tronc Unveils Its Content Monetization Engine

A couple of months ago, the company that owns the LA Times drew mockery for its plans to introduce a "content monetization engine" that would "create more revenue...than you've ever seen."

Then, a few weeks ago, they drew yet more mockery by renaming themselves tronc, for Tribune Online Content. Seriously. tronc. All lower case. I thought we'd gotten over that kind of nonsense in the 70s.

Today they officially began trading as TRNC on NASDAQ—and employees began receiving videos describing how all this content monetization will work. Monday's blast features Malcolm CasSelle, tronc's Chief Technology Officer, and Anne Vasquez, tronc's Chief Digital Officer, who team up to toss around a whole mess of trendy buzzwords. tronc is all about "having a tech startup culture meet a legacy corporate culture." They tell us that an "optimization group" will feed content "into a funnel and optimize it." There will be "machine learning" and "artificial intelligence." Stories will be "more visual."  But what does all this mean? About three-quarters of the way in, we finally find out. It's all about video:

VASQUEZ: Right now we're averaging about 16 percent of our article pages have the type of video player that we can monetize. By 2017 we need to get to 50 percent of our article pages have a Brightcove video player attached to it.

CASSELLE: The CPM that we can earn with a video, or visualized content, is significantly higher than a page without it. And that's the reason why we have to raise these numbers. It will significantly increase our annual revenue per user, which is a key metric for us to grow as a company.

I have too many friends who work for the Times to give this quite the snark it deserves. And besides, who knows? Maybe print really is dead. Maybe video is the future. And not just any video, but video being played on a Brightcove player that can be suitably monetized.

I hope there's more to tronc than just this. Using artificial intelligence to slap monetizable viral videos onto every piece of journalism tronc produces is surely a wonderful thing, but it's not exactly a vision of the future likely to inspire the troops. It sounds more as if reporters are now going to get daily summaries telling them how many of their pieces have Brightcove video attached, with stern talking-tos for everyone who fails to make their 50 percent quota. Exciting!

On Friday, Donald Trump offered up this comment on the Orlando shooting: "It's too bad that some of the young people that were killed over the weekend didn't have guns attached to their hip....Had people been able to fire back it would have been a much different outcome."

Presumably Trump figured that this was the "strong" pro-gun position, only to discover that even the NRA thinks it's not a great idea to mix firearms and alcohol. So today he Trumpsplained that he was "obviously" referring only to "additional guards or employees."

This is, obviously, a lie, as even the lightest perusal of his original remarks proves. Nonetheless, the term of art for this is that he "walked back" his comment. If that sounds familiar, it's because Trump has practically made a career of walking back his endless buffoonery. The screen cap below of a Google News search for "Trump walks back" displays it in all its glory.

I totally ripped off this idea from Andrew Sprung, but it really requires its full length to do it justice. As Andrew says, "Perhaps some of these proposals didn't evince quite the level of deliberation we could wish for?"

What really gets me is why Trump's supporters continue to believe a word he says. He's gonna build a wall? Sure. He'll never walk that back. Honest.

From Pema Levy:

In 2012, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback launched a "real live experiment" in conservative governance. He slashed income taxes for top earners and eliminated them for more than 330,000 small businesses, promising the cuts would be "a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy." Instead, the result has been disastrous. By the end of 2015, the state had lost nearly $3 billion in revenue and was behind most other states in job growth. And when the courts challenged the constitutionality of the bare-bones budgets, Brownback and his allies launched an all-out war on the state's judges.

Click the link to read all about the farcical war that Brownback waged on his state's judicial system. But if you'd like some cold, hard numbers to go with your story, Menzie Chinn is your man. Here, for example, is economic growth in Kansas before and after Brownback took office:

Ouch. From 2005 to 2011, Kansas was growing faster than the US economy. This continued for about a year after Brownback took office, at which point economic growth declined and then flatlined. But hey—maybe things are just tough in the Midwest? Not really, it turns out. Here's how Kansas compares to her neighboring states since 2011:

Chin has also done a forecast of how well Kansas should have done based on historical trends, and the picture is just as un-pretty as these. Basically, (a) Kansas was doing OK, (b) Brownback rolled in and decided to make Kansas a test bed for conservative economics, and (c) Kansas promptly went to hell.

This, of course, has caused conservatives to think long and hard about their contention that cutting taxes on the rich and slashing bloated budgets will supercharge the economy. Haha. Just kidding. What they've actually done is either (a) ignore Kansas or (b) spend lots of time trying to dig up reasons that Kansas is a special case and would have done even worse if Brownback hadn't stepped in. These reasons tend to be pretty ridiculous, but so far they've been good enough to keep the rubes in line. And that's what matters, right?

One Side In the Ad-Blocker Wars Is Doomed

MoJo editor Clara Jeffrey points me to this today:

Ad blocking has become a hot-button media issue as consumers push back on perceived ad overload and tracking mechanisms across the internet. Research firm Ovum estimates that publishers lost $24 billion in revenue globally last year due to ad blocking.

Hmmm. $24 billion. I wonder how research firm Ovum came up with that number? Let's hop over and—oh, hold on. Just wait a few years and we're headed toward Armageddon:

Players in the digital publishing industry can’t stop talking about ad blocking. And they shouldn’t — according to Ovum’s new Ad-Blocking Forecast, the phenomenon will result in a 26% loss in Internet advertising revenues in 2020, which equates to $78.2bn globally. However, if publishers act now, that percentage could be as little as 6%, or $16.9bn. The question is: How can publishers make that much of a difference?

Yikes! I've put this forecast into handy chart form since numbers always look more official when you do that. But I still don't know how Ovum came up with these figures, since I'm not a client and don't have access to their reports. Which is fair enough. Nonetheless, I'm intrigued by this:

To take back control, publishers need to show consumers why advertising is needed and that it can be a positive addition to content.

....Publishers also need to work with advertisers to improve the consumer experience. The quality of the adverts is a major issue for many consumers. There are not enough examples of web-delivered adverts that enhance the experience for the reader....Forcing adverts on consumers through ad reinsertion or by blocking users of ad blockers from accessing content will have a negative long-term effect....Ovum predicts that the ad blockers — with input from a network of unpaid developers — will win the battle and ad blockers will remain more advanced than the anti-ad blockers in the long term.

Not only will websites that try to force the issue risk annoying consumers further but these websites also risk driving readers toward their competitors who don’t require ad blockers to be switched off or who provide an alternate means of paying for content.

I'd like to make fun of this, but it's actually decent advice. The current hysteria over ad blockers reminds me of the hysteria over TiVo when it first arrived in 1999—which itself was just an updated version of the hysteria over VCRs back in the 80s. If people can record shows, they'll skip the ads! We're doomed!

But no. TV ad revenue has been surprisingly stable since 1999 despite a decline in viewership. The big problem, it turns out, isn't the ad skippers, it's the number of people watching TV in the first place. I suspect the same is true of online journalism. Ad blockers aren't the problem, readership is. Provide a well-targeted audience and advertisers will pay for it. The folks who skip the ads probably weren't very good sales prospects anyway.

In any case, it doesn't matter: Ovum is almost certainly correct that ad-blockers will win the war against ad-blocker-blockers, which means that online sites are waging a losing battle that does nothing but piss off their customers. So cut down on the quantity of ads and target them better instead. That may or may not work, but it's likely to work a lot better than continuing to fight the ad-blocker wars.

Stop Staring at Your Backup Camera!

Jacob Bogage tells us that backup cameras in cars aren't really helping that much:

Backup cameras have been around longer than other car safety tech, so the federal government has years of data on their effect. Between 2008 and 2011 — the most recent years for which data was made available by NHTSA — backup cameras more than doubled from 32% to 68% of all new cars sold. But injuries fell less than 8%, from about 13,000 down to 12,000. The improvement in safety has been very gradual from year to year.

The fatality rate has improved somewhat, dropping 31% over the same period. But the sample size is small — deaths from cars moving in reverse are relatively rare. NHTSA's research shows deaths declined from 274 to 189 between 2008 and 2011, and the number was volatile year to year.

My current car is the first I've driven that has a backup camera, and this story doesn't surprise me. As near as I can tell, using a backup camera requires you to change your driving habits, and it took me a while to figure that out. The most basic problem is that backup cameras—like most video screens—beg for your attention, and if you give in to that temptation you might very well be driving less safely than without a camera. The problems are pretty obvious:

  • If your attention is focused on the camera, you aren't checking the traffic in front of you. But when you back out of a parking spot, for example, cross traffic is coming at you in both directions.
  • Backup cameras have an extreme wide-angle view, which is obviously useful. However, it also makes any object more than a few yards away look tiny. Even cars can be easy to miss sometimes, and smaller objects like children, dogs, and so forth can be all but invisible.
  • Despite their wide angle, sometimes cars don't enter the camera's sightlines until they're quite close.
  • Most backup cameras just aren't very good. Their imaging starts out mediocre just by virtue of using tiny lenses and sensors. And it only gets worse from there. Their imaging is poor at night. Their imaging is poor when the camera faces the sun. Their imaging is poor in bad weather. Their imaging is poor when the background is busy. Their imaging is poor when the lens gets dirty.

So how should you drive with a backup camera? Ironically, you need to change your driving habits back to what they were before you got a backup camera. That is, you should treat it as simply another window. Don't obsess over it. Crane your neck and check all your windows and your rearview mirror and your backup camera. In other words, drive just like you used to except with one additional window. Too many people treat backup cameras as a substitute for all their other windows, instead of an addition to them.

The Washington Post describes some of Donald Trump's recent problems:

Trump has been under heavy fire in recent weeks for a string of damaging controversies, from his clumsy response to the mass shooting in Orlando, to his highly personal attacks against a federal judge overseeing two lawsuits against him, to his campaign's failure to disperse pledged donations meant for veterans' charities.

That has given serious pause to allies and donors who worry that Trump is unable and unwilling to curb brash persona and bombastic style — which he will need to appeal to independent voters in a tough general election bid against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

So what is Trump going to do about this?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has parted ways with his embattled campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, amid ongoing scrutiny over several missteps as the real estate mogul has sought to pivot to the general election.

Atta boy, Donald! When you screw up, fire someone. None of this can be your fault, after all. Or, who knows—maybe Lewandowski can recognize a sinking ship when he sees one and decided that this was a good time to jump. Either way, it looks like Paul Manafort is now officially the evil genius calling the shots for the Trump campaign.

Timothy Edgar—former national security counsel for the ACLU, former deputy for civil liberties in the George Bush administration, and the first-ever director of privacy and civil liberties under President Obama—says that using terrorist watchlists to ban gun sales doesn't pose a civil liberties problem. After all, we already use these lists to prohibit people from boarding airplanes:

According to the Supreme Court, both the right to keep and bear arms and the right to travel are fundamental liberties. The right to travel is exercised far more frequently. While there were 23 million gun sales requiring a background check in 2015, there were almost 900 million travelers on domestic and international flights serving the United States in the same year.

....While using the terrorist watch list to prevent gun sales would inconvenience those who may be on the list by mistake, there is no reason to fetishize the 2nd Amendment over other rights. The no-fly list causes inconvenience and hardship, but not even the ACLU thinks it should be abolished because it understands the need to keep terrorists from boarding airplanes. Preventing terrorists from buying weapons is just as necessary.

This is a rather cavalier description of the ACLU's stand on no-fly lists:

We filed a landmark challenge to the No Fly List in which a federal judge struck down the government’s redress process, ruling that it “falls far short of satisfying the requirements of due process” and is “wholly ineffective.”...A bloated, opaque watchlisting system is neither fair nor effective. A system in which innocent people languish on blacklists indefinitely, with their rights curtailed and their names sullied, is at odds with our Constitution and values.

"Due process" is the key phrase here: the US government should never be able to revoke fundamental liberties based on mere suspicion. This doesn't necessarily mean that suspects are entitled to a full-on court hearing, but due process does mean something substantive, speedy, and fair. An appeal to the same agency that took away your rights in the first place doesn't count in my book—especially when that agency is literally bound by no rules about what it does and doesn't have to tell you about why you've been blacklisted. That's how the no-fly list works, and the appeal process in Sen. Dianne Feinstein's proposed ban on gun purchases would be at least as bad.

In any case, I have a question for Edgar and other proponents of both the no-fly list and the gun ban: what other fundamental liberties should the government be able to ignore in the name of fighting terrorism? This isn't a frivolous question. If these two rights can be taken away, what's the argument for not restricting the right to free speech of people on terror watchlists? Or fair trials? Or self-incrimination? Or freedom of religion? Or cruel and unusual punishment?

This kind of question is too often treated as nothing more than the juvenile hysteria of civil liberties purists who see fascism around every corner. But think about where we are. The right to travel freely has already been effectively eliminated. Eliminating the right to bear arms has a pretty good chance of passing Congress. George Bush plainly had no qualms about cruel and unusual punishment, and there's no telling if he ever got close to allowing the torture of American citizens. Donald Trump gets loud cheers when he proposes substantial infringement on Muslim freedom of religion. Warrantless surveillance is now so normal it barely merits a yawn. And we hear endlessly these days about jihadist recruiting via social media, which suggests—to use Edgar's phrasing— that preventing terrorists from using Facebook might be just as necessary as keeping them off airplanes.

We're not close to fascism. But when a former counsel for the ACLU argues that taking away a constitutional right is OK because we've already taken away another one, it's not very hard to see the slippery slope in action. By that logic, there's literally no right that's safe for anyone who's ever been investigated for terrorist connections by the FBI. As tempting as it is for frustrated liberals to exploit a horrific massacre in order to pass something—anything—related to gun control, this is the wrong way to go about it.

Josh Marshall says that Donald Trump's meltdown of the past few weeks is just what happens when a fast-talking hustler moves from the cozy confines of a friendly audience to the harsh outside world where his longtime act is met with wariness and ridicule:

The Trump world is based on a self-contained, self-sustaining bullshit feedback loop. Trump isn't racist. He's actually the least racist person in America. Hispanics aren't offended by his racist tirades against Judge Curiel. He's going to do great with Hispanics!

....Trump's problem is that the general election puts him in contact with voters outside the Trump bubble....That creates not only turbulence but turbulence that builds on itself because the interaction gets in the spokes of each of these two, fundamentally different idea systems. You're seeing the most telling signs of that with the growing number of Republicans who, having already endorsed Trump, are now literally refusing to discuss him or simply walking away when his name is mentioned.

Like a one-joke comic trying to move up from the local nightclub circuit Trump is bombing now that he's facing a more cosmopolitan audience. And that prompts me once again to share Al Franken's description of what happened to high-flyer Rush Limbaugh in the early 90s when he decided to see if he could move beyond the narrow confines of his radio show:

Whenever he's ventured outside the secure bubble of his studio, the results have been disastrous. In 1990, Limbaugh got what he thought was his chance at the big time, substitute hosting on Pat Sajak's ailing CBS late night show. But the studio wasn't packed with pre-screened dittoheads. When audience members started attacking him for having made fun of AIDS victims, he panicked, and they had to clear the studio. A CBS executive said, "He came out full of bluster and left a very shaken man. I had never seen a man sweat as much in my life."

Limbaugh later apologized for joking about AIDS and promised to "not make fun of the dying." But by early '94, he had forgotten the other lesson: he needs a stacked deck. This time disaster struck on the Letterman show. The studio audience turned hostile almost immediately after Rush compared Hillary Clinton's face to "a Pontiac hood ornament." Evidently, that's the kind of thing that kills with the dittoheads, but Letterman's audience wasn't buying.

This is Donald Trump's new world. Sure, the dittoheads are still there. And they're enough when you're just trying to win the local nightclub circuit that calls itself the Republican Party these days. But it's not enough to win a general election.

There's no reason to post this today in particular, but 2016 is the 70th anniversary of the Roosevelt dime. Huzzah! It holds the US record for longevity in design: aside from dates and mint marks, it's remained unchanged for its entire 70 years.1

There's an interesting story about that design. Obviously Franklin Roosevelt is on the obverse and the symbol for the March of Dimes, which was closely associated with Roosevelt, is on the reverse. But there's more. At the time of Roosevelt's death in 1945, the Soviet Union was still an ally against the Axis powers in World War II, and there was a strong pro-communist clique within the US Mint's Bureau of Engraving that wanted to memorialize our alliance with "Uncle Joe" Stalin. They settled for quietly engraving his initials right below Roosevelt's bust. Unfortunately for the clique, by the time the dime was released to the public in 1946 the Soviet Union was no longer an ally and the red scare was well underway. When Stalin's initials were discovered, conservatives went ballistic and the Mint had to quickly come up with some kind of plausible cover story. Luckily, the artist who drew Roosevelt's bust was named John Sinnock, so that was the story they settled on. The initials had nothing to do with Stalin. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that Sinnock shared Stalin's initials.

But it really is Stalin's initials on the dime, and they're there to this day. You can see them pretty easily with a magnifying glass. In fact—

What's that? You don't believe this? Well, of course not. That's because everyone reading this blog has at least a room-temperature IQ. Modern US coins all feature their designers' initials, which is why you can see VDB on the Lincoln Cent, GR on the Kennedy half dollar, and so forth. But in the right-wing fever swamps of the 1940s, a lot of people really did believe that these were Stalin's initials.

So you see? Americans have always been a little bit crazy. Or even a lot crazy sometimes. We should all just feel lucky that Donald Trump wasn't president at the time. He would have insisted on the dime featuring his initials, not some loser artist's. And initials probably wouldn't have been enough. He would most likely have directed the Mint to engrave TRUMP on every coin issued during his tenure. No conspiracy theory would have been necessary to know where that came from.

1The Washington quarter lasted 67 years, 1932 to 1999, before it was changed for the state quarter series. The record holder for a single side of a coin is the Lincoln cent. Its obverse hasn't changed in the 107 years since its introduction in 1909.

The IOC has upheld the ban on Russian track and field athletes at the Rio Olympic Games, and Russia is naturally upset. "We have done everything possible since the ban was first imposed to regain the trust of the international community," the Russian Ministry of Sport insists. So how are they treating the whistleblower who provided reporters with all the details of Russia's doping scheme at the Sochi Olympics?

Russia has opened a criminal case against the former director of its antidoping agency, after his allegations that Moscow had systematically provided performance-enhancing drugs to its Olympic athletes....Russia’s Investigative Committee said Saturday it was opening a case against Grigory Rodchenkov for alleged abuse of authority in his role as head of the Russian antidoping agency, Interfax reported.

....In a series of interviews Mr. Rodchenkov detailed Russia’s intricate scheme of providing athletes with performance-enhancing drugs, with his own participation, and using law enforcement authorities to help cover up the traces in urine samples.

See? Russia is showing its full cooperation by ensuring that the guy who eventually ratted them out is suitably punished for his years of cheating on their behalf. Now, you may or may not approve of this, but as Donald Trump would say, it shows strength. And Donald appreciates strength. Unfortunately, his favorite strongman has turned on him:

Russian President Vladimir Putin walked back some of his previous praise for U.S. presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump on Friday at a forum....Asked about previous comments in which he complimented Trump, Putin said they were misinterpreted, saying he had only ever called Trump “flamboyant,” Reuters reported.

“He is, isn’t he?” Putin said Friday, smiling and prompting applause from the audience. “I did not give any other assessment of him.”

I suppose Trump will have to tweet something tonight about what a loser Putin is. That'll show him.