Wednesday, December 22, 2010

FCC Moves to Halt Internet Service Provider Content Discrimination and Preferences

The Federal Communications Commission has moved to keep Internet service providers from limiting or unreasonably discriminating against content provided by competing services

The regulations are designed to keep telephone and cable companies that provide phone services from using their Internet services to limit use of Skype and other online telephone services. It is also intended to halt them from making content provided by audio and video service providers they do not own less desirable by limiting downloads from firms such as Netflix or Hulu or providing faster service only for their own content.

The rules are designed to maintain a level competitive position on the Internet and to restrict the abilities of companies that dominate access to the Internet from using oligopolistic control of the service points to harm content competitors.

The regulations require that services allow their customers equal access to all online content and services, but allow the services some flexibility to management network congestion and spam as long as the rules are clear and not anti-competitive.

The rules apply to fixed line services, but do not apply equally to wireless telephony which is becoming the primary means of Internet access though smart phones and electronic tablets and e-reader. Mobile phone providers are permitted to provide preferential access to their services or selected partners, but the rules forbid mobile providers from blocking access to competing sites and services. Mobile services are given more leeway to manage their networks because capacity is more limited than on the Internet.

The regulations are an important step in ensuring that major service providers such as Comcast and Verizon are not allowed to use their dominance in service provision to harm other companies and the FCC should be applauded for its efforts. Such companies have in the past shown their willingness to take advantage of their monopoloy power and are not widely noted for their consumer friendliness.

Major service providers and Republicans are vowing to fight the move, arguing that the FCC does not have the authority to issue such regulations. If the courts side with them on the issue, Congress should explicitly give it the authority or empower the Federal Trade Commission to ensure competivieneess online.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Content Farms and the Exploitation of Information

A growing number of firms are aggressively pursuing the market for information by providing material that answers online searches and employing strategies so their material appears high in search results.

These enterprises are providing high quantity, low quality material on topics designed to produce many search hits and driven by the desire to make money from advertising received as high traffic sites. Some are proving quite successful.

Demand Media, for example, uses about 13,000 freelance writers to produce about 4000 articles a day for which it gains about 95 million unique visitors with more than 620 million page views monthly. Its site alone gets about 50 million users., Yahoo and AOL are also engaging in the market.

When you make a search and are taken to,, or hundreds of other sites providing such information to the public, you encounter this mass produced content. The business strategy is working and many of the sites are among the top 25 sites in the U.S.

These producers and a whole range of similar organizations are producing material in content farms that rely on freelancers who are paid as little as $1 an article or get no payment except for number of page views for their specific work. It is a throwback to the penny-a-word days of journalism in the 19th century. The firms are increasingly seeking video producers, photographers, and graphic artists to provide similar material at similar levels of compensation.

Even established news organizations and other enterprises are starting to use the syndicated material produced by such content farms. Organizations such as Hearst publications and National Football League are relying on them for some content that appears on their sites, for example.

The implications of these developments on the quality of Internet information and the prospects for professional writers are clear and hardly encouraging.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Digital Media Require New Pricing Methods

Newspaper publishers need to explore new methods of pricing content as they expand their digital portfolios because merely transferring the methods used in print can never bring the success publishers desire.

Print newspaper publishers have traditionally tended to set prices based on production and distribution costs and not on value created. Unfortunately, this has made it impossible to possible to obtain a price premium for factors such as prestige, service, experience, and convenience.

New digital operations, however, provide significant other pricing options because they differ in terms of whether they maintain the existing content bundle, whether non-payers can be excluded from use, the types of experience they deliver and how they are used.

Digital media require significant new thinking because they tend to be joint and complementary products with print. These lend themselves to selling strategies of bundling and versioning that permit uses of bundle pricing, option pricing, multiple purchase pricing, differential access pricing, and inventory based pricing that have not typically been used in the newspaper industry.

Pricing is particularly complex in the digital environment because the number of price choices grow exponentially. In the print product managers price advertising and the circulation, but when they add an online product they have to make 8 choices because they are shifting to a multisided platform operation. If mobile, social media and other print products are added to the portfolio, one must give significant thought to the roles each plays in the portfolio and the interactions of pricing choices among them.

Although digital media use is growing significantly, companies need to be pragmatic in their investments and operations and their hopes for new revenue. Online consumption is still only about 10 percent of all media use and online advertising is still only about 13% of offline advertising. Those numbers are significant and rising so companies needs to seek and exploit opportunities in digital spaces, but managers cannot expect those to immediately replace the contributions of their legacy operations.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Newspaper Companies Start to Think Beyond Today's Bills

The somewhat improving condition of the newspaper industry is permitting companies to move from merely paying operating expenses to finding ways to improve their balance sheets and looking for new opportunities. In recent weeks:
  • The Gannett Co. has placed senior notes totally $500 million that will be due in 2015 and 2018. The notes financed at 6.375% and 7.125% will give the company some financial breathing space by being used to pay a maturing loan and revolving credits. In addition it negotiated an extension on $2.7 billion in revolving credit with Bank of America from 2012 to 2014.
  • The New York Times Co. has cut its debt by 40 percent in past 2 years and is beginning to look at small investments in digital media that may position it for future growth. It recently provided $4 million in financing for Ongo, a start-up news sharing site that will aggregate stories from a number of newspapers.
  • The Washington Post Co. announced it would repurchase 750,000 of its outstanding shares. Such a move will increase future earnings per outstanding share and boost shareholder equity in a tax beneficial way. This type of buyback typically occurs when cash is accumulating in the company and its stock is undervalued.
All of these developments reflected the improving financial performance of newspaper companies and indications that the revenue picture for newspapers is getting better. With improved profits and dividend payments, newspaper companies, lenders, and investors are starting to step back from the brink and the reconsider the completely negative picture of newspapers that developed 3 years ago.