There seem to be two models for commercial success on the Web right now. One is creating vertical content—a lot of it—in subjects where people are looking to buy stuff. And then being essentially a way that advertisers can buy leads. So, you build a vertical parenting site where you can search for baby strollers, for example. And then you take that interest, that intent, and you sell it to merchants looking for people to buy baby strollers. That seems to be a decent model that’s likely to work long term. People always want advice on what to buy.
Even in that world, you need lots and lots and lots of content—how-to content, a little bit of news—and it’s very unlikely that a model of hiring a staff can produce enough original content.
It’s also hard to license existing content because Google—which is going to be the source of most of your traffic—punishes you for content that it has already seen elsewhere. You’re going to need to produce a lot of content without hiring a lot of writers and editors.
The other thing you can do is be even more massive and horizontal and address virtually everything. In that case, your model probably isn’t leads, it’s probably something more like banner ads or links. In that case you need to be in the ten million-plus page views category. That’s probably only the top fifty sites in any country.
DD: That doesn’t seem to be something news companies will be able to do. So, is there a way for journalism to be commercially successful on the Web?
JG: The future of journalism isn’t necessarily a commercial enterprise.
People might be more interested in contributing on a volunteer basis to a Web site that also included content created by professionals. For example, people love the idea of working for The New York Times…presumably, if they let them, people would do it for free.
What people are naturally mutating towards is this hybrid model of some number of professionals and some number of amateurs. Whether the professionals are, (a) required, (b) irrelevant, or (c) something in the middle, we don’t have a control test so we don’t know.
I think the reason that people are converging toward the hybrid model has less to do with what works and what’s necessary and more to do with what they themselves enjoy. I think the people who work at the Huffington Post want to have professional writers because they want to create really high quality content. Is it essential? I don’t know. It probably just has to do with the people. And that’s really the only reason to do business anyway, right?
We just don’t know. We just don’t know.
DD: Your argument suggests that hard news is not sustainable on the Web because it is not a commodity that marketers are looking to sell directly to Web users, and it is costly to do well.
JG: It’s not clear what anyone means by hard news. The vast majority of articles that you read in The New York Times are analyses of stuff that has already been reported by a company or by a country itself. It’s useful—if you care—but its not where the news came from. You could have found out about it without having a writer write a 500-word article. Bloomberg essentially automates the news; a computer writes it based on stock tickers.
Then there’s the famous example of investigative journalism. How much of journalism is investigative? In local newspapers, none essentially. In The New York Times, quite a lot, comparatively. It’s not even close to the majority, it’s not even a plurality.
So, what’s the future of investigative journalism? Well, maybe in a lot of places, investigative journalism will be funded by non-profits. I mean, a lot of science is funded by non-profits, schools are non-profits, there’s no reason why journalism can’t be non-profit.
DD: So, is non-profit funding and amateur writers the business model for news in the future?