Kirk Cheyfitz: The Decade of Living Stupidly

For traditional news media barons, the first decade of the century was ten years of living stupidly. Will they get smarter in the new decade? If, as Will Shakespeare once wrote, the past is prologue, then the media moguls haven't got a prayer. They've been entirely too busy claiming the internet and its content aggregators are putting them out of business, when it is themselves, not their stars, that are the problem.

Watching the media moguls stuck in the past reminds me of Will Rogers' timeless observation, ""If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can't it get us out?" An answer to that question arrives in a perceptive new paper by two veterans of the how-will-journalism-survive debates--Penny Muse Abernathy, a Chapel Hill newspaper and new media expert, and Richard Foster, a Yale management expert. They have three pieces of advice for media barons in general and newspaper moguls specifically:

  1. Shed "legacy costs," which are mostly the costs of paper, printing and trucking (not, it's important to note, the costs of news gathering);
  2. Re-invent the definition of advertising to fit the opportunities created by the web (and the innovation demanded by it); and
  3. Support and serve niche, online communities as a way of re-establishing barriers to competition and, thus, regaining some control over the pricing of ads and, maybe one day, specialized content.

The call to incorporate so-called "social media" as a critical component of news delivery is the newest and most powerful idea in the paper. (It is a not very well appreciated fact that big newsrooms and news cooperatives like the Associated Press are unique in understanding how to handle large-scale social media because they alone have perfected the ability to receive, aggregate, re-write, customize and re-publish thousands of stories daily.)

But while nothing advanced by Abernathy and Foster is exactly brand new, all of it shares the distinction of having been completely and consistently ignored by old media managers. In "The News Landscape in 2014: Transformed or Diminished," Abernathy and Foster present old media's path to survival more coherently than anyone before them and they throw in some interesting calculations on the stock performance of big media versus the S&P 500.

They point out pointedly that their advice "is not for the fainthearted or lazy news executive." The pair add, "But, in contrast to the inaction or failed acquisition and growth strategies many media companies pursued over the last decade, it actually attacks the root of the problem and holds the promise of transformation and eventual survival in the 21st century."

Inaction, actually, would have been vastly preferable to what the media barons were cooking up for themselves as the decade ended.

Offering a leading example of how not to succeed in 21st century media, Si Newhouse shut down several Conde Nast titles, including Gourmet magazine. At its death, Gourmet had a community of 978,000 subscribers and a total audience (including pass-along) of more than 6 million, according to the publisher. In killing Gourmet, Newhouse confirmed his total ignorance of the web and the profit potential of niche communities, especially one made up of millions of upscale cooking fanatics.

Even murkier and harder to fathom were the constantly proliferating pay-for-online-content schemes getting proposed. Hearst, Meredith, Conde Nast, Time and News Corp. spent last fall talking about an "online newsstand" that would help them "control" the distribution of their content on the web. But the launch date keeps moving back. Meanwhile, some big advertisers responded with laughter after hearing Cathie Black's evangelical briefings on Hearst's plans for a "digital magazine," according to one major brand's online marketing chief who heard the pitch.

Most recently, Rupert Murdoch has been harumphing mightily about forcing people to pay for access to his Wall St. Journal site and "threatening" to wall off his newspapers' content from Google so it can't be found for free. Note to Rupert: Researching this piece, I got a link to a story about the troubles of Reed Business Information. Since WSJ wanted me to pay for the story, I quickly found another one on The Economist site. It was one of dozens of free reports available to me. That's the way the web works, Rupert. Big garden; no walls.

This stuff would be entertaining were it not that failed experiment after ham-handed attempt have shown and the most recent definitive survey by Forrester research has confirmed that some 80% of readers simply will NOT pay for online news. Yet the moguls keep trying to fix what ain't broken (readers, subscribers and subscription revenue) while continuing to ignore what is (ad revenue and serving niche communities of readers).

The moguls pine for the good old days, when geographic monopolies and huge barriers to entry (like the multi-million-dollar cost of a printing plant) kept them warm and preserved their 20% operating margins and huge enterprise values. They hang on doggedly, stupidly, even though the path to success on the web is becoming clearer and clearer, as Abernathy and Foster document.

Fact: We need news to thrive. We won't get there depending on stupidity to get us out of the mess it's gotten us into. So let's hope this is the decade when news barons come to recognize the new realities of the marketplace instead of just wishing things were different; when media companies organize and support special interest communities, becoming invaluable to the audience by serving up customized news and empowering community members to be citizen reporters; when moguls get paid for creating non-traditional advertising that's composed of news and entertainment as interesting and valuable to the readers as the news itself.

As we've seen in the decade just past, the hardest part of creating a well funded future for news is letting go of the past. After that, life will be easier. Promise.

WebMediaBrands Buys Social Media Trade Show Firm 3rd Power

Alan Meckler, WebMediaBrands

Making its second purchase in a month, WebMediaBrands (NSDQ: WEBM) has picked up social media trade show company 3rd Power LLC, which is best known for putting on shows like the Virtual Goods Summit and Social Gaming Summit. CEO Alan Meckler tells MediaBistro (which is owned by WebMediaBrands) that his company will expand 3rd Power’s shows both in the United States and in Europe this year.

The purchase follows WebMediaBrands’ acquisition of social media blog publisher Social Times in early December. At the time, Meckler told us that he expected to close one more purchase before the end of the year—and he just barely made his deadline; the purchase was announced via MediaBistro on Dec. 31.

Social Times puts on a social media trade show of its own—the Social Ad Summit—so there will presumably be some room for synergies there.

Financial terms were not disclosed, although MediaBistro says WebMedia is buying the company from Charles Hudson, who is a VP at social games developer Serious Business. Hudson is staying on as a consultant.

WebMediaBrands has been in acquisition mode ever since it sold its unit to online marketing firm QuinStreet for $18 million in August.


12-Year-Old Girl Curses, Kills In Kick-Ass Film Trailer

The newest trailer for the upcoming comic book adaptation “Kick-Ass” is getting a lot of attention on Twitter today, thanks to tweets and re-tweets by the likes of Rob Corddry, Jake Tapper, and TV’s Andy Levy. The R-rated trailer features copious violence and profanity, but the clip’s heat is generated by the source of the mayhem: 12-yr-old vigilante Hit Girl.

Is this a post-ironic hoot, or the end of western civilization as we know it? You tell me.

Here’s the (extremely NSFW) trailer:

Corddry notes:

Since I tweeted this, TONS of responses about the cursing, NONE about the violence. Way to be consistent America.

The trailer certainly achieves the intended effect, turning neutered kiddie movie cliche┬┤s into bloody piles of goo, and it’s certain to get a lot of attention. It sure got mine.

From a political standpoint, this trailer is a bit of a contradiction. While conservatives aren’t likely to appreciate the profanity, they’ll surely agree that if all 12-year-olds carried handguns, there would be little or no wedgie-ing. Liberals might appreciate the puncturing of gender roles, but be dismayed at the lack of safety equipment.

Personally, this trailer just made me feel hopelessly out of the loop. I actually had to use the Google to find out what a “Red Band Trailer” is. (It’s a trailer that can only be viewed by people who claim to be 17 or older.)

The film itself sounds, um, kick-ass. The hero is a regular high school kid who decides to become a superhero, despite having no powers, just because. It’s a funny premise, and if the trailers are any indication, the action is first-rate.

While Hit Girl takes the conceit to 11, the idea of bad-ass kids is not a new thing to cinema, although Hollywood narrative tradition usually requires some kind of mitigation. In “Taxi Driver,” Jodi Foster’s pre-adolescent prostitute Iris is “rescued” and returned to proper living. In “Robocop 2,” malevolent drug-dealing waif Hob goes all vulnerable in his death scene.

One possible exception is Natalie Portman’s Mathilda character from “Leon: The Professional,” who ends up in a safe place, but who doesn’t really shed her relish for vengeance.

Will scenes like those in this trailer lead to pickets and boycotts? In a world where there’s no such thing as bad publicity, that’ll be a win-win for a film like this. Perhaps those who think this movie will be a bad influence on their kids should teach their kids not to sneak into R-rated movies.

Update: Chloe Moretz, The actress who plays Hit Girl, is 12, but according to the character’s Facebook page, Hit Girl herself is only 11.

Trish Kinney: Sex Is a Big Winner on Arianna’s List, 2009: The Things I Want to Forget

Arianna's List, 2009: The Things I Want to Forget makes us shudder at the most embarrassing moments of 2009. Before you forget, hopefully you won't mind taking a closer look at the 31% of her list that had something to do with sex. That's 22 of the 71 items.

While the list doesn't seem to be in any particular order, right out of the shoot, items 5-9 lament that we know as much as we do about the sex life of four men (a TV personality, a sports superstar, and two politicians) and a female body part of a superstar reproducer. Arianna is definitely right. Let's just forget items 5-9.

Bristol Palin, a winner as abstinence ambassador, item 12, is the only one who also has a parent on the list. Her mom, Sarah, made it for a speech and a book tour and for being herself, but there was also that feud with David Letterman (a winner at number 5 on the list himself, see TV personality above) over a joke about her daughter getting knocked up at a baseball game that Sarah turned into the rape of a minor issue when it turned out that Bristol was the butt of the joke when it was really her younger sister, the minor, who attended the game. This truly detracted from Bristol's role as abstinence ambassador after she became a teen mother out of wedlock. Once again, Arianna is right. Let's just forget all items related to anyone named Palin.

Item 24 has to do with the inadequate circumference and length of Bernie Madoff's male organ. Even I couldn't have imagined that one of the biggest financial rip-off schemes in history would ultimately come down to sex. We could get into whether his crime and his alleged sexual shortcomings are related, but let's follow Arianna's lead and just forget it.

Item 27, about John Edwards promising his lover a "post-Elizabeth" rooftop wedding starring Dave Matthews, seems about as emotionally cruel as sex can get. This one is harder to forget, but I'm with Arianna. We should make every effort.

Item 32, Ryan O'Neal hitting on daughter Tatum at Farrah's funeral, is a stunner that is astonishing for not only what it is but that we know about it because Ryan told us. Thanks, Arianna, for reminding us to forget this one. Hopefully Ryan won't and will go straight to his therapist before he gives any more candid interviews.

Item 36 is Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, a reality show about sex addiction. Forget, forget, forget.

Moving on to Part Two of the list, some would argue that Item 1, "Tom DeLay's rump-shaking to 'Wild Thing' on Dancing With the Stars," does not fit into the sex category. But that's just because we really, really don't want to think of him that way. But he wants us to. And that is exactly why we will follow Arianna's advice and forget we ever saw it, or for those who didn't, that you ever even heard about it.

Item 6 winners are a list of the women who came forward, reluctantly enthusiastically, to claim their allegedly rightful place in the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Each had a little something different to offer but there's a good reason these women are on Arianna's list. Forget times 11.

I wasn't familiar with Item 16, another reality show winner, Jersey Shore, but all I had to do was Google it to quickly discover that it belongs on the sex list. Never mind the controversy over whether "guido" is a derogatory term. This show made the list because one cast member nicknamed his abs, another had his penis pierced, and JWOWW announces when her "tits are coming out." After airing a promo of a cast member, Snooki, getting clobbered by a drunk in a bar, MTV backed off and sloppily blacked out the actual punch when the episode aired, only adding to its already phenomenal internet coverage where Snooki can be seen taking the punch over and over again in slow motion. As fast as is humanly possible, FORGET.

Adam Lambert is a double winner in Item 21 because he was beat by mild mannered Kris on American Idol but also for his performance at the AMA's. An incredible talent, it seems that Adam cannot resist using his fast-tracked, well-earned fame from the show to school the world on the joys of gay sex. In this case, let's forget that performance, try to remember how amazing he was on American Idol and hope that he realizes that his best chance to create awareness is to be great at what he does and not go for the cheap shot right out of the gate.

Heidi Montag has the special distinction of winning items 30 and 31 back to back. If ever there was a good thing to forget, it would be for Heidi's performance of "Body Language," Arianna's nominee for one of the worst records of the year, at the Miss Universe pageant. Stunningly amateurish and pathetic, at least Heidi could have found a decent costumer. And choreographer. And record producer. And as for Heidi as an author, well, that simply cannot be processed for this blog or otherwise. In fact, it seems almost dangerous for us to be reminded to forget Heidi Montag. Most likely, we already had.

And now for my own list of Arianna's winners that despite making the list of things she wants to forget, I hope we don't.

Miley Cyrus, pole dancer. At the Teen Choice Awards, Miley Cyrus took a big step towards changing her image from Disney star Hannah Montana to just another young, scantily clad music star. In a clumsy performance of an awful song, Miley was hauled around on an ice cream cart that inexplicably had a pole sticking straight up out of it. She made a half-hearted attempt at pole dancing but her obvious youth and inexperience made it downright creepy. Remember those controversial photographs of Miley and her father in Vanity Fair? Those were creepy, too. Miley's behavior and the message it sends to young girls is disturbing enough, but her parents' message to other parents is even more disturbing. So if you ever wonder just how these things evolve, how we got where we are today, have a look back at Miley in 2009. And please, don't forget it. We can't afford to.

James Inhofe calling Al Franken the "clown from Minnesota." We have that clown to thank for the Franken Amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that stood up for rape victims working for defense contractors who were unable to take advantage of their rights under the legal system due to fine print in their employment contracts. Let's not forget what Al Franken did by putting the power behind the victim rather than the powerful.

The Jaycee Lee Dugard story of kidnapping, years of imprisonment and sexual slavery is hard to hear. And the missed opportunities to rescue her even harder. If we forget that, we might not remember to learn our lessons for the next time because there will be a next time, and a next and a next. And who can forget how gracefully Jaycee handled herself, refusing to cash in on her story with the media, and instead privately walking straight into the arms of her loving family to heal.

And finally two stories that I blogged about in 2009. Rihanna was humiliated when she became a victim of domestic violence and even more humiliated by the public viewing of the photograph of her bruised and battered face. It is not as easy as it looks to break up with your abuser immediately following such an event. It was appropriate for Ellen and Oprah to encourage her to exit the relationship but it was not inappropriate for Rihanna to do what so many abuse victims do at first. They want to believe that their abuser isn't that person, they want to believe they are loved, they want to believe that it was an isolated incident and they want to prove to themselves that they are right. It takes a while to figure out they aren't. Rihanna did that faster than most and gave a smart and empowering interview to Diane Sawyer that probably positively impacted millions of young women going through the same thing privately. I hope we won't forget that. Such moments are very hard to come by.

The story of the incestuous relationship between Mackenzie Phillips and her father could probably win a prize for the story we most wish hadn't broken in 2009. The harsh reality is that literally millions of women and children in this country, let alone the world, have been sexually abused by their fathers. They don't choose to be defined by that experience, but without question it defines who they become. They are forgotten, lost in the secret and confusing world of incest. As unpleasant as the story was, as inappropriately as I believe Oprah handled the interview, and as forgotten as it now is, I hope we will never forget that fathers indeed have sex with their daughters and as a society, it is high time we admit it, face it, and deal with it. Mackenzie did not make a good role model but it was her story and she had a right to tell it. When we say we want to forget it, we are saying to millions of women that we don't acknowledge their enormous pain and isolation. Telling is an important component of healing, but listening when told is even more important.

Happy New Year, everyone. May there be fewer sex stories we want to forget in 2010.