This article opens a series of posts. I will walk you through the history of publishing in the era of the internet. I will show you the challenges that news organizations are facing nowadays. I hope this will give you a broader view of the situation. Later on in the series, I will explain to you how we opened Aftenposten for automation. It will be a story of changing the established workflows in the newsroom with the software we created in Kraków.
Let me start with some questions.
Once again, think about the last time you bought a printed newspaper? Do you spend a lot of time on reading news articles? Maybe you have a subscription to one or two newspapers? And just for the sake of this exercise, let’s exclude all domain specific news sites and magazines (technology, photography, architecture, etc.). On the other hand, do you often read articles shared by your friends in the Social Media?
Is all news good news?
Have you ever heard the term: “junk news”? I bet you have. Are you familiar with the “clickbait” expression? Even if you’re not, I’m sure you are exposed to it every time you visit the internet. Ever since the internet has emerged and got adopted as a medium by the media industry, we had to learn to live with it.
The promise of free news, free information, free knowledge, is one of the cornerstones of the internet. For some time many believed it was possible. The core assumption was that the news companies could fund the “production” of news with stable, and everlast growing income from advertisers. Free articles were going to attract more readers. As a result, we would have more traffic on our websites what would directly increase the income from ads. With the internet as the main distribution channel, there was a chance of dropping the print part of the business and save extra money on delivering of newspapers – to simply remove “paper” and focus solely on the “news”. In the end, we would have a well-informed society, sustainable business model for news organizations and bright future for everyone. What could possibly go wrong?
Slippery slope down
It soon became clear that it is not that simple and straightforward.
After all, most people were not that interested in quality news and long-read articles. Many were buying a printed newspaper every day only to quickly scan its headlines and to read the first few paragraphs of some articles. A different thing was the fact that out of a sudden, thanks to the internet, the stories that were previously only available in tabloids became accessible to the whole new market. Back in the old times, you had to buy a tabloid to read it, now in the internet era, it was only one click away from everyone.
When, in a short time, people got access to the news delivered by various brands, they had to learn how to cope with it. It created the need for news aggregators, some sort of a first step to filtering and grouping the content. That lead to the rise of internet portals. Sites like Yahoo became gatekeepers and dispatchers for the majority. This market grew rapidly. The gravity of those websites was so big that advertiser started to spend most of their money there. Quickly the revenue streams going to the news organizations from advertisers started to dry.
The rules we all play by
At this point, we need to drift a bit from the main topic of the News to, in general, the Advertising Market on the internet.
Have you ever wondered how an advertiser pays for ads on the internet? In the first few years the model was very simple: the more impressions of ads, the more money earned. The so-called CPM model – flat fee for a thousand of impressions of an ad. Obviously, it promoted the biggest players on the market. It was a very simple model to understand… and to trick. If there was a long article, why not cut it into parts and force users to generate more “page views” by clicking “next page” / “read more”? I bet you know what I mean. Next idea: if you have had millions of impressions of your frontpage you should optimize it for “clicks” – it would lead to more impressions. There were plenty of ways of doing it. One, among many, was to write catchy headlines that would intrigue, interest and finally lure the user to click for more. So-called “clickbait”.
The time moved on: Apple gave us smartphones, technology has changed, new models in advertising were created (e.g. performance marketing), and now we have Facebook, Twitter, etc. but one thing stayed the same – to earn money on the internet you first need to have a user that will generate an impression*.
Why do I even mention it? Simply: because I think it is very important to understand how things work. These are the rules of engagement and whether you like it or not you have to play by them.
Getting back to the newspapers…
The situation was bad for all of them, but tabloids were in a slightly better position. Short articles, stories about celebrities, etc. were generating enough traffic to sustain cash flow in such organizations. On the one hand, this kind of content, like fast food, is cheap to produce. On the other hand, from the user’s perspective: easy to find, quick to consume and can give a mirage of being well informed.
Tough times came for established newspapers responsible for quality journalism, covering everything from local news, through politics, investigative journalism up to stories explaining how the world worked. The combination of: internet portals, tabloids creating junk news and the way how money flows on the internet raised a grave threat to the very existence of newspapers like Aftenposten, The New York Times and others.
Companies started to realize that they needed to put a price tag on the content they produced. News organization came with a proposition of different subscription models, e.g. “freemium” to only name one. At the beginning, it was strange and counterintuitive for readers. After all, they were asked to pay for something that used to be free. But there was a light in the tunnel. Looking year to year, more readers decided to subscribe. News sites started to offer more than just a content for their subscribers. Features like: “save for later”, follow author, follow story, push notifications, etc. are a common standard in the industry nowadays. And when everything started to look good a new threat appeared on the horizon – Social Media.
What is the role of Facebook here?
At the beginning the Social Media was not perceived as a threat. It was more like an opportunity. Clever use of Twitter or Facebook opened up a completely new way to promote quality content. There was a high hope that by utilizing this new channel of communication you could reach new audience and popularize good journalism. As a result, you would bring more users to your website, people would read more, they would reach paywall sooner and in the end they would buy a subscription. What could possibly go wrong?
Do you remember how money from advertisers run on the internet? Facebook is internet giant, but by all means, it has to obey the rules of engagement. Facebook has to optimize its News Feed to keep the user as long as possible in its ecosystem. That means giving users what they want. And what majority wants is not necessarily a quality journalism.
Let’s face it, Facebook knows a lot about me and you. Despite all clever algorithms profiling us every day, extensive tracking in and outside FB website and app, the main source of truth about users are… users themselves. We post photos, react to the posts we see on our wall, share content we think is interesting, comment, we check-in in restaurants and hotels. We leave a lot of signals that let Facebook show us more and more content. The content it knows will keep us engaged. If you are into cats – this is what you will get. If you’re more of a dog person, guess what? Yes, you will see more dogs. If you are a democrat, if you are a republican, if you are vegan, racist or cyclist – you name it, Facebook will always find more content suiting your interests. Facebook will try to close you in a so-called social bubble. And it will do it not because it is evil, it will do it because of the rules of engagement.
But how is this bad for publishers? Do you know that more than 40% of American adults get news from Facebook?** Now Facebook is a gatekeeper. It doesn’t matter if you are The New York Times, Aftenposten, Le Monde or newly created blog build with WordPress. You have equal access to Facebook users. On Facebook News Feed even fake news look like legitimate. You’ve probably heard how the spread of fake news may have helped Donald Trump to win 2016 election in the USA***.
Lobster vs french fries
But what is the problem here? Let me use a metaphor. Imagine that quality journalism is like a dinner in a good restaurant. First, you need to find a restaurant with the cuisine you like. Next, you have to reserve a table. When you are there, you go through the menu and pick a meal. You order. It takes time before the dish is served. And at the end, you need to pay for it. It is a hassle. On the other side, you have junk food, literally recommended to you by the people you know. This meal smells nice, is quickly served and in most cases – goes for free. Do you get what I mean?
The challenge here is that news organizations need to shorten the distance to the user. They need to find a better, more engaging ways of serving quality content and don’t stop there. It should be the story’s job to find the user.
All this boils down to the fact that news organizations and social media giants have different goals. For Facebook it is to connect, engage and entertain people. For Aftenposten, The Washington Post, and other newspapers / news sites the ultimate goal is to inform people!
Technology used to bring the (good) news back
This is my personal and subjective view on the history of publishing in the internet era. I took some shortcuts, I didn’t mention a word about revenue drop from print part of the business.
I drag you through all this to show you how complex and serious challenges we are facing. It doesn’t matter if you are a journalist or a programmer. If you work for news organization you have a role to play in a battle for users’ time, attention and focus.
It would be a wishful thinking if we waited for the internet giants to give up the field in this fight. Instead, we stand up and use technology to fight back.
This article is the first one in the series of posts in which we will try to explain how we, in Schibsted Tech Polska and Aftenposten, are trying to tackle the problem. What are the technical challenges we are facing? How did we manage to use automation to improve our frontpage and section pages? How do we take advantage of personalisation and let stories to find the user?
* Nowadays simple impression is not universal enough – e.g. what to do with single page apps or infinity scroll. Today advertisers are looking for other ways to quantify the atomic and common for different platforms substitute of “impression” triggered at page load. The answer to that is to count “impression” when an ad appears in the viewport. But it doesn’t change the bottom fact – you need to keep the user in your ecosystem as long as possible. You need to make him/her take more actions during the time he/she spends on your website or in your app. The more time he/she stays with you, the more ads you can show to him/her. More ads => more money.