You’d think the recent sale of tech website Re/code to Vox Media would’ve been spun as a success story: Founders sell 18-month-old startup to media giant! Niche website attracts 1.5 million monthly unique visitors and gets acquired for an undisclosed sum!
Instead, it has sparked articles about why new digital media publications can’t seem to turn a profit; here’s one in the Washington Post on why it’s “tough going” for news sites, and another in Fortune about how big-name journalists are having trouble succeeding with new online brands.
While I think these articles are hyper-focused on failure and overlook examples of digital news organizations that are doing well, I’m also interested in what’s causing new journalism outlets to sputter. This industry combines two of my professional interests: journalism (which I trained in, then worked in, for eight years) and running an online business (I’m coming up on my five-year anniversary).
Plenty of bloggers and other websites turn a profit, so why can’t news sites? Based on my background in both worlds, here’s what I think is to blame.
As Paul Farhi writes in his article for the Post, journalists want to work on journalism, not business. He quotes a Vox executive who says it’s not because journalists aren’t capable of focusing on the business piece of the puzzle; it’s simply not where they want to spend their time.
I’d argue it’s a little bit of both. I’ve had a number of conversations with journalists launching sites who were well-suited to creating high-quality journalism, but didn’t know much about what I consider to be the two other pieces of the make-money-off-a-website equation: getting traffic to the site (if you build it, they won’t necessarily come), and making money off those eyeballs. Of course, anyone can learn this stuff if they want to, but it means spending fewer hours creating content.
I fall into this camp myself. While I consider myself a student of online business and run a profitable website that revolves around high-quality content, I’m still far more knowledgeable, experienced and successful on the content side. That’s why I built a content company (which works, in many ways, as a mini-newsroom) that partners with businesspeople who specialize in monetizing. We both bring certain skillsets to the table, and it’s a winning combination.
So I don’t blame journalists for wanting to focus on journalism, or for being better at journalism than at business. That’s how it should be. That’s also why journalists should partner with people who do know how to run an online business, so the operation is sustainable in the long run.
That’s a respectable mission, but guess what: it doesn’t work anymore. People no longer want to pay for information. Sure, you’ll find a few examples where consumers pay for niche information — in fact, digital subscriptions is a monetization strategy I get really excited about — and it works well for relatively small sites. But not so much for big ones. Because in most cases, we now expect information to be free.
This means offering news is no longer enough. It’s sad, people, but it’s true. If news organizations want to turn a profit and hang around for the next decade, they need to follow the lead of other content sites: offer high-value information for free, and make money off something else.
Maybe that something else is specialized, niche content that relates to the free information the outlet shares. Or maybe it’s educational resources that help people make decisions and act on the information the outlet provides. Maybe it’s some other kind of product. Maybe it’s coming up with a system for working affiliate links into stories in a way that doesn’t affect the content.
I’m not saying I know the best answer here. I’m simply saying that offering information is no longer enough, even if we want it to be. The sooner new journalism outlets face up to that fact, the sooner they’ll be able to support themselves.
It’s fine and dandy to want to offer valuable, relevant news, hopefully even information that changes people’s lives. But if you want to keep making your art, you need to make it profitable. If you’re not earning money, your model isn’t sustainable, which means you won’t be able to continue creating in the long term.
The ways many successful bloggers make a living around content simply wouldn’t float in a newsroom. Journalists aren’t into sponsored posts, nor would they feel good about adding affiliate links to their stories or promoting paying partners. And click-bait is pretty much every journalist’s worst nightmare.
In my mind, this innate clash of old-school journalistic ethics and effective online monetization strategies is preventing news outlets from experiencing what others have discovered as the money-making glory of the internet.
I first felt this tension when I was a reporter at U.S. News & World Report in 2010. I already had one foot in the blogging world, having launched this blog in 2008, and my first ebook was selling lots of copies, even though it was only a side gig at that point since I was working a full-time job. One afternoon I interviewed a source for a story, and I felt a tug to do what any effective blogger would’ve done next: promote her work online to create good karma, knowing she’d probably then do the same for me.
Except as a journalist, I couldn’t. My old-school journalistic values prevented me from becoming friends with this source, so I could continue to quote her in my stories and objectively refer to her work. One of the reasons I left journalism the following year to build my business full time was to free myself of those chains, so I could fully engage in the relationship-building and favor-swapping that so many online brands are built upon.
To be completely honest, I still struggle with this today. We’re often approached about partnerships for The Write Life, a website for writers my team and I run. Brands and companies want to pay us to share their product or service with our community. Yet while we’ve succeeded on a small scale with affiliate marketing and direct advertising and product sales, I can’t bring myself to wade into pay-for-post territory, even though it’s one of the most lucrative ways to monetize a website. That journalistic birdie just keeps chirping in my ear, asking if we would’ve shared that information even if we hadn’t been paid to do so, and if not, whether we’re truly being honest to our readers. (This issue is much more complex, but I’m brushing over it here to make a bigger point.)
Yet I’ve watched a number of our clients do this successfully, partnering with brands to offer sponsored content. When executed well, that paid content can be just as useful to readers as posts we develop on our own volition. Not only that, but it provides revenue for the production of non-sponsored content.
Still, any trained and experienced journalist would tell you this isn’t OK in their world. And that’s a tension that’s not going away, no matter how many new technologies we use to deliver the news.
So what’s the solution?
There isn’t an easy one, or all of these failing news outlets would’ve implemented it already. But fostering creativity and innovation in journalism could go a long way. And I’m not just talking about finding new ways to tell stories or share information; we already have entire programs dedicated to that kind of work. I mean thinking differently about the business behind the craft, about how to innovate in a way that brings in money without compromising journalistic values.
One thing’s for sure: If we keep neglecting the business side, the industry as a whole will continue to suffer. And in the long run, that doesn’t help the journalists who live to dig up and share news, nor the readers who consume it.