An insider’s view of what happens when you optimize for pageviews

From Confessions of an ex-tech journalist by Bekah Grant:

When a story breaks, you could take a couple hours to do research, call to sources, and write a contextualized, edited piece — but by that time, 5 of your competitors will have posted on the story. You will look slow and readers will have moved onto the next thing. The reality is that original reporting and careful editing fall by the wayside in the desire to be fast.

Volume is also key. Most of the tech news sites post something at least once an hour and throughout the night, even when there isn’t news. Fresh content keeps people coming back to the site again and again, regardless of its quality.

The need for speed and volume is primary driven by one thing — pageviews. Pageviews are what sell advertisements, and advertisements are what keep most online publications running — particularly the small independent ones. Are they a good barometer for quality? No, but the reality of online journalism is that you need pageviews to survive.

In a perfect world, important stories would attract the most pageviews, but that is not the world we live in. Miley Cyrus and cat videos get more pageviews than stories about homelessness or healthcare. To write the stories you want, you have to feed the machine. And the machine likes junk food.

Is this the new age of massive media companies?

Excerpts from Is History Repeating Itself by Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti:

Some smart people in our industry don’t think it is possible to build a huge new media company anymore. This pessimistic view is wrong because it is focused entirely on what has been lost (monopoly pricing power, etc) and ignores what has been gained:

1) Technology. Technology has replaced geographic- and spectrum-based distribution monopolies as a competitive advantage for publishers…  This [our tech platform] is a massive investment that is very difficult to replicate, and it creates a virtuous cycle where a growing number of talented people use increasingly powerful tools to do their job.

2) Scale. At the start of the golden age of publishing, a circulation of 1 million readers was considered large and even at the peak, reaching 10 million readers was considered a huge hit. Since those days there have been many exciting developments that have enabled a publisher to reach 10 times or even 100 times that scale.

3) Diversity of Talent. The early days of U.S. publishing were tough for anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant male living in the same city as the local paper. …times have changed; we can attract the best talent to our team regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion, and we can recruit beyond just New York in a growing list of global cities where we have expanded.

Why it’s a myth that banner ads don’t work

From What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong by Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile:

For the last few years there have been weekly laments complaining that the banner ad is dead. Click-through rates are now averaging less than 0.1%… If you’re a direct response marketer trying to drive clicks back to your site then yes, the banner ad is giving you less of what you want with each passing year.

However… if your goals are the traditional brand advertising goals of communicating your message to your audience then yes, most banner ads are bad…. but…. some banner ads are great! The challenge of the click web is that we haven’t been able to tell them apart.

Research has consistently shown the importance of great ad creative in getting a visitor to see and remember a brand. What’s less well known is the scientific consensus based on studies by Microsoft [pdf], Google, Yahoo and Chartbeat that a second key factor is the amount of time a visitor spend actively looking at the page when the ad is in view. Someone looking at the page for 20 seconds while an ad is there is 20-30% more likely to recall that ad afterwards…

Here’s the skinny, 66% of attention on a normal media page is spent below the fold. That leaderboard at the top of the page? People scroll right past that and spend their time where the content not the cruft is. Yet most agency media planners will still demand that their ads run in the places where people aren’t and will ignore the places where they are.

For quality publishers, valuing ads not simply on clicks but on the time and attention they accrue might just be the lifeline they’ve been looking for.

(Thanks to Patrick Murphy for the tip.)

What’s the best way to surface the truth: attempted objectivity or opinionated debate?

From The Future of the News Business by Mark Andreessen:

…there is an approach to how the news is created that also prevents progress. It’s the notion that “objectivity” is the only model worth pursuing.

The practice of  gathering all sides of an issue, and keeping an editorial voice out of it is still relevant for some, but the broad journalism opportunity includes many variations of subjectivity. Pre-World War II, subjectivity was the dominant model in the news business – lots of points of view battling it out in marketplace of ideas. As with people and opinions, there were many approaches to writing or broadcasting  on the same topic.

My take is that the rise of objectivity journalism post-World War II was an artifact of the new monopoly/oligopoly structures news organizations had constructed for themselves. Introducing so-called objective news coverage was necessary to ward off antitrust allegations, and ultimately, reporters embraced it. So it stuck.

But the objective approach is only one way to tell stories and get at truth. Many stories don’t have “two sides.” Indeed, presenting an event or an issue with a point of view can have even more impact, and reach an audience otherwise left out of the conversation.

Seeking Alpha articles are frequently criticized for being biased, because they’re written by investors who take (and disclose) positions in stocks. But we’ve discovered that opinionated debate by people with skin in the game is the best mechanism for surfacing and hammering out the key issues an investor needs to know about. This was confirmed by a recent academic study which showed that Seeking Alpha articles and comments are far better than sell side research at predicting future stock prices.

Why investors do better investigative work than business journalists and sell-side analysts

From Chris Roush:

In his history of business news, Starkman describes how reporters, dependent on insider sources to inform an élite audience of investors, practice a kind of journalism that is defined by access. News becomes a guide to investing, more concerned with explaining business strategies to consumers than with examining broader political or social issues to the public. Access reporting is friendly to executives because it relies on their candor. Starkman writes that during the crucial lead-up to the financial crisis, from 2004 to 2006, this news culture crowded out the kind of investigative journalism that might have inspired reform.

Sell-side analysts suffer from the same challenge: their jobs are dependent on access to company executives, so they can’t afford to offend them.

In contrast, investors get paid only when they get stocks right, so they’re less susceptible to pressure from company executives and therefore a better source of business analysis. This is also why investors are incentivized not to succumb to herd thinking, and explains why Seeking Alpha’s investor-contributors uncovered the China Fraudcaps, when business journalists failed to do so.

Are advertisers responsible for pageview chasing by media websites?

Matthew Ingram writes:

Everyone seems to want to generate content that will go “viral” nowadays — to the point where a new site specializing in that kind of content, such as Upworthy or ViralNova, seems to come along every week… In the end, the impulse to find or build portals around viral content is driven by the same motivation as SEO was — namely, to produce vast numbers of pageviews that can be sold to advertisers…

In part, the blame for this state of affairs lies at the feet of the advertising industry, which continues to focus on big pageviews numbers even as it claims to be more interested in engagement and other metrics.

Matthew is right that content publishers’ behavior is determined by what pays the bills. But he’s wrong that advertisers don’t pay up for engagement. We’ve seen, for example, that advertisers value and pay handsomely for placement on vertically specialized sites like Seeking Alpha which help users make decisions.

Rather, the problem is that high quality general news sites don’t have meaningfully higher engagement than sites which feature slide shows, link bait and viral content, because they don’t help users make decisions. They just have a higher quality audience. But that audience gets diluted with growth, and in any case can be targeted or re-targeted elsewhere.

The digital media crisis — a personal perspective

From Media Consumption in 2014 by Shane Parrish:

As we approach 2014, I’ve been giving my media consumption some thinking… We tend to just add things and never take things away. There are always more people to follow on Twitter. More people to ‘friend’ on Facebook. More periodicals to read. More blogs to subscribe to. More news to watch…

But what are we so worried about? Are we really going to miss a major news event? No… So is it that we’re worried about not finding out in real-time? Who cares if you find out in the first minute that Nelson Mandela has died. What matters is that he’s gone…

It’s not just news. It’s the rebirth of Yellow Journalism, where everyone wants to stir emotion more than inform. Everyone wants your eyes and, more importantly, your clicks. Traffic matters. And every day the competition for our attention starts all over again. It’s toxic to us.

But is any of that making us smarter, furthering our relationships, or giving us real pleasure? I don’t think so.

Why is this happening? If readers were paying for something, delivering value to them would matter. But most digital media sites generate revenue exclusively from advertisers, and the cheapest way to generate ad inventory (= page views) is by seducing readers with alluring headlines, listicles and slide shows. They entice you to click, but in the long run the lack of real value leaves you feeling taken advantage of, that you’ve wasted your time.

Metrics determine outcomes. If a digital media business sets page views as its success metric (and most do), it will inevitably end up peddling sensationalism and yellow journalism, to the long run detriment of its readers.

What happens when a content site stops optimizing for page views?

Hunter Walk, discussing The Information, which charges $400 for an annual subscription:

For me the value in The Information is not solely in what they’re providing but what they’re leaving out. The ~two articles a day are both interesting. Because they’re not playing a page views game, they don’t need to overload me with 25+ posts every 24 hrs. The site is spartan because they don’t need to worry about IAB units. A small number of writers building their beats give me the chance to see each journalist’s style distinctly, not settle into some random byline slot machine of varying quality.

Some folks are raising an eyebrow on the pricetag. “What are you getting that’s worth it?” Strangely my reply is as much about the 80% I’m not getting as the 20% they’re delivering.

Or to put this another way: in a world awash with pageview-driven content and no robust way to filter for quality, a service with a high signal-to-noise ratio is valuable.

Is the next wave of social networking the return to privacy?

From Instagram’s New Feature Shows How the Internet Is Embracing Intimacy by Noreen Malone:

…there already exists technology that allows you to share “a moment” with your friends. You can text a picture, or email it, or even pass your camera’s stored photos over to your friend the next time you hang out together. But that’s precisely what makes Instagram Direct interesting. The service is gambling (probably correctly) that people crave the chance to carve out private space online. It’s a shift away from the public-broadcasting instinct that drove the creation of so many social networks just a few years ago.  For years, the social Internet seemed determined to strip away the possibility of privacy. Now, it seems to be reversing course. Instagram Direct is just the latest such indication.

So why would people want to use a separate app for something like this? …Maybe a backlash against all that oversharing and saturation and exposure…

A better alternative to TechMeme?

From the NYT:

One of the first Web sites loaded on Silicon Valley’s laptops and iPhones each morning — and then again and again throughout the day — is Techmeme… Techmeme groups stories according to importance, and clusters other reporters’ and bloggers’ perspectives on the same topic… the site has become more relevant and popular with its 260,000 readers, who check it three million times a month…

Still, Techmeme does not catch everything and sometimes it catches too much of the same thing. So Bijan Sabet, a venture capitalist at Spark Capital who reads Techmeme daily, also visits other aggregators, like Hacker News, because they have more diversity. “Techmeme is often dominated by Apple, Google, Facebook or Twitter news,” he said. “That’s great, but insufficient.”

I’m one of those 260,000 TechMeme readers — I love it. It does a great job of surfacing the issues most widely discussed  by bloggers and mainstream media.

Meanwhile, Seeking Alpha isn’t viewed as a tech site, but about 860,000 people read Seeking Alpha’s tech news coverage. It’s fast, remarkably broad, and provides a bullet-point summary of each story.

Does that mean Seeking Alpha is a better service for tech news than TechMeme? Not necessarily — they’re different animals. Seeking Alpha’s tech coverage is broader and surfaces what’s important to investors, whereas TechMeme surfaces the top stories determined by what the tech bloggers are excited about. If you’re serious about tech, you probably want both.

Links: TechMeme, Seeking Alpha’s tech news coverage on the web, via email alerts, and via the Tech Investor mobile app.