Wednesday, July 1, 2009...7:00 am

The future of digital publishing – a conversation

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Today I’ve invited another blogger to join me in a discussion about the future of web journalism and the economics of publishing in a rapidly digitising world.
Blogging about the world of amateur horticulture under the name Soilman (well, it’s nice to have a hobby), he also has wide experience in journalism and editorial training. He has seen first hand the radical changes in editorial practice and thinking demanded by the switch from print to online.
We ramble on a bit – the topics covered are these:

  • What do readers want?
  • Who pays for content?
  • The impact of web statistics on journalism
  • The strength of niche editorial

What do readers want?
Freelance Unbound: What kind of content are we looking at to drive readership and revenues? And where will the revenue come from?
Soilman: Not news. News is dead. It’s a dull commodity that doesn’t sell anything worth paying for. There’ll always be somebody offering it (badly – but who gives a shit?) for nothing.
I’m more and more convinced that the future, for publishers, means going
 into the software business. Producing applications for use on computers
 iPhones (and others, yet to be invented) that bring the user a valuable, useful, sexy service unobtainable on the web generally, that happens to
 incorporate the stuff we already do (news, reviews, etc), but also gives value-added extras to create a brand new ‘product’.
Who pays for content?
Freelance Unbound: How could the financial model work? There’s been a lot of chatter recently about clever ways to monetise content – in effect breathing new life into micropayments by creating a bastard hybrid with the web subscription model.
Journalists love this. They think readers will happily volunteer to subscribe to a concept called “web journalism” because they value its contribution to a free society. The sticking point has been just how the money can be collected and allocated to the content that web users consume.
But now it seems we are developing clever ways to account for people’s web usage and it might be possible to work out some way of imposing a levy on the web to be parceled out to content producers. Do you think it’s viable?
SoilmanI know there are voices calling for pay-per-page micropayment systems and old-fashioned subscriptions to websites, but I’m still convinced these are (mostly) misconceived. While there remains even one vague competitor, however poor, who offers content for free (even if second-rate), most folks will always be reluctant to fork out for the basic content.
BUT experience shows us they are willing to pay for value-added ideas around the content, ie

  • A targeted software delivery vehicle, or indeed a bespoke software plus hardware solution
  • Cleverly aggregated and focused one-stop-shops of other people’s material
  • Tailored DNA-specific packages of content for individual clients, or tailormade ‘widgets’ and/or feeds delivering focused your own brand’s content to individual clients
  • Tailormade business software incorporating your own products’ feeds and databases for added client value… ie a software package to run a media grid for companies in any particular sector, which automatically assimilates feeds and data services from your magazine sites.
  • Sponsored search within your own sites
  • Top-level ‘premium’ content for a charge (while basic is free)
  • Sponsored editorial

There’s absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be more widely adopted in business brands. It just requires clever and imaginative ideas.
Many of those ideas rely on technical software solutions, requiring a focus on technical development over and above mere browser and database coding.
I’m not aware that many publishers have even begun to explore this in their business plans and budgets for technical departments. Obviously it’s outside their comfort zone and it’s not cheap. But, equally obviously, if it brought in revenue it might not look so expensive.
How does knowing visitor statistics affect the practice of journalism?
Freelance UnboundWhat do you think about the way web metrics are changing the responsiveness of journalism to audience behaviour?
Not so long ago there was a discussion piece at about how the availability of copious web audience metrics has changed the way that publications choose and prioritise their content.
Former executive editor Jim Brady argues that, while it is important to watch daily numbers carefully, the Post did not let “real-time, hourly information drive [its] editorial strategy”.
This meant he was willing to nurture a columnist whose readership was relatively small, but very loyal. He wasn’t seduced by the occasional casual traffic spikes generated by a link from a high traffic environment such as Yahoo or Google.

“If The Washington Post decided to promote stories on its home page based purely on traffic potential, what makes it unique would quickly evaporate. So any analysis of traffic also has to keep this in mind”

Former Washington bureau chief Walter Shapiro is even more hostile to the “tyranny that comes from real-time readership numbers”.

“What this meant in practice at Salon was that an article might have as few as six hours to prove itself with readers before it was yanked out of a position of prominence.”

The result? Fluff and partisan political ranting scored much higher than thoughtful, in-depth reporting. As a result, he argues:

“Salon’s internal culture and stray comments by editors worked to discourage writing about important topics (campaign-issue analysis, non-war-related foreign news) because they invariably earned lower readership numbers.”

Is this a problem for journalism do you think?
SoilmanI think both of them are stone wrong. Phrases like this from Walter Shapiro sum up the problem:

“But what Internet journalism requires are self-confident editors (and
 owners) who can resist the blandishments of quick-react readership statistics and allow laudable stories time to build their own audience. Otherwise, we will all, reporters and readers alike, find ourselves stuck in heavy traffic with nothing but fluff to read.”

This, to me, is old ‘printie’ thinking at work. Both these guys come from a place where journalism has some higher purpose than mere commerce. It has noble aims, entwined with the preservation of democracy etc.

If there’s one thing that seems crystal clear to me (and to Clay Shirky, in his admirable essay recently), it’s that attitudes like this are only possible in the print legacy world, where large profits generated from that 500-year-old ‘model’ (high barrier to entry, advertiser-as-hostage, small
ads pay for Baghdad bureau) make the ‘higher purpose’ possible. It’s no longer possible. It’s gone, busted, over. Period.
Freelance UnboundI think the first argument was about a bit more than that. He was
saying, basically, that you should be careful how you interpret your
traffic. Huge spikes in single page views are not necessarily as
valuable as content that draws in a much more loyal readership. It’s the
”big post” argument. There are some interesting views on this on John Scalzi’s Whatever blog here and here.

SoilmanOf course, you’re right: I just home in on the shit that irritates me about the ‘responsibilities of great journalism’ etc. It drives me nuts.
Quantity versus quality is a tricky one, though, because the advertisers and media buyers are only just beginning to look beyond sheer volumes of uniques and impressions. Click-through and click-through-to-sale are becoming more important, though.
I call this the “Eldorado metric”. It means the ad on a website that actually encourages a browser to click and buy straight from an editorial page.
On a consumer technology site, for instance, it’s would be the golden moment when you’ve had the viewer seeing reviews pages and they click on a manufacturer advertisement that says something like “Buy this product here!”… And then they do. The advertiser can see they came from your site, and that they
made a sale as a DIRECT result of the ad.
Clearly, this is gold dust from a CPM (cost per thousand impressions) point of view – you can suddenly charge for an ad the kind of money you might once have expected from a print display ad. 
Unfortunately, it’s a rare scenario… And specific (probably) to a particular kind of editorial product.
The strength of niche editorial
Freelance UnboundSo, basically, that means from a revenue-generating point of view editorial generally can’t rely on advertising any more.
Does this mean we’ll start seeing a heavy bias towards review-type editorial that can generate this kind of ad?
I guess we’re seeing this already – lots of web sites set up for the sole purpose of plugging a set of products with supposedly independent
reviews, but which are said to be funded by the companies themselves. Web hosting review sites are a good example
Perhaps there’s a place here for the trusted brand element of publishing…
SoilmanI do wonder. Certainly, websites that are highly vertical, highly focused on a particular subject seem to me to have an in-built advantage online. You can do detail –down to the ‘nth’ degree – online in a way that simply wasn’t possible in print. Plus if I were a marketing man today, and wondering how to spend an ad budget, I’d be looking for the most targeted, niche, directly-relevant ad vehicles that I could find… And the more specialised and focused a website, the more interested I’d be.
Why on earth would I want to advertise on a generalist site like a newspaper site? It may attract thousands of eyeballs, but I know that only a fraction of them are specifically interested in what I’m selling. Far better, surely, to go straight to the specialist site with PRECISELY the right audience (albeit smaller). If 100% of readers are definitely interested in what I’m flogging, I’m not wasting a penny. Plus online I can see from statistics precisely how those people react to my ads… which is, in itself, market research. Valuable market research, potentially.
Certainly the kind of journalism you want to be in would have this kind of potential… just as doctors are well advised to specialise in diseases of the rich.
In conclusion
So, there you have it. Print is dead, news is dead, and we all have to spend our time writing software applications and writing niche reviews to get advertising revenue. 
I’m not sure how well that will go down in the UK’s journalism degree courses. 
More views on this are obviously welcome – comment at will…


  • Oo-er. I’ll have to stand by all that now. Better get out my shit umbrella.
    I always sound more convinced than I am. Truth is, I have no more idea than anyone else what the hell we’re going to do as journalists in future. The only thing I do know is that the ‘higher purpose, journalist-as-defender-of-democracy’ stuff was only possible because the small advertiser was being screwed on rates in a print world dominated by a few players. Now advertisers can reach their markets more directly, and more measurably, without us.
    If you’re fond of reductio ad brevissimum, this is the One Big Factor that has changed and will continue to change everything we’ve taken for granted in our ‘profession’ for about half a millennium.

  • PS I’ve read no better summary of the situation than this.
    Best lines typed on the subject in 2009:
    They don’t get it. They don’t want to get it. And in many cases, they’re literally paid not to get it.
    America’s journalism infrastructure – from corporate giants to non-profit foundations like the American Press Institute and the Newspaper Association of America – is funded by dying companies. So when you hear about efforts to save newspapers (and, by extension, journalism), understand that answers that don’t return the possibility of double-digit profits and perpetual top-down control aren’t even considered answers. They’re not even considered.
    They’ll do anything to survive… so long as it doesn’t involve change. Consequently, for many companies the alternatives to paywalls are no longer options because it’s too late in the day.

  • Blimey already. Who am I to offer comment on the demise of the Fourth Estate, after having arrived here via a website about vegetables?
    Well, I can at least tell you a similar cautionary story about information publishing.
    Not that many years ago I was happily ensconced in a large corporate, compiling terribly tedious yet profitable B2B Directories. Tomes that had annually graced the wonky shelves of junior purchasing clerks since the 1800’s in some cases. Now, 10 years later they are all gone (17 titles across a variety of market sectors)
    It wasn’t the internet that killed us per se, and it wasn’t the medium, the delivery method, or the pricing model. It was the audience’s perception in the broadband age, of the intrinsic value of the content.
    When you have web access, you can find anything you want for free can’t you?… Whether or not this is actually true is largely immaterial. The fact is people believe it to be true.
    No matter how we sliced and diced the content, offered subscriptions of every shade and term, and touted our data about for sale in every decreasing micro payment sized chunks, no one wanted to buy it anymore. They thought we had a damned nerve to try and charge for stuff they could Google up for free…. Even if in reality it took them ages to do it, and their results were conflicting, or just plain wrong.
    And now I suspect this may also be at the heart of the problem for traditional journalism. Soilman is right in my opinion to say that the future of the profession does not lie with news. But I’d suggest that news is not dead. Just Journalists.
    Headline 2009 – 3G, Twitter, and Youtube have set news free!
    Seekers of knowledge are no longer obliged to settle for what editors and newsmen offer them, Today someone at the scene – probably another ordinary citizen – will be uploading something fresh as it happens…. Imagine how news of 9/11 would be spread now, less than a decaced after we all watched blanket coverage of a CNN loop.
    Future generations will think it scarely credible that you once had, in some form or other, to pay for news. Or current affairs content. Or Economic analysis. Let alone that “publishers” may have had their own political agenda, and tailored their output to suit the tastes of their investors and sponsors. How fucking arrogant is that!
    If I were in journalism today, I wouldn’t be spending too much time in looking for a business model to deliver the elixir of everlasting youth. I’d be brushing up on my creative skills, to supply the things the masses know they can’t reliably fashion themselves, and yet crave beyond all measure… Diversion, escapism, & entertainment.
    Ironically the proliferation of de-regulated, unedited, DIY news streams may well revive peoples interest in politics and current affairs, but as with the poor old Business Directory, it’s the quality of the content that will be lost.
    Who will be the John Pilger, Edward R. Murrow or Orla Guerin of the twitter generation?
    Now there’s a thought.

  • Spot on, Greenmantle.
    I’m sure you’re right about the perception of ‘free’. Folks like me can moan about ‘free’ equalling ‘hard work to find’ and/or ‘shit quality’, but it won’t help; people’s wallets are stitched up these days, and they may never open again for the stuff we’re peddling.

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