Opinion

Felix Salmon

Matter, Medium, and the future of immersive content

Felix Salmon
Apr 17, 2013 13:54 UTC

When Matter launched, last year, co-founder Bobbie Johnson told Christopher Mims that “done right, we can offer something valuable and remain sustainable in the medium term.” Little did he know how close he was to hitting the nail on the head: it turns out that it’s not “the medium term” which is going to provide Matter’s sustainability, so much as a term sheet from Medium.

This morning, Matter announced that it’s being acquired by Medium, the Ev Williams company which makes it incredibly easy to put up really good-looking articles online. (That’s where my own most recent longform article appeared; it recently generated its 150,000th pageview.) This is fantastic news for both companies.

Medium, which already has first-rate editorial talent in the form of Evan Hansen and Kate Lee, now owns a company which produces fantastic articles on a regular basis, and which makes those articles look great. With the Matter team in-house, Medium will learn a lot about exactly what writers and editors want and need. What’s more, it now will have real revenues — and the ability to play around with different ways of generating those revenues. From the Matter FAQ:

We still think that selling individual articles and subscriptions is a great way to fund long-form journalism, and we’ve got no immediate plans to change that model. But we also want MATTER to evolve. Experimenting with tweaks to the model and the way we distribute our content will be a vital way of making MATTER robust in the long term. Joining Medium means we can get the help we need to run those experiments.

I’ve been saying for a while that Matter should look for ways that readers can pay them after they read a story, rather than before. It’s the distinction between forcing people to pay and letting people pay; my feeling is that it would massively increase the number of people interacting with Matter’s content, while also — quite possibly — increasing its revenues as well. (Especially since some small number of people will give significantly more than the 99 cents they’re limited to at the moment.)

I hope that Matter doesn’t feel too constrained by obligations to its existing subscribers: I’m quite sure that very few of them would mind very much if Matter allowed a bunch of its stories to come out from behind the existing paywall. But beyond its new-found ability to experiment with its business model, Matter more importantly now has access to some of the best designers and technologists in Silicon Valley, and as a result should be able to produce ever more gorgeous, immersive, and interactive journalism.

Both Matter and Medium have created spaces where longform articles can breathe, free of banner-ad intrusions. Both of them are looking forward to building a sustainable business around such articles. Now that they’ve merged, I’m optimistic that they’ll continue to innovate and help build the future of how people — amateur writers and professional journalists both — are going to want to express themselves online.

COMMENT

The bottom line is that people are only going to pay for interesting and original content which they can’t find anywhere else.

This is why Andrew Sullivan is doing well and the New Yorker is thriving, whereas most daily newspapers (which mostly re-report information that is already available elsewhere) are struggling.

Posted by mfw13 | Report as abusive

The native matrix

Felix Salmon
Apr 15, 2013 03:30 UTC

Jay Rosen asks, reasonably, that people start drawing useful distinctions between buzzy terms like content marketing, sponsored content, native advertising, and even brand journalism. Here’s my stab at it:

The Native Matrix Who is it written by?
Editorial staff Sales staff/
ad agency
Brand execs
Who is it published by? Publisher Public relations Sponsored content/
Native advertising*
Brand journalism/
Thought leadership
Brand Content marketing Marketing Blogging
*Sponsored content is designed to be read; native advertising is designed to be shared.

None of these distinctions is hard and fast, of course, but at least it’s a start; basically, it all comes down to who writes the content in question.

Was the material written by a professional journalist, writing a piece for an editorial outlet? In that case, any advertising message embedded within it falls pretty squarely into the realm of public relations. But what happens when the publication in question syndicates that content for use on some brand’s website? In that event, it becomes content marketing: independently-produced material, repurposed by the brand in question.

On the other hand, was the material commissioned by the brand itself, rather than any editor? In that case, it’s sponsored content. It might be written by a group on the ad-sales side of the publisher; such groups have existed for as long as there have been advertorials. Or it might be written by some group within the brand’s ad agency. The distinction between sponsored content and native advertising is a bit squishy, but it you do need to make a distinction, then I’d say that sponsored content is material designed simply to convey information to the readership of the publication in question, while native content tends to aspire more to going viral, and being actively shared by that readership.

Of course, if a brand takes that sponsored content and simply puts it up on its own website, then it’s just marketing. But it doesn’t necessarily make sense to think of all brand-produced content, on brand-produced sites, as marketing. Look at Sun, for instance, which as far back as 2006 was encouraging all of its employees, up to and including the CEO, to blog. We’ve moved on from there: instead of blogging at their own websites, executives more commonly express themselves on Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn. But however it’s done, if you’re not paying a publisher for the privilege of expressing your own opinion, I’ve put you in the bottom right-hand corner under the broad rubric of “blogging”.

Which leaves the top-right corner, probably the fuzziest part of the matrix. Sometimes, sponsored content is written by real executives, rather than by people in the marketing or PR departments, and when that happens it feels a little bloggier. And at other times, of course, executives manage to get op-eds published and don’t need to buy any kind of sponsorship product at all. If “brand journalism” means anything, it’s probably this: brand executives doing something which feels a lot like opinion journalism, whether they’re paying for the privilege or not.

And really, trying to draw these distinctions is always going to be a bit silly and futile. Ultimately, they’re all different flavors of the same thing: attempts by companies to get consumers to read things which the company in question, or its executives, wants those consumers to read. There are lots of different ways of trying to skin that particular cat, and none of them is easy. In fact, trying to get consumers to read anything at all, in a world where those consumers are faced with almost infinite choices, has never been harder.

That’s why Twitter and Facebook have multi-billion-dollar valuations: they’ve created an experience where people consume a stream of content, rather than looking for something in particular. And it’s much easier to drop your message into a stream which people are reading anyway than it is to try to persuade those people to stop what they’re doing elsewhere and read your message instead.

The term mainstream media, then, if it wants to compete in a world where ads are going increasingly native, is going to have to become the mainly streams media. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist.) Look at the best native ads out there, from 30-second TV narratives to long-copy print ads: they are native to the form, yes, but they also live within linearly-consumed streams. We sit back and watch the TV, watching ads along the way; we leaf through the newspaper from front to back, grazing as we go, and reading whatever catches our eye.

If native is really going to take off online, it’s going to do so by appearing in the streams we want to immerse ourselves into anyway, whether they’re the Facebook News Feed or the magazine-style format of Flipboard. It might even work for individual publishers, if they can build attractive enough streams of their own. But I’m not holding my breath.

COMMENT

Great article, i spotted a typo ” but it you do need to make a distinction” if* : )

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The disruptive potential of native advertising

Felix Salmon
Apr 9, 2013 15:17 UTC

Andrew Rice delivers 6,000 words on BuzzFeed in the latest NY Mag, which means he has the space to tell a number of different stories. The one I’m interested in is the way that BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti wants native advertising to disrupt banner advertising. I apologize for the long blockquote, but it’s a lot shorter than the article:

Peretti has talked of building “the agency of the future for a social world.” …

Watts and Peretti first set forth their theory in a co-authored 2007 Harvard Business Review article, “Viral Marketing for the Real World,” partly basing it on data from an experimental ad campaign at the Huffington Post. Watts has since continued to refine his research. His standard is that for every ten views an advertiser pays for when it buys a viral ad, it should get two shares. (“There is no free lunch,” Watts likes to say, “but maybe you can have a cheap snack.”) Peretti is convinced he can engineer a higher reproduction rate. “You can make money with that,” Watts says. “If they are predicting 20 percent of the variance and the competition is predicting 10 percent of the variance, they’re kicking ass.”

Peretti’s formula for virality really adds up to a more mundane sales pitch: Buy lots of ad impressions and realize a modest, if unpredictable, viral bonus…

BuzzFeed has released some selective data about the fractional proportion of sharing it achieves—its so-called “lift”—and claims that for the median advertising post, ten paid views yield around three shares. Peretti adds that the brands that have embraced the format most enthusiastically have better results. Virgin Mobile’s ratio of shares to paid views is better than one to one…

Virgin Mobile’s posts received around 1.1 million views for the last week in March. Other campaigns running on the site during that period, however, showed smaller results: Geico, 140,000 views; GE, 65,000 views; Pepsi Next, 44,000 views. These numbers don’t quite match the hype around native advertising, which might be why ad agencies sound much less enthusiastic about the medium’s transformative potential than publishers do.

Peretti complains about “obstructionist agencies,” and when he looks at advertising—with its four dominant holding companies, rococo bureaucracies, and reliance on a lucrative television medium now threatened by ad-skipping technologies—he sees an industry ripe for disruption.

I think that Rice is missing a couple of very important points here. For one thing, he’s wrong that that native advertising is fundamentally “mundane”, and provides just a “modest” uplift to whatever you can achieve through more traditional channels. Native pageviews might hard to come by — but any smart brand would absolutely prefer a single native pageview to a dozen banner-ad impressions. The difference between the two isn’t something marginal, on the order of 20% or 30%: it’s huge — a good order of magnitude, at least.

That’s because a native ad is something that consumers read, interact with, even share — it fills up their attention space, for a certain period of time, in a way that banner ads never do. Rice does mention that the advertising industry is dominated by the television-ad market, but he doesn’t seem to understand why. Yes, TV ads have the kind of reach that no other medium can match. But they also have duration, and a storytelling arc: if you’re not ignoring them, they command attention, in the way that, well, TV shows do.

In that sense, TV ads are truly native; the way you consume a TV ad is the same as the way you consume a TV show. Similarly, long copy print ads are native, for the same reason. And the ultimate native ads are the glossy fashion ads in Vogue: in most cases, they’re better than the editorial, and as a result, readers spend as much time with the ads — if not more — as they do with the edit.

On the web, by contrast, the vast majority of ads are not native. Instead, they’re intrusive, annoying, unpleasant, and — in most cases — completely ignored. We’ve now been consuming content on the internet for 15 years; we all know how to do it, and we know what we like, and publishers, including BuzzFeed, have become very good at delivering exactly what we want.

In stark contrast to the increasing sophistication of web publishing, however, the overwhelming majority of web advertising is still based on standard IAB ad units which were introduced in 1996 and haven’t changed much since. We’ve all learned how to tune such things out, either mentally or technologically, with ad-blocker software. Banner ads are never engrossing, they’re never shareable, and insofar as they attract your attention they do so in an evil way, by animating or blinking or otherwise distracting you from whatever it is you are trying to read.

When someone reads a BuzzFeed ad from Virgin Mobile or Geico or GE, they might “only” have a 20% or 30% chance of sharing it. But that’s not really the point. The point is that they read it, and they liked reading it. The “social uplift” is an indication that the ad is connecting with consumers — it’s like clickthrough rates, but real. Native advertising (as well as content marketing, insofar as there’s a distinction) is a way of communicating with web readers in a language they’re receptive to. And it turns out that when you do that, they actually listen.

In terms of disruptive force, then, native has a huge advantage over banners in that it is much more effective in connecting with consumers. And there’s another way that it’s disruptive, too: it utterly upends the standard ad-agency business model. This is the real reason that ad agencies are less than enthusiastic about native — they can’t make money at it. Banner ads are a lovely income stream for agencies, and ad-sales networks, and the whole crazy ecosystem of display-advertising companies. Every time there’s an impression, lots of intermediaries are sure to take their cut.

Native, by contrast, works on a very different model: you spend a certain amount of money putting it together, and then it lives online forever, generating marginal views at zero marginal cost. The agencies can still charge for their creative work, but they can’t charge for media buying any more — which is where the real money is.

As a result, most native campaigns tend to be worked out between publishers and brands directly, with ad agencies helping out but not driving the decision-making. It’s the beginning of the disintermediation of the agencies, and so it’s hardly surprising that they’re unenthusiastic about the trend. This is real digital disruption: native shops like BuzzFeed or Barbarian Group will never be as profitable as the huge ad agencies, but they can still cause those agencies to suffer very large drops in their digital revenues.

The big unanswered question, then, is not whether native has disruptive potential — it clearly does. Rather, it’s whether native will ever be able to truly scale. Native is growth-constrained on two fronts, and that means that if you’re betting on industry-changing disruption, you’re making a risky bet. The first constraint is creative. Native is hard work. Rice talks about how Virgin Mobile has to come up with “several posts a week” when its running a BuzzFeed campaign, and his article is illustrated with a photo of a “creative strategy meeting” where I count 19 people in frame, plus untold others out of it. The amount of human time and effort that goes into a native campaign is enormous, continuous, and it doesn’t decrease much once the campaign is up and running. You can’t just run the same banner a billion times: the marginal daily cost of native campaigns is vastly greater than the marginal daily cost of buying banners.

And then there’s the second constraint, which Rice mentions: all of that effort is going into reaching a relatively small number of people. This is another way in which native ads are like long copy print ads: they reach a small audience, rather than a mass audience. As a result, any brand wanting to reach a mass market is going to have to use native as just one part of a much bigger strategy, and that in turn is going to keep the native-averse ad agencies in the driver’s seat.

My guess is that BuzzFeed’s investors will do OK for themselves, in the end. But a healthy exit for BuzzFeed is not the same as a genuine disruption of the digital advertising space. Although native ads have the potential to be incredibly disruptive, I’m far from convinced that their larger potential is going to be realized any time soon.

COMMENT

Great points, but I would say to follow the metaphor you set up all the way through! When you talk about the amount of people at Virgin creating a few articles a week, compare that with making display ads, or to your earlier point, TV spots. The native ads for TV have a relatively short life — unless they’re also put on YouTube to live on as content in the long tail.

I’d also add that what’s special about those 19 people at Virgin, and what makes social/ content marketing different, is that all their time is working dollars against that audience, as opposed to staff as non-working, those people are pushing out content as advertising, seeing how it does, and then iterating/optimizing based on that performance. And their content will continue to engage audiences whenever someone is using natural language to search out and make a decision.

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What will Henry Blodget do with Jeff Bezos’s millions?

Felix Salmon
Apr 5, 2013 18:25 UTC

The news of the day in the media world is that Jeff Bezos has led a $5 million Series E funding round for Business Insider. Here’s the story, according to CEO Henry Blodget:

Jeff’s investment grew out of a dinner he and I had about a year ago. We talked about the business, and he was excited about it. (He sees some parallels with Amazon). A few months later, he expressed an interest in investing. My reaction was basically “Hell, yeah!”

Blodget has now articulated a simple public goal: “to become the best digital business publication on the planet”. It’s a conscious echo of Bloomberg’s stated aim to be “the world’s most influential news organization”. If he needs to invest millions of dollars of other people’s money to get there, that’s fine.

Blodget goes on to say that he’s obsessed with his customers — both readers and advertisers — and that his customer focus is the main thing he shares with Bezos. (Well, that and his famous Amazon call, of course.) He also says that Bezos’s money “will allow us to continue to invest in our editorial, technology, and client teams” — which almost certainly means that there’s no chance, now, of Business Insider being profitable in 2013. Six years after it was launched, the site is still in growth mode.

And frankly, there are quite a lot of things that Blodget could use the money for, if he is really focused on the reader experience — indeed, there are so many things that he could probably spend all that money quite a few times over, if he wanted. The site could use a redesign, for starters, to make stories pop more for readers and to provide more attractive opportunities for advertisers. On top of that, the architecture of the site should reflect the way that stories are covered. Here’s how BI’s editorial chiefs see the way that they work:

“We don’t really think of things we put up as ‘an article,’” said Carlson. “It’s a bit of information conveyed to people. One of my old colleagues used to say that the last sentence of your last post is the first sentence of your next post. Because by the time you reach the end you sort of come to a cliff, ‘Oh I have another thought on this and I’m just going to put it in the next post.’ In a way, it does sort of become a narrative. For sure, I think [that's] the attraction of reading something at Business Insider … It’s a live medium where the narrative is always coming out with the next thing.”

Weisenthal is often reminded how differently digital outlets such as BI work when it comes time to submit content for awards.

“They have the journalism competitions where they invite people to apply and they always say, ‘Submit your top three posts for consideration that you’re most proud of’ or something like that,” he said. “And I can never come up with the stuff. I don’t think I have a single great post last year that I’m really proud of. Everything I write is part of this bigger stream.”

He pointed to his real-time blanket coverage of the monthly U.S. jobs report as an example. “If you follow me on Jobs Day, within like 20 minutes of the report coming out, I have a summary posted,” he said. “Then I have another post singling out one detail I thought was interesting. I have another post saying what it might mean for interest rates and fed policy. I have another post talking about the political dimensions and so forth. I’m proud of the fact that it’s this whole suite of stories.”

I’m an admirer of this form of journalism, and I think that many media organizations, including Reuters, are going to move in this direction. But right now, if you go to one of Joe’s payrolls posts, it’s not easy to find all the other ones — to have them all in one place, together giving the bigger picture. In order to be able to allow that, Blodget will need to make some serious technology investments.

What’s more, a re-engineered website might well result in a website with significantly fewer pageviews. If you can see all of Joe’s payrolls posts on one page, then that means fewer pageviews for BI than if you call up all ten of them individually. For most of its existence, BI has been in an uncomfortable race, trying to increase the number of pageviews it serves up faster than its CPMs are falling. Investors are generally OK with losses, which reportedly reached $3 million last year, only so long as revenues are growing. And they are growing: Blodget tells me they were more than $10 million in 2012, up from about $7.5 million in 2011 and $4.7 million in 2010.

The problem is that in the chase for revenue growth, Blodget is sacrificing a pleasant user experience. He installs ugly automatic links under certain phrases, for instance, which when you mouse over them start playing video ads. Or he sells a lot of interstitial ads which force you to click another time before reaching the story you want to read. Quartz points out that there’s a good chance Business Insider is worth less than the much younger BuzzFeed, where CEO Jonah Peretti is adamant that he’ll never run a BI-style slideshow, or even “crappy display ads”, just because readers clearly prefer everything on one page and don’t get value from those ads.

The problem is that if Blodget decides to pare back on artificial revenue juicers which readers dislike, that hurts revenue growth as well as profits — even as BI is saying that it intends to accelerate revenues this year to something in the $15 million range. In order to keep revenues growing even as he re-engineers his site to make it sleeker and less optimized towards pageview maximization, Blodget would have to invest not only in technology, but also in sales — paying big money for expensive staffers to build relationships with brands. BI gets too much of its revenue from banner ads right now: it needs to diversify its ad revenue, and start finding more ways for brands to reach BI’s coveted readership. One of those new channels is conference sponsorship, and I expect that BI will use a bunch of its new money to invest aggressively in conferences. But one of the big hidden costs behind building a new kind of website is the fact that you need to build a new kind of sales team, too, selling the kind of products which are often referred to as “native”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Business Insider has always been run on something of a shoestring; it made the entirely understandable decision, for instance, to hold onto a large chunk of the capital it raised in the past, rather than blowing through it and then suddenly being forced to cut back for the sake of profitability. This new round allows BI to increase the amount it’s investing while still retaining a reassuring cushion. But $5 million is not remotely enough money to allow Blodget to pivot to a very different business model, even if he wanted to do so, which he probably doesn’t. For better or for worse, he’s stuck in a world of banner ads and CPMs, and although he’s done well in that world to date, the future of that world looks pretty bleak.

There are many sites, Gawker Media’s foremost among them, which have gone to great lengths to wean themselves off their addiction to banner ads. And in general it seems to me self-evident that “the best digital business publication on the planet” is not going to be one which aggressively chases pageviews and ad revenues at the expense of the user experience. By thinking of stories as streams, Joe Weisenthal found a great way of juicing pageviews, since every element of that stream, under the current architecture, is a new story and a new page. But he’s also stumbled upon a powerful and addictive new form of journalism, which is Blodget’s best hope for achieving his ambition. The question is: will Blodget be willing to give up his current business model, in order to let Weisenthal follow his editorial vision to its logical conclusion?

COMMENT

Henry Bodget was pumping stocks on CNBC, etc then emailing his important clients and telling them that these same stocks were garbage and to sell them when they rallied on his buy recomendation. He was, and still is hyping overpriced amazon as his wall street buddy is Jeff Bezos. Bezos has now rewarded Bloget with a 5 million dollar investment for hyping amazon stock.
Both Bezos and Blodget are wall street crooks who belong behind bars. Boycott amazon and send a message to Bezos that his paying off wall street to prop up his stock price is both illegal and immoral. Boycott amazon and send these two crooks into the gutter where they belong

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How paywalls are evolving

Felix Salmon
Apr 3, 2013 18:48 UTC

Last week, I hypothesized that the publishing industry was going to informally settle on a single management-consultancy company to ask for paywall advice from. That consultancy, having seen everybody’s internal figures, could then tell everybody else what “industry best practice” was. It’s the time-honored management-consultancy m.o., reselling other clients’ confidential information, suitably anonymized, of course, so that everybody learns from everybody else’s successes and failures.

This is a winner-takes-all business: it works best if everybody hires the same consultancy. And now it’s pretty clear which consultancy is going to win: Mather Economics. They say they’ve worked for pretty much everybody, at some point, and that they directly manage some $2 billion of subscription revenues for their clients. And today, fresh off a $1.75 million funding round, the paywall provider MediaPass has announced that it’s going to bake all that Mather knowledge into its own product. Given all the data being generated and analyzed by Mather and MediaPass, it looks like they have a pretty unassailable position in this particular niche.*

So, what do Mather and MediaPass see as the future of paywalls? What is best practice in the industry? Interestingly, as Anthony Ha reports, they’re not particularly enamored with the meter system, despite its high-profile successes at the FT and the NYT.

Although MediaPass supports “metered” systems, [MediaPass president Matt] Mitchell says he sees more potential in creating a specific mix of free and paywalled content, although that mix will differ from site-to-site.

Publishers should think of their free readers as leads who might eventually become paying subscriptions, he says. For example, for a long time Mitchell read ESPN.com for free, but a year ago, he stumbled on a paywalled article that he really wanted to see, and since then he’s been a subscriber.

“What a meter does is give you 10 views free, and on the eleventh you’re asked to subscribe,” Mitchell says. “That’s rolling the dice and gambling that the article I see on the eleventh view is the one I’m willing to pay for.”

It’s worth noting, here, that even the FT and the NYT don’t have “pure” metered systems, where every pageview counts towards the meter. In the early days of paywalls, some content was free, while other content you needed to pay for; the meter, in theory, replaced that system with one where the determination as to whether an article was free or not was a function of how many other articles the reader had read, rather than being a function of the content of the article itself.

There’s always a trade-off, however, and there are certain areas of the FT and NYT websites which are always free and don’t count towards the meter. Finance, interestingly, is one: you can read as much Dealbook and Alphaville as you like without a subscription. And Mather’s Matt Lindsay said that the NYT quietly does the same thing for its entertainment section, during peak season in the fall: there’s a huge amount of advertising demand, and it doesn’t want to put any obstacles in the way of tourists looking to the NYT to work out what shows they want to see.

Talking to Mather and MediaPass, it’s clear that their idea of “best practice” doesn’t rely much on meters at all. They have the numbers, remember: they know what kind of walls are best at maximizing revenues, and what kind of walls just end up turning readers away. And crucially, one of the biggest lessons they’ve learned is that it’s a mistake — at least from a purely financial perspective — to treat all readers equally. Some readers have a much greater propensity to pay than others; ideally, you want to extract a lot of money from those readers, while also allowing the vast majority of your visitors — the ones who will never pay you anything — to still consume your content and view the associated ads.

For instance, it’s often easier to persuade people to subscribe to sports content than to entertainment content, even as it’s easier to sell ads against entertainment content than it is against sports content. So it does make sense to keep entertainment free, and put some kind of paywall around sports.

And although readers hate the kind of extreme opacity practiced by the FT, where there’s basically no rack rate and nobody knows what anybody else is paying, from a revenue prospective it makes a lot of sense. The FT knows quite a lot about its registered readers, so it can be quite effective at charging the highest prices to people with the greatest willingness to pay, while charging much lower rates to readers in, say, India.

That kind of thing can be dangerous, from a PR perspective. Amazon, for instance, got into trouble when it was caught selling the same products at different prices to different customers. But there are other ways of achieving much the same end: you can set a relatively high official price, for instance, and then start showing various special offers to people whom you think might be willing to subscribe if you offer them a discount. No one really minds that.

And certainly it seems to be a good idea to offer a range of subscription lengths, priced so that there’s a strong incentive to go for the longer-dated annual subscription, even if again that means a substantially lower rate on a per-month basis.

I’s not all that hard to tell who’s likely to be willing to subscribe, and who isn’t. Print subscribers, for instance, are much more likely to be willing to pay for a digital subscription than a reader who doesn’t already pay for the print version. And people who visit frequently, and who read a lot of local news, or sports news, are also more likely to subscribe.

In general, the trick is to get as many subscribers as you can — because once a person subscribes, they generally turn out to be surprisingly loyal and price-inelastic. You can keep on charging their credit card, even at steadily-rising rates, and they’re not going to unsubscribe. And then, for the 90% of readers who don’t subscribe, it’s a good idea to find content for them, too. The paywall shouldn’t just be a “pay here or get nothing” option: the “no thanks” button should take you to valuable free content.

That’s why, as NYT spokeswoman Eileen Murphy confirmed to me, the NYT is looking at rolling out a new digital subscription product, priced below the current cheapest option of $3.75 per week. Most NYT readers are understandably reluctant to spend $195 a year on access to a single site, so the NYT might well offer something cheaper, without the full unlimited range of content that subscribers get with the current digital package.

What’s impossible to calculate, of course, is the long-term opportunity cost of driving away people who want to read your content but aren’t willing to pay. MediaPass’s Mitchell told me that in most cases, the act of putting up a paywall is the act of “essentially harvesting revenue from a loyal long-term audience” — people who have been reading the publication for years, and have turned it into a habit they don’t want to give up. That’s fine, as a short-term means of maximizing revenues. But it’s dangerous in terms of getting new loyal readers. Which is one reason why online media startups almost never have paywalls: they want as many people as possible to discover them.

My expectation, then, is that newspaper paywalls will become both increasingly sophisticated and increasingly expensive over time — but that paywalls are not going to migrate very quickly out of the newspaper world and onto the rest of the internet. In a dying industry, the sensible thing to do is to maximize your revenues before you die. Paywalls might well make money for newspapers. But that doesn’t mean that newspapers aren’t dying. Quite the opposite.

*Update: So this is embarrassing. The public press release notwithstanding, it seems that Mather got cold feet about the deal with MediaPass, and is not going to go ahead with it after all. I think Mather still has its longstanding relationship with Press+, the newspaper paywall company, but I’ll look into it and find out.

Update 2: This seems at heart to be a spat between Press+ and MediaPass, with Mather being enjoined from working with both.

COMMENT

Oops, just noticed that the $127 was for The Economist. I get the hard-copy of The Economist and the electronic version is included for free. Just extended the subscription for $69 for another 18 months. That’s a good deal.

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Paywalls rise

Felix Salmon
Mar 27, 2013 15:56 UTC

It’s paywall season right now: the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Telegraph, the Sun — all have recently announced plans to erect paywalls in an attempt to extract subscription revenues from their most loyal online readers. And other paywalls are being tweaked: the NYT paywall is getting less porous, while Andrew Sullivan’s is being tightened up, with a new $2/month option to complement the existing $20/year price point.

The trend here is clear. There is now only one major US newspaper without a paywall of some description, although others have free spin-off sites, like Boston.com or SFGate.com, which act a bit like the outside-the-paywall content on other sites.

There are three big drivers of these decisions. The first is that there’s no hope that online ad revenues will ever grow to replace print ad revenues. They’re barely growing any more, even as they’re still only a small fraction of total ad revenues. The second is that for various reasons, newspapers need to “cling to the mantle of quality at near insane costs”, as Sarah Lacy puts it. If costs are stubbornly high while revenues are shrinking, then the only possible solution is to try to raise new revenues by any means necessary — or go bust.

Finally, there’s the behavioral aspect: newspapers in general, and the NYT in particular, are quite deliberately habituating readers to the idea of paying for content. This was an obvious strategy even before most of the paywalls launched, back in 2010: first get people used to the idea of paying at all, and then, slowly, raise the amount that you ask them to pay over time.

There are an infinite number of points on the spectrum between tip jar and paywall, but there does seem to be a clear move to the right over time, towards less porous and more expensive paywalls. Some paywalls, like the FT’s, are what you might call Metropolitan Museum paywalls, porous in name only. While in theory the FT works on a meter system, giving people a certain number of free articles before asking them to pay, in practice if you want to read an FT article you’re going to be asked to pay — even, annoyingly, if you’re already a subscriber. (I would dearly love a subscription which authenticates based on device rather than on an easy-to-forget and hard-to-enter username/password combo: can’t the FT just see that it’s my phone accessing the site, and let me read anything I want if I’m a subscriber?)

And in general, the more you’re asking for, the more coercive you need to be. At a buck or two a month, loyal readers are happy to support you. At $15 or $20 per month, you need to break out the sticks as well as the carrots.

One of the problems with paywalls is that everybody wants their paywall to be simple and transparent and easy for everybody to understand. But if you do that, you can’t A/B test; you can’t work out empirically what the optimum price is or what the best place to set the meter is. Which is where the raft of different paywalls out there comes in handy.

Here’s my prediction: At some point, the industry is going to informally settle on a single management-consultancy company to ask for paywall advice from. Everybody’s going to use the same company, with the result that the consultancy in question is going to see real internal figures from lots of different newspaper publishers, with lots of different models. The consultancy will then — for a price — tell its clients what “best practice” is in the industry, which is code for “this is the way that the most successful newspapers are doing it”. No one site can easily do A/B testing on its own. But put them all together in the head of a well-connected management consultant, and it becomes much easier to see what’s working and what isn’t.

But all of the paywalls and consultants in the world won’t change the fact that the amount of information freely available on the internet continues to grow very fast, and that the number of people willing to pay for any kind of news online is always going to be a small fraction of the total online news-reading population. As Lacy says, there’s an exciting future for online news — even if the prospects for legacy-burdened newspapers are dim. The paywalls might help with newspapers’ finances. But they’re certainly not going to help make them any more relevant.

COMMENT

The internet is the world’s library, and soon every word ever written and every image ever captured will be within a few keystrokes of everyone’s grasp.

Businesses that wish to build pay to watch peepshows in the dark corners and little used hallways of this library are welcome to try, but I’ll wager a thousand to one on those that will vote against that plan with a simple click of the back button.

Don’t go behind a paywall Felix, or if you do we’ll miss you.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Must investors be on Twitter?

Felix Salmon
Mar 18, 2013 16:44 UTC

Izabella Kaminska and Joe Weisenthal have both, in their own ways, weighed in on the importance of Twitter to investors. Here’s Kaminska:

There are a lot of professional investment people out there who have no idea about the private market in information. They still digest all their news from official sources and consider things like Twitter noise or unsubstantiated rumourtrage that can’t be trusted without ever having tried it themselves.

They are at a huge disadvantage and have missed major trends as a result and don’t even realise it.

Meanwhile, watching the Cyprus drama unfold, Weisenthal says that “the Twittersphere has come to the rescue” of any investor starved for good sell-side research:

The value of Twitter (and Twitterers’ blogs) have been growing for some time.

But on a weekend, with a high degree of local knowledge and nuance required, the best information out there was all free.

All of this is true, and especially true with respect to Cyprus — a country which is far too small to have dedicated sell-side coverage. Precious few bank analysts will have good contacts within Cypriot policymaking circles, or even be able to name a single Cypriot policymaker. Which means that everybody’s pretty much starting from the same place, giving a big advantage to the iterative and conversational way in which knowledge builds on Twitter. My post over the weekend had 21 different external links, most of which came from Twitter in one way or another.

More generally, if you’re an investor who wants to avoid being blindsided by something huge you were utterly unaware of, Twitter is a great tool for minimizing that risk. That’s thanks in large part to its short attention span: by its nature it flits randomly from topic to topic, making it a fantastically good serendipity engine, better than any other source at showing you stuff you didn’t know you wanted to know.

Kaminska points out that journalists, rather than investors, are at the edge of the envelope here, and cites Weisenthal in particular as being the person who “sets the benchmark for what the human brain is capable of absorbing”.

Information is power. You can choose to ignore it and get behind, but this is a market like anything else. And you can’t stop or shut it down just because you can’t keep up. Only the strongest and best at absorbing and processing all this information will survive.

This is why bloggers and journalists like us (those using social media rather than those using old techniques) become so insightful. We do the reading so you don’t have to.

But guess what, the amount of material we consume on a daily basis relative to the investment community which still operates on 1990s information terms (a research note here, a pontification there, a look at the newspaper — yesterday’s news, tomorrow ) makes me realise the scale of the power chasm that is forming between the informed, those who know and do exploit the information available, and the uninformed, who don’t because it gets in the way of their quality of life.

Of course, there are some investors who are extremely adept at drinking from the fire hose.  And there are other investors who specialize in taking very, very deep dives into very narrow asset classes, often just a single stock, trying to monetize their information advantage that way. But most investors are much more broadly exposed than that, and need to stay on top of what is happening, globally, in a world which can change with dizzying speed. And as Kaminska says, there are a lot of “old school money managers” who simply don’t have the skill set to do that.

There’s still, however, the question of what people do with the information they get from the rapidly-proliferating set of sources which are freely available online. Weisenthal and Kaminska are both very smart, but that doesn’t mean I’d be likely to give them my money to invest on my behalf. A large part of investing is knowing when to wait, in a world which is always biased towards action. Another large part is being able to step back and see the big trends, without spending too much time being distracted by noise. And yes, for all that it’s incredibly valuable, Twitter is also incredibly noisy.

If Kaminska’s point is about the kind of money managers whose investment services are sold rather than bought — individual stockbrokers, fund-of-funds managers, that kind of thing — then it’s well taken.  And if you’re a sell side analyst, Twitter is great at helping to prepare you for just about any question which might get thrown at you. But if she’s talking about purer investors, like mutual-fund or hedge-fund managers, or family offices, or even just individual investors, then I think we’re still quite a way from the point at which being on Twitter is a necessity. Some people love it, and get value out of it, and become better investors through it: all power to those people. For others it’s a noisy distraction in a world where there’s never enough time to think deeply about complex issues.

The people I respect the most in the financial-services industry tend to be the ones with both breadth and depth. I don’t know whether David Rolley of Loomis Sayles has ever spent any time on Twitter, but I know that he has a protean yet focused intelligence which seems perfectly suited to his job. On the other hand, being on Twitter is hardly disqualifying: I would put Dan Davies and Mark Dow in the same category, and they’re both must-follows on Twitter, who surely receive as much from the service as they give to the rest of us.

There’s a reason why journalists flock to Twitter: they cover news, and Twitter is always new. They also, however, nearly always overestimate the importance of news to the markets. What’s happening in Cyprus might be very important when it comes to making investment decisions, but that doesn’t mean those decisions need to be made right now. Investing, along with providing valuable information to investors, which is what sell-side research desks do, involves much more than staying on top of current events: they also act as a screen, passing on only the stuff which is important, and identifying the securities which are most tied to the event in question. Twitter is very good for sentiment analysis, but it’s pretty horrible as a source of trading or hedging ideas.

All of which is to say that while I’m sure there are many investors out there who would be lost without Twitter, there are surely just as many for whom it would be little more than an unhelpful and noisy distraction. The great thing about Twitter is that the value and the conversation take place among people who want to be there. Telling people that they have to be there, or else they’re missing out, is actually not helpful. Because the one thing we can probably all agree on is that people who feel obliged to be on Twitter are very unlikely to either contribute or receive much of value at all.

COMMENT

“the investment community which still operates on 1990s information terms”

Tsssssssss. As if investors are from a different planet, or something. Wasn’t Rick Ashley still popular in the 90s? Get real…

I know a LOT of journalists who are not active on twitter and keep hanging on to their old routines. Probably just as many as investors. It is nonsense to make it look like the two groups differ all that much.

Posted by ldaalder | Report as abusive

The many flavors of native content

Felix Salmon
Mar 15, 2013 19:41 UTC

A story about smartphone use in emerging markets appeared on Quartz Wednesday morning. The byline at the top is that of Donald Fitzmaurice, the CEO of Brandtone, who wrote the introduction and the conclusion. The rest of the piece comprises short country reports from Brandtone employees in South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey. The ostensible message of the piece is about smartphones. The real message of the piece is “hey, look at us, you might not have heard of us, but we’re thought leaders in the mobile space, and we’re in lots of different countries around the world”.

Quartz has a substantial amount of “sponsor content” on the site (see this, for instance), all of which comes with a disclaimer at the bottom saying something like “this article is written by Chevron and not by the Quartz editorial staff.” The Brandtone piece is not sponsor content: it was solicited by Quartz editors, not Quartz sales staff, and is pure editorial content, tweeted out as such. But at the same time it’s exactly what the sales staff would like Quartz’s sponsor content to be: a “native” way of reaching readers — something which reads like a Quartz news story — which also improves the reputation of the company responsible for publishing it.

There’s nothing particularly innovative here. Op-ed pages have long relied on contributed content, much of which can be excellent. Still, it’s worth looking at who’s getting the most value out of deals like this, where Quartz gets smart (and free) copy, while the outside contributor gets exposure and validation. It turns out that this is a pretty lopsided trade, where the value to Brandtone is actually much higher than the value to Quartz.

Quartz, in this deal, is getting one article, which needs a fair amount of editing; it’s a tiny proportion of Quartz’s daily output. Meanwhile, Brandtone is getting something very valuable indeed. Just look at the US flack-to-hack ratio: it’s approaching 9:1, according to the Economist, which means that for every professional journalist, there are nine people, some of them extremely well paid, trying to persuade that journalist to publish something about a certain company. That wouldn’t be the case if those articles weren’t worth serious money to the companies in question.

How valuable? How about somewhere between $250,000 and $1 million? That’s the amount of money that Fortune’s ad-sales team was asking, earlier this month, for a new product called Fortune Trusted Original Content:

Similar to licensed editorial content, TOC involves creating original, Fortune-branded editorial content (articles, video, newsletters) exclusively for marketers to distribute on their own platforms.

After news of the TOC program appeared, it was walked back — abolished, essentially. You can see why Fortune’s top editorial brass would be uncomfortable with the idea that Fortune editorial content could be commissioned by, and appear for the sole benefit of, advertisers. So now they’re going back to the old model, of just allowing advertisers to license (reprint, basically) stories which were independently commissioned and published by Fortune’s editors.

Still, the price point on the now-aborted TOC program is revealing. The cost of the content, from a “trusted freelancer”, would probably not be much more than a couple of thousand dollars — but the cost of the content to the advertiser could be as much as $1 million. The difference is entirely accounted for by the value of the Fortune brand.

In general, the more that a piece of content looks like genuine editorial content, the more valuable it becomes. As Bill Keller explained recently to Jeff Bercovici,

the advertiser comes back and says, you know, if you made this look just a little bit more like editorial content and a little bit less like sponsored content, we’d pay you an extra 25%. The combination of the metrics obsession of the web and the economic plight of news organizations make that, as I said, a really slippery slope.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, the most valuable content, to an advertiser, is content which genuinely is editorial content. Something like the Brandtone Quartz piece isn’t “sponsored” at all: no money changes hands, there are no disclaimers, and it’s produced by the editorial arm of Quartz. It’s a marketing executive’s wet dream, since it’s essentially a pure editorial endorsement of the quality and newsworthiness of what the company is saying.

This is the promise of native advertising: taking content which is produced by or on behalf of companies, and putting it in front of readers, who will consume it as they consume pure editorial content. Forbes has been doing this a lot, with its BrandVoice product. Something like this, from UPS, looks and feels very much like any other Forbes article, and in fact is a genuinely interesting story which is only peripherally related to UPS. The Forbes imprimatur is much coveted, and of course the Forbes website offers much greater reach than some corporate site ever could. So it’s easy to see why companies sign up for BrandVoice.

That said, BrandVoice is expensive. Companies need to pay Forbes; they need to pay their own marketing teams; and they need to spend time and effort putting together and signing off on content for the Forbes website. It’s quite a lot of management cycles, compared to a standard ad campaign, and it’s hard to scale. If it works well, you can’t just press a button and do more of it, like you can with banner ads.

There is now another way for companies and executives to reach millions of high-value readers, at very little cost to themselves, and without having to involve marketing executives and freelance journalists and all the other necessary inputs into native campaigns. It’s called LinkedIn, and it’s having a huge amount of success.

There’s very little distinction between editorial and advertising on LinkedIn: it’s all just posts, from various LinkedIn members, many of whom are very senior management. There are a few ads as well, but most of what you see, if you’re reading a LinkedIn story, is successful attempt by a certain executive to get his or her message in front of you. LinkedIn is about people more than it is about companies, but that really only helps — it makes everything feel more personal and less corporate, and that in turn makes the message more likely to be well received. No one cares about the editorial/advertising divide: the very concept seems silly. Indeed, if any disclosure is needed, readers would much rather know whether a certain CEO wrote a given post himself, or whether he had it written for him. (Good luck finding that out.)

LinkedIn is a real threat to native advertising: it’s a platform which has huge reach, is open to anybody, and involves much less effort, for just as much payoff, as a native campaign.

Still, a LinkedIn post is not, for the time being, going to have the same kind of branded value as a piece of pure editorial on Quartz or Fortune or Forbes. Which is why there’s one new kind of marketing campaign which I think is going to become much more popular in the future.

In print media, the editors put together an editorial product, which goes out to readers who pick and choose what they want to read; once the story has appeared, all the important decisions have already been made. But the internet doesn’t work like that. Publishers can guarantee traffic to certain stories, by placing attractive links to those stories on many different pages. And there are definitely certain stories that companies want people to read. Some will speak glowingly of the company in question, others will quote the company’s executives, others will educate the public about certain matters, others will point out weaknesses with a company’s competitors, or debunk negative claims about the company made elsewhere.

As Nick Bilton has pointed out, Facebook already has a decent business in getting people to pay it money to promote their stories; there’s no reason that smaller companies can’t get into the game as well. When Forbes or Fortune or Quartz run a story which a company wants people to read, why can’t that company pay the publisher to feature it prominently until it reaches a certain audience?

There would definitely be interesting design issues surrounding such things: how do you get across the message that a story is wholly independent editorial content, but at the same time that it’s being promoted by an outside company? Does the identity of the company need to be disclosed? And if so, where? It doesn’t seem to make sense to put the disclosure on the article page.

This kind of program is hard to do on old-fashioned sites which are based around a home page where the placement of stories is a purely editorial decision; it’s easier to do on sites like Quartz or Gawker or Mail Online, where most navigation is done by clicking on headlines in a river. The publisher can simply carve out a couple of spots in that river, and allow them to be populated with promoted content — just like sponsored content takes up space in Quartz’s river right now.

This kind of program — which could even be automated — would allow a company like Brandtones to make sure that its Quartz article was seen by many more people than are going to read it right now. It would allow Goldman Sachs to promote the articles it links to from its Twitter feed. And, most importantly, it would provide an important new revenue stream for publishers desperate for such things. I’m looking forward to the idea being rolled out, probably first at the braver shops like Gawker Media, and then at more conservative publishers. It might not be a huge success, but you never know. It’s certainly worth a try.

COMMENT

Native content (naive content ?) consumes the editorial brand name. It’s like drawing checks on an account.

Posted by hansrudolf | Report as abusive

The problem with online freelance journalism

Felix Salmon
Mar 5, 2013 21:46 UTC

Nate Thayer caused quite a stir in the Twittersphere this morning when he published the email correspondence between himself and Olga Khazan, an editor at the Atlantic. Khazan had seen Thayer’s 4,300-word piece for North Korea News about “basketball diplomacy”*, and decided that it would be great to have a shorter version of the story at the Atlantic. After a bit of back-and-forth, she proposed this to Thayer:

Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.

I spoke to Bob Cohn, the head of Atlantic Digital, today, and he said, echoing editor in chief James Bennet’s formal apology to Thayer, that this was a mistake. It would have been OK, probably, to ask Thayer if the Atlantic could cross-post, or syndicate, the original piece, with no more work involved on Thayer’s part. At that point, he could have said yes or he no (or, in this case, he could leave the decision to NK News, which owns the copyright on the piece) — but he wouldn’t have been asked to work for free.

The cross-posting model can be a very healthy one: once a piece has been written and published, it can reach a much wider audience if it appears on a few different sites. To take one high-profile recent example: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” did very well at its original location, getting 1,738 comments. But it did even better at HuffPo (15,220 comments, 1,269,516 Facebook Likes) and at Gawker (794,000 Likes, 3.8 million pageviews). That’s a special case, of course. But both professional and amateur writers tend to want their stuff to be read by as many people as possible, and (like me) normally say yes to people asking if they can cross-post.

I don’t think that Thayer would have been offended by a simple cross-posting request: that can be dealt with with an equally simple yes or no. Instead, however, he was asked by the Atlantic to cut 4,300 words down to 1,200 words — something which involves a substantial amount of work, and often a substantial amount of rewriting. For that, the Atlantic should have offered to pay him. Or, more realistically, they shouldn’t have asked him to do that in the first place: there is value to reprinting the original story, and there is value in quoting it and linking to it, but there’s not a huge amount of value in editing such a thing down — not when your medium has no space constraints.

Also, there’s something a little disingenuous about the “13 million readers” thing. I can say that Reuters has 40 million readers every month, but that tells you nothing about the number of people reading my blog. It’s OK to ask people to do things for free, but it’s not OK to oversell yourself in the process: when Khazan tells Thayer that “some journalists use our platform as a way to gain more exposure”, she should be honest about the number of readers that Thayer’s post is likely to get, rather than citing huge numbers with very little relevance to Thayer. What’s more, at the margin, a large readership should by rights increase a publication’s ability to pay freelance contributors, rather than merely increasing freelancers’ desire to appear in that publication.

The exchange has particular added poignancy because it’s not so many years since the Atlantic offered Thayer $125,000 to write six articles a year for the magazine. How can the Atlantic have fallen so far, so fast — to go from offering Thayer $21,000 per article a few years ago, to offering precisely zero now? The simple answer is just the size of the content hole: the Atlantic magazine only comes out ten times per year, which means it publishes roughly as many articles in one year as the Atlantic’s digital operations publish in a week. When the volume of pieces being published goes up by a factor of 50, the amount paid per piece is going to have to go down.

But there’s something bigger going on at the Atlantic, too. Cohn told me the Atlantic now employs some 50 journalists, just on the digital side of things: that’s more than the Atlantic magazine ever employed, and it’s emblematic of a deep difference between print journalism and digital journalism. In print magazines, the process of reporting and editing and drafting and rewriting and art directing and so on takes months: it’s a major operation. The journalist — the person doing most of the writing — often never even sees the magazine’s offices, where a large amount of work goes into putting the actual product together.

The job putting a website together, by contrast, is much faster and more integrated. Distinctions blur: if you work for theatlantic.com, you’re not going to find yourself in a narrow job like photo editor, or assignment editor, or stylist. Everybody does everything — including writing, and once you start working there, you realize pretty quickly that things go much more easily and much more quickly when pieces are entirely produced in-house than when you outsource the writing part to a freelancer. At a high-velocity shop like Atlantic Digital, freelancers just slow things down — as well as producing all manner of back-end headaches surrounding invoicing and the like.

The result is that Atlantic Digital’s freelancer budget is minuscule, and that any extra marginal money going into the editorial budget is overwhelmingly likely to be put into hiring new full-time staff, rather than beefing up the amount spent on freelancers. Cohn didn’t give me hard numbers, but some back-of-the-envelope math would indicate that more than 95% of his total editorial budget is spent on staffers, rather than freelancers.

Staffers come in, work hard at a multitude of jobs, and coordinate with each other surprisingly well; it also takes them very little time to understand how to create great web content quickly and internally, rather than relying on outsiders. Khazan had only just started her job when she tried to get Thayer to repurpose his article; my guess is that with a little bit more experience, she would have found it much easier to simply write a quick article of her own, linking to and blockquoting Thayer’s piece, driving traffic to him without having to negotiate with him at all. Look, for instance, at how David Trifunov of Global Post tackled the subject: he wrote a short but interesting post of his own, incorporating links to three outside stories, including Thayer’s, as well as another Global Post story. That’s the natural way of the web, and it doesn’t involve any freelancing.

The fact is that freelancing only really works in a medium where there’s a lot of clear distribution of labor: where writers write, and editors edit, and art directors art direct, and so on. Most websites don’t work like that, and are therefore difficult places to incorporate freelance content. The result is that it’s pretty much impossible to make a decent living on freelance digital-journalism income alone: I certainly don’t know of anybody who manages it. There’s still real money in magazine features, and there are a handful of websites which pay as much as $1,000 or $1,500 per article. But in general it’s much, much easier to get a job paying $60,000 a year working for a website than it is to cobble together $60,000 a year working freelance for a variety of different websites.

The lesson here, then, is not that digital journalism doesn’t pay. It does pay, and often it pays better than print journalism. Rather, the lesson is that if you want to earn money in digital journalism, you’re probably going to have to get a full-time job somewhere. Lots of people write content online; most of them aren’t even journalists, and as Arianna Huffington says, “self-expression is the new entertainment”. Digital journalism isn’t really about writing, any more — not in the manner that freelance print journalists understand it, anyway. Instead, it’s more about reading, and aggregating, and working in teams; doing all the work that used to happen in old print-magazine offices, but doing it on a vastly compressed timescale.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course — websites which still pay freelance writers decent sums. The New Republic, for one, seems to be carving out an impressive niche as a place to find carefully-edited, print-quality freelance content even when the piece in question doesn’t appear in the magazine. And when the web slows down, as it does at places like Matter, it’s quite easy to find in-depth journalism and reporting from well-paid freelancers. But in general, it’s fair to say that the web is not a freelancer-friendly place. Just be careful about extrapolating: there are lots of very good digital-journalism jobs out there, no matter how badly some freelancers get treated.

*Update: In another layer of irony, it turns out that Thayer’s piece itself was deeply indebted to — and yet didn’t cite or link to — Mark Zeigler’s 2006 story on the same subject. (Although it does at one point mention “documents obtained by the San Diego Union Tribune in 2006″.)

COMMENT

How many bottles of milk or pieces of bread did the 15,220 comments and 1,269,516 Facebook Likes from Huffington Post buy the writer of the article? It’s great to have your stuff read, but sometimes there is a difference between a “professional writer” and someone who just wants to have their voice heard. The former can be a proud thinker who has a point to spread but who needs to support themselves through their work; the latter can be a narcissist who just wants attention.

To quote a famous Motown song, Being “liked” gives me such a thrill, but a Facebook “Like” don’t pay my bills.

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