Are we seeing a shift in the quality-vs.-quantity content debate?
Journalists have been battered for the past several years by a steady torrent of Web metrics, which corporate bean counters have used to chip away at long-held beliefs that quality journalism matters. Search engines and analytic tools decimated the “trust me” defense – as in “trust me, readers love our content” – and led many publishers to sharply cut editorial staffs in the name of ROI.
The premise was legitimate – many editorial staffs were grossly overstaffed during the boom times of the 1980s and ‘90s, and the shift to digital did not nearly compensate for the sharp drop-off in print advertising revenue – but the pendulum eventually swung too far. Digital publishing became a game of producing mass volumes of content – quality be damned – whose primary purpose was to rank high in search engines in order to drive more traffic back to the website. The more this sort-of worked, the more the model expanded, eventually spawning a new generation of content farms that have devalued journalism to the point of being laughable.
Change in the wind?
The pendulum is beginning to swing back. This time, editorial staffs are finding metrics that actually help their cause. I wrote yesterday about new research from Perfect Market showing that hard news topics are better ad revenue drivers than celebrity gossip articles. In the B2B space, publishers such as TechMediaNetwork are attributing their success – 16 million unique visitors and 634% year-over-year growth in the case of TechMediaNetwork – to an emphasis on quality content paired with relevant advertising.
“We believe in journalists,” TechMediaNetwork President Stan Bassett said in an interview. “Our users are looking for trusted advisors. Other companies are trying to take publishing down to the lowest-cost model. We don’t believe in that.”
TechMediaNetwork consists of 12 owned-and-operated websites that are monetized through advertising and other marketing services. The company also maintains an ad network that it offers to qualified third-party publishing partners on a rev-share basis.
Publishers such as TechMediaNetwork are revisiting a trend toward niche content – be it topic-specific or hyperlocal – that has long appealed to advertisers targeting specific audience segments. It’s a model that many B2B publishers used to build their print businesses but moved away from during the early digital land grab that focused on page views, often at the expense of good journalism. Now, many publishers are re-committing to quality – of both the content and the audience – as a better selling proposition to advertisers.
A new model
This does not mean a return to the old ways. Digital business models don’t support sprawling editorial staffs and multiple layers of researching, writing, editing and production. The new model involves smaller, more targeted staffs whose original content is supplemented by outside contributors (citizen journalists, independent bloggers or subject matter experts who are willing to write for exposure rather than cold hard cash) and aggregated content.
Some publishers get too greedy as they go down this path, creating an imbalance between original and aggregated content. Some try to do away with core editorial staffs altogether and rely solely on free content from a variety of sources. Without the core edit function at the center, an aggregation model or one supported solely by outside contributors is not sustainable over the long term, because at some point the audience and the advertisers will grow wise to – and wary of – the poor quality of the content. Put a reminder in your calendar to check on Demand Media in five years.
Or, if you need a shorter-term reality check, keep a close eye on Editor & Publisher, whose owner Duncan McIntosh just fired the once-venerable publication's three-person editorial staff and who now plans, according to a company memo cited by paidContent, to utilize “more individuals for the print edition who are experts in their individual fields as opposed to reporters who track down experts and put the expert’s story into the writer’s words.” In other words, free content contributed by consultants or vendors. Who needs that pesky journalistic filter?
“Moving toward expert-generated copy is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” McIntosh told Folio. “We need to utilize as many experts in the field as possible. I’d rather clean up their copy than rely on reporters who might not know to ask the right questions.”
Good luck with that.
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