Bob Garfield: Journalists, publishers, agencies and broadcasters are all fucked

By (incomplete) | 29 July 2014

“There is no third way, there are no magic beans. We are fucked.” Veteran journalist Bob Garfield’s advice to younger pros remains blunt. “I can see my way clear. But you, you’re fucked.”

The same applies to traditional publishers. “All toast,” or at least, “toaster ovens in the microwave age”.

Garfield’s been saying that for years and remains convinced that his bleak prognosis holds water. “I have been rendered a toaster oven”. He makes a reasonable living eloquently suggesting it applies to pretty much everyone.

The golden age of content may be upon us, the former AdAge sage admitted, but most of it is supported by VCs, volunteers or people using up their savings. “Except for search, gaming and porn, nobody is making any money online. Nobody has produced the magic beans. There are 200 million websites out there. The barrier to entry is nothing, and as audiences fragment further, the revenue per piece of content goes down to a point where publishers can’t afford to produce the thing.”

Broadcasters are in the same boat, he suggested, and the holes keep coming.

“Twenty five to thirty per cent of audiences fast forward ads and increasingly advertisers are refusing to pay [for skipped ads]. That adds to the pressure. Why? The same reason they use spam filters, ad blockers and refuse to click on banner ads. Because they can.” At that juncture, to emphasise his point, Garfield showed delegates at the ADMA global forum in Sydney a picture of a dog licking its balls.

Attitude adjuster

Garfield said that advertising people like to “give trophies to each other to parade their genius… But if they think people love ads they are sorely mistaken. They may put up with them, yes some are creative and funny and work their way into popular culture, but by and large they are a nuisance. To most people advertising is spam and the moment technology allowed us to skip ads, we have [skipped].”

The ad industry has responded to downward price pressure spawned by the 200 million website inventory glut with technology to drive efficiency, such as programmatic trading and real-time bidding (RTB). But Garfield said such moves “cannot defeat the immutable laws of economics”.

“People have been trained for the whole history of the internet to believe it is free. And if individuals won’t pay and advertisers won’t pay it is a grim fact, and apologies to Gil Scott Heron, but the revolution will not be monetised.”

Lightly seared on the reality grill

For ad agencies, the crumbs of comfort are equally scant.

“The agency business is [not just a toaster oven but] toast because it derives its revenue from big campaigns. That [world] is going and, no matter what anyone tells you, the agency business does not adapt itself to micro. Along with the traditional TV networks, traditional internet businesses, such as Yahoo, were also likely to be toast, Garfield suggested.

A vocal opponent of native advertising, “boatloads of bat shit” and a guano island economy undermining itself is one of his previous summations, Garfield also thinks that the rush for clicks by mainstream publishers and the pressure to keep people on site is killing serendipity.

BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post and now the legacy publishers are serving content based on real-time data and viewing habits. [The new entrants] were sneered at, and for good reason, because it turns the pyramid upside down and now the biggest food group is dessert.”

Garfield said it was hard to argue with increased engagement, satisfaction and the ease of drilling down into a subject that had created and said the “right hand rail” now adopted by virtually all traditional publishers was there to stay. “But is that a service to the audience or a gimmick to keep the user on site before they go to another site? I’d say the latter.”

He noted that the highest ever viewed story on the Washington Post was “a listicle of shoddy hotel rooms at Sochi.” Meanwhile BuzzFeed is “moving away from ten things Jennifer Aniston is wearing to coverage of Israel. The Washington Post is becoming like BuzzFeed and vice versa.”

But the data-based serving of content of online publishers, even the mighty YouTube, was nothing compared to that of Netflix, which snapped up Orange is the New Black after other mainstream broadcasters had sniffed at it. “They looked at it, thought strong women, tick, lesbian sex, tick. Data has largely replaced, or at least sub-ordinated, the judgement of executive taste makers. And on the strength of Orange is the New Black, Netflix has just passed 50 million subscribers.”

Sober council

But Netflix has long been the poster child of modern subscription success based on data. And brands now know what they can do with it too. That’s more bad news for publishers and broadcasters, Garfield added.

“Media is, by its very definition, in between, the middle man. But brands are increasingly skipping that because they have the data and the relationship to do so. In the new epoch branded content will increasingly be delivered direct.”

Garfield said that was exciting to watch, “in the same way that car-jacking is exciting … some of us won’t do too well.”

With a billion camera phones on the ground and democratisation of media, Garfield reckons his generation of journalists will be the last to make a buck from the profession. Not everyone will agree, but what will be lost he said, will be trust and critical mass “enough voice to make a difference, commanding the attention of governments and institutions”.

Those entering the profession today, and possibly into broadcasting, publishing and agencies, should make a plan B. Journalists at least, he said, “will not have sustainable employment for the next thirty years because the economics of ad-supported media are not there. Publishers have to make money to offer salaries, resources will be diminished. You are fucked. Watering plants is what my ex-AAP friend now does for a living.”

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