May 21st, 2007

Journalists, Made For AdSense Publishers, And Regression To The Mean Of Content Quality

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What do offline media journalists have in common with Made For AdSense publishers, i.e. online publishers who create sites with junk content for the sole purpose of making money off of Google’s pay-per-click ads? Quite a lot it seems — Google is destroying their business models from either end of the content quality spectrum. Compare the following:

What I think is occurring is that we news types are mourning our lost autonomy and power. We’re angry that, like everyone else, we’re subject to business and financial pressures. Editorial independence has subtly eroded. Decisions about what topics to cover (health, technology) are increasingly tailored to appeal to advertisers. Splintering media markets have weakened the economic base for newsgathering. In 2005 and 2006, Time magazine cut its news staff by 14 percent, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism; it reckons that NEWSWEEK’s staff is half its 1983 level (though Web hiring has offset some losses). Even if the Journal rebuffs Murdoch, it cannot escape these pressures. It has already put ads on section fronts.

The changes involve more than economics. When I started, print journalism required two basic skills: reporting and writing. Now, journalists are expected to be multimedia utility players, feeding Web sites, posting videos and doing TV. Up to a point, this is valuable: finding new ways to engage and inform. But it’s also time-consuming and detracts from reporting. Just what constitutes journalism is less clear. Hitwise, a survey firm, counts 8,001 news and media Web sites. The largest (Yahoo! News) has only 7 percent of the traffic. The skills that are rewarded are shifting from diligent, curious and clear, to tech-savvy, quick and edgy.

vs.

I think the big long-term distinction between what Google considers low quality and of quality is going to be brand equity. Do people visit your site from channels other than Google? Large brands get more return out of buzz marketing, while smaller businesses lean hard on search. inbound made a great post in that WMW thread about the arbitrage and MFA changes, which notes that Google is getting better at coming up with proxies for visitor value.

Based on Google’s authority-centric relevancy algorithms and this move it is clear that Google wants to trust the larger businesses so they have less work to do policing the web. The way around getting forked by Google is to create something that does not need Google to exist. Create the type of site that people would link at if Google did not exist, and the type of site that they would want to advertise on directly. I have a large AdSense site that needs a re-brand and some serious work on content quality if it is going to stay viable in years to come.

Can you identify the source of BOTH of these quotes? I’m guessing most people can’t — in fact, I might lay claim to being the only person on the web who reads both Aaron Wall’s SEO Book (second quote), a blog about search engine optimization, but also, more deeply, about the fundamental dynamics of the web, and Romenesko, a Poynter Institute blog that covers the news businesses with an emphasis on the newspaper industry, which is where I found the first quote from a Newsweek column by veteran journalist Robert Samuelson. (It’s a shame if I am in fact the only crossover reader because Romenesko readers could learn a lot from Aaron about how the web really works.)

What linked these two articles in my mind is that they are both lamenting the loss of content business models, but at opposite ends of the content quality spectrum.

On the one hand, Google (as emblematic of the web’s content economy) punishes publishers that spend too much money creating content that can’t survive in the web’s brutally efficient disaggregated content market, e.g. investigative journalism. On the other hand, Google is now also punishing publishers in its AdSense network who spend almost nothing on content, just enough to hold the ads together.

The grand irony here is that Aaron is advising new media Made For AdSense publishers to be more like old media, i.e. develop a brand that people would seek out even if Google didn’t exist, and Robert Samuelson is advising old media journalists to relax and embrace new media. Compare:

The real news about the news business is that it isn’t collapsing. It’s merely changing.

vs.

From a risk management perspective, I think every web publisher should own at least one real branded site, even if it offers low returns for the amount of work required to maintain it.

Even more interesting is the net effect on content — a regression to the mean of content quality. Neither hacked together crappy content, on the one extreme, nor Pulitzer Prize journalism, on the other, can any longer thrive in a Google-driven content ecosystem.

Why? Because most people don’t find either to be sufficiently valuable. Not valuing Made For AdSense content isn’t difficult to fathom. As for investigative journalism, etc., it’s not that people didn’t value it when it came packaged with the newspaper. It’s just that most people don’t search for it (and search drives the web), and there isn’t a market for running ads next to it.

This doesn’t mean that investigative journalism will cease to exist or that clever online publishers won’t find ways to make money from online advertising without investing in content. It’s just that the economics of both have shifted to the middle — at least for now.

  • Scott,

    First let me betray my heritage by saying I'd read Samuelson's column on pulp and ink.

    To your point about the airspace between crapland and Pulitizerville:

    The "sweet spot" for a lot of sites featuring (on the main stage or as a side act) news is commodity journalism. Wire reporting of the sort you see crawling across the bottom of the screen on Headline News and CNBC. AP, Reuters, Bloomberg, that crowd.

    Commodity journalism has brand credibility and a respectable quality floor. It never hits home runs but hits singles and sometimes doubles every day. It is created by huge InfoCorps, so it's priced way cheaper than original content. It is utterly safe and never antagonizes the great powers with a daring idea. We all scan it every day.

    Here's the mediascape I see developing:

    The vast middle of the news stream is filled by commodity reporting.

    The bottom end, with very low production costs and tiny audiences, will be a random mix of frisky-smart boutiques, hammer-stupid storefronts and muttering whackjobs carrying big signs that the world is ending.

    The higher end--the places that produce the essential work of truth-squadding public affairs and kicking ass when necessary--is left with no revenue stream to sustain it, and high fixed costs.

    Who what becomes of the work that Holly so (justifiably) cherishes?

    Either it will fall to Zuckermanesque highbrow vanities, or to any number of digital empires willing to consider world-class news a promotional expense.

    Or, my favorite option: They'll be run by public service non-profit foundations, endowed to produce the kind of independent journalism the world needs but cannot be sustained by new economics.

    Yes: The most important journalistic work becomes a kind of charity case, funded as a public service alongside anti-tuberculosis campaigns and save-the-whales efforts.

  • Holly,

    I absolutely agree. But this is not a question of whether the Foruth Estate isn't, in fact, essential. The problem is that Fourth Estate was easier for people to value when it came packaged with the sports page and the cartoons. Disaggregation on the web means that journalism needs to be valued on its own -- that is the challenge presented by the disruption of the news business.

  • Howard,

    I absoultely agree. I should have be clearer in that I'm not referring to newspaper ad revenue from AdSense, which I know is a minority of revenue. I was using Google more as an emblatic reference for the web's content marketplace.

    And yes, display ads do create real value, as I discussed here using, coincidentally, the same Ars Technica story (I fixed the link in your comment).

    The issue for news sites is more around content discovery, because content that isn't found can't be monetized through any means.

    Made For AdSense sites are found through arbitragers' AdWords ads that they run on search engines. Without AdSense revenue, there is no incentive to make those sites discoverable in Google.

    For newspaper, the issue is whether searchers will discretely seek out the type of journalism that has traditionally come packaged with the newspaper.

  • It may be true that investigative journalism doesn't attract advertising like some other kinds of content, but we all need to be very careful not to underestimate its importance. It is, in fact, the foundation of the Fourth Estate in this country, and it has been seriously weakened by the new economics of the Web. If we don't have "diligent, curious and clear " reporting on what's going on in our government --local, state and federal, we put our nation in grave danger of missing the big issues while we sort through the junk on YouTube.

  • (Sorry about that ars technica link above; I couldn't figure out how to embed a url in the text.)

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