A look at the platform-publisher ecosystem, and a surprise at the Times

Matt McAlister has been working in digital publishing for a long time now, including a stint at The Guardian as director of digital strategy, so he has a long memory when it comes to the relationship between publishers and platforms like Google and Facebook. McAlister now runs a media research company called Kaleida, which just came out with a new report looking at the health of the publisher-platform ecosystem (a report funded by Google, although McAlister says the web giant had no influence over it). As he puts it in the preface:

The inspiration for this research came from the growing tensions we’ve observed between news publishers and the big Internet platforms. Many publishers believe platforms are using content unfairly to grow, while the platforms believe publishers are getting a lot of benefit from traffic directed toward news. Clearly, it’s more complicated than that.

Data for the study was supplied by 18 news publishers from across Europe who provided details of their traffic, combined with research from comScore, as well as consumer insights from YouGov on reading the news in the UK, France and Germany. Perhaps the most eye-opening detail in the report is that a single visit to a news website from a platform like Facebook is worth on average $0.008 or just eight-tenths of a cent. In other words, you could be getting millions of referrals and still not be making more than pocket change.

Here are some of the other insights from the report:

  • There were approximately 7.4 billion visits to news articles in Europe in January that were driven by clicks from third-party sites
  • People who read news clicked on about 32 percent of the headlines they saw in a day
  • Kaleida estimates that there were approximately 23 billion “news exposures” or headlines seen on third-party sites in January in Europe
  • Total digital advertising revenue driven by all of this referral traffic to news articles was approximately $63 million or about one-third of the total digital ad market for news

McAlister’s conclusion: “Our research shows real appetite for news. The platform-publisher-people triad is working very well in many ways. It’s not a dependent or even co-dependent relationship for any of the constituents. Traffic generated by 3rd party sites is powerful fuel for a news business, but news can survive without it, too. The challenge is working out how platforms and publishers can develop a healthy longterm coexistence.”

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On an unrelated note, the latest quarterly results from The New York Times contained something surprising for a newspaper that, like many, has been fighting a long-term decline in print advertising revenue. Over the past two years at least, print revenue at the Times has been plummeting—in some quarters it has dropped as much as 22 percent.

In the third quarter, however, print ad revenue was only down by a relatively modest 1.8 percent, which the official Times PR account on Twitter confirmed (after I asked) is the best performance the paper has had since the third quarter of 2015.

What is the secret to this surprising performance? The Times doesn’t say, but some media watchers suggested it could be a simple one-quarter anomaly—even things that are going up or down steadily don’t always do so in an unbroken line. But still, to go from 15 percent or 20 percent declines to less than 2 is pretty amazing. Could it be that the print ad decline has hit bottom? Have some advertisers moved back to the Times from digital? Inquiring minds want to know.

ICYMI: Headlines editors probably wish they could take back

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.