All the news that’s fit to post

By: on March 1, 2017 |

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What’s the model for a successful online news service? Even tougher, what’s the model for a successful conservative online news service? Conservatives have long struggled for space in the media but today media of all sorts are struggling to survive. I believe the only path forward is back to the future, using 21st century tools to reconstitute the intellectually partisan newspapers and journals of the 1800s. By which I don’t just mean producing editorial products that are lively, opinionated, informed, intelligent and, um, profitable. I mean we need to sell those products to the audience.

Well duh, some may say. How else would anybody make money? Actually there are alternatives, one of which has never worked and the other of which, once a licence to print money in the news business, cannot work in the world of the Internet.

The first alternative is this weird plan where we get rich quick by giving things away online. Far too much of what passes for cutting-edge digital entrepreneurship really is just the old huckster’s joke about losing money on every sale but making it up in volume. The other alternative is less zany though in the end no more sustainable: somehow to do online what we used to do on paper. And to understand what is wrong with journalism today economically, you need to know what worked so well for so long before failing so suddenly and drastically.

Essentially from the 1890s onward newspapers, followed later by radio and television, did not sell an editorial product to an audience. They sold an audience to advertisers. And it worked spectacularly. They actually did get rich giving the product away, more or less, with a token subscription and newsstand fee to stop people from grabbing newspapers for fishwrap or firestarter and to prove to prospective advertisers that the audience actually wanted the thing enough to pay that small fee. But where they made their money, year in and year out, was by selling the audience to the advertisers.

I am not calling this strategy cynical or underhanded. Far from it. It was remarkable entrepreneurship that built an industry in which editors and reporters might come and go, and individual ventures fail, but local newspapers became dependable mainstays of life in small towns and big cities alike. Everybody read them, and they had such a presence in the community and the culture that the hard-boiled newsman became an archetypal character in books, radio and film. And because everybody read them, advertisers were happy to pay for them to reach customers.

To be sure, advertising has an evil reputation and it’s not entirely undeserved. On those rare occasions when my kids encounter something so prehistoric it is interrupted by ads they instinctively ask how to fast-forward and are amazed and offended at the expectation that they should sit through this blaring manipulative insult to their intelligence. But much modern and indeed “golden age of TV” content is as idiotic as the worst commercial ever, while successful ads did convey information because otherwise they were just wasted money.

Legendary ad man David Ogilvy wrote in his 1963 memoir Confessions of an Advertising Man, “The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife.” In any case there is no free lunch, and we the audience did get essentially free newspapers and radio and TV news and “entertainment” for decades in return for a bit of our time and IQ.

We also got it for technical reasons. The invention of high-speed rotary presses, cheap wood-pulp paper and half-tone images made newspapers into ideal mass-distribution vehicles for advertisements just as the invention of mass production more generally was making manufacturers and retailers hungry for ways to reach a mass audience with news of their products. Hence the United States went from under 600 daily papers in 1870 to over 2,500 by 1910, with a circulation in the tens of millions.

Stopping the presses

Everybody won from this arrangement, which therefore went on so long we thought it would never stop. And indeed we’d still be printing money out in big suburban buildings full of sweaty journalists and smelly presses like the one where I first worked for the Ottawa Citizen way back in 1997 if Al Gore or somebody hadn’t invented the gol-durn Internet.

When they did, it kicked out the foundations. Who today looks for a new car or mattress in the front section of a newspaper, or a used drum set in the classifieds? Hoo hah. We Google. We kijiji. It works better. It reduces “transaction costs” including time enduring ads for things we don’t want. You can no longer get rich bundling and selling an audience.

There’s the core problem. But it has not been understood by too many news publishing executives who are busy laying off content creators in the belief that watering the soup can save a failing restaurant, and trying to apply the old model online with digital ads as though the Internet were not the whole reason that model no longer worked. They still regard content as wasted space, the “news hole” between all those lovely ads. And they still think they can give away the content to attract an audience they then sell to advertisers.

They can’t. We absolutely, positively, must get back to selling content to the audience.

As long ago as March 2009, an Internet eternity, I wrote about this in the Citizen, including the “back to the future” scenario, saying Thomas Jefferson would be baffled by a modern newspaper, both the mildness of its political invective and the “ads”. And the two are related. Mass media tended to have a soothing liberal slant in a liberal era to avoid upsetting the mass of readers who might buy mattresses, and advertisers didn’t like controversy (hence no ads on the opinion pages). But journalism that appeals to readers not advertisers must be more vigorous.

By vigorous I don’t mean obnoxious, belligerent and stupid. I mean content so intrinsically interesting, entertaining, and insightful that publishers can charge micropayments for individual pieces, and attract a substantial base of monthly supporters.

Easier said than done, you say? Well, columnists couldn’t fix everything in one go back in 1953 either. So let me deal with a few of the major problems that might persist even after I hit “send” rather than shouting “Copyboy!”

3.5 billion potential readers

One legitimate concern about revitalized online media is that fake news, clickbait, inflammatory abuse and mindless videos seem to draw huge audiences while sound commentary bores people. (Doonesbury memorably illustrated this in a cartoon where Jeff Redfern sends his father’s dry story about Congressional procedure viral by tagging it “Boehner drops bombshell as Scar-Jo rocks epic sideboob”.)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg predicts most news will be consumed as video within five years. But 30 second clips won’t satisfy everyone. And one great thing about the Internet is you don’t need a mass audience, just a small discerning fraction of the roughly 3.5 billion people now online. And it’s much easier and cheaper to specialize than it once was.

Still, it is hard to charge for anything online including news because people are used to getting things free. But it’s not impossible, and I think it will get easier. Free news is worth what you pay for it. (With the exception of C2C Journal online! – ed.) A surprising number of hugely successful digital platforms actually rely to an unhealthy extent on the old advertising model including YouTube, Google and Facebook. Soon enough they will run into the same trouble as newspapers, which is probably why they’re trying to commercialize data-mining, which I find creepy but might at least be sustainably creepy.

It may also be objected that people increasingly scorn newspapers, including in their digital incarnation, because they can get all the information they need from news aggregators. But aggregators can only share what somebody first creates, and without traditional or mainstream or lamestream media there will eventually be nothing left to aggregate.

Another more fundamental problem with news aggregators, free or not and sustainable or not, is that they overwhelm you with the proverbial drink from a fire hydrant. And news consumers are looking to be intellectually hydrated, not drowned in a sea of information and rumour.

What people will pay for

Thus the salvation of media generally, and of conservative news and commentary in particular, lies in offering people something they need that is worth paying for. And my three “Rs” here are reliability, relevance and rationing.

First, reliability. Discerning readers want to know that what they are reading is accurate, that someone has checked it. Not everybody is in that category, of course. Five minutes online will persuade and dismay you with proof of a vast market for free idiocy, apocrypha and abuse. But it’s OK because we don’t need to sell to everyone.

Internet distribution also improves reliability of delivery, and makes the production of “newspapers” far cheaper because we no longer have to print news or distribute it on paper. No more ink, newsprint, machinery, trucks, sidewalk boxes or physical delivery of the paper to your doorstep or snowbank.

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Second, relevance. One peculiar danger of the Internet is precisely the vaunted capacity to fine-tune our digital news feeds to tell us what we want to hear about things we already know we care about. Unfortunately we are then ill-prepared for a world that does not always conform to our wishes and expectations. In their glory days newspapers, ideally, gave people news they weren’t expecting about subjects they hadn’t realized mattered, along with opinions that challenged rather than flattering or insulting their existing views. That service, too, is one a discerning audience will pay for online.

Finally, there is the absolute necessity of rationing. A great advantage of 20th-century newspapers and newscasts was that once you gave them half an hour or so you were allowed to stop because, in theory at least, you were sufficiently informed for one day. Today’s news feeds, to say nothing of Facebook and Twitter, produce an endless flood of stories 24-7 that nobody can cope with. Hence the news judgement of discriminating editors grows more valuable by the day.

Moving down the list of potential problems, it’s especially hard to charge for online news content in Canada when competing against the public debt-financed CBC. But a conservative online news service can turn this particular lemon into digital lemonade, expressly pitching information and opinion that is reliable, relevant, rationed – and not from the CBC!

There is one final, major concern. For years I have watched the decay of the print media with dismay not only because it casts a pall over my bank account but because I miss the civic conversations that papers inspired among people gathered around the water cooler or kitchen table. The ink stains on our fingers marked us as informed citizens whether we liked what we’d read or not.

Conservatives often didn’t. When I worked at the Fraser Institute, my last pre-email job, many of the staff vigorously despised the daily papers. Which we all read at lunch then denounced. The print journalism of the 20th century, despite its preponderant liberal bias, gave even conservatives a shared frame of reference. But before these bland mass circulation papers arrived in the late 19th century we had plenty of lively, community-wide debate, so there’s good reason to believe we can enjoy reinvigorated democratic diversity after they’re gone.

People will pay for facts they trust, covering areas that matter, in quantities they can handle, from a viewpoint they broadly share. The conservative model for this is already working for Breitbart and, here in Canada, Rebel Media. It might have saved Sun News Network if Quebecor had dared grasp the opportunity. And it’s certainly not too late for Postmedia to consider it as the National Post transitions from print to digital. The model is already working for Britain’s leftist Guardian, among others.

So take heart news readers, especially conservative ones. In due course the Internet can make journalism great again. Or rather, we can, online.


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About John Robson

John Robson is a columnist with the National Post.