In the ’90s, often on my way back from school (and then college), I’d pick up a newspaper from the bus-stop vendor, unthinkingly pay the one or two rupees needed, get on the bus and start reading. Today, older and allegedly wiser, I do none of that. I sleep in the bus on my way home, having read my news online at the office (often on stolen time). Any thought of actually paying for the news I read will be dismissed summarily.
That’s obviously not going to last. News publishers need to make money if they have to continue paying their reporters and editors, and paying their rents and bills. But fewer people are buying newspapers (at least the English ones), and more people are reading news online. Where they expect it to be free. They already pay for electricity and broadband, they are not going to pay for content. Or are they?
For one, the non-policed nature of the internet means that the source and quality of news is often debatable, if not dubious. It is hard to draw the line between propaganda and news, much less between bad reporting versus good. Blogs add to the color, by adding each blogger’s biases and distortions.
News magnates like Rupert Murdoch believe that people who want real, credible news, reported by trained reporters with a fine sense of journalistic ethics will willingly pay for content online. Murdoch’s attack on Google for ‘stealing news’ is well-known, although as many web users have pointed out, a search on Google does not deliver the news, but merely a link to it. Several of his group newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and the Times (of London) are already behind a ‘pay-wall’, inaccessible and not index-able unless you buy a subscription.
A number of other people believe that the online news consumer is never going to pay for use. The trick therefore is to minimize the cost of producing the news, by focusing on what the current trends on the internet are, and quickly producing articles based on those trends. This is known widely as ‘content farming’ (about which this blog already has an article). For example, Demand Media, with its army of 7,000 freelancers (paid about $5 an article) can respond very, very swiftly to the top keywords on Google (as GoogleTrends will tell you), flooding the net with SEO-friendly, trend savvy articles.
This practice raises a number of questions. In terms of the dynamics of the web, the flood of such articles (often poor quality, sometimes downright nonsensical) distorts the results of the search engine. It directs a large volume of traffic to the content farms’ site rather than a site where better quality, more relevant information can be found. If this happens once too often, it can damage a search engine’s reputation as a provider of answers to all questions under the sun.
The upside is, most people often want a quick answer – and get it. They may not want a high quality answer, and if they do, they are likely to return to the search results and pick a ‘higher quality’ article, which may be a little heavy on the jargonic side, and may need more than basic school-level reading skills. And of course, these sites deliver what people want, not what others have decided they need.
Journalists too are alarmed. By focusing on what people want, content farms may not be able to capture events on the ground, which impact people’s lives in diverse and often sudden ways. Bad writing and grammar, plagiarism, lack of verification and other journalistic norms compromises the idea of ‘news’, and can leave people en-darkened rather than enlightened.
Content farms have responded to such concerns. Some like Demand Media have a clear set of qualifications for their empaneled writers. Their columns are checked for plagiarism; they are often expected to be experts in some field or the other. Some have chosen to be specialists, choosing to stick to just one area, like fashion or music.
What does this running debate hold for advertisers?
In print or TV, revenue from advertising largely paid for journalists’ salaries. Restrictions on space (print) and time (TV) ensured that advertising prices remained on the higher side. Advertising inventory on the internet is almost infinite (since new pages can be added everyday without deleting the old ones), so there is no way rates can be high enough for a content provider to pay trained journalists and live off advertising.
By charging for subscriptions, newspapers online may not have to depend on advertising so much. Also, a paying customer expects not to be disturbed or distracted by advertising. On the other hand, content farms, by keeping costs low and attracting a higher volume of customers, can try and live off advertising.
You might sense a potential bubble here. As more ads are shown on content farms, the more content they can afford to host. The more they do that, the more they can flood search engines, sucking in more traffic. The more traffic they attract, the more advertisers will rush to them. But, as we all know, content is king. They day there is too much bad content, there will be a ‘clickers’ revolt’, as they run back to news sites (or go back to their abandoned TV sets). And we might have a big net advertising bust.
Perhaps I should go back to my newspaper-reading in the bus back home after all.
[Hat-tip to the Economist for its article that triggered this post]