Responsible Reporting Section 1 ‘News in Context’: Chapters V and VI

The fourth installment in the serialization of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers continues the assault on Google, which provides a necessary utility that benefits all news organizations; they sacrifice content and revenue for the privilege.

Last week, Chapters 3 and 4 focused on the broken advertising-driven model in context of Google’s greater ambitions. The previous two, and the Foreward, explain what changed since 2006 and why the Fourth Estate is in crisis. 

The last two chapters of Section 1 provide real-world examples that demonstrate how difficult is the prospect of charging for content without first giving away some free to satisfy Google. Important note about one of the exemplified sites: GigaOM was a functioning news organization when I published the book nearly 14 months ago. The site ceased operations in March 2015.

For those wondering if Responsible Reporting is anti-Google, the answer is no. But the search and information giant’s overwhelming negative impact on news gathering cannot be ignored and sets context for almost every chapter that follows the first five. Much of the change affecting the Fourth Estate derives from the Google free economy. Traditional news organizations share the blame for their own demise, a topic future chapters will expand on.

With that introduction…

V. The Great Google God

As the online advertising prospects for news content stumbles along, some organizations try new tactics. ProPublica, which mandate is “journalism in the public interest”, is non-profit. Other organizations do what they should have long ago: Charge for news, by erecting so-called paywalls. Subscription tactics vary, with some content available for free—a strategy, as I will explain in a few paragraphs, that is more about serving Google than content customers.

No news organization can escape the need to be visible in search, and overwhelming dominance lets Google set the rules.

Google is a demanding taskmaster.

Doing Evil
Let’s make this personal and switch to second person. If your business is content and selling online advertising around it, you must pay homage to the Google algorithm. As was with previous age’s deities, the minions must make sacrifices before the great Google god. To receive blessings, you must do Google’s bidding—quite literally on search keywords—and give away all your worldly possessions (e.g., content, for free). But can you give to Lord Google and keep something for yourself, too?

The answer defines the great evil committed against the news industry by a company claiming: “You can make money without doing evil”. The “E” word is a matter of definition. Google’s def differs from mine, because good to Google is free content around which it profits. Search is a means to an end, which is valuable information. Search is nothing without content and advertising or keywords to wrap around it.

Free is the homage the Google god demands, even from organizations that put content behind paywalls. You can charge for news, but some content must be given away for free to be visible in Google Search. Content sites failing to be subject to the free edict are cast out. They become invisible to search.

Sutter asserts:

It’s so absurd that Google is still presenting itself as the lovable geek who’s the friend of the young everyman. Don’t kid yourself, kids: Google is the establishment. It is a multibillion-dollar information portal that makes dough off of every click on its page and every data byte it streams. Do you really think Google gives a shit about free speech or your inalienable right to access unfettered content? Nope. You’re just another revenue resource Google can access to create more traffic and more data streams.

Servants Three
In 2009, I tested three news sites’ search visibility and reported the results in analysis “Can you charge for news? Ask Google”. The three—AdAge, GigaOM, and Wall Street Journal—use different paywall strategies. While writing this book, I retested, with surprisingly similar results, which surprises considering how often Google has tweaked its search algorithm over five years. I used Apple Safari and Google Chrome for my tests—clean, with no cookies.

Wall Street Journal’s paywall is highest among the three. The newspaper claims to charge for everything, but in my testing in 2014, like 2009, the paywall is easily bypassed, particularly via Google Search. The backdoors ensure that subscription content is clickable and visible to searchbots.

AdAge changed its paywall strategy in February 2014. Free content is now available by number of views (seven per month), rather than number of days, before being locked behind a subscription. Again, the tactic fosters search visibility, which, particularly for AdAge, is vitally important.

When conducting my first test in 2009 and followup five years later, content going behind the firewall either disappeared from Google search or appeared way down the results list. Meanwhile, aggregators and pure plagiarists (those that repost entire stories without permission) ranked higher, if not highest, in search results.

The change to number of views per reader, rather than time for everyone, keeps content clickable and more likely to appear in search. The locked room strategy is a lockout from search, and one AdAge rightly abandons.

GigaOM doesn’t put news content behind a paywall per se, but does charge for a separate analyst service, for which individuals pay $299 per year (and corporations more). The subscription content appears on attractive landing pages with long synopses, and there are linking blog posts—some over time—as well.

A search for “LinkedIn, media business” puts the landing page for December 2013 GigaOM report “How LinkedIn is evolving its media business” in the top-10 results. Searching for the report by name brings up the landing page as top result, but not the actual document, as it is behind the paywall.

Cast Out
Invisibility is assured for those organizations failing to make “free” offerings to the Google god. In April 2010, while searching for information about the Leica X1 and Sigma DP2 digital cameras, I made a startling discovery. A friend recommended Reid Reviews as resource. But Google revealed just two landing pages and a few links to other sites where Sean Reid’s reviews appeared. I reported the results in post “The Price You Pay Google for Paywalls”. Reid Reviews’ visibility is the same in 2014 as 2009—the home page and another with a list of reviews. No others.

In May 2011, I exchanged emails with photographer Sean Reid. He doesn’t block search spiders, nor does he mind the site’s invisibility. Reid is more concerned about audience and notes that subscriber support means no advertising, or pressure from potential sponsors. As a highly regarded reviewer (trust me on this), Reid shouldn’t have much trouble securing advertising deals, and the pressures that come with them.

A paywall acts as a natural barrier to search, regardless the fairness blaming Google. For content providers who battle aggregators and thieves, invisibility is crisis. Someone will collect the traffic and audience. Reid Reviews is an exception, given its niche appeal. But for larger publishers, like AdAge, vultures circle ready to pick the carcass. If the content creators don’t ensure Google Search visibility, opportunistic curators will. That means giving away something for free.

VI. The Two Masters

I write this book with the conviction that the current online advertising model is unsustainable—at least for news. Quoting from the Good Book: “No man can serve two masters—for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other”. You can’t serve Google and your audience both.

Too many news organizations serve the wrong master. Change is long overdue. My urgent recommendations:

  1. Audience must become the measure for advertisings value.

Audience is the only advertising metric that matters. Or should. Search’s early promise, as it has been with Nielsen TV ratings, is demographics. Not just how many, but whom.

The best measure of audience value is time spent reading, viewing, or otherwise interacting with content. In February 2014, Upworthy broke away from the pageview standard, by adopting what the social content site calls “attention minutes”—“a fine-grained, conservative measure of how long people are engaging with the content on our pages”. Storytelling site Medium uses similar “total-time reading”. Observe that both are among the decade 2010 wave of new media companies—March 2012 and October 2013, respectively—not the old news vanguard.

Clicks, pageviews, or search-related measures are antiquated in the age of context, and they inadequately measure audience, which can consume the same editorial content by way of different services and on many devices. For example, a reporter who posts to Reddit or Twitter has audience outside of the website where his or her news stories post. That audience should be broadly measured when assessing advertising’s value.

Additionally, the current Google-centric model rewards aggregators that plagiarize content, even when penalized by changes to the search algorithm.

  1. People need a reason to pay.

I donate to ProPublica and subscribe to the Guardian for iPad for the value they deliver. Trust in the reporting and quality of original content are top reasons.

I remain convinced that only blogs or news sites that woo loyal audience by building brand around good writers and by producing compelling original content can transcend the broken, ad-driven news model. If I am mistaken, aggregators will rule the web.

  1. Dedicated application content shouldnt be free.

The free web is Google’s domain, but dedicated applications need not be. My heart warms to see so few free newspapers or magazines on tablets. Publishers resist making the same mistakes they did on the web. Stated differently: Free content is the Fourth Estate’s serial killer. Let it roam the Interwebs and give content consumers the freedom to pay and be rewarded on smartphones and tablets.

“Content excellence cannot sustain itself if it loses its capacity to reward the talent that creates it”, Sutter warns.

Online, no media outlet can avoid offering something to Google, if for no other reason than compensation for the huge benefits search delivers. Free content is a necessary evil. The Google free economy is inescapable. However, news organizations should let search lead them to their audience and serve it first.

Knowing thine audience brings benefits. A December 2013 Online Publishers Association report on paywall strategies finds that “the majority of surveyed publishers selling stand-alone advertising in a subscription environment agree that subscription data has given them an edge in advertising sales and contributed to a lift in CPMs [cost-per-thousand impressions]”. Media organizations collect customer demographic data that advertisers find useful, while providing actionable data for better engaging audience with editorial content.

Photo Credit: Jim Barter