McGuire on Media

What "monetizing content" should be and shouldn't be

“Monetizing content’ is not a phrase invented last week even though the Memphis Commercial appeal flap may make you think that.

Right now the definitions seem to be coming out of Memphis exclusively and the discussion needs to be richer than that. According to the Memphis Flyer story Chris Peck, the CA editor wrote in an email, “The Commercial Appeal, like most newspapers these days, is looking for ways to monetize content.” Peck added, “This is part of the new business model that will support journalism in the future. The Web is way ahead of newspapers on this. Online, many ads already are linked directly to particular content.”

Apparently the publisher and Peck sent a three page letter to staff several weeks ago. The Flyer story says, “The main message was that ‘we are in a new world of newspaper survival’ and looking for ways to ‘attach ads in print and online to specific stories, features, and sections.’ The memo said “no longer are there thick, impenetrable walls between the newsroom, advertising, and circulation departments.”

That last part is very interesting.  For too many years this debate has been cast as a “fight” between departments. That wall between news and advertising has been attacked, assaulted, mocked and insulted. I can produce several editors who have been taken into publisher and CEO offices and told to ‘”stop arguing and defending the newsroom. You are part of a team.” The editor’s defense of resources, and of the wall, has been repeatedly characterized as not only old-fashioned but also as self-interested. Publishers and CEO’s have managed to convince themselves that editors are protecting their “empires” and are fundamentally resistant to change.

Airball! They are missing the point in a dangerous and potentially fatal way.

I don’t want to be slavish to any one set of journalistic ideas, but I remain convinced The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel of the Committee for Concerned Journalists offers the best set of principles to guide all journalists from editors to Publishers and CEO’s. let’s review the entire list to set the context.

The first element of journalism is to provide information that citizens need to be free and self-governing

To fulfill this task;

• Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth

• Its first loyalty is to citizens

• Its essence is a discipline of verification

• Its practitioners must maintain independence

• It must serve as an independent monitor of power

• It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise

• It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant

• It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional

• Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

Obviously, I think in this discussion we want to focus on four, five and nine. “Its practitioners must maintain independence. It must serve as an independent monitor of power. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.”

Kovach and Rosenstiel in their explanation of independence write about the need to “Maintain distance from faction.”  And, they argue for the need to “keep an independence of spirit and mind rather than neutrality.”

These are not old-fashioned idealistic concepts.  Being independent and an independent monitor of power are core principles of journalism. You’d like to think the task of insuring that independence would be the job of everyone at the journalistic enterprise, but increasingly the editor and news director are left to engage in that effort alone. That’s where that personal conscience principle comes into play.  Newsroom leaders who fold like cheap suits in the face of big bonuses, ever-withering stock options and shouts of get on the $%##$%^& team from the publisher are not exercising their personal conscience in defense of encroachments on the enterprise’s independence.

“Monetizing content” does not have to be an assault on independence unless we decide it means we must “attach ads in print and online to specific stories, features, and sections.” When I was an editor I am afraid I fell for the “little bit pregnant ploy.” I, like scores of other editors, decided the auto section and the home section could become the playground of advertisers for both advertising and news as long as I kept my independence for the hard-hitting stories in the A, B and Business sections.  That’s where this whole “sponsorship” thing got its head start. Hindsight tells me that was a mistake. That started the blurring of lines that has led  to the belief that sponsoring stories and features is okay.

A lot of us don’t want to admit the reality, but just the other day a student asserted to me in my Media Ethics class that the fact that we sell advertising makes him believe we are beholden to those advertisers.  That river was crossed long ago and that’s why Kovach and Rosenstiel emphasize independence. Independence is the crucial test that must be passed as we engage in this crucial inquiry.

We have to pass a three question test to assert true independence in fact. Can we say without hesitation that we do not care how a sponsor will react to the content? Can we say for absolute fact the sponsor has not made any suggestions about the nature of the content of the story? Finally, when we edit the piece are we editing without fear or favor? If we fail to answer yes to any of those questions we are not acting “independent of faction.”

But that’s not the end of the inquiry. Even if we convince ourselves the payment we received for that story does not compromise our independence because we are high-minded, pure as the driven snow and impervious to any sort of corruption, our readers still have to be convinced.  We have to pass the “appearance of conflict” test. Will our readers believe that a business column of notes sponsored by the major corporation in town doesn’t smell like last week’s fish? Maybe. Will our readers believe that a story about that company’s interaction with China which they PAID for is a straight, honest account? No way. The skeptical reader of this decade or any future decade is going to be convinced we are in the bag for said company.

So, let’s review. We’re pretty convinced the demise of Times Select, the potential demise of the subscription model for the Wall Street Journal online service and a host of other clues tell us consumers will not pay for content.  People like McGuire argue independence of faction is the standard we must attain if we are going to sell content to sponsors and that seems like an impossibly high bar.  So. does that mean there is no way to monetize content? It does not.

I think this term monetize content should be banned from the lexicon when we are talking about selling our independence to advertisers.  However, monetizing content can have a bright future if we recognize the intrinsic value of telling people stuff they don’t know.  Monetizing content can be the solution to our revenue problems if we recognize the true market for our content–the second and third users of our content.

Monetizing content should mean charging Google, ESPN, Yahoo and every web site that profits in any way and uses newspaper content to bolster their offering and their profits. ESPN charges me 39 bucks every six months for ESPN insider. Key elements of that insider content are references to articles in your newspapers and on your web sites.  How much of my 39 bucks are you seeing? Nary a dime because you have decided that you want the traffic those web sites will generate for you. Alas, you are now discovering those eyeballs are not worth much to you because your advertisers are willing to pay only about a quarter for web traffic of what they paid for newspaper eyeballs.

The question newspapers have to ask is what share of my 39 bucks would make it worth your while to shut off the content spigot until the outfits taking advantage of your stuff figure out how to assign a value to your content? That’s what monetizing content should mean to newspapers.  Your content has value to a lot of web sites reusing the material your reporters uncovered. We need to figure out how to to get our share or their largesse. If that means consortiums or representation of some sort to give newspapers collective bargaining power then that ought to be pursued. We must not let the practical and legal challenges quash an important opportunity.

Weakening the value of our content by sacrificing its independence and feistiness should not be even be on the table. The option, of course, is to formally declare that our first loyalty is not to citizens, but rather our first loyalty is to the bottom line.  That doesn’t really sing, does it?

One Comment