The Value Of News

Last night I attended a fascinating Q&A with the MD of Guardian Australia, Ian McLelland (above centre), and its International Director, Tony Danker (above left). It was a wide-ranging conversation, taking in a number of topics to do with the future of media, the rise of data journalism, and how you create a sustainable business model in the 21st Century.

This morning I read an equally interesting piece which touched on many of the same topics and had the memorable, if not exactly snappy, headline: The unfortunate fact is that online journalism can’t survive without a wealthy benefactor or cat GIFsIn this Matthew Ingram argued that news has always been subsidised (by things like classifieds and the like, which the internet has stripped away) and that essentially the only two routes left to publishers are to chase page views (hence cat GIFs) or look for a wealthy benefactor, such as Jeff Bezos.

To round off this unholy trinity, I saw an article in Digiday which highlighted the fact that many publishers are now creating content solely to drive page views, such as slideshows and the like, because that’s how they monetise their inventory. It suggested that the likes of Pitchfork, with their dazzling, if slightly dizzying ‘cover story’ about Daft Punk, showed that this isn’t the only way to create a successful digital media business.

So what can we take from all this?

At the Guardian Q&A Danker asked whether the 21st Century newsroom should employ as many developers as journalists. My fear is that if they do, they will end up with every story looking like the Daft Punk one – technically beautiful and definitely forward thinking, but with the tech potentially distracting from the story itself. And is there really any point when the likes of Flipboard are raising ridiculous amounts of money, and presumably using this to hire lots of devleopers? How can you anyone compete with that? Would it not be better to find the best people and companies to partner with?

Digiday suggests that the replacement for pages views and impressions will be unique visits, social lift (sharing) or interactions within ad-units. But these all still feel rather dated to me. Surely a better way of measuring effectiveness, and then charging for it, are things like the amount of views that are within a desired audience (using tolls such as OCR) or the effect of advertorial/brand supported content (or native advertising as we have to call it now) on metrics like consideration, brand uplift and the like. The former are all advertising metrics, the latter are more like business objectives.

And finally it strikes me that in the quest to get more coverage, social lift and, ultimately, page views, Ingram sacrificed the sanctity of his story for a great headline. Because at the very end of his piece he says this:

Some media companies have taken an agnostic approach to the problem, including the the Economist and Atlantic Media. The former has a valuable proprietary research arm as well as an  events business (a similar model to the one Gigaom uses), while the Atlantic is owned by a wealthy benefactor but also does events, and is trying to build a digital subscription business.

Which highlights that there are in fact perfectly viable models that don’t involve becoming a charitable foundation or a depository for annoying gifs. But that wouldn’t have made such a good story, unlike Aaron Sorkin’s idealised version of a modern newsroom winning an Emmy, which suggests that things haven’t changed that much in journalism after all.

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