Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How to Combat Fake News

After spending a lot of time monitoring the media -- particularly mainstream media with a liberal and a conservative bias -- it's clear that as a country, Americans can't agree on facts. 

Our intent is not to be political, though. The problem for journalists, the media, companies that rely on communicating via the media as well as the people who consumer the media is that: content designed to disinform is causing a credibility problem. (We realize "disinform" is not a real word but perhaps it should be. And we get the irony of using a made up word to discuss the implications of fake news. Also, there's a real difference between disinformation and  news with which one disagrees.)

As part of our list of ongoing predictions, we said we're going to have a problem with a shorter news cycle combined with fake news, which is not going to fade away in 2018. This will get worse as we get closer to the midterm elections.

So what can we do about fake news?

Facebook is altering its news feed, allowing users to identify sources they feel are credible. Google is also changing its algorithm. 

And some are hoping that Congress should get involved and regulate (or try to) big tech or hope that big tech itself will adjust things to reduce the impact of fake news while also helping users weaken the hold of addiction of their products and services.

We don't think those Congress will be affective here (not necessarily their fault; the companies on their own aren't able to figure out a way to improve their credibility).

One solution we'd like came from Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum, in a Wall St. Journal op-ed column, "How to Beat the Scourge of Fake News: Facebook and Google can’t do it alone. Better educating consumers is crucial" in Dec. 12, 2016.

That seems so long ago, it might hardly still be relevant.

Herbst notes something important:
This is hardly the first time that fake news has been controversial. The “yellow journalism” of the late 19th century featured fake news, false interviews, and an obsessive focus on crime
His solution to fake news is to:
Teach media literacy to millions of students...They become better citizens by learning how to discern what is true and what is not on social media by analyzing sources and making evidence-based arguments.
We don't see this as a 100 percent solution by any stretch. But it is more effective than posting a list of apparent fake news as was done, recently, much to the humor of late night comedians.

Check out the article, and let us know if you have additional suggestions.

It's important for journalism, for public relations professionals -- and most of all, for our country.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Bloomberg Businessweek Validates Our "Age of Anxiety" Prediction

Add to Bloomberg Businessweek the list that already includes the Wall St. Journal and the New York Times of publications that have validated our prediction that 2018 is the "age of anxiety."

Check out our prediction here but check out, also, this article by Bloomberg Businessweek's Editorial Board: "A New Year's Wish: Better Social Media:Why is everyone hooked on a product that makes them miserable?" (Original print headline: "Social Media Doesn't Have to Be Terrible.")

A key line:
Across Silicon Valley, insiders have lately been raising similar concerns, and fretting that the business model of social media may be undermining the well-being of its users. A growing body of research suggests they have a point.
Even more significant:
Among the young, social media may be playing a role in rising rates of depression and suicide. It seems to induce feelings of envyanxiety and inadequacy. It appears to reduce self-esteem, inhibit sleep, interfere with schoolwork and (of all the ironies) encourage antisocial behavior. Some two-thirds of kids now say they wouldn't mind if social media didn't exist. And who can blame them? 
The problem is that it's hard to quit.
Welcome to what we’ve called the age of anxiety. The things that we rely on to get through our day, to connect to family, friends, colleagues, and our communities at large are the same things that undermine our sense of self and our happiness.

Worse – many of us recognize that our reliance on our screens and on social media is making us unproductive and unhappy but we can’t break the addiction. And this isn’t just a problem for teens; it’s a problem for everyone.

Bloomberg Businessweek’s Editorial Board suggests that “it’s up to social media business to make its products more humane and less exploitive” but we don’t think they are truly motivated to do so since making it easier to disconnect means taking a hit on their revenue.

Look, we don’t have an answer, either. And we continue to be on social media, too.

Hoping won’t make it so, but as Bloomberg Businessweek’s Editorial Board says about what social media tries to do – bring about human connection – “it’s worth reflecting on how to meet that desire (human connection) – without making everyone miserable in the process.”

Couldn’t agree with that more. Do you have suggestions for how to reduce our anxiety? Let us know.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Play the Retailpocalypse Game

We've been talking about retailpocalypse -- not because we want it to happen. But because we feel it is happening, and few are paying enough attention to it.

Interestingly, Bloomberg Businessweek is paying attention. They've developed a Retailpocalypse game to show how hard it is for malls to survive in this age of Amazonification.

You can play it here.

By the way, there's no way to win, we believe, based on playing the game several times.

Also, you should know: When the game ends, a laughing Jeff Bezos fills the screen.

We do hope Bloomberg is wrong but we definitely feel there will be a shakeout in retail.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Boston Globe's "Tech Nomad" Recognizes Screen Addiction + 3 types of solutions that aren't going to work

At some point there may be a backlash to this trend but for the moment, there is a rising recognition that as a society, we are overly dependent on our devices, and that what we're all suffering from is screen addition.

Screen addiction is something we discussed in our predictions for 2018, published in December 2017.

The Boston Globe's "Tech Nomad" columnist, Michael Andor Brodeur, recently wrote about this in a column entitled, "Hard Wired: Our smartphone habits are more like full-blown addictions. So how can we regain control?"

So we consider ourselves validated but that still means we're addicted.

 What's worse, Brodeur suggests that the proliferation of virtual assistants like Alexa presents another opportunity to become addicted to tech. And he's right about that.

So, what to do?

Brodeur cites other industry experts who suggest we should:
  • Simply switch your phone to grayscale. By muffling the ways your phone uses contrast, color, and, for lack of better phrasing, sparkly stuff to recruit your attention, the phone becomes less of a dazzling gem to gaze into, and more of a utilitarian brick.
Brodeur also mentions phone-free zones and Yondr, which provides a case in which you place your phone in spaces for artists, educators, organizations, etc. and the case, with a lock, prevents you from temporarily accessing your phone. Seems unnecessary. For all that, you could just agree to turn off your phone.

But the hard part is that so far in the articles we've read about phone addiction, we've come across three types of solutions:
  1. Rely on Apple and others to design smartphones that are less addicting.
  2. Ask Congress to find a way to regulate big tech to reduce distractions.
  3. Identify lifehacks (as in the bullet above) to weaken your addiction.
Of the three, the most likely to happen is #3. But we're open to suggestions. One of us goes on a Facebook hiatus for a week at a time, and combined with the decision to stop checking whenever an alert lights up his phone, finds himself less tense and anxious. But in our business, you can't go cold turkey on news and social media. Which doesn't mean we can't try to break the addiction, just that find ways to scale back and find a better balance.

Suggestions? Send them our way!

Monday, February 5, 2018

First Big Retail Bankruptcy Validates Prediction About Retailpocalypse Due to Amazonification

We're interested in retail as a bellwether of our consumer-based economy. Or, more accurately these days, the canary in the coal mine. 

Last year we raised concerns about problems affecting the retail sector because there are a number of other parts of the economy that rely on retail, including real estate, newspaper and other local advertising, employment, and logistics. So when retail hit a downturn, there's a trickle-down affect.

We mentioned those issues and made it our top prediction for this year. We wrote about it further in a subsequent blog post: The Wall St. Journal Validates Our Prediction in a Column Entitled, "How Retailers Can Thrive in the Age of Amazon."

Today, Fortune reported that "Bon-Ton Stores Becomes Latest Retailer to March Into Bankruptcy Protection."  Here's the key sentence:

The Milwaukee-based retailer, whose chains include namesake stores as well as Carson’s, Elder-Beerman, Herberger’s and Younkers, has been struggling for years with declining sales amid challenged traffic at the malls it occupies, an assortment redundant with what rivals sell, and difficulty adapting to the emergence of e-commerce.
Those factors are exacerbated by Amazonification. And they will continue to impact other mall-based retailers in 2018 and beyond.

Interestingly, much of the coverage to date has focused on bankruptcy filings or impact on shares without taking a bigger perspective such as the impact of store closings. Bon-Ton had already announced it was shutting 40 stores but the chain has 260 stores overall, and with it, significant real estate leases and obligations. In fact, filing for bankruptcy makes it easier to break leases.

So what's not getting reported is the trickle-down nature of the suddenly unemployed retail staff, both on the sales floor and logistics, maintenance, and other services -- people who will face a hard time finding new jobs since few retailers are expanding -- as well as the impact on the malls themselves (because boarded up stores don't attract customers so it can start a downward spiral impact on the health of that particular mall location), and newspaper ad revenue (since those stores no longer need to advertise to bring in local customers).

 The reason this isn't getting covered is that, even in good times for retail, the sector is dynamic with new stores opening and other ones closing. But our concern is that we don't think there will be enough new stores to replace the ones that have closed. And even if Bon-Ton restructures its debt and gets out of Chapter 11 -- for now -- it still hasn't developed a strategy to address Amazonification. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Fortune Validates Our Prediction That A Key Retail Story is Amazonification

We don't like the terms, "Amazonification" or " retailpocalypse” but in our predictions for 2018, we felt that a major trend in how reporters cover retail this year would invariably mention the impact Amazon is having on the sector.

Latest example, Fortune magazine's "3 Retail Stocks That Amazon Won't Crush." But check out the original print headline and subhead: "Filing Retail's Empty Spaces: Fundamental changes in the way people shop have driven brick-and-mortar retail stocks down to clearance-sale lows. But the retail chains that survive today's shakeout could pay off big for investors."

Both touch on Amazon and some of the details in our retailpocalypse prediction.

The article does say that "in-store shopping is hardly disappearing -- Forrester Research estimates that 87% of retail sales in 2017 took place in stores," but it continues ominously, "shoppers are shifting their loyalties, seeking out retailers who can compete for their time with low prices and online options in the era of Jeff Bezos's 'everything store.'"

As to which three stores investors should consider, check out the Fortune article itself.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Wall St. Journal's Tech Columnists Validate Our Tech Predictions

On Dec. 14, 2017, we issued a set a trends for 2018 followed by another set of trends the next day and a final set the following week. We touched on a wide range of topics including: retail vs. Amazon, screen addiction, potential for government regulations against big tech, labor shortage, continued conversation about gender issues, a changing media landscape, AI and robotics, bitcoin and cryptocurrency, smart home tech, a shorter news cycle, the continued battle over fake news, cord cutting, VR and AR, IoT (because tech loves acronyms), driverless cars, virtual assistants, and more.

That's not even everything we discussed.

But we're citing those because over at the Wall St. Journal, tech columnist Joanna Stern and Christopher Mims also issued a comprehensive list of predictions for 2018. Their list, published Dec. 27, 2017, "Tech That Will Change Your Life in 2018," includes similar predictions.

Which we say validates the ones we made two weeks earlier.
  • We said driverless and electric cars would generate a lot of attention -- because our goal in identifying trends is to figure out the media mindset to help our clients develop stories that matter to reporters they care about -- while Sterns and Mims provided more detail on where driverless cars will go in 2018. They think electric cars will get cheaper, and we hope so.
  • They said that Facebook, facing "scrutiny over the fake news," would go back it's roots and "put the 'social' back in social network." We also predicted that Facebook would have to change as a result of the backlash stemming from fake news on Facebook (as well as on Twitter). So glad we're on the same page.
  • We talked about Amazonification and Sterns and Mims said, "Amazon Takes Over (Even More)." Again, they dug deeper into the impact -- saying that Amazon will do more with furniture and appliances, office services, pharmacies and supermarkets, and that the company "is on track to employ more than 500,000 people in 2018." We agree with all that. Our take, however, has also addressed the potential huge problem for retail, real estate, employment and small towns if Amazonification really takes hold.
  • They said "cryptovurrency feels less cryptic" while we said bitcoin and blockchain, while not mainstream yet (by which we mean: something that everyone has invested in), "finally reaches a point where people who haven’t paid attention at least have heard of the two cryptocurrency terms." 
  • They said, "The Net Loses Neutrality" and we asked, "Is the Internet dying?" because ending net neutrality helps Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, among others.
  • They said A.I. moves in everywhere and we said A.I. continues to be hot but also that we expect to see articles concerned about a takeover by A.I. 
  • They said, "The assault on security and privacy continues," and we agreed, saying, "There's never enough cybersecurity and privacy." Frankly, we preferred our phrasing better but their description of what's happening and steps to take is better than our version. (Of course, they are tech columnists.)
We're pleased one tech prediction article by such insightful tech columnists dovetailed closely with our predictions. It means that our insights into the media world based on these trends can be helpful to current and prospective clients.

Let us know if you have any questions about what these trends could mean for your business. Leave a message on this blog or email us at info@birnbachcom.com. Either way, we'll respond quickly.