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Episode 21: Media industry takeaways and trends in 2018

It’s year in review time! Sachin and Andrew share their takeaways from the media industry in 2018 (the importance of trust and the power of movements), worst trends (the infamous video pivot and also movements again), and predictions for 2019 (building companies that endure and diversifying traffic and revenue).

Plus, they talk about some of their favorite content and entertainment from 2018, from multimedia reporting to books on physics, and go +1/-1 on whether certain technologies will transform the media industry in 2019.

Listen to the full episode above and read on for the audio transcript. Subscribe to The Center of Attention on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Show notes:

Transcript:

Megan: All right, so Sachin, Andrew, it’s December, which means, it is the most wonderful time of the year because year in review season is upon us. So I want to start things off by asking, what was a defining moment for you, personally, in 2018?

Sachin: Really, it has to be at the start of the year when I started it on the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro. Super defining moment, not just only for me in 2018, but probably my life.

Megan: Andrew, what about you?

Andrew: (00:28) Oh, I’m just really glad that I got to start the year in my office, hanging out with my cuddly Labradoodle, Kevin, and that I got to end the year exactly the same way.

Megan: (00:38) So whether your reflections are personal or professional, I think there is a lot of benefit in pausing to take stock of the bigger picture at this time of year. And we’re going to start to see lots of other organizations do the same thing. Personally, I love it. So in this special episode of The Center of Attention, which we’re going to be releasing just about one year after we first started the show, our hosts are going to take a moment to pause and reflect on some of the good things and some of the bad things from the media industry in 2018. We’re also going to take a little bit of time to talk about some predictions for the year ahead.

Welcome to The Center of Attention, the podcast exploring how digital behavior relates to the attention economy at large. I’m Megan Radogna, the show’s producer and I’m here with Parse.ly’s co-founders and the show’s co-host, Sachin Kamdar and Andrew Montalenti.

Sachin, are you ready to talk year in review?

Sachin: Yes.

Megan: Andrew?

Andrew: (01:35) Yeah. I’m ready, let’s do it.

Megan: (01:36) Let’s do it. Let’s dive in. Andrew, let’s start with your perspective. I’m going to start by asking, what was maybe the most interesting take away from data for the media industry in 2018?

Andrew: (01:48) I think, for me, the big shift that happened in 2018 is that people started to recognize that on the internet, the number one issue is trust. So I think that a lot of the discussion in like meta-media circles, where people are talking about what’s going on in the media industry, centered around the fact that in the aftermath of 2106 election, in the aftermath of all the scandals of Facebook and other social media companies, there is a big flight to trust. And I think that trust is going to be a really, really big issue in 2019.

Megan: (02:24) Did any surveys or interesting data come to mind that you read in the past year that have to do with the trust issue?

Andrew: (02:30) Yeah, we did a little bit of data analysis ourselves that was showing that even though there is a decline in social media traffic across the board, driven by those Facebook algorithm changes from a while back, there is a growth in direct traffic to publishers across the board. And that data is pretty encouraging because direct traffic represents consumers basically deciding to choose their trustworthy media organizations instead of relying upon the feed to deliver it to them.

I think, also, it’s not as much as a data point, but a lot of the social media platforms and search engines that are out there have started to come up with new metrics that don’t just determine whether a piece of content is engaging but actually determined whether a source for that content is trustworthy. And so I think that’s pretty interesting as a new form of metrics in 2019.

Megan: (03:29) So let’s talk about the opposite perspective. In your opinion, what was one of the worst trend in media in 2018?

Andrew: (03:36) So for my view, the worst thing that happened in 2018 was the pivot to Facebook video and pivot back and the realization that a lot of that pivot was driven by metrics that either were misrepresenting what was happening with consumers or metrics that were sort of gamed, I guess, for an ad business there. And so it’s really disappointing to me, as an analytics junkie, to see a situation where a company got a lot of media companies to invest a lot of time and effort in a channel based on a data story they were telling. And then for that data story to actually have been misrepresented and thus led people in the wrong direction. That’s pretty much like my worst nightmare as a data analytics guy, to see any sort of company lead people in the wrong way with their metrics.

Megan: (04:27)Yeah, it goes exactly against the first point that you made with trust was an issue.

Andrew: (04:31) Exactly, yeah.

Megan: (04:32) And last question we’re going to ask you is, what’s one projection or prediction on your mind for 2019?

Andrew: (04:39) A prediction on my mind for 2019? So I think like the entire economy, not just media companies but the whole thing, is going to start really thinking hard about companies that are built to last. That’s my big prediction for 2019. So I think there’s like a little bit of, we’ve seen a number of interesting hype cycles kind of boom and bust. Most recently, kind of really big adjustment in the hyped crypto market and everything like that that went to bust. And I think what you’re seeing in the broader market is a little bit of unease about all the sort of exuberance we’ve had and the growth we’ve had. And what’s going to happen, I think, is that that unease will settle down and people will say, “We need institutions that are built to last. We need companies that are built to last. We need to take a more long-term perspective. It’s actually the short-term perspective that’s been hurting us.” That’s my prediction for 2019, the shift to long-term thinking.

Megan: (05:42) All right, Sachin, I’m going to ask you the same questions. And let’s start with, what was the most interesting takeaway, in your opinion, from the media industry in 2018?

Sachin: (05:51) I think it really has to do with movements. We just saw the power of movements to grab media attention and really drive the narrative in a bunch of different ways. And I think we saw this looking at our own data, looking at the Me Too movement, just kind of being able to capture the population at whole, at large, and really kind of driving in the kind of zeitgeist overall, the fact that this is a powerful thing that isn’t going away. And the media written around that showed that as well.

But I think your second question is going to be the worst part about 2018, right?

Megan: (06:31) Yup.

Sachin: (06:32) And I think it’s also movements, right? And I think this is kind of the place that we’re in right now where voices have a lot of power to get distributed really fast and those voices aren’t always going to be the best ones. And so things like anti-Semitism was something that I looked at in the data for Currents and that had a huge spike in 2018. And so that’s also something that’s a little bit concerning to me is that these movements or these voices, good and bad, are getting more power. And the question is, how does that all fall out?

Megan: (07:06) Yeah, do you think that some of the discussion, possible strides that certain platforms have made in the past year towards addressing and filtering disinformation was effective? And do you think we’re going to continue to see that struggle into 2019?

Sachin: (07:23) Yeah, I don’t think it was as effective as it needs to be. There’s a white-washing that happened on YouTube, right? So I think YouTube has been probably the most aggressive about this in a couple ways. Like just general kind of elimination of content that shouldn’t be on the platform but then they did another thing, which is pretty smart, is that they tied all this stuff to money. Which is that, if you had objectionable content on YouTube, they wouldn’t take it off of YouTube necessarily, unless it was very objectionable, but they would mark those videos as non monetizable. So they got demonetized and creators couldn’t make money off of them.

So I think that’s an approach and that’s an algorithmic approach that has had a lot of pushback. I think what Facebook is trying to do is mix that with people plus an algorithmic approach but I don’t know if we’ve really seen anything come out of that yet. So I’m kind of waiting to see what the take is there. But here’s the thing, the fact that you don’t have a platform, doesn’t mean that those voices go away.

And so the question is, what happens? Is it that they get distributed on another platform that they don’t have right now? Which was the example of, I think, Gab, which was a social network that was spun up for the very far right after, I think, they got removed from Reddit and it’s basically a Reddit clone. So does that happen and then do things get really concentrated in bad ways on sites like that? Or is it something where we just, as a population, have to really think about how the internet is changing the way that community is being built, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. And really think about how those to reconcile with one another.

Megan: (09:16) Yeah, I wonder how many people are going to start thinking about community in a lot of different senses in the next year. It seems like just from focusing on engagement subscriptions, at least in terms of media this year, trusted sources, like what Andrew was talking about, that’s all kind of folding into the same ultimate crux
.
Sachin: (09:37) Yeah, and I think there is a cry for a source that is just widely trusted, right? And I don’t there are necessarily is one yet that the general population in the U.S say, “This is the go-to source.” Maybe the Associated Press is closest to that but even there, you’re not getting your full … you’re getting the news at it comes but you’re not getting kind of the full kind of stories that you would get out of other media enterprises. So, yeah, I think that is a question but I think that’s also an opportunity for a company to come in and really grab that opportunity and say, “Hey, we can be the trusted source.”

Megan: (10:19) Yeah, absolutely. It will be so interesting a year from now to come back and reflect on what everything that’s been said so far. And then the last piece, already sort of started to talk about but I don’t know if you have another prediction for 2019?

Sachin: (10:34) I think at the end of this year there’s a little bit of a blood bath happening in the media space with companies getting sold for fire sale prices, there’s this notion that it’s going to continue to happen in 2019. I think, in some sense, this is a wake up call for a lot of organizations that whatever plays that they’ve put into place to not only diversify their revenue, has to also mean that they diversify their traffic. They can’t rely on a single source of traffic, they have to understand the ways that attention changes online, and make sure that it matches with how that’s going to capture their own kind of revenue in their own opportunity.

So I think that’s coming, I think it’s been talked about for years now, but I think people are kind of realizing it’s do or die time and it’s time to make that switch whether it’s diversifying revenue or diversifying traffic. So I think that is going to be an interesting thing to look at for 2019.

Megan: (11:35) All right, so now I want to get into a question that’s for both of you. We talk a lot about digital attention, about online content, but what I really want to know is, what stood out to you in 2018 both online, in print, in the real world. Whether it’s podcast shows, books, songs and albums, movies, I want to know what your favorites were of 2018. What would your personal best of list be?

Andrew: (12:03) Yeah, so for me personally, an interesting thing that’s been happening more and more in 2018 for me, is a crossover between sort of written content and audio content. That’s probably been the biggest, interesting crossover. So I’ll give a couple of examples. So one is that, I think both Sachin and I have done a little bit of reading on this, but there was a blockbuster bit of journalism done by The Wall Street Journal on Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes and the author behind that published a book called Bad Blood that covered all of that.

And it just so happened that this year I decided to switch over to doing not just podcast but also audio books, so I got Bad Blood on audio. I also read the reporting in the Wall Street Journal on this and I even watched a video interview with the journalist who kind of went into depth about tracking down the unethical behavior of Elizabeth Holmes. So I think that’s like-

Sachin: (13:02) They captured you in all possible form factors.

Andrew: (13:05) Yeah, exactly. And I think it was really cool because it felt like I was getting more and more sort of an angle on the story by using the different media forms, right? So the reporting was very time based and it was reacting to the convictions that were coming down and the court cases and stuff but providing the context. But then the interview with the journalist was very much, how did he go about getting all this information and finding out what was really going on? And how did the company react to all the questions he was asking? And then the audio book was really great because I got to listen to is in pieces and it kind of felt almost like this real world novel that was unfolding, right? This story with an arc, both about the reporting behind it and then the story itself at Theranos. So I just felt like I got kind of a great multimedia experience around that overall.

Sachin: (14:00) Yeah, I have the same feeling with The Daily, The New York Times podcast. Because I’ll read an article on The New York Times that then they’ll do an interview with the reporter or the journalist the day after. And I think when I initially saw that, I was like, “I already read the article, what’s the interest in me listening to this interview?” But then I listened to the interview, I’m like, “Oh, there’s so much more to this.” That you get to extract out of just interviewing the reporter about the process of writing that story that just makes it so much more rich. So I definitely, yeah, I definitely agree with you.

Andrew: (14:40) And I think going toward the idea of digital attention, I think we talked about it in past episodes, how audio is kind of interesting because it adds this new sort of background content consumption pattern where you maybe fit it in into workouts or walks outside or commutes to work or whatever else, or maybe even listen to it on background when you’re consuming some other media. And I think that it’s kind of great that both well produced podcast series and well produced audio books provide sort of a long arc of audio content but then usually broken up into chunks where you can listen to them like 20 to 30 minutes at a time. So it’s like this nice balance between going really deep on a subject but not having to consume it all at once which I find really appealing.

Megan: (15:31) Sachin, do you have any podcasts or articles or anything else that stood out to you as great content in 2018?

Sachin: (15:39) I don’t know if this is cheating or not? Does it have to be created in 2018 or is it just something that I listened to in 2018?

Megan: (15:46) No, it could be something you discovered in 2018.

Sachin: (15:47) Okay, cool. So I actually re-watched The Sopranos this year and, man, was that such a well-written acted show with such interesting character development and arcs. This is probably one of my top shows after rewatching it in 2018. So that’s definitely on there. There’s a book that I just finished that I really enjoyed. I don’t know a lot about physics but I always get interesting in reading about it. And so there’s this Italian physicist—

Megan: (16:25) Carlo Rovelli?

Sachin: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Megan: I am obsessed with him.

Sachin: (16:28) Yeah, so I just read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and I really enjoyed reading that.

Megan: That book is beautiful. He had a new one that came out this year—

Sachin: Yeah, it was about time?

Megan: It was about time. I’m not going to be able to remember the actual title but I think Seven Brief Lessons was my favorite because it was poetic.

Sachin: Yeah, exactly.

Megan: It was really beautiful.

Sachin: (16:47) And it was translated to which was really surprising to me that the translation was so good.

Megan: (16:52) Yeah, whoever translated that book, master. I don’t know if was him or whoever works at Riverhead but, yeah, it was beautiful. It was very lyrical.

Megan: (17:03) All right, this is awesome, got a full list now of things that I have to read and watch and see and re-watch. So lets kind of move on, talk about some plus ones and minus ones for this week.

Andrew: (17:15) Sounds great. So for this week we’re going take a plus one or minus one position on whether the following technologies that are going to evolve in 2019 are going to transform the media industry or not. So plus one if you think the technology will transform the media industry, and minus one if not.

So the first technology we’re going to talk about here is browsers, both on mobile and desktop. Just how browser technology is changing, which vendors are controlling the landscape, and how usage patterns around browsers are changing. Do you think this is important and transformative for the media industry Sachin?

Sachin: (17:53) I think it’s certainly important. I don’t think browsers are going away any time soon, both desktop and mobile, so a focus there is important. Now whether the new technologies around privacy with companies like Brave, which also I guess ties into blockchain, Vivaldi has emerged as well. You have Microsoft developing a new browser based on Chromium which is the open source framework for Chrome, Google’s Chrome you have Safari. I don’t think anything that has happening in the next year is going to transform the media industry. I think there is a general direction to take more ownership over user privacy and I think that’s probably a good trend overall.

Andrew: (18:38) Yeah, and I’ll give a little bit of technical color on the browser thing so that the news here is that Safari is widely used on iOS and macOS and Chrome is super widely used across the board both on desktop and mobile, it’s not the browser with the most market share. And Microsoft was developing its own engine, which is called Edge, but recently announced that they’re kind of shifting to just consolidating around Google’s engine, which is called Chromium. So the interesting thing that’s going on here is that open source politics and the kind of privacy stances of the various large tech companies, are actually kind of playing out in browser technology.

So I’m plus one on media companies paying attention to this. I think browsers are critical to their businesses and what games the big tech companies play with different browsers will have a big effect on their business. And they also have to pay attention to the fact that consumers are more empowered than ever to switch their browser, and quite a lot are switching between browsers these days. So they have to keep a close eye on that as well.

Sachin: (19:48) But I do think there’s the notion that there are things that, for example, Google’s doing with Chrome to lock people in by really changing the browser as not just like a place where you visit websites but it’s not a mechanism to discover stuff. So that’s like the Chrome suggestions, the Google Discover stuff, when you sign in you get personalized things inside of Chrome. So I think there is some like lock-in mentality that they’re trying to play as these new browsers emerge or as consumer kind of decision making shifts around what they should use.

Andrew: (20:24) Yeah, actually I have a related plus on or minus one Sachin which is, do you think internet users should be strongly supporting Firefox as the open source totally independent of corporate control browser in the market?

Sachin: (20:39) I am plus one on that. I think the more opportunities there are out there, the better it is for consumers overall. And having somebody that’s independent, like a Firefox, means that you have somebody that is really just trying to build a browser that has potentially the best experience for their end users overall or they have their end users in mind. But they’ve gone through some ups and downs so I think the jury’s still out on whether they’re going to be able to have something that takes their ranking back to the top where they used to be relative to something like a Google Chrome or Safari. What’s your take?

Andrew: (21:19) Yeah, I’m also very strongly plus one on Firefox. I’m personally a user of both Firefox and Chrome and I think that Firefox plays an important role in much the same way Wikipedia does in terms of sort of trust in an area that it’s actually really important which is the main program that people use to access information everywhere. I kind of wish … I personally wish that Chrome didn’t have the market share it did, I wish it was a two horse race between Chrome and Firefox, that would actually be better for consumers, then the competition would be healthy. So I’m with you that I hope that their market share ticks up and that happens again. It would be a very bad thing for the Web, I think, if their market share dropped to some negligible number, like 5%.

Sachin: (22:07) Well let’s move on to another technology which I just briefly mentioned, blockchain. So there was a company called Civil that’s ran in some trouble in the past couple of months that were trying to leverage blockchain technology inside of the media industry. So Andrew, maybe give a little explainer to the listeners around what blockchain is and how it applies to media. And then give me you take, do you think that will actually transform the media industry?

Andrew: (22:37) Well Sachin, I’m minus one because I don’t understand how blockchain helps the media industry. So we’re just at a loss here. Yeah.

Sachin: (22:49) Well, I can give you my take on maybe what they’re trying to accomplish as a way to—

Andrew: (22:57) You go to more startup CEO conferences than I do. Tell me what they’re saying.

Sachin: (23:03) Well I think there’s this notion that they’re probably a couple of different ways that it can help out. One way is that it can help be the kind of ledger or the record for how content gets distributed and changed on the internet. So if you write a piece of content as a freelancer and that gets placed in five different places, you’re going to always get credit for that because that’s on the blockchain record as being your piece of content. So as way to make sure that the people that are creating stuff get what they should and there’s not plagiarism, that could be a potential form of application for it.

I think there’s another area which I think is more talked about which is on the advertising side as a way to keep track of all of the vendors, players that are in the ad techs space that are taking cuts off of the revenue that a publisher makes or the money that a brand is spending. Which I think a lot of people have a big question mark around what happens there. And if you use blockchain as a technology to kind of track all that stuff, then maybe that brings better transparency, brings better efficiency to the system and maybe cleans up some bad actors in that space.

But I don’t think anybody’s actually gotten anywhere notable on any of those two ideas or other ideas that I’m sure people had around how to leverage blockchain to make it viable for this industry. So I’m also minus one, I don’t see it transforming the media industry anytime soon.

Andrew: (24:35) Okay, so the next one we’re going to talk about is another equally kind of hyped area of technology these days and it’ll take us in a different direction. Which is, let’s talk about smart speakers and, I guess more broadly than those, just personal assistants like Alexa and the Google Assistant and so on. Do we think that those are going to have a big effect on the media industry in 2019?

Sachin: (25:01) I think it will have an effect. I don’t think it’s going to change the media industry. I think it’s an opportunity to reach people in additional places that you normally wouldn’t be able to reach them and that’s when you’re kind of making dinner or when you’re waking up and you want to hear the news for the day. So I think audio is definitely transitioning to these areas and I think more people are getting value out of this new technology that’s kind of come into play over the past year. I definitely get value out of it myself. I use Google Home and I listen WNYC though it almost every morning.

Andrew: (25:43) Yeah, I’m plus one on it too. I’m personally more plus one on assistance than I a on the speakers themselves. I have a Google Mini and I kind of use it to some degree but I find it hasn’t totally fit into my workflow yet. But, for me, Google Assistant, I’ve been getting more and more usage of. And I’ve been getting more and more usage out of just not only to do searches but also to hear what’s in the news right now and kind of get those quick updates. So I think that more and more smarts will get built in to the assistants and you even saw that, I think, within the span of this year. So that’ll just keep getting better and content is certainly a big source of information that assistants can take advantage of.

So related to that, I guess something that all of the big tech companies have been plowing R&D resources into has been artificial intelligence and machine learning, that’s been probably as big a buzz word as crypto has in 2018. So I guess, do we think that we’re going to see some big changes in the news industry as a result of AI? I guess we saw a company that is sort of an AI that writes news narratives, get acquired earlier this year, I think that was Narrative Science if I remember correctly. And we also saw some media companies investing in AI and machine learning on their own teams. Do we think that there’s going to be an impact from all these technologies here?

Sachin: (27:17) I have to be plus one because it’s technology that we’re using ourselves at Parse.ly to help this industry in particular in terms of getting value out of kind of all this attention that they see and structuring in ways that makes sense. But I think the actual true kind of AI that people are envisioning, maybe from a consumer perspective, is farther off.

So your ability to write content about sports or earnings reports, that’s very structured reporting that I think a machine does really well reporting around. But I think we’re still pretty far off from a place where a machine can write a report on the latest thing that happened with Robert Muller. I think that’s not something that is going to happen soon. I think that stuff is possible but I think it’s farther off. And when it does come, it certainly will transform the industry.

Andrew: (28:15) Yeah, and I’m going to be plus one on this as well. Parse.ly does do quite a lot these days in the world of machine learning and natural language processing. And the thing I noticed in 2018 is that the technology under the hood, some of the techniques and research and also the availability of hardware to do this, and even the open source tools that you can use to do it, are just way, way better than when I first started doing work in this area way back in 2009-2010. It’s really like an order of magnitude or several orders of magnitude better than it was in that time period. So I just think that that process is going to accelerate. And so there’s going to be a lot of really cool things you can do in terms of automating how you process text image and video content on the Web through 2019.

So I’m plus one on this technology. I do think it has sometimes a little bit of a potential to almost like suck up all the oxygen in the room. It’s like magic pixie dust that you sprinkle on a problem and then you’re like, “Oh, we’ll just use ML for that. We’ll just use AI for that and that’ll solve all our problems.” And that can be pretty dangerous but the underlying technology has a huge amount of potential.

Megan: (29:30) So you guys, I think that’s it for this episode. So to everyone who listened, thank you. And I want to give an especially big thank you to everyone who’s been listening along with us for this whole past year. We really appreciate you and we’re glad that you could join us and hope you’ve learned something.

You can subscribe to The Center of Attention on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, SoundCloud, Stitcher, or Spotify. If you enjoy the show, please tell a colleague or tell a friend. You can also follow our hosts on Twitter, Andrew is @amontalenti and Sachin is @sachinkamdar.

Thanks again for listening and remember, this whole thing was written by AI. Until next time.

Andrew: (30:13) Perfect.