Sure, you need clicks. Yes, you should update. And of course you need to be on the news. But it is understatement to say that new financial models of digital journalism are still being worked out, and that no one knows which ones will endure. Consider that even the science of measuring Web traffic is still in its infancy. In May, competing measurement firms, Nielson NetRatings and comScore, measured Yahoo’s traffic and differed by 34 million readers, as a new study by Ph.D. students here at Columbia’s journalism school explains. And getting from clicks to dollars involves another set of calculations. “Everybody wants traffic,” Lucas Graves, one of the study’s authors, told me. “But the ways it translates into dollars are very complex and rarely direct.” (Graves’s piece for CJR, based on the study, can be found here.) The great hope for the Web future, The Huffington Post, still only manages to generate revenue amounting to $1 per reader per year, according to a recent piece in Newsweek. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but the site’s editorial formula—which involves search-engine optimization up the wazoo—is controversial, to say the least, and the revenue figures are still relatively small.
Finally, self-styled newsroom “realists,” those who believe that life is one long twilight struggle for page views, may already be fighting the last war. In CJR’s July/August issue, our science editor, Curtis Brainard (and, yes, that’s the name of our science editor; CJR wanted me to change mine to “Malcolm Bucksworth” but I refused), makes a convincing case that mobile devices, with their apps and other paid subscription schemes, offer journalism its best hope to make money in a digital age. Brainard says these mobile-device strategies focus on a curated news experience and deep reader engagement and will involve a whole new series of metrics.
The point is that it may be true that there is money in cranking out sixty-three-word briefs like, “Microwave Sparks Fire, Kills Dog” (Washingtonpost.com, 8/9/10), but you’d have to prove it. No one has.
So to all you editors laying off your best storytellers, rewarding quick hits, and letting your investigative assets wither, I say this: you will be sorry. For the rest of us, the Hamster Wheel’s logical conclusion is Demand Media, the world’s leading hamster-powered content farm, which employs 7,000 freelancers, produces 4,500 items every day, uses algorithms to figure out what to write, has passed The New York Times in traffic, and has just filed for an IPO. It publishes some stuff—“How To Make a Festivus Pole,” “How To Choose Bondage Videos”—that is literally incredible.
Demand Media lives by a six-point “manifesto” that ends with an appropriate dictum: “Never rest.”