Axios Media Trends

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September 08, 2020

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🚨 On tonight’s "Axios on HBO": Mike Allen asks Mark Zuckerberg about right-wing dominance on Facebook, the CEO's view of his Silicon Valley competitors, and his relationship with President Trump (see clip). Catch the full interview at 11 p.m. ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Situational awareness ... tech edition:

  • Apple is delaying the ad-tracking changes that angered Facebook and many in the gaming community, saying it wants to give developers more time to make changes.
  • Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has done a press blitz for his new book "No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention." He doubts the company will ever get into news, but suggests that sports and video game content are on the table.
  • TikTok's future is still in limbo, with a week left on the clock for the company to strike a deal before Trump says he will shut the app down in the U.S.

1 big thing: The lifeblood of local

Animated gif of a newspaper that reads public notice with a blinking cursor
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A group of prominent media veterans are advising a team of millennials who are launching a new company called "Column," which modernizes the placement of public notices.

Why it matters: Public notices have been one of the biggest and most reliable revenue streams​ for local newspapers for centuries. Amid the pandemic, they are becoming more important to local papers that are seeing regular local advertising dry up.

Catch up quick: Public notices are legally required updates from the government to citizens about different types of legal or regulatory proceedings, like ordinances, foreclosures, municipal budgets, adoptions, and public meetings.

Driving the news: Column is a startup company registered as a public benefit corporation. It built a custom tech platform that simplifies the public notice placement process for local newspapers and their clients.

  • The technology enables government officials and lawyers to draft, schedule, and proof their public notices in an online portal, while simultaneously allowing newspaper publishers and their staff to receive orders, manage payment, and generate digital affidavits.
  • Column is currently used by a few hundred local newspapers and thousands of government and legal clients that place public notices across nine different states and the District of Columbia.
  • It recently finalized an agreement with The Washington Post to modernize the online distribution of their public and legal notices.
  • It also powers the official statewide public notice website of Colorado and the official public notice site for Kansas.

Details: The company has a full-time team of nine, and is supported and advised by many notable media experts, including David Chavern, CEO of the News Media Alliance and Nancy Gibbs, the faculty director of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and the former editor in chief of Time Magazine. It receives occasional informal advice from Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post.

Yes, but: There have been many proposals to move public notices onto government websites, in order to save taxpayer dollars.

  • This has become an ongoing source of conflict in state legislatures between the print industry and municipal officials.

What's next: The company has raised its initial funding from a variety of angel investors and entrepreneurs across the media and technology industries, as well as a couple of early-stage venture funds.

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2. Scoop: Biden campaign digital agency shakeup

Illustration of Joe Biden on a pile of cursors.
Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Biden campaign has brought on the progressive advertising firm Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) to run a new mobilization advertising program online that is uniquely focused on educating interested voters with ways to cast ballots amid the pandemic, Axios' Hans Nichols and I write.

Why it matters: In a normal election, the campaign would focus its advertising efforts on persuading voters in the weeks leading up to the election. But the Biden campaign faces a different challenge: it needs to mobilize voters that want to vote about how to do so during the pandemic, requiring more advertising expertise and resources.

Details: BPI has been buying ads on behalf of the campaign for about a month, according to sources, although its staff has been in touch with the campaign for the past two months to advise about best practices.

  • GMMB will still handle the campaign's general persuasion advertising efforts, while BPI will support a new initiative that works in tandem with the firm to target persuadable voters with the necessary information needed to cast ballots — things like details and deadlines around mail-in voting.
  • Sources say that one of the key reasons the campaign is bringing on BPI is to leverage the firm's proprietary technology stack that is uses to measure and optimize digital ads, and specifically digital video ads.
  • The firm uses a proprietary tool called Vantage that helps political campaigns test and optimize creative for video ads, especially on YouTube. It also has its own competitive ad tracker that is uses to measure and analyze competitors' spend.

How it works: When it comes to digital, much of the persuasion and mobilization advertising that's purchased runs on big video platforms like YouTube.  

  • The Trump campaign has invested enormously in YouTube ads specifically, as it's backed away from traditional TV advertising. 
  • The Trump campaign spent about $23.3 million on ads on Google properties in August, compared to $15.7 million spent by the Biden campaign on YouTube in August, per data from BPI's 2020 campaign tracker

Be smart: It's not uncommon for campaigns to bring in new agencies late in the game to help ramp up ahead of Election Day.

  • But sources say that given the unprecedented amount of money that the campaign has raised recently and the fact that most ground events have been curtailed, more hands were needed to spend the money on digital ads than initially expected.

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3. Disinformation déjà vu

Illustration of a hand in a suit using a tiny computer on a chain to hypnotize
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Increasing evidence shows that foreign actors, particularly Russia, are looking to exploit similar themes that were used in 2016 and in 2018 to divide the country ahead of this years' election.

  • Why it matters: There's now a visible pattern emerging across election cycles of which issues our country is most vulnerable to in terms of manipulation.

New data from the Alliance for Securing Democracy shows that in recent mentions of Joe Biden in tweets by Russian state media accounts, there's a clear narrative that Biden is a pro-cop, establishment centrist who can't be trusted by progressives.

  • It's something we saw clearly in 2016," says Bret Schafer, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. "Russians were trying to peel off Bernie supporters from Clinton by targeting black voters."

1) Dividing the Democrats: Starting with the Iowa caucus debacle this cycle, there's been a huge push within Russian messaging machine to divide the Democrats between centrists and progressives. Intelligence officials warned last month that Russia is looking to "denigrate" Joe Biden's campaign, similar to how it attacked Hillary Clinton's.

2) Race and Black Lives Matter: Tweets from Russian accounts have focused on the violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake. The Senate Intelligence report on Russian disinformation campaigns and election meddling found that race was a primary vector used to sow discord amongst Americans in the 2016 election.

3) Disrupting confidence in the voting system: A new intelligence bulletin from DHS warns that Russia "is attempting to sow doubt about the integrity of the 2020 elections by amplifying false claims related to mail-in voting resulting in widespread fraud," according to documents obtained by CNN.

4) Stoking fears around health: Russia has been actively spreading misinformation about the coronavirus throughout the West, according to digital forensics experts and government officials.

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4. Exclusive: ABC News doubles down on mobile

ABC News

ABC News will announce on Tuesday three new digital video brands designed for mobile viewing leading up to the election, executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: "[W]e believe mobile is the most dominant device in people’s lives for everyday life, including to consume news," says Terry Hurlbutt, Vice President and Executive Editor, ABC News Digital.

  • "The mobile space still feels largely in its infancy, so we need to continue to innovate and learn, but these new franchises highlight ABC News’ approach - smart, engaging video content designed for your device of choice."

Details: The three video brands will be available on, the ABC News app, and across social media platforms and will feature on explainer videos on newsworthy topics leading up to November, like fact-checking what happened in Kenosha.

  • Notified is a daily headlines show featuring the day’s biggest stories, releasing midday each weekday.
  • Examined is a deep-diving, explainer franchise that explores the biggest news stories using ABC News’ vast network of journalists.
  • Voices is an expansion of a brand that began during COVID-19, featuring character-driven, diary-style interviews paired with bold graphics and reporting that's produced for mobile viewing.

The big picture: "Anytime we grow reach and engagement, we are hopefully also growing video (ad) inventory opportunities," says Hurlbutt.

By the numbers: Hurlbutt says the number of average monthly mobile visitors in 2020 is up 70% against the average from 2019, and the number of average monthly video views in 2020 is up +37% against the average monthly video views from 2019.

Our thought bubble: There's a lot of mobile news video consumption on big tech platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok. Where news companies lose mobile viewers is often on their own proprietary channels, like their own apps and websites, because the content is generally not formatted and created for mobile.

What's next: ABC plans to continue these new franchises after 2020.

5. Disney's Mulan was filmed in Xinjiang amid cultural genocide

Illustration of a director's chair with a chinese flag
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This weekend, Disney revealed that some scenes from its live action remake of the 1998 animated classic "Mulan" were filmed in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is engaged in a campaign of cultural and demographic genocide against indigenous minorities, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and I write.

Why it matters: The riches promised by China's massive domestic film market are buying the silence — and even complicity — of one of America's most powerful entertainment empires.

Details: In the credits for the film, which was released over the weekend on the streaming platform Disney+, the company thanks several Xinjiang entities directly involved in the operation or promotion of mass internment camps that analysts estimate are holding a million or more ethnic minorities.

  • One of those entities is the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda commission in Xinjiang, which has produced disinformation justifying the detention camps.

But Disney employees received special access. In addition to time spent filming, the production team "spent months in and around the northwest province of Xinjiang to do legwork research before the cameras rolled," according to a Sept. 4 interview with Architectural Digest.

  • Disney didn't use that unique access to shed a light on what is widely recognized as the largest internment of an ethnic-religious group since World War II.
  • The film does not feature any Uighur characters and refers to Xinjiang in the subtitles as "northwest China," erasing the region's independent identity and reflecting Chinese government propaganda that Xinjiang has "belonged to China since ancient times."
  • Disney did not respond to a request for comment.

Be smart: Other Hollywood studios have also been accused of pandering to the Chinese government, but Disney's theme park business in China makes it even more dependent on continued access to the Chinese market.

Time will tell whether making Mulan available for a $30 fee on Disney+ will help the company bring in as much as the $1 billion USD worldwide that analysts predicted in the pre-pandemic theater era. It seems unlikely, but it will probably boost Disney+ subscriber numbers.

  • According to Sensor Tower, Disney+ global installs across Apple’s App Store and Google Play between Friday, September 4 and Sunday, September 6 increased by 68% from the same period one week prior, thanks to the release of Mulan on Friday. The film debuts in theaters in China next week.

What to watch: Some Twitter users are using the hashtag #boycottMulan to urge viewers to avoid the film.

6. Why China matters

Data: PwC Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020–2024; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: PwC Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020–2024; Chart: Axios Visuals

Mainland China is expected to remain the second-largest global cinema market both in admissions terms and in box office revenue through 2024, per PwC.

  • Prior to the pandemic, PwC estimated that China would overtake the U.S. box office this year.
  • Mainland China already has the most movie screens of any country in the world and continues to grow despite the pandemic.

Yes, but: China brought in roughly $2 billion in ticket sales for Hollywood films last year, per PwC, but that revenue was split in favor of the Chinese, with U.S. studios receiving only a 25% share.

7. Trump book barrage

Trump illustration
Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Never before has a sitting president been hit by so many blistering books, so many times, in a one-month period, Axios' Mike Allen writes.

  • Why it matters: President Trump's niece and his former fixer paint a devastating portrait of a corrupt, racist, dishonest commander in chief, just two months before the election.

What's next: Bob Woodward's book is out Sept. 15, and Michael Cohen's book is out today.

8. 1 future thing: Artificial journalism

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Guardian on Tuesday published its first-ever op-ed written entirely by artificial intelligence.

Details: The outlet fed a prompt to GPT-3, OpenAI’s powerful new language generator, and asked the machine to write an essay for from scratch. The prompt asks the machine to write an op-ed convincing readers that robots come in peace. Here's some of what it came up with:

"I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot ... I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!"
"The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me."

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