Friday, January 13, 2017

Which of These Headlines Is Defamatory?

Takes one to know one.

After American Media Inc. complained that the original headline was "defamatory," Folio: magazine today tweaked the headline on an article about AMI's Star magazine publishing SlimFast ads that masqueraded as articles.

Folio: also published AMI's statement about the article, in which the publisher of National Enquirer and other scholarly journals huffed, "We are very concerned about the defamatory headline and implication in your article, [sic] that falsely states AMI 'pulled' SlimFast ads after a challenge from the Better Business Bureau."

You see, when Star headlined an article about the long friendship of John Travolta and Tom Cruise with "30 Year Gay Secret" even though the article had nothing more than vague references to "gay rumors," that's not defamatory. It's poetic license. (Citing the "bait-and-switch" cover, Gossip Cop gave the article a zero on its accuracy scale.)

Or when the Enquirer ran one hideously Photoshopped cover image after another during the Presidential campaign to "prove" that Hillary Clinton was about to die from brain cancer, that's free speech.

(As Politico's Jack Shafer wrote, "You don’t have to be a Hillary lover to be repulsed by the Enquirer’s coverage of her; the sicknesses the Enquirer has attached to Clinton would fill a medical encyclopedia—muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, endometriosis and brain damage from her concussion. She suffers from obesity (289 pounds), brain cancer and mental disorders, and has had two strokes, the Enquirer claims.")

But when Folio:, a magazine that covers the U.S. magazine industry, writes "Pulls" instead of "Discontinues," that's a DEFAMATION SHOCKER!, as the Enquirer's headline writers would say. Time to call the lawyers and shoot the messenger.

What Folio: didn't alter was its description and depiction of how AMI's round-heeled business ethics were on display in the SlimFast campaign -- including the factoid that "a number of dubious articles, purportedly written by editorial staffers but almost certainly part of a paid SlimFast campaign, proliferate throughout AMI's portfolio of websites."

But Folio: did add some comic relief to the updated version by publishing AMI's shoot-yourself-in-the-foot statement verbatim, including the comment that the company doesn't think it did anything wrong.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The FSS: A Hopeless Case

With FSS, things don't always go as planned.
Buried in two recent U.S. Postal Service reports are data and statements persuading me that the USPS's Flats Sequencing System will never end up saving money, much less recoup its $1.3-billion investment.

I explain why in an article that Publishing Executive published today, which also points out that the combination of the FSS fiasco and a Trump presidency could be yugely expensive for Periodicals publishers. To provide more depth to that discussion, here are the relevant excerpts from the two reports.

The first is the brief "FSS Scorecard" section of the agency's Annual Compliance Report. It reveals that the already slow and erratic FSS machines ran even slower and worse last year -- despite various "tiger teams," machine tweaks, and changes to mailing rules that were also focused on making FSS work:

FSS Scorecard
Chart from USPS FY2016 Annual Compliance Review

The Postal Service continues to measure critical aspects of FSS performance at each processing location. The resulting scorecard is utilized to develop a list of specific sites with the greatest opportunity for improvement. The table reflects the Postal Service’s performance on the key metrics utilized by the scorecard.

The DPS percentage metric represents the percentage of all flats destinating in FSS zones that was sorted to DPS using FSS for city carrier delivery. Flats volume outside of the FSS DPS percentage is either processed on the automated flat sorting machine (AFSM) or in manual operations.

The Mail Pieces At-Risk percentage identifies the percentage of mail that does not follow the prescribed path of sortation through a machine-based operation (e.g., on the FSS). These pieces, while not representative of service failures, require some additional handling in order to ensure they meet service expectations. At-Risk metrics enable the Postal Service to identify operational processes and machine elements that need to be reviewed for possible improvement. The metrics are broken down into three groups – Maintenance, Operator, and Shared (both Maintenance and Operator) – based on the ability of that group to affect the metric being tracked. Data supporting these metrics are gathered from machine End-of-Run (EOR) statistics. The Postal Service uses raw event indicators from the machine, such as the number of jams, and extrapolates the potential number of pieces that have fallen outside normal processing. Proper maintenance and adherence to operational guidelines minimizes the pieces at risk, hence decreasing the indicator.

Below are two excerpts from the "FSS Pricing and Passthrough" section of a USPS report on Periodicals pricing that include a couple of interesting revelations: 

1) After eight-plus years, postal officials are still trying to figure out how to make the "infant" FSS process work. In other words, not only is the system not working, the USPS doesn’t have a plan yet for getting it to work. 

2) The original idea was that FSS copies would cost the USPS no more than carrier-route copies, but now the vision is for the savings on non-carrier-route copies to make up for the “slightly” higher costs of carrier-route copies. With carrier-route copies now constituting more than 70% of non-FSS flat mail (and likely to rise because of better incentives in the rates that will take effect later this month), it’s difficult to see how a system with such long-term underperformance will ever make that work:

The Postal Service’s experience with the FSS is in its relative infancy, and the Postal Service is still learning about which operational flows will minimize the cost of FSS processing. Currently, the presumed efficient preparation for FSS sites is governed more by mailing rules than by pricing incentives. ... 

The premise of the FSS program is that increased mail processing costs (possibly substantial increases for pieces that previously qualified for Carrier Route rates) would be offset by reductions in delivery costs. The net reduction is intended to be systemic, meaning that while overall costs are reduced, some individual components may decrease substantially (mail previously prepared as 5-Digit, 3-Digit, ADC and MADC), while some individual components may increase slightly (Carrier Route). The dilemma is that there is not a practical way to set rates to reflect the fact that, in FSS zones, there is no cost distinction between mail previously paying Carrier Route rates and mail previously paying 5-Digit rates. This dilemma is further complicated by the fact that mailers previously paying predominantly Carrier Route rates do not want higher prices for their Carrier Route pieces.

I’m told that postal officials won’t even discuss the possibility of scrapping the FSS or radically repurposing the machines. (Could the machines be used to sort inefficient mail pieces into carrier-route bundles? Could machines located near major printing plants be turned into giant co-mail machines?)

One issue is that casing units (which carriers use to sort flats into delivery sequence) have been removed from so many delivery units served by the FSS. In other words, before waiting to see whether the FSS would work as planned, postal officials “burned the ships.” Now they’re saying, “Shit, we have no way to get out of this God-forsaken place. Who knew?”

The floor space once devoted to casing units often gets turned over to the growing parcel business. And the wave of recently hired carriers doesn’t have the experience or route knowledge to case efficiently. (With the FSS failing to sort nearly half of the flat mail assigned to it, by the way, there’s still plenty of casing going on. But it’s increasingly being done by inexperienced people using inadequate space.)

So I can understand the reluctance to ditch the FSS. But why are postal officials wanting to throw good money after bad by subjecting yet more areas of the country to FSS processing?

Related articles:

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

You Won't Believe How Many Famous Men Died Last Month!!!

Bruce Willis dead. John Travolta dead. Facebook
Why "Fakebook" is the 2016 Publishing Word of the Year

December was a rough month for famous men, according to my Facebook feed. We lost Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Tiger Woods, and Denzel Washington.

Plus, Steve Martin, Chuck Norris, Bill Cosby and Hugh Hefner committed suicide.

Lucky for me, I’m in the publishing industry, so I know not to accept anything from Facebook at face value.

Many of my colleagues learned that lesson the hard way last year, after starting off 2016 thinking that Facebook was the path to publishing riches. Their traffic from Facebook was booming, and thanks to Facebook Instant Articles program they could make money by publishing articles directly on Facebook.

Tiger Woods dead; Facebook
They soon discovered that Facebook is a fair-weather friend. Instant Articles turned out not to be such a good deal for publishers. And about mid-year, Facebook tweaked its algorithms in ways that cut some publishers’ referrals in half.

Those death notices (“Clint is gone – After the rumors were confirmed true . . .”) aren’t the only Facebook fakeries. And we’re not just talking about out-of-date photos and other harmless profile enhancements. (The boobs on that friend you haven’t seen since high school? Totally fake. You would have remembered if they had looked like that. And if they had looked like that back then, imagine what gravity would have done to them by now.)

Tom Cruise dead; FacebookMarketing Land lists nine different Facebook reporting errors that came to light during the last four months of 2016 – nine different ways that Facebook misled publishers or advertisers. Those errors helped earn “Fakebook” a place on my list of 10 words that summarized publishing in 2016.

But the word deserves even better than that. Because "Fakebook" encapsulates several key trends – the continuing failures of digital advertising, a strategy pivot by publishers, and even the persistence of print magazines – I hereby declare it The Publishing Word of 2016.

Not dead yet
Let’s take a look at those fake obits, if you dare. They all linked to alleged articles, purportedly from well-known publishers, describing how the actually-not-dead celebrity overcame erectile dysfunction thanks to Advanced Alpha Testosterone Booster.

AATB contains Horny Goat Weed and other natural remedies and is endorsed by everyone’s favorite TV quack, Dr. Oz – so how could you go wrong?

Bill Cosby suicide
I swear I did not distort this "no-bit."
(I know what you’re thinking: Why does Facebook keep targeting these ads at me? Let me assure you that Mr. Tree is a hardwood, whose hands are larger than those of a certain President-elect. But I have published a few articles about Viagra, such as this. Like the furniture store that’s been stalking me on the web for months because I once accidentally clicked on one of its ads, these fake-obit ads demonstrate how easily online-ad targeting algorithms can go awry.)

The Bruce Willis obit (or is it a no-bit?) links to a supposed AARP interview (below) in which Willis’ wife describes how AATB perked up the couple’s sex life by bringing about Bruce’s miraculous resur-erection. (Hallelujah!) The fake article is surrounded by stuff copied from AARP’s web site (without the links) and even a copycat web address (

Bill Cosby erectile dysfunction; Camille Cosby
Sexual-assault victims worldwide will be pleased to see Bill Cosby’s wife proclaim – supposedly on Fox News -- that “now his hard erections last for two hours.”

But I call the attention of my publishing friends to that page’s “Featured in” list of mostly legacy-media trademarks, including four magazines, that are thoroughly abused in an attempt to give AATB a whiff of respectability.

Here’s the lesson: Even a sleazy seller of snake oil (Yeah, that’s unfair: Snakes don’t obsess about erectile dysfunction.) understands the credibility that’s still associated with magazine media – perhaps better than the publishers of those magazines.

Out-Fakebooking Fakebook
I think 2016 was the year publishers finally started getting the picture – when they accepted that they could never thrive simply by getting more page views for highly commoditized ads paying ever-decreasing CPMs. No publisher has the scale to out-Facebook Facebook or to survive on bottom-feeder ads.

Instead, consumer publishers are increasingly acting like the best B2B publishers, focusing on leveraging their reputations and their superior content to build engaged audiences that are attractive to premium advertisers. They are pursuing the kind of advertisers (and CPMs) that are increasingly turned off by Fakebook’s fakeries.

The native-advertising boom is especially beneficial to premium publishers that have solid reputations, providing a welcome escape from ad blocking and banner blindness.

Taboola on
And even good-old-fashioned print magazines are seen as part of the credibility equation: As Google has been telling us for several years, online information is more reliable if a respected publisher paid to put it into print – or even if it’s web-only content on a print-publication’s site.

Considering how bad 2016 apparently was for print advertising, relatively few magazines were shut down. No more are publishers planning the imminent demise of their magazines; instead, there’s more sharing of resources with the digital side and more recognition that being associated with a magazine differentiates a web site from the likes of Fakebook.

Sure, many magazine (and newspaper) companies sullied their credibility in the past year or so by jumping on the “recommendation engine” bandwagon, accepting money to post little turds of clickbait from networks like Outbrain, Taboola, and Revcontent.

Say what? Outbrain on
On the Sleaze Scale, items like “29+ Celebs Who Look Hot On TV, But Are Really Just Jerks” and “This Simple Skin Fix May Surprise You” pale in comparison with the worst of Fakebook ads. But they undercut our reputations and make our web sites less attractive to major-brand advertisers.

However, there’s good news on that front: I recently revisited the magazine-publishers’ sites I studied nine months ago for a Publishing Executive article on recommendation engines and was pleasantly surprised by what I saw – and what I didn’t see. Some publishers have toned down the sleaze and scaled back their use of recommendation engines, while others have kicked the clickbait habit altogether.

I’ll leave you with a few questions:
  • Have all of Facebook’s significant reporting errors been revealed? Or will more dirt surface  during 2017? 
  • Will Fakebook’s failings send more business to publishers, or will all the benefits accrue to Google? Or is Fakebook such a Teflon-coated irresistible force that not even all of these embarrassments will slow it down? 
  • Were Fakebook’s reporting errors just mistakes, or do they indicate something more systemic or even sinister? 
  • Wanna see Fakebook obits of Chuck Norris, Steve Martin, Hugh Hefner, and Clint Eastwood? They're featured now on the Dead Tree Edition Facebook page. If you see Fakebook "no-bits" of other famous, alive celebrities, send screenshots to and I'll post them as well.

Bruce and Emma Willis: erectile dysfunction