behind the news

We Just Don’t Know: An Interview with Jonathan Glick

There may be a future for the news business, but it’s going to be unrecognizable
July 27, 2009

In the early 1990s, Jonathan Glick, a programmer and news enthusiast, approached The New York Times about taking the paper digital. That path took him to AOL, iVillage, and finally–when the paper was ready to have an independent Web presence–The New York Times Online.

At a time when the term “news business” seems increasingly like an oxymoron, Jonathan Glick shared with CJR’s Diana Dellamere his straightforward business perspective on about what works, what doesn’t, and what we just don’t yet know about doing business and news on the Web.

Diana Dellamere: Coming from a software/technical background, how did you get involved in the news business?

Jonathan Glick: The Web had just happened, and I was thinking, “Where does this matter?” The answer was “I’m not sure, but probably with people who have content.” The New York Times wasn’t yet on the Web but they were on AOL and I wrote to them and said “I’m just a programmer but I would love to help you guys with this any way I can.”

DD: Do you still think that the Web and newspapers are a natural fit?

JG: I think nothing about the Web is that good for traditional news businesses. Because the Web creates so much competition for them and they are so slow to react to that.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

DD: What are newspapers doing wrong on the Web? And what did they do wrong in the past?

JG: For the most part, what drives what people read are their strong interests. So, if I love the Vancouver Canucks, I want to read stories about the Vancouver Canucks every day. So, unless The New York Times finds a way to cover the Canucks, or whatever my interests are, I’m just not going to go there all the time. And what news businesses would have had to do to be competitive would be to occupy more space in the total interest lists of more readers. And they didn’t, because they felt, (a) that wasn’t relevant to the news and, (b) they couldn’t figure out a corporate model that would enable them to write about those things without sacrificing what they saw as quality.

DD: So, is all lost? Or is there a way to be successful on the Web today?

JG: To be successful on the Web today, you need to create millions and millions of pages. You need to be relevant to everybody’s shared interests. The truth is that we share some things, like you and I may be both interested in what’s going on in Washington today, but chances are your next twenty interests and my next twenty interests don’t overlap that much. So, to be a major player on the Web–where people control what they read rather than the publisher controlling what they read–you need to satisfy that next twenty interests for everybody.

Doing that means a completely different sense of what quality means. Because, if you only publish things of very high quality, you are obviously not going to be able to develop an organizational model to do that; you are just not going to be able to hire enough people. So you need some type of model that results in a lot more content. Google has a model: they mine the Web and create links. has a model: they’ve created a network of guides. Huffington Post has a model: they’ve got a small number of professional writers sitting on top of a huge number of amateur enthusiasts. The Daily Kos has a model: they have a volunteer activist organization that creates diaries.

There are all sorts of models. But what’s clear is that the traditional sort of model that the newspaper and magazine world has–where a small number of people producing a small number of articles–has a smaller and smaller footprint every day on the Web.

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?

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?

JG: If I had to pick whether the newspapers should have invested heavily in television or the Web, I would have picked television. Just because it plays more to their strengths. And some did. Hearst has a very interesting portfolio in TV. The Times, unfortunately, got in on it too late. Many newspapers–because of their nature–bought into local broadcasts, which turned out to be irrelevant because everybody switched to cable. But, all things being equal, a cable channel turns out to be extraordinarily lucrative.

Creating television content is far more expensive than creating print content. So any place where the terms of engagement require cash favors the big guy over the little guy. The streaming of video content is very expensive. The distribution of content over cable is practically free- every incremental broadcast costs very little. Every stream that YouTube gives us costs them money. So television is, believe it or not, a more efficient way of distributing (visual) content, strictly from a cost perspective. Now from the user’s perspective it’s not. What the user really wants to do is do whatever they want whenever they want. That’s why people love YouTube.

Currently, the vast majority of content that people consume on the Internet is text. That is starting to change. We can’t know whether or not the YouTubes and the Hulus of the world will survive, because their business models are not viable. The Huffington Posts and the Daily Kos’s of the world will survive–at least for a while–because it doesn’t cost that much to distribute what they distribute.

In some way, a model that’s composed of mostly volunteers creating mostly crappy content is going to make some amount of money. Will it make great dollars? Probably not.

DD: What about advertising?

JG: Advertising on the Web is still massively overvalued. In general, the fact that it’s so incredibly inexpensive to create content is a big problem for the advertisers. We’re in a very difficult place with advertising. On the basis of sharing in whatever transactional profit the advertiser makes, there is a very healthy advertising market. The problem is that it’s very difficult to create any streams of revenue.

The main problem is that the banner ad model is just completely unviable. It’s just not valuable enough for the advertisers.

DD: Is there anything out there that could be of significant value to advertisers?

JG: It’s leads. If you have the vertical baby site and you go in and type in stroller and then you can get offers from stroller guys, that you can sell for a meaningful percentage.

DD: So, if selling leads is the way to make money with advertisers, is social media the place to do that?

JG: I think there are a lot of interesting things about Twitter. Twitter dovetails very nicely with marketers’ desire, after years of frustration, to have a direct relationship with their potential consumers. You don’t use the middleman. I’m going to be a great source of information on travel or shoes and people will come to me. Again, marketers are doing that everywhere. The thing with Twitter that’s so interesting is that you can do it so inexpensively. It’s the easiest to use platform, it’s the cheapest to use platform. It’s just incredibly viral, so your content gets spread wide without a whole lot of effort on the marketers’ part.

DD: Twitter as a source for news and marketing has a lot of verification problems, doesn’t it? Have we fooled ourselves into thinking that people care if their information is verified?

JG: I think people care. I don’t think the reputation of the media is in such high regard that they would be the solution to that problem. Verifiability is a very big problem. Twitter effectively created a lot of those problems. But, it’s not clear to me that, if The New York Times created a Twitter account, that people would assume that everything on there was true.

DD: So, if it is by far the most valuable marketing platform, is Twitter “it” for funding news content?

JG: No, nothing’s “it.” What’s it is that you turn on your device and–based on topics and places that you are interested in–it tells you that trusted sources have new information for you and you can basically see through those trusted sources in real time as they are interacting with the world.

It’s all unproven, but there are some things that we know. We know that people don’t really care that much what the traditional media thinks is important. They care a little bit about it, but you can see from our actions that people are looking for content about the very specific interests that they have–their neighborhoods, their diseases, their hobbies, their whatever. Any business model that’s based on trying to be a small number of things that we are all interested in, is going to pretty small. There isn’t a whole lot that we all have in common.

DD: What’s the future of news as you see it?

JG: Having spent a lot of time in this industry, I’m not at all concerned that there will be the loss of investigative journalism. I actually find it very funny that people think that’s a risk. Only because it’s quite obvious when you meet these folks that they will do it for free. People kill themselves to get into journalism, and no one gets paid a lot of money anyway. So, this idea that you need this traditional newspaper model is completely false.

Now the bigger question is, “Do you need the brand of a newspaper to do investigative journalism?’ Well, maybe, but the track record on that is terrible. We’ve just gone through the ultimate proof test. We just fought a war that didn’t need to be fought and people were just unaware. So, if it’s the case that you need big media brands, what were they doing?

Remember that newspapers and the major television networks are the last content organization site that are composed of full-time workers. Hollywood, until the 1940s, was composed of studios. People were employees of the studios, and then over time they figured out that was not the best way to do this. We should have people just come together to make movies; then we have the best people for the best movie rather than the people who just happened to work for the studio. And the studios became funders, and the management agencies represented the talent, and the management companies packaged the products, and it became this much more complex ecosystem of players that put projects together and brought them alive.

My guess is that something similar will happen with news. And, by the way, in some small way it already has. It will just take a while for these businesses to get essentially destroyed and for that new thing to get built.

I think the odds of there being less investigative journalism in the world are zero. I just don’t think there is any evidence that that will happen. Just walk through your bookstore.

DD: If investigative journalism is here to stay, what will it look like?

JG: Either small groups of writers will team up or there will be a single writer and you will develop an affection for them–through whatever, the Facebook recommendation of a friend or a discovery engine–and you’ll follow that person and you’ll care what they have to say. Think about how you follow bands or movie stars.

If you’re going to see a Megan Fox movie, do you really care that it’s being made by 20th Century Fox? Individuals involved have a lot more to do with the movie than the guy who owns the studio. That’s definitely true with newspaper articles.

The entire history of media is a tradition toward developing affection for individuals. That’s not just the Web, that’s Oprah, that’s Limbaugh, that’s pundits. Think of record labels. You might have a feeling toward Motown, and every once in a while there’s a record label that matters, but basically you like the band.

Every successive wave of technology has democratized the creation of journalism and with that the ability for more and more people to participate. And all that’s done is increase the power of individuals versus institutions. And, given the choice, people would rather relate to people.

Diana Dellamere is a former CJR staff writer.