Five on Friday: Spyware Attacks, Shopping Trends and Subscription Growth

Featuring Alden Global Capital, Tribune Publishing, Google Chrome, Piano and WW

As June winds down, we publish our last Five on Friday of the month. In this week’s edition, Poynter reminds us that June 30 could be the day for Alden Global Capital to take controlling interest in Tribune Publishing. Also, Google Chrome browser extensions are being used in a massive spyware attack, eMarketer shares coronavirus consumer shopping trends, Local Media Consortium offers subscription management platform Piano to its members, and shares of WW jump 20% as the company reports a 7% boost in subscriptions.

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Will Alden Global Capital Takeover Tribune Publishing on June 30?

In November 2019, Alden Global Capital purchased 11.5 million share of Tribune Publishing stock for $145.5 million, giving it a 32% ownership stake in the company. It also gained two seats of an eight-member board. At that time, Alden agreed they would not expand their ownership to more than 33% until June 30, 2020.

Billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who owns the Los Angeles Times, is the second-largest shareholder with 8.7 million shares, or 24% of the company. He is also restricted from acquiring more stock until June 30. With that date looming, what will Alden do?

Will Alden Global Capital take controlling interest of Tribune Publishing on June 30?

Tribune Publishing owns The (New York) Daily News, The Baltimore (Maryland) Sun, The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, The Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, The (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel, the Daily Press (Virginia), The Virginian-Pilot (Virginia) and The Morning Call (Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania).

In January, two investigative reporters, David Jackson and Gary Marx, for the Chicago Tribune were hoping to find local investors to take over the newspaper. In a January 19 op-ed published in The New York Times, the reporters said they were concerned that Alden would continue its strategy of acquiring local newsrooms and stripping them of assets, including deep staff cuts. Another Tribune investor – Mason Slaine of Florida, who owns a 7.9% stake in the company – would prefer to see each of the newspapers under local ownership rather than under Alden’s thumb.

“As a shareholder, I think the company would be best served, and more importantly the communities would be best served, with local ownership,” Slaine said. “I don’t see that the centralization of Tribune is adding any value.”

In January, Tribune Publishing offered voluntary buyouts to employees at nine of its papers. In April, the company furloughed some of its non-union staff because of declining ad revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others would take pay cuts.

In a June 17 article for Poynter, “Decision Day is Coming for the Future of Tribune Publishing,” Rick Edmonds dissects the issue.

“My experience in 15 years of covering the industry is that single papers are occasionally sold by chains – but typically at a substantial premium of 30% to 100% of market valuation,” Edmonds said. “That local buyers could be found for most or many of the Tribune’s nine markets seems unlikely – but not impossible.”

According to Edmonds, Tribune Publishing has very little debt, and it made $500 million from the sale of the Los Angeles Times, so it is an attractive newspaper chain to purchase. If Alden takes controlling interest of the paper, it could force Tribune to further cut staff and slash expenses, or it could sell off individual papers to local owners.

No one but Alden knows what its plans are, but it is likely we’ll see movement of some kind next week.

Awake Reports Massive, Criminal Spyware Attack Via Google Chrome Browser Extensions

Google Chrome browser extensions are being used to conduct a massive, criminal surveillance spyware attack that affects millions of users, writes cybersecurity firm Awake. With Google Chrome’s browser representing a 47.9% market share, as of December 2020, according to Statista, this is a serious issue.

Google Chrome browser extensions are being used to conduct a massive, criminal surveillance spyware attack that affects millions of users.

The spyware attacks are being facilitated by CommuniGal Communication LTD. (GalComm), an internet domain registrar, who has abetted the malicious activity in hundreds of networks while staying hidden beneath layers of security, says Awake. Under the cover of Chrome browser extensions, user data is being stolen. Here are some stats from Awake’s report on the spyware attack:

  • So far, there have been more than 32.9 million downloads of the malicious browser extensions that were live in the Chrome Web Store as of May 2020.
  • 15,160 domains, or 60% of GalComm’s total domains, are malicious or suspicious.
  • In the last three months, Awake has harvested 111 malicious or fake Chrome extensions using GalComm domains. The browser extensions offer functionality like screenshots, reading clipboards, harvested credentials found in cookies, and obtaining user keystrokes for passwords, so consumers think they are downloading useful tools, but the tools are responsible for the spyware attacks.

Read more about Awake’s findings, and how you can protect yourself, at AwaleSecurity.com.

How Consumer Shopping Trends Have Shifted in a COVID-19 World

Do you remember our pre-COVID-19 lives, when we could walk about freely, dine in restaurants, and shop in our favorite stores until we dropped? The pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, as we have learned to focus on getting basic necessities (e.g., hand sanitizer, toilet paper, groceries) over luxuries, working at home, educating our kids, and trying to stay entertained.

In February 2020, when the pandemic began to hit the U.S., eMarketer measured the top 10 U.S. companies ranked by their share of retail ecommerce sales. Amazon was the clear winner at 38.7%.

Here are a few other notable shopping trends, according to eMarketer.

  1. In an April study by Ipsos and USA Today, 41% of survey respondents said they are doing more shopping online instead of brick-and-mortar stores. Thirteen percent said they were shopping in stores about the same amount in March as in April.
  2. Apparel and appliance purchases were down, while food and household supply purchases were significantly higher.
  3. Consumers are consuming more media, particularly video. In a March study by GlobalWebIndex, those surveyed said they were watching more broadcast TV, streaming services and news than before, at about 40% each.

Read more in Nina Goetzen’s article, “How Consumers’ Spending Habits, Media Consumption and Brand Perceptions Have Shifted During the Pandemic,” on eMarketer.com.

Local Media Consortium Partners with Subscription Management Platform Piano

Last week, the nonprofit Local Media Consortium announced a partnership with Piano, a subscription management and customer service experience provider. Through the partnership, LMC will make the Piano platform available to its members at a preferred member rate to help manage and monetize reader engagement and to streamline subscription acquisitions and management. LMC is comprised of more than 4,000 local media outlets from 90 different media companies.

“We are delighted to add Piano to our list of distinguished tech partners and provide their innovative digital business platform to our members,” said Fran Wills, CEO of the LMC. “By joining forces with Piano, the LMC facilitates even greater benefits for local media companies, enabling our members to build dedicated audiences and increase revenue.”

Currently, Piano manages 1.6 million subscriptions and tracks 34.1 billion pageviews. Publishers who use Piano typically see growth between 200% and 2000% in the first two years after launch, according to a June 18 news release. Piano’s clients include the Wall Street Journal, Gannett, CNBC, TechCrunch, Business Insider, Golf Digest and The Economist, among others.

“Piano loves working with innovative media companies of all sizes, to help them better understand and engage with their users, and to build new revenue streams — and we’re proud to be partnering with the LMC’s members to do exactly that,” said Trevor Kaufman, CEO of Piano. “Using the Piano platform and services, LMC members will be able to launch and optimize a paid content strategy, personalize their offerings, reduce ad blocking, and visualize their results.”

WW Stock Gets a 20% Boost After Company Reports Subscription Growth

After reporting 7% subscription growth year-over-year, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) saw a 20% boost in stock prices, reports TheStreet. As of June 6, WW had 4.9 million subscribers, including 3.8 million digital subscribers and 1.1 million studio subscribers. The digital subscribers enjoy an all-digital experience in the WW app, where studio + digital subscribers can access studios in their areas for in-person support. The company has about 400 health and wellness studios which have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe now more than ever, people need a trusted partner in health and wellness. WW is positioned to be that partner on a global scale. Our scientifically-backed approach continues to resonate with consumers around the world and we are seeing renewed momentum in member signups for our Digital offering – bringing Digital membership to an all-time high,” said Mindy Grossman, WW president and CEO.

“We are accelerating our digital transformation, focusing our strategy and resources to enhance the member experience and engagement by delivering a connected, digital, and deeply-human experience. Our recently concluded Oprah’s Your Life in Focus: A Vision Forward – Live Virtual Experience has led to over 3 million views, elevating our brand around the world for our members and consumers,” added Grossman.

Other second quarter highlights from the company’s June 15 news release include the following:

  • Starting in the middle of April 2020, digital growth returned with weekly growth accelerating, ahead of first quarter growth.
  • The recruitment mix has shifted toward the company’s digital business with 90% of new recruits since mid-March coming from digital subscribers.
  • Member retention remains above 10 months.

By the end of the second quarter, WW expects digital subscription revenue to increase as a percentage of total revenue while studio subscriptions and in-studio product sales will decline. The latter will be offset by an increase in digital subscriptions and ecommerce product sales.

Duing the pandemic, WW has seen a 7% increase in digital subscriptions, boosting stock by 20%.
Duing the pandemic, WW has seen a 7% increase in digital subscriptions, boosting stock by 20%. Photo courtesy of WW

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