Tag Archives: advertising

Freelancers and editors, we will figure this out

Whose fault is it?

That’s the question that’s rattling around my head after the dustup between freelance journalist Nate Thayer and The Atlantic.

For those who may have missed it: Thayer was asked by an editor at The Atlantic if he could condense his feature story “25 Years of Slam Dunk Diplomacy” into a 1,200-word version that would run on The Atlantic’s website. The catch was that he’d be doing this extra work for exposure, not money. (That’s quite a catch. Editing 4,000-plus words down to 1,200 is no easy task.)

Thayer’s blog post chronicling the exchange inspired a lot of follow-up. Of particular note:

  • The comments on Thayer’s post morphed into a virtual support group / troll target.
  • Reuters’ Felix Salmon used the moment to note differences between print freelancing and digital freelancing. (This was my favorite of the fallout pieces.)
  • Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic wrote … you know, I’m not sure what he wrote. He was angry and passionate and I think he meant to defend his colleague and his publication. His response was a jumble of thoughts — many of them smart — but my real takeaway from his piece was that everyone is anxious about this stuff.

At first, I read these posts because they’re gossipy. I enjoy watching journalists go after each other because a snarky journalist is often an entertaining journalist. Anger leads to focus and focus leads to excellent word choice. These folks do know how to turn a phrase.

But as I read more and felt my own anxiety rising, I tried to understand the bigger pressures at play.

And that’s when I picked up on the weird blame thing that runs through all of this.

We’re all so incensed. Freelancers think the editors are low-balling on purpose. Editors complain that freelancers don’t understand the economics of digital.

Pointed fingers. Thumped chests. Pitchforks and torches.

Yet, there’s nowhere to march. The rage can’t be released.

Why? Because the question I posed at the beginning — Whose fault is it? — has two answers:

1. It’s no one’s fault.

2. It’s everyone’s fault.

Digital evolved out of a stew of history and context, propelled by a fundamental catalyst: information exchange always chooses the path that’s faster and easier. In that sense, there’s no one to blame. It all just happened because that’s how information works.

But we — all of us — also made digital what it is through our collective adoption. We’re the ones who commoditized content. We turned to digital services and devices because they offered better options than their ancestors. In that sense, everyone is to blame.

Now, this is supposed to be the “so what?” part of the piece. It’s where I outline my brilliant five-step plan for the thoughtful advancement of the journalism and content industries.

Well, I don’t have a plan. No one has a plan.

I’m optimistic, though, and that counts for something. (Stop rolling your eyes.)

All the anger and anxiety we’re feeling can be productive. It shows we care. We want to assign blame and move on. We want to figure this out because we like doing what we do and we want to keep doing it.

That makes me think we’ll get it together. Yes, this smacks of blind faith. I’m okay with that.

There’s more to it, though. There’s also a business here.

I believe digital publishers will find their natural revenue levels — and those levels are not at or near zero. In time, publishers will regroup and build those levels up. They’ll want to do more and get better, and that improvement will require finding and paying people to do better work for better fees.

We’re already seeing hints of this. Take a look at Quartz or BuzzFeed or Gawker. There’s no slideshows. Not a pop-under in sight.

These outlets still have revenue gimmicks, that’s true, but they’re new gimmicks. They aren’t clinging to old ad and sponsor methods. The people behind these sites are trying new things, and these new things are much closer to the mark.

That’s a small signal, but it’s a positive one. We’re circling closer to the sweet spot of content, audience value and revenue. Once we hit that, we’ll move into the building phase.

It’s important to take a step back. To look at where we were and where we are. The process isn’t fast enough and it’s still frustrating, but fundamentally we’re improving.

So that’s the only plan I can see. Keep getting better. Keep getting closer.

And if we do that, I believe we’ll figure this out.

Don’t assume the audience likes you or your fancy new ad unit

An article at Advertising Age looks at five new video ad formats. The piece includes a segment that tries to outline the value proposition of new video ad features. As you’ll see, the line of thought walks along for a bit, but then closes with an unrealistic leap:

There’s a pattern: As ad prices on display ads dip, more publishers turn to video because video ads typically command higher prices. If display ad prices dip more, perhaps publishers will look to offer even more expensive video ad formats to their advertisers. Viewers, the thinking goes, may find these interactive elements more enjoyable.

Let’s take it sentence by sentence:

“There’s a pattern: As ad prices on display ads dip, more publishers turn to video because video ads typically command higher prices.”

Fair enough. Traditional display advertising is a commoditized mess.

“If display ad prices dip more, perhaps publishers will look to offer even more expensive video ad formats to their advertisers.”

Presumably. Yes. Although it’s not quite that simple. Video requires investment in skills and tools and equipment. Creating the ads associated with those videos require investment as well. You can’t put your current ad expenditure up against this new stuff and expect it to match up exactly. But for the sake of argument, I can accept that publishers will embrace video ad formats that bring in higher fees.

“Viewers, the thinking goes, may find these interactive elements more enjoyable.”

Now I’m lost. Assuming viewers will just sort of enjoy advertising is a reach. No, check that. It’s a mistake.

An ad is enjoyable if it serves the viewer/reader/user in some way. The format is secondary to the content. Layering fancy interactive tools over videos doesn’t make anything “enjoyable.”

Here’s why this really bugs me: If you cannot legitimately extend your value proposition to the audience, you don’t have a value proposition. The audience is the most important part of the advertising equation. You have nothing without it.

We — and by “we” I mean anyone who creates content that’s meant to be consumed by other people — cannot make the audience an afterthought. We can’t diminish these folks. We can’t think they’re a blob or a mass that exists to be manipulated.

What we need to do is build the things that help people do something or feel something or learn something. An interactive element that brings in more revenue is good for the publisher. An interactive element that gives the viewer something is good for everyone involved.

Notable things: How do you give ethics to a robot? Let’s keep political pundits honest with batting averages, ad-banner honesty from The Onion

Self-driving cars. Drones. Robot armies. All of these things are stepping from science fiction into our daily lives, yet we haven’t addressed a fundamental question:

How do we teach our machines to be ethical?

Gary Marcus explores the repercussions of machine ethics in this fascinating essay. Of particular note is the following excerpt, which contrasts machine ethics with humanity’s still-under-construction ethical methods:

The thought that haunts me the most is that that human ethics themselves are only a work-in-progress. We still confront situations for which we don’t have well-developed codes (e.g., in the case of assisted suicide) and need not look far into the past to find cases where our own codes were dubious, or worse (e.g., laws that permitted slavery and segregation). What we really want are machines that can go a step further, endowed not only with the soundest codes of ethics that our best contemporary philosophers can devise, but also with the possibility of machines making their own moral progress, bringing them past our own limited early-twenty-first century idea of morality.

In many ways what we’re searching for is a way to make machine ethics better than our own. How do you even begin to do that?

Proposed: A batting average for political pundits and pollsters.


Every ad-driven website should be required, by law, to include this on their terms of service page:

… we can go through a whole dog-and-pony show here where I pretend that this column exists as a forum for ideas, and that I act as an independent voice who isn’t beholden to advertisers, and the power of the First Amendment, and blah blah, etc. etc. But let’s get real for a second here, okay? This column — nay, this entire website, this entire industry we call journalism — exists for one purpose and one purpose only: to sell ads. Lots of ads. Big, stupid ads. Ads with loud videos that play when you run your mouse cursor over them. Ads with pictures of supermodels and bacon cheeseburgers and beer bottles dripping with condensation. Ads with huge fricking graphics of SUVs that “drive” across your screen as though you were living in some sort of damned nightmare world. In short, ads that will make poor, honest working saps like you — yes, you, reader — click on them so that The Onion can continue stocking the coffers and I can continue to send my kid through four years of Cornell’s hotel management school.

Via The Onion

My line between edit and sales blurred years ago. It’s not that big a deal

I was fortunate to have my ill-conceived notions about editorial/advertising segregation blown to bits early in my career. It hurt. No doubt about that. I came out of journalism school with all the requisite ethical boundaries and red flags intact. So it was tough to let that go.

But it was so useful to let that go. It made me see that most journalism organizations are businesses. That’s it. All that stuff about objectivity and watchdog roles and the Fourth Estate sounds good, and it feels good, but news companies must ultimately adhere to the same criteria as every other business: does it make money or does it lose money?

That’s why it’s interesting for me to watch others go through the same gyrations now that the Dallas Morning News is moving editorial and sales closer together. I get it. This is hard to swallow. It goes against everything journalists know, everything we’re taught in the vacuum of j-school. It seems dangerous.

But having lived through my own transition, and having traversed some tricky edit/ad terrain along the way, I can tell you the danger is minimal. Perhaps even non-existent.

First off, consumers don’t care. If the content is informative and entertaining and useful, if readers can justify the time and money spent, they’re good. Second, a smart news business understands that it cannot undermine the trust it’s established with the community. This has nothing to do with public interest or greater good. It’s about money. Trustworthy content builds an audience, and audience attracts advertisers. Kill the trust and you kill the audience; advertisers will take their business elsewhere. That’s all there is to it.

Blurring the edit/ad line within a newsroom isn’t a big deal. It’s what happens after the blurring that matters. If the Dallas Morning News cranks out great stuff and serves/educates/helps people, this can work for everyone involved. If they do something stupid — like violating trust by kowtowing to clients — they’re screwed. That’s just business, and bad businesses die.

Well, damn. DVRs aren’t so bad for advertising after all

Remember how DVRs were going to kill TV advertising real bad? Yeah … about that:

Against almost every expectation, nearly half of all people watching delayed shows are still slouching on their couches watching messages about movies, cars and beer. According to Nielsen, 46 percent of viewers 18 to 49 years old for all four networks taken together are watching the commercials during playback, up slightly from last year. Why would people pass on the opportunity to skip through to the next chunk of program content?

I love the explanation for this seemingly impossible turn of events:

The most basic reason, according to Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, a media buying firm, is that the behavior that has underpinned television since its invention still persists to a larger degree than expected.
“It’s still a passive activity,” he said. [Emphasis added.]

Sure is! Never underestimate the power of passivity.

The New York Times deserves kudos for writing this story because, far too often, the Chicken Little projections of execs and analysts are left unchecked. Consumer behavior and disruptive technologies are moving targets, so remember that the next time the latest iPhone killer or Kindle killer or ad killer or media killer is touted. Reality is contextual and complicated.

Naturally Scarce Products Call “Shotgun.” Advertising, You’re in Back

In an interview with CNBC, Gary Hoenig, general manager for ESPN The Magazine, says the economic downturn put advertising in the hot seat:

… the overdependence on advertising is a real crutch for media and this is an opportunity for us to actually get to the consumer and say, “Hey, what are you willing to pay for”?

The advertising conundrum is something I’ve run up against throughout my career. In an odd way, my focus on Web content forced me to confront the detriments of advertising earlier than my print and broadcast comrades because Web ad rates have always been low. The rest of the industry is learning what Web folks already know: ad revenue kinda sucks.

When I started to conceptualize a sustainable model for online content businesses — a project I’ve been working on for quite a while — I pushed advertising to the back burner. It’s still present, and money can certainly be made in the online ad realm, but it’s a rickety foundation for a content business. That’s why I diversified the revenue streams across naturally scarce products (education, consulting, research, in-person events), sponsorships, and advertising. The aggregate is far more stable than advertising alone.

And speaking of that sustainable model for online content businesses project: each section includes a comments area, and I welcome all suggestions and criticisms. The model’s fundamental concepts aren’t original, and I’m certainly not positioning this as anything revolutionary. Rather, it’s a collection of ideas, theories and guidelines that I collected over the years and arranged into a structure. What it becomes and where it goes are up in the air, but I found the organization and writing process quite useful. The framework helps me parse the vast number of perspectives and innovations I run across.