The Demographic Dilemma of Web Advertising

Should newspapers and magazines survive onscreen? I think they should, if they can re-think and re-cast their business model to become financially viable. If I buy the New Yorker, or Newsweek, or Time, or the New York Times, or The Scotsman, I do so for a number of reasons.

For the New Yorker, (since I’m not a New Yorker myself) the reasons include the quality of the writing and the choice of subject matter. The cartoons. There’s an identity to the publication which suits me. It’s about the standard of the writing. Blogging has made it possible for anyone to write – but there’s all the difference in the world between writing and great writing.
For a newspaper like the New York Times, or my old alma mater, The Scotsman, it’s about the way a highly-professional news organization has sifted the day’s news from all over the world and decided what’s most important. You may not agree with the choices of any particular newspaper; that’s one reason why you might prefer, say, the Washington Post over the New York Times, or vice versa.
Then it’s about the fact-checking that goes on. I know, newspapers make mistakes, too. And occasionally members of their own staff deliberately distort or exaggerate or invent in order to further their careers. It’s a measure of the organization’s commitment to accuracy that they are ostracized when found out – as they almost always are.
Working in The Scotsman, for instance, I know only too well the hoops through which I had to jump to convince a news editor that the story I’d written was accurate and properly balanced.
Bottom line is, I can almost always completely trust news from organizations which have staked their reputations on it, and who know they’ll be sued if they get it wrong.
Newspaper and magazine revenue today comes mainly from advertising, and little from the sales or subscription. If these publications could do away completely with the financial black holes of print production and distribution, and could translate their existing print advertising revenues into online advertising, there’s little doubt they could be made viable.
So advertising is the key. And therein lies the dilemma. Print publications have a really tough time competing for Web advertising with the likes of Google News, MSN and Yahoo! News. They shouldn’t have to. Advertising in traditional print has always been about targeted demographics. If you place an advert in the New Yorker, for instance, you know exactly the kind of people your ad will reach.
Advertising is sales. And salespeople have always known that a qualified buyer is worth far more attention than a random rubbernecker who walks in off the street. It ought to be worth far more to, say, Tiffany’s, to place an ad in an onscreen version of the New Yorker than on Google News or MSN. Oh, they won’t reach anything like as many people – but the ones they do reach are infinitely more qualified and likely to buy than the average Web surfer.
The situation’s still very complicated today, because print versions of publications still survive, and publishers find themselves having to ride two horses. One is faltering, day by day. But the second is nowhere near up to speed. So they’re doing the splits just trying to stay upright.
Some people believe this makes the case for “smart client” publications like the New York Times Reader (created in WPF) and the Seattle P-I Reader. The argument is that with a smart client reader for the New Yorker, for instance, only the New Yorker could run an ad in that client. The larger news aggregators would not be able to compete (only in that constrained environment, of course).
The jury’s still out as far as I’m concerned. I’m not sure that with the right advertising sales infrastructure in place, and the right attention to readability (with pagination, adaptive layout, great typography, etc) you couldn’t do exactly the same on the Web.
I’d love to hear the views of newsroom staffs, advertising sales people and publishers on how they plan to survive when printing becomes uneconomic, as it inevitably will.

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