Last week, the Columbia School of Journalism released "The Story so Far" (PDF here). For news zealots, this is tantamount to the Vatican publishing a sex manual. Still, this work is one of the best reports ever written on the state of modern journalism. Its authors, Bill Grueskin, Ava Seave and Lucas Graves, detail the effects of 15 years of making news available for free on the internet, and the consequences of unbundling news into morsels that lose their value in the social media whirlwind. In this 143 pages paper, no complaints, no whining: just facts and insightful analysis of the current state of digital media. An absolute must-read.
Using observations and current examples, the report also ruffled feathers by laying out options for the future economics of online information.
In the most performing outlets such as the Huffington Post, more resources are allocated to audience valuation than to content creation. As the report explains, the giant news aggregator is built on a foundation of constant tracking what drives the most traffic; in audience numbers, it now rivals the New York Times:
Huffington Post also developed an ability to respond quickly to the data that it was getting on traffic and usage—something that is a crucial component of success in digital journalism. Indeed, data analysis has moved from being a required skill in media companies’ finance departments to being an essential part of the résumé for editors, writers and designers.
In many high-octane online newsrooms, the report continues, journalists are asked to keep an eye on dashboards tracking the real-time performances of stories and headlines. They get constant updates on what "clicks" and what doesn’t; everyone is encouraged to adjust their output accordingly. Inevitably, incentives set in, with bonuses tied to tracked performance.
Such obsession with traffic is fueled by the advertising culture that came to dominate the internet: revenue is directly tied to eyeballs, as media are mostly paid by CPM (cost per thousand viewers). The Columbia Journalism School indirectly challenges this system by quoting the remarkable work of Matt Shanahan, who runs Scout Analytics (see his blog here). Shanahan explains what happens on a mid-size newspaper web site: "fly-bys" (viewers who see one page and then go elsewhere) represent 75% of the visitors, versus only 4% for true fans. But the most loyal group accounts for 56% page views. "Overall, each fan generated about 50 times more traffic per person than a fly-by", says the report.
This shows how misguided current measurement systems are. Today’s obsession with the "Unique Visitor" metric drives the advertising market —and competition among news sites. Such fixation encourages an arms race in which, by all means necessary (games, fake URLs), news sites will shoot for an increase in their numbers of UVs and for the resulting ranking improvement. This is short-sighted: loyal readers—roughly the top 10% that will generate 80% of the page views —should be the measure of choice.
In this shallow numbers culture, the Chinese wall that prevents journalism from being influenced by advertising becomes porous. There lies the most controversial part of the Columbia report, as the authors were seen as not critical enough of the increasing news/advertising blending. (Why would they? These academics are meant to expose facts, best and the worse practices, not to defend a corporation).
And the facts speaks for themselves. “The Story So Far” documents the pathetic experience at the Examiner.com, a community site based on 72,000 freelance "writers" paid between $1 and $7.50 par thousand page views. Not only does the Examiner sell content against an editorial context (every media does that), but it will tailor its content to fit advertising needs. For example, it encourages its contributors to write about animals in order to get Procter & Gamble’s pet foods ad campaign.
Blurring the line between advertising and editorial is becoming a standard practice on today’s internet. Invoking the rise of social medias, sites offer brands the ability to directly address their audience via sponsoring schemes. Managing more than 4 million comments a month, the Huffington Post has unsurprisingly become the grand master of the exercise, inviting brands to "engage in a conversation" with users while cashing in on who speaks to whom. The reports quotes Eric Hippeau, former CEO of the HuffPo:
Eric Hippeau calls this approach “turning your customers into publishers.” Advertisers, he says, will not only create content that will increase traffic, but this will represent “a great diversification of revenues” away from advertising sold by the page view. (...) He believes that once companies start interacting with the audience in this environment, they will be hooked.“Once a brand starts that process, they are not going to stop.This is a great benefit to the media companies.”
Similarly, Forbes provides all the digital tools to publish content in any form that fits the web.
This might startle journalists who expect strict separation between the editorial and business sides, but Lewis DVorkin [Forbes Chief Product Officer] sees this effort as a logical way to bring in advertisers who know they can create digital content elsewhere, through websites and email. Labeling the material as coming from advertisers helps inoculate the company from violating the church-state divide, DVorkin says, adding that Forbes’approach allows marketers not to be confined in the “ghetto” of freelance-written advertorial. The advertisers’material is not edited by Forbes and appears on line and in the magazine as “ForbesAdVoice.”(For the print edition, Dvorkin reads it for tone, but says he does no more than that.) The print AdVoice column—limited to one per issue—appears in the table of contents and may run next to a related story. An online column is featured near relevant editorial content.
DVorkin is a bit candid (or cynical, that is up to you) in defending the blending. In a 2010 post he advocated putting professional writers, contributors and marketers on the same level:
By taking to the Web, audience members with deep topic-specific expertise successfully took on quite a few professional journalists with far less knowledge. Marketers, experts in their own right, also became respected content providers in an increasingly information-obsessed society.
The Columbia report was criticized for not distancing itself enough from such practices, for taking for granted and acceptable the vanishing "church vs. state" idea. Moreover, the authors suggest journalists ought to acquire more knowledge of the evolving economics of the trade. I think they are right on two counts: a) young journalists know too little about the business side of medias, they can't turn a blind eye on the processes by which publishers will monetize their output; b) understanding such arcana will help in dealing with ethical issues: innocence won’t be a trap, or an excuse.
As digital medias unfold, as pure players gain more weight, ethics loose ground. Consider the current controversy surrounding Michael Arrington: the founder of TechCrunch was an angel investor before jumping into the publishing business. He actually disclosed it. Fine. But recently, he decided to resume his investment activity in tech companies and explained it in a disclosure post. Naturally, this choice triggered snappy comments from journalists who are bound by strict rules in the matter (neither the NY Times, nor The Wall Street Journal, nor Bloomberg would hire Arrington). Elegantly, in a post breezily tilted "The Tech Press: Screw Them All" Arrington spews venom, putting at his own conflicts of interest at the same level as the fact that a well-known tech reporter lives with a Google executive, or another with a Facebook consultant.
Arrington's pretend amazement is not so amazing. The digital media has grown into a landscape in which journalism ethics are viewed as relics of the past. Today, any product can literally buy positive reviews in a blogosphere that, by being penniless, gets easily corrupted. When planning a product launch with their client, advertising agencies often suggest the deployment of a "blogger army" (that's the official jargon) to spread the right message on blogs and social networks. In the tech world, "Influential Bloggers" often means "Influenced Bloggers".
The Columbia School of Journalism report sheds an interesting light on where digital medias are heading. Their economics are in such disarray that publishers are desperate for new revenue models. In this evolution, ethics are likely to suffer collateral damage. Rookies must understand this.