EU publishers sign deal with Google, but are they focusing on the right enemy?

According to a number of sources — including the Guardian, as well as journalism professor Jeff Jarvis and Capital New York columnist Ken Doctor — Google will announce tomorrow that is has formed a partnership with eight European publishers, including the Guardian, the Financial Times, El Pais and Die Zeit and is creating a 150 million Euro “innovation fund.”

It’s probably no coincidence that Google has been under fire in the EU of late, with allegations that it has distorted search results as well as a burgeoning antitrust investigation into allegedly anti-competitive practices. Many publishers have also complained for years about Google News “stealing” their content, and the partnership deal is roughly similar to other deals the search giant has cut in Belgium and France. Says the Guardian piece on the announcement:

In the new partnership with eight publishers, including the Guardian, Google is to establish a working group to focus on product development as well as providing a €150m (£107m) innovation fund over three years, alongside additional training and research. Publishers are keenest to explore the product development which Google promises will aim to “increase revenue, traffic and audience engagement”.

While publishers and media types in the EU celebrated the announcement, others said they would much rather than publishers do their own innovating instead of relying on Google to do it for them — or to pay them to do it. On top of that, I have to wonder whether the media outlets involved in this deal are cutting a deal with the wrong enemy. As social discovery overtakes search (particularly for millennials), it feels as though they should be more concerned about Facebook rather than Google.

A crowdsourced list of the top 50 cult movies

I’ve been thinking for some time now about movies I want to introduce my teenage and twenty-something daughters to — and we’ve already been through a bunch of great ones like Terminator, Blade Runner, Breakfast Club and Groundhog Day. But then I thought about some of the great lesser-known cult movies, the weird or bizarre or campy ones that I remember from my youth.

So I asked my Twitter followers about their favorite cult films, and got some great responses (I also triggered a kind of Twitter war over whether quoting people’s tweets using the new embed feature is rude and/or noisy, but I will leave that for another day). Here’s a list of the top 50 suggestions — I didn’t include every one, but they all appear in the tweets I’ve embedded below. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Buckaroo Banzai
Napoleon Dynamite
The Hunger
The Ninth Configuration
The Wicker Man
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Time Bandits
Evil Dead 2
Mad Max
Phantom of the Paradise
The Dark Crystal
Fifth Element
Twelve Monkeys
The Warriors
Big Trouble in Little China
Johnny Dangerously
Withnail and I
The Lost Boys
Tank Girl
Local Hero
Shallow Grave
Howard the Duck
Weird Science
Donnie Darko
Paris Texas
THX 1138
Doc Hollywood
Pulp Fiction
The Big Lebowski
A Boy and His Dog
Seven Samurai
Plan 9 From Outer Space
Brother From Another Planet
Escape From New York
Logan’s Run
True Romance
Ghost World
Harold and Maude
Run Lola Run
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The seven most interesting things in that huge Gawker-BuzzFeed interview

If by some bizarre twist of fate you have a life that doesn’t revolve around new-media entities like BuzzFeed and their impact on journalism and advertising and content in general, then this probably won’t interest you. But for anyone who does pay attention to such things, the idea of an interview between Gawker and BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith and founder Jonah Peretti about the site’s deletion of posts involving advertisers is like a candle flame to a moth — in other words, pretty irresistible.

The actual facts being referred to in the interview — that is, the posts that were deleted and BuzzFeed’s justification for why it did this, as well as editor-in-chief Ben Smith’s admission that he made a mistake — has been written about quite a bit (including a post by me). The interview post, however, is so gigantic and disjointed and rambling that I found it hard to follow, so I tried to pull some of the really interesting parts out.

The interview was triggered by the deletion of two posts, both of which were removed by Smith in what he later admitted was a breach of the site’s standards guide. Those deletions and the attention they drew in turn convinced the site to review all of the posts that had been deleted in the past. At the beginning of the interview, Peretti and Smith talk about why some earlier posts were deleted, including the hundreds that Gawker writer Keenan Trotter wrote about last year:

Jonah: This was a period where we didn’t have a deletion policy. If you were an editor and you wrote something and then you thought later, oh, this is kind of dumb and I was to delete it, you could delete the post.

Ben: And that was fine. And there’s not huge numbers of them, but there’s a fair number of those, there were posts that were dup—

Jonah: Duplicates, or errors, or text tests, or stuff like that.

Which is church and which is state?

According to BuzzFeed, the Dove post and the Monopoly post were deleted because they were “hot takes” and the site is trying to cut down on those, not because they involved an advertiser. But Smith admits that there were a couple of posts that were deleted that did cross the boundaries between editorial and advertising in an unpleasant way, both of which involved Pepsi and were written by Samir Mezrahi. And the discussion of this decision-making process is interesting. One post was a humorous take on what might be under Pharrell Williams’ hat:

Ben: It was actually a great post. There were many hilarious things under his hat, including doge. And Samir had taken the GIF of doge coming out from under Pharrell’s hat. Or, I’m not even sure if he’d seen it. But I got a complaint from the creative side that editors were taking their stuff and remixing it and not crediting their post or Pepsi. It was a confusing situation. Not—it was just a confusing situation. And I said to him, hey, we’re working, our creative team—which at this point is across the hall—is working with Pepsi on this social stuff, so don’t take their stuff, don’t use it in an editorial context. Church and state.

Jonah: One of the concerns is the impression that an editor was posting positive things about a brand because they were an advertiser. And that’s something I think, you know, as we grow, I don’t have much experience with church and state stuff. But as we grow, you start thinking, ok, if someone really loves pumpkin-spice lattes and they write a whole post about it and then it turns out that Starbucks is an advertiser, does that create the impression that they were influencing editorial, even though they had no idea that someone was an advertiser, and so there was—


The second post by Mezrahi was a critical one about accounts you should unfollow on Twitter, and that included Pepsi. What is most fascinating about this whole situation is that — as Smith points out — when Mezrahi posted about the soft-drink company, the Twitter account for Pepsi was actually being operated by his BuzzFeed colleagues across the hall. In other words, staffers from the advertising and marketing part of BuzzFeed, the part that operates like a digital ad agency, were in charge of the account that he was criticizing and/or praising. And this is what Smith and Peretti seemed most concerned about — that this would look bad.

Ben: It depends how you look. But when the priest wants to reach over—I’m sorry, I’m [unintelligible], block that metaphor. When church, when edit, what is our rule about edit playing in our advertising? Not in advertising in general, not around advertisers, but specifically with advertising being created across the hall by people at our company. And this is something I had never in my life considered, but seemed actually like a thing that we should absolutely not do. So we deleted the post, which at the time was what we did with posts that were inappropriate.

Keenan: What was the problem? Say more about what the problem was.

Ben: That you had an editor who was engaging specifically with things that were created—specifically with stuff that our creative team was working on, twice that week, with the same project.

Keenan: What’s wrong with that, exactly? What do you mean by “engaging”? It was clearly critical of it.

Ben: Well, no, the first one he was promoting. The second one, he was critical but—maybe the post is lost, but there was other celebratory stuff in there. He was just, like, touching it, you know? He was writing about advertising that was created by BuzzFeed that he knew, or that I believed, that was…

Ben: It’s obviously an appearance issue. It’s something that I feel really strongly about, it’s in our standards, you’ve probably seen it. There’s an exception to that, which is news. If there’s an ad on BuzzFeed, if there’s an ad—you know, if The New York Times carries an open letter, and it’s news, New York Times reporters will write about it as news. But the bar is at least as high, and probably a little higher, I think, just for—because, what are you doing? It seems really obvious to me.


The downside of having an internal ad agency

A lot of critical reaction to the interview has made BuzzFeed out to be some kind of horrible monster for having an internal ad agency that designs or crafts content for brands like Pepsi — and even in some cases runs their Twitter account during certain events — and for having a policy that supposedly prevents BuzzFeed from writing about advertisers. But that’s not really what Smith is saying at all. The policy appears to be not to write either positively or negatively about specific advertisements that either appear on BuzzFeed and/or are created by BuzzFeed’s in-house staff, because it might create the appearance of a conflict of interest:

Ben: So basically, in our standards, it says, “Please do not write positively about advertising that appears on BuzzFeed. Please do not do ad criticism about ads that appear on BuzzFeed. If it’s newsworthy that’s an exception to this rule.” That feels appropriate to me. Well, I don’t know, do you guys do that? Have you ever written about, like, this is a gorgeous banner?

Keenan: I just don’t see what the problem is with criticizing advertisements on BuzzFeed.

Ben: I don’t think in principle it is [a problem], I think anybody who doesn’t work for BuzzFeed should do it. But I don’t want our editors engaging in either criticism or, what we do much more, celebrations, of advertisements that are on BuzzFeed that are created by our creative team.

Keenan: But what is the scope of “advertisements”? Does that mean the brand, or—?

Ben: No, it does not mean the brand, it means specific campaigns, it means, they were creating content for this Twitter feed that he was talking about, that week, at the Super Bowl, where he was talking about the Super Bowl. It’s narrow. It does mean the company, it does not mean, hey there’s an ad on another site from an advertiser.

An important principle, flawed execution

DSC_5696 (Case Conflict)

What’s interesting to me about this whole debate is that BuzzFeed and Smith are arguably on the side of the angels in this one — at least in the sense of the journalistic ethics around advertising. Yes, they have an in-house ad agency that creates content, but my sense is that they want to maintain as firm a wall between advertising and editorial as possible, which is theoretically what journalistic ethicists would want them to do. And yet they are being criticized for doing so (and admittedly, the way the deletion of posts was handled was flawed, as Smith has admitted).

Ben: To me, it’s just like, you want readers to know that edit and advertising are separate things and that they don’t touch each other. And if that’s reporters, as happened twice in a week, if that is reporters promoting advertising, if that’s reporters criticizing it, no thank you. There’s an infinite number of things to write about, it just feel like, whether you celebrate it or criticize it, you just winding up blurring a line that readers are always struggling to understand in the best of times.

Ben: I think this specific question of advertising that is created by our advertising team is actually a really weird—a strange, marginal case, and a very small one, and one that I had never in my life thought about before, but that once we thought about, and I talked about with my team, we had a long conversation, internal and external, about standards. Starting with this post, we wound up thinking, that is a very strange little case, and it’s one that makes us—I would be very—here’s the real thing, I would be very uncomfortable with a post that was, this ad that I saw on BuzzFeed moved me to tears and I think it’s the most brilliant thing in the world. That would be a very strange thing, don‘t you think, or no? Do you think I should publish that?

There’s no question that having ad agency staff creating content for brands in the same building as the editorial staff writing what’s supposed to be journalism can cause problems. In at least one case, according to Smith, someone moved from creating advertising — where they worked on the Microsoft account — over to the editorial side, where they started writing about the company. The software giant complained, and Smith said at first he rejected their complaint, but then he thought more about it and decided that this shouldn’t occur. And that feels like another case where the site tried extra hard to make the division between editorial and advertising even clearer.

Jonah: He was working on their business, doing work for Microsoft, and then switched to edit and started…

Ben: And started writing about Microsoft. And they complained. And inititally I was like, I don’t care if you complain. And then they said, well wait, this guy was making ads for us last week. And that felt to me, OK, that’s a really legitimate, strange situation. So we’re going to make a rule that in the very unusual cases—there’s one woman now, she’s a designer who crossed from advertising into editorial—we’re going to have a six-month cooling off period where you can’t write about ads. So that was the other one.

So what’s the bottom line here — is BuzzFeed some kind of evil empire bent on distorting or perverting journalism? I don’t think so. If anything, it seems to have bent over backwards to try and appear as ethical as possible, to maintain a line between editorial and advertising, or church and state as the old metaphor goes. Is it confusing to have a single company both creating ads or doing social marketing for brands and also doing journalism? Sure. And I get the feeling that Smith and Peretti are both trying to figure out how that works exactly. But at least they are being public about it.

Winter is coming: Print revenue could be headed for another cliff

I meant to write about this when it happened, but I was busy getting ready to fly to Italy for a conference (I know, I know) and so I didn’t get the chance. But I think Clay Shirky pointed out something interesting in a recent conversation with New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan about what the future holds for traditional media entities like the Times — and it’s something that I confess had not really occurred to me. Namely, the idea that instead of declining slowly over time, print advertising revenue could suddenly hit another cliff and go into free fall.

The subject came up after Sullivan posted a column about the Times’ continued reliance on the print side of its business, something that still generates over 70 percent of the company’s revenue — as it does for most newspapers. According to the public editor, more than a million people still buy the Sunday paper each week, a number that has declined from 1.8 million in 1993. The average age of a print reader is 60.

The suggestion from Times executives was that print would likely be around for some time, and that print subscribers and advertising would also likely continue to generate a large chunk of revenue for some time. But in an emailed response to the column, Shirky suggested a “darker narrative” — in a nutshell, he said he expected the pattern of print-revenue decay, which is currently fairly slow, to accelerate.

“The people you quote — Baquet, Caputo — seem to be betting that the current dynamics of slow decline form the predictable future for your paper. I doubt this, and the alternate story I’d like to suggest is that print declines will become fast again by the end of the decade, bringing about the end of print (by which I mean a New York Times that does not produce a print product seven days a week)”


And why does Shirky think the decline of print-advertising revenue will pick up speed again? Because he argues that there is a kind of cliff approaching when it comes to the willingness of advertisers to support the paper financially when its readership in print continues to dwindle. Beyond a certain point, expensive ad campaigns won’t make sense given the small number of readers:

“Both your Sunday and weekday readerships are already near important psychological thresholds for advertisers — one million and 500,000. When no advertiser can reach a million readers in any print ad in the Times (2017, on present evidence) and weekday advertising reaches less than half a million (2018, using the 6 percent decline figure you quoted), there will be downward pressure on CPMs.”

This is the part that hadn’t occurred to me — that advertisers have a psychological point beyond which it isn’t worth spending much on a print campaign. And although I don’t know for a fact whether Shirky is right about the numbers, the argument itself seems plausible. And as he goes on to point out, even as revenue is declining sharply, the costs of producing the print product will not. The problem with print, he notes, is that “the advantageous returns to scale from physical distribution of newspapers become disadvantageous when scale shrinks.”

“The ad revenue from a print run of 500,000 would be 16 percent less than for 600,000 at best, but the costs wouldn’t fall by anything like 16%, eroding print margins. There is some threshold, well above 100,000 copies and probably closer to 250,000, where nightly print runs stop making economic sense. This risk is increased by The New York Times’s cross-subsidy of print, with its print+digital bundle.”

Is Shirky right about a second cliff? I don’t really know. But I think his argument should be required reading for newspaper executives who still believe that the decline of print advertising revenue and readership will be a gradual sailing-off-into-the-sunset kind of affair. It could be anything but. Sullivan said she plans to post more about her conversation with Shirky, so hopefully this discussion will continue.

Facebook tweaks its algorithm again, news publishers could pay the price

Even as Facebook tries to convince news publishers like the New York Times to publish directly on its platform — instead of just posting excerpts with links to their websites — the company continues to demonstrate why that is such a Faustian bargain. On Tuesday, for example, the social-networking behemoth announced some new tweaks to its news-feed algorithm, and warned that publishers might see a decline in “post reach and referral traffic” as a result.

In its post about the new changes, Facebook tried to soften the blow by pointing out that referral traffic to media publishers has more than doubled in the past 18 months, and that it is always trying to help publishers find the right audience for their content by “optimizing how it is discovered and consumed.” The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what Facebook means by terms like optimization. Does it mean choosing the most high-quality content? Showing users what they want? Some combination of both? It’s unclear.

What is clear is that news publishers — and media companies of all kinds — have no real choice when it comes to dealing with Facebook, regardless of the terms of engagement. The social network is one of the largest digital platforms in existence, with a global audience of more than 1.4 billion, and it is also the way in which a majority of younger users find their news. Choosing to avoid Facebook simply isn’t an option if you want your content to be found.

Unfortunately, how Facebook feels about your content can differ from one moment to the next. Fans of the social-gaming company Zynga know this all too well: games like Farmville were once worth hundreds of millions of dollars because they were promoted by Facebook — but that vast audience disintegrated almost overnight when the social platform changed its algorithm.

What’s ironic about the latest negotiations with publishers is that news companies got much the same treatment not long ago: several outlets created “social reader” applications that built up millions of readers, until the social platform changed its mind again and downgraded their content, and those readers vanished.

(This is just an excerpt. You can find the rest of this piece at Fortune)