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?
JG: The Daily Kos is an interesting example. They decided over time that they wanted to hire professional writers. They went the opposite way of what The New York Times is trying to do. Did they do it because they needed it? Probably not, they were a pretty successful Web site before and there were a lot of people who would contribute content for free, but they wanted it.
I guess the main thing to realize about the history of newspapers is that The New York Times didn’t become important because it had great content. That may be the way The New York Times remembers it, but it’s not true. The reason The New York Times became important is because they controlled the printing presses and the unions; it was the means of distribution that mattered. Given that success, they obviously moved on to what they thought was important-investigative journalism.
It was the monopoly that created the journalism, not the journalism that created the monopoly.
DD: Given that it would be impossible for such a distribution monopoly to recreate itself on the Web, would you say that it was a mistake for newspapers to get involved in the Web in the first place?