiences, while their own sad stories about Kosovo Muslims go unread. How to get anybody younger than 80 to read the Times? What about native advertising disguised as content? Ah hah!
Mobile Moments is a typical construct of the scary ad environment for newspapers today. Since no young mobile user is going to plow through endless black-and-white columns of type, much less ever visit the Times’ home page, a solution like this is inevitable.
Launched last year, it is a “suite” of daypart-themed “natively styled ads” that the editorial department worked on. (This in itself is interesting in that in the old days, marketing and editorial were kept strictly separate.) It looks just like “content” but, as DoubleClick puts it, “the goal was to extend innovative storytelling and beautiful user experiences to ads across all of their content platforms. … Flex Frames was a hit with users and advertisers alike: CTRs were up 4-5X compared to regular 300x250 in-line units, and advertisers jumped at the chance to take advantage of new in-line video inventory.”
The Times worked with DoubleClick to target Mobile Moments
more selectively. More than 200 publishers are working with DoubleClick on similar efforts worldwide.
Michael Zimbalist, SVP of advertising products and research and development at the Times, put it this way in a 2015 piece at NiemanLab.org: “Today, we offer advertisers the ability to tell stories with the same depth and breadth of our news report.”
Put another way, how about ad stories that are indistinguishable from the news report? Advertisers always wanted seamless advertorials, and now they've got it.
Why am I cynical about such things? A few years ago, I taught a journalism course at a major New York area university. I was shocked to enter the expansive library to find virtually no books of any kind, just terminals. I asked my class, about 25 grad students, if any of them subscribed to a daily newspaper. No hands went up, despite the fact that three of them worked at dailies.
This was revelatory. I realized then that no amount of clever native advertising, or ads disguised as nice slide shows, were going to alter this landscape. Young people are not going to acquire a newspaper habit, online or in print. They get their news now from mobile-based social media. To the extent that they are aware of entities such as the Times at all, it’s from whatever sponsored content from the paper ends up on Snapchat or Facebook.
‘20 Stars Who Have Lost Their Looks’ Wins
You can call this sad, but it's inevitable. By aping ad/content platforms like Revcontent or Taboola, the Times just hastens its decline because it will never lower itself to create “22 Stars Likely To Die In 2016” and that’s what people are reading today. At a recent dinner party in Westport, Conn., where “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” lived, the question was put: “How many of you read those naughty slideshows like ‘20 Stars Who Have Lost Their Looks’?” Everybody, all upscale yup types, admitted they did. And they remembered the highlights, unlike that 5,000-word story on the conflicts of the Bosnian Serbs.
The more entities like the Times try to emulate the zip of social media, the more irrelevant they become. It's like going to war with a Lamborghini against a tank. We think that “solutions” like Mobile Moments attract more traffic than much of the rest of the mobile-formatted paper, and that will encourage more “solutions” like it, which will render the Times even less like the newspaper it once was.
Once you dumb down something to the point of absurdity, what's left? After a while, not only does nobody click on “Ethnic Strife Mars The Calm In Tirana, Albania,” they will have never heard of Albania in the first place. This could explain why Donald Trump is surging, but that's another story.