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But even if the effort is as successful as the Chronicle hopes, Sweeney figures it would do no more than match the current revenue from one of the paper’s biggest advertisers. In other words, it will be a big help but is not, in itself, a replacement for the old business model. “This has become a nickel-and-dime business,” he says. “And you need a lot of nickels and dimes.”
A decade ago, KSL, a local TV station in Salt Lake City, came up with what was then a novel idea: It would start its own classified-ads section on KSL.com and end its relationship with a company that was already providing that service for the site.
“We were making like $300,000 a year [in revenue] on the partnership, which back then was a lot of money online,” says Clark Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of Deseret Digital Media. But the station, an NBC affiliate, saw the change as a way to build traffic to the site. Its classifieds service would also be a way to showcase the moral standards of its owner, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Deseret Digital Media runs the online properties for the church’s TV station and its newspaper, the Deseret News, along with sites more obviously of the church, MormonTimes.com and DeseretBook.com.
Today, KSL.com is a powerhouse on the web. The site has more than 4 million unique users and generates an astounding 250 million page views a month, says Gilbert. (By contrast, KSL’s sister property, the Deseret News, has a more typical audience of about 2.5 million unique users and thirty million page views; the website of a competing newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, has roughly the same size audience.) In a recent study of web traffic data in major markets, a company called Internet Broadcasting found that KSL.com reaches 48.8 percent of its local market. That is more than any local media outlet in the survey but one, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s site. And it is far beyond the web footprint of the top local TV stations, which average under 20 percent market share.
Still, all that traffic didn’t keep Deseret Digital Media from announcing layoffs last year at the Deseret News that, despite the sunny headline that announced the news (“Deseret News set to lead, innovate”), resulted in a cutback of 43 percent of the newspaper’s workforce and consolidation of some news-gathering operations with KSL-TV. (The Salt Lake Tribune announced the layoffs with some competitive schadenfreude: “Tribune to press ahead in face of News changes.”)
KSL.com’s strategy relies partly on its worldwide audience of church members, but it also offers useful lessons for news organizations seeking untraditional ways to build a digital audience.
The classifieds themselves are mostly free, though advertisers can pay up to $10 a day to get prominent placement. The classifieds pages also host other ads, and more importantly, they are responsible for about 70 percent of KSL.com’s total traffic, so they provide tremendous benefits to the rest of the site. The pages carry prominent links to news stories and videos on KSL.com, which helps to generate 70 million to 80 million page views a month for content that isn’t classified ads. “The main route to the site is still the news page,” Gilbert said. “We haven’t tried to make ‘KSL.com/classifieds’ our bookmark. That made the [KSL] news site bigger than any other news site in the market.”
Gilbert adds that there is another benefit: “Here’s something hard for old-media people to accept. Our news content gave a level of trust to the classifieds, and classifieds drove relevance back to the news.” Or, put another way, the fact that readers have come to rely on the classifieds under the KSL brand helped to build relevance and credibility in the news as well.