News Hacking: Journalism in the Digital Era – The Art of Stickiness

News Hacking is an ongoing series relating to the trials, tribulations and possible solutions to the ongoing journalism crisis affecting all major American metropolitan papers. Its primary focus is to discuss means in which to stem and reverse the tide of readership and monetary losses.

This is ultimately an optimistic perspective, in contrast to much of the perspectives in the industry today. Its underlying philosophy is simple: crises illustrate their own solvency mechanisms, and there always will be a solvency mechanism. Often, even always, it is found in the very source of the industry’s disruption.

It just takes the right vantage point to see it.

This second entry discusses the problem of audience loyalty, or the lack thereof – the “stickiness” of an article, why online news fails to achieve it, how it might be done, and why this is a crucial first step towards the viability of the online medium.

While there is certainly an obvious tradeoff on the growth of online news readers and the decline of print-media readers, the intrinsic qualities of the digital medium has made monetization of the tradeoff all but nonexistent in the status quo. While it is an undeniable fact that online revenue of newspaper websites have become increasingly dominant of their overall net income, this has less to do with the growth of that particular revenue stream and more to do with the total collapse of all others.

Yet, the numbers are even more perplexing than that – despite online advertising’s miniscule growth per site, the overall market for online ads is growing steadily. While it, too, took a hit in 2008, sinking roughly seven to eight percent, 2009-2010 actually saw a massive jump in real and expected online advertisement spending, eclipsing regular advertising market for the first time (and hopefully serving as a leading indicator of the economy’s overall health as well – clearly, businesses are expecting a significant increase in consumer confidence).

Why is this? While it’s certainly not unexpected that there would be a blatant shift towards online advertising spending – the money follows where the audience is going – the disparity between the enormous wealth being pumped into the system and the relative pittance that big-name papers are actually getting seems, on it’s face, paradoxical.

Well, maybe not. Fact is, there are only a handful of big papers – all the ones of cultural significance, from the Washington Post to Wall Street Journal to New York Times, so on and so forth, are well-known, and rarely contested. It was big – huge, really – news when the Murdochian Wall Street Journal declared that it would be running a New York section, thereby laying down a direct challenge to the New York Times. Direct, eye-to-eye competition in the newspaper world is fairly rare – most fights are over angles, scoops and sources, not markets.

Compare and contrast to the online world, where you’re lucky if there are only fifty blogs, sites and aggregates that you have to compete for eyeballs with on any particular issue, much less going up against the Establishment for general-interest pieces. Now the problem is blood-on-the-walls obvious – all that lucrative advertising money is being spent across a wide spectrum of competitors. Worse, unlike with physical newspapers, advertisers aren’t willing to spend any more money on a slot with an obscure blog than they would with a newspaper site.

They, apparently unlike the vast majority of prints, realize that there simply isn’t such thing as reader loyalty online.

Well, that’s oversimplifying it somewhat. Cults of personalities flourish on the online medium – Escapist Magazine wouldn’t be nearly as significant, I am more than willing to bet, if it weren’t for the inclusion of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame to their video blog lineup. In fact, this phenomenon is actually demonstrated on television as well, where news-like sites like Fox and MSNBC regularly out-compete rival CNN for both sides of a divisive, ultra-partisan American audience, driven by a combination of their preach-to-the-choir content tactics and sheer, brunt personality of their pundits. For the same reasons, Comedy Central has actually become a center of political thought and unrelenting snark, off the comedic personalities of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, respectively, also regularly drawing eyeballs that CNN can only wish fondly for as they pray up to distant, shooting stars.

Unfortunately, all of the above only serves to quite aptly demonstrate why reliance on personality “stickiness” to aggregate masses to your site and content is risky, and probably inethical enough to be somewhat unfavorable as a tactic for the honest and earnest original content producer. The likes of Palin, Beck, Hannity and O’Reilly, and, to a much lesser extent, Olbermann and Maddow, has been… controversial, to say the least. While it’s true that their shows guarantees their host networks millions upon millions of eyeballs nightly, with the advertisement money that comes with it (well, maybe not in the case of Beck, who has been steadily losing advertisers [fucking schizophrenic warmongering racebaiting propagandist deserves the backlash]), they do so at what in the long term is fairly unsustainable risk. Just one gaffe can be forgiven, so long as it’s fairly light in nature – but a history of careless remarks can kill a star just as certainly as cocaine, heart attacks and getting caught with a gay prostitute, and is a problem magnified greatly if the star’s modus operandi is to be as provocative as he or she can get away with.

Even for stars of less extreme temperament, you’re still dealing with the fact that they are, in fact, human beings, and not just fleshy simulacrums programmed with a full range of narrative tropes and catchphrases. Illnesses, sudden loss, insolvency, mortality, and worse than all of that – headhunting competitors – can deprive you of tens of thousands or even millions of eyeballs all at once, and sinking the worth of the brand in one go.

And all of that is actually putting the cart before the horse of the real issue: it’s bloody difficult to cultivate stars. Unless you already have millions to throw around, and millions of eyeballs to court, sticking some Joe or Jane Random Blogger behind a keyboard and telling him or her to be funny isn’t going to cut it. That alone won’t make you sticky – that alone just makes you Yet Another Group Blog, like so many before and so many to come. Reliance upon the Popularity Lottery is not a viable business plan, no matter how you cut it.

Advertisers favor sticky brands for a very simple reason, and one I mentioned in the first article of this series: what they want isn’t just exposure, but favorable and prolonged exposure. The first step – yes, first step, and possibly not even the biggest – towards making a news site that can actually name its advertising price is to figure out the audience loyalty puzzle that has unsuccessfully plagued everybody else.

Luckily, there does exist a highly unorthodox solution that can function as a business model, and isn’t reliant upon strict popularity or the fallacies of mortality. It is not, however, published news as we know it.

Long-time readers of this blog (or at least anybody that ran across it approximately half a year ago holy shit) ought to be familiar with a certain experiment of mine in alternative article formats. The less-than-formal “What the Hell X?” commentary format is a rather large hint of my thoughts towards a sustainably “sticky” format and style, emphasizing brief factual blurbs on a subject. On its face, it’s inferior to a formal news article – its shorter length and segmented formatting might, as reader and friend starkruzr notes, be ideal for smartphones and similar screen-size limited formats (I’m looking at you, netbooks – so annoying to use), but it doesn’t delivery nearly as much information, nor as comprehensively (though the use of links and multimedia embedding possibilities are certainly favorable) as a standard news article.

At least, on its face.

There is a rather vital advantage that is missed out on the first impression, though: segmented blurbs are very easily written. Takes just a few dozen minutes to jot down a few notes and an accompanying question – less if you’re actually prepared for specific questions ahead of time instead of writing it on the fly like I did for the experiment. Also unlike print articles, such a format can be extended indefinitely and at any time, unbound by the logistical limitations of the printing press and physical distribution network. For additional speed, a mix of RSS, social networking sites (Twitter being preferable, though it notably doesn’t quite qualify as a social network), and subscription-based alerts draws in eyeballs almost as soon as the post button is clicked on.

And on the production side of things, the advantages really start to shine – especially on the reporter’s level. The physical limitations of the broadsheet burdens a writer from opposing angles – an article cannot be too short, or else it messes with the margins. But it can’t be too long either, as there is an upper limit on how much space can be dedicated to content after you’ve put in all of the ads. Notably, it is for this very reason that articles remain written in the “inverse pyramid” format established when reporters and scouts during the civil war had to worry about such things as enemy action cutting the telegraph cable as he was morse-coding out vital information to his boss. Not to mention it makes it very easy for editors to do their jobs – to make an 800-word article fit a 500-word slot, scroll down to the bottom and start cutting. The specific details and flavors of the situation may get lost by doing so, but the general gist is preserved at the very top, and so the paper’s done its job in reporting the significant facts.

But the inverse-pyramid structure has structural flaws that are not present in my proposed format. Notably, the habit of cutting articles to fit space limitations eventually makes for fairly shoddy journalism, especially as things get tougher for the paper and more advertisers are required to stay afloat. The format implicitly ties the quality of the article with its length – the details that give substance and weight to an issue or event are necessarily kept until after the article’s given what is often a very rough summary of facts, not only risking them to cuts, but risking the very integrity of the article to the harsh fiscal necessities of advertisement obligations.

However, beyond the theory, the implications cross-applying the inverse-pyramid article format with online distribution is often nasty from a purely fiscal stance. Not only is the article fairly incomplete – a good reporter often knows or has heard a heck of a lot more than what is discussed in an article, and not just because of legal non-disclosure or libel-related reasons – but the article will rarely, if ever, be touched upon again. Upon publication, it is dead – readers will only read it once, and then leave the page. Given readership habits of merely reading the first paragraph, skimming the rest, then moving on, the article’s value as an advertising medium is almost nil compared to a broadsheet, with multiple articles sharing space with ads to prolong exposure.

Now, imagine what we can do with the alternative WTHX format. A brief goes up – audience reads it, moves on. There’s a theoretical time advantage over the printed press – stories can be broken faster if the writer needs to gather only enough preliminary info for one or two hundred words instead of a thousand. But it isn’t a huge advantage – the reader still just glances, absorbs, and moves on.

Then another blurb comes out, and triggers alerts across the internet. Readers go back to the page, read the updated information. Absorbs; moves on.

A slideshow comes out, first a few grainy pictures submitted by users in the affected area. Then higher-quality images from a professional photographer on the scene. Along with the pictures, more information, a few interviews, etc. Again they come back.

Now we have video footage. Perhaps interviews, or a replay of the event or issue, or an in-house commentary. So not only do website advertisements get a fourth moment of exposure, but the same page is now ripe grounds for video advertisements.

The updates keep on coming. The adverts keep on getting impressions. All over one self-extending article, all from the same body of people, all on one website, and all over a much shorter amount of time than conventional press. And over a much longer period of time.

Screw print advertising! This is how you maximize exposure! This is how you generate reliable content stickiness! I can pull this off with a bunch of freshly graduated journalists, much less Pulitzer-winners. Hell, the graduates might be easier to work with – I can retrain them away from the inverse pyramid easier than an established writer. Working out a deadline system will be far more difficult with the WTHX format than a conventional once-daily article, but should ultimately prove trivial – just so long as we get our scoops, and just so long as they commit long and hard on their stories.

This isn’t just a way to scoop absolutely every newspaper in existence on any issue – especially given how easy it is to ride the crowdsourcing coattails to garner quick access to any ongoing event. It is ideal for reviving the near-deathbed state of investigative journalism, of which is currently a cost-deficit activity for newspapers, and whose decline has severely impacted the reputation of many publications, but under the WTHX system is actually encouraged as a means of pumping up the value of any one article! The more information the writer pumps out, the better for the monetary valuations – the faster they pump it out, the same!

You see why I’m confident enough about this to risk everything on trying to make this an actual production?  You see why I’ve had so many sleepless nights tweaking and fine-tuning the theoretical framework of this venture?

I’ve turned journalism into mad science, and investigative journalism into abstracted, self-propagating Von Neumann machines.

And if I’m right about the theory – admittedly a very big “if” – this is actually the most basic, the simplest, step to my process. Solving the audience loyalty conundrum may actually prove to be the easiest part of the overall journalism monetization puzzle.

It doesn’t address what to do, or if anything should be done at all, about adblockers, for example.

But that’s next week.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 13, 2010.

2 Responses to “News Hacking: Journalism in the Digital Era – The Art of Stickiness”

  1. Interesting argument, which I shall Ponder Upon, however it would not be me if I didn’t note something about, “It doesn’t address what to do, or if anything should be done at all, about adblockers”

    I believe the question you’re looking for there is “can anything be done”. And the answer is “you can’t”: if the end user wants to block your adverts, it doesn’t matter what tricks you use, they will find a way to do it. Whether it’s software built into the browser, plugins for the same, host file tricks, or proxy-level filtering and page rewriting, if a user wishes to block adverts, there is not a single thing you can do to stop them. Sure, you can try using interstitials (and simultaneously piss the hell out of them), floating div popup ads, and so on, but every single method can be defeated, or at least actively drives you users elsewhere. It’s basically the same arms race as DRM, only advertisers have drastically less legal leverage to mess with (ie: sod all), and it boils down to the same simple fact: no matter how cunning the technique, no matter how much money, time, and effort is put into making a system work, there is always someone out there smarker than the developers who will create a something to remove it, usually within hours or even minutes. Even accounting for propagation delays, you’d be looking at a couple of days, tops, before anyone likely to use an adblocking technology has stripped your clever system out completely, and th emore obtrusive and irritating the method, the faster it will be stripped.

    Also, is there anything you can do to increase the row count in these comment boxes? I feel like I’m typing through a letterbox…

  2. Hooray, Mad Science.

    TW does have a point about ad-blockers, though. Assuming that only a small percentage of your users don’t browse the web with the ads off, I assume you have a back-up plan to catch the grand majority of your readers and turn them into subscribers. Perhaps with shinies, or exclusive content, or being able to see things before they go out to the world at large. I’m guessing this will come in a later News Hacking, but you might want to talk somewhat about not only how to get lots of eyeballs, but how to get people to fork out some cash to keep your operation going.

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