The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in its worthy manner, has come out with a 146-page report entitled “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism”. It includes the story of Gabriel Sherman’s 463-word story on nymag.com about Roger Ailes and Sarah Palin, and Jack Mirkinson’s 237-word distillation of the story for HuffPo. While the former got good traffic from the latter, the HuffPo version was still much more popular than the original.
The Columbia report doesn’t examine why the HuffPo version was so relatively successful—the fact that HuffPo’s story is in its headline, for instance, while New York went cryptic with “Going Rogue on Ailes Could Leave Palin on Thin Ice”, and didn’t get to the actual news until the third paragraph. But the anecdote packs a punch all the same: if you blather on too long, people are liable to ignore you.
So let me try to find some of the good bits for you, since I know you’re not going to read the whole thing, and especially because the most interesting stuff—at least as far as I’m concerned—doesn’t even begin until page 110. That’s where we find this:
For decades, there has been a connection between the journalism that news organizations provide and the advertisements that generate most of their revenue. Whether it’s a glossy spread that runs before the table of contents in a fashion magazine, or the anchorman’s “more after this message” assurance on the local Eyewitness News, ads and content have always been closely linked in the stream that appears before the consumer.
That linkage is breaking down, and news organizations are scrambling to replace it with something else.That may mean selling ads on sites they don’t own or control. “Creating content doesn’t ensure a well-sized audience,” says Chris Hendricks, vice president of interactive media at newspaper chain McClatchy Co.“We’re accepting of the fact that the two may be disengaged.”
If you’re going to reinvent the business of journalism for the digital era, this is a really fruitful place to start—the idea that although the business and the journalism are always going to be linked, they don’t necessarily need to be linked through the slightly kludgy old-media mechanism of simple adjacency.
I’ve spent roughly fifteen years now listening to people come up with a fantastic idea for a website which basically boils down to a single dubious business model: we’ll create great editorial content, loads of people will love that content and visit our site, and then we can sell those people to advertisers by running banner ads.
Given the astonishing number of websites out there trying to make that business model work, it’s a statistical inevitability that some of them will make money—even if it’s usually by means of paying their employees very little and their founders nothing at all. And some subset of those sites can properly be considered journalism, although maybe not journalism of the sort that CJR types generally think of when they hear the word. (I doubt Gawker or Techcrunch are going to win any Pulitzers any time soon.)
When you move away from the ad-adjacency model, however, things get a lot more interesting and exciting. Journalistic organizations have reach and credibility in their communities, whether those communities are geographical, topical, or something else. And that reach and credibility can be monetized in a number of different ways.
One way to do that is to sell ad space not just on your own site but on other sites, too. The ad-sales teams at local newspapers, for instance, tend to have good relationships with a lot of local businesses, who might well want reach beyond the paper and its website. Meanwhile, bigger websites don’t really know who those businesses are, or how to reach them. And when you have a lot of inventory to sell, you can get much more inventive and sophisticated. Consider McClatchy’s relationship with Yahoo:
Because Yahoo has such broad reach, the relationship opens a big market for local news organizations.“The typical paper has 15 percent penetration in the local market,” Hendricks says, speaking of online operations. “When we partner with Yahoo,it takes us up to 80 percent.” And because manyYahoo ads are “behaviorally targeted”—meaning they are more closely geared to readers’ interests, based on web usage habits, geography or demographics—the rates are much higher. But those ads need a lot of viewers to ensure that the subsections of the audience are big enough to interest advertisers. “It’s almost impossible to sell behaviorally targeted ads with 15 percent penetration,” Hendricks says. “With Yahoo’s scale you can.” McClatchy averages an $18 cost per thousand views for targeted ads, Hendricks says. That’s about twice the average for its usual display ads, though it has to share the proceeds with Yahoo.