Posted by: structureofnews | November 23, 2010

Slideshow Mania

An entertaining – and possibly terrifying – piece at Columbia Journalism Review about the mania for slideshows.

Across the web, slideshows have become a shortcut to better traffic numbers; a shortcut that sites are now going out of their way to take. And increasingly they’re published because of the medium, not the message.

But maybe all this pandering is worth it. Every site is trying to figure out a sustainable business model, and even the most asinine galleries help to subsidize the serious, thoughtful, and wordy articles that don’t earn as much traffic. Perhaps we should stop thinking of slideshows as the scourge of online journalism. Instead, we should consider them its savior.

Well, that’s a scary thought.  But of course, not really a new one.  We’ve known for some time that, while socially-meaningful, public service journalism may be a good thing, it’s not always the thing that pays the bills.  For that we have T magazine at the New York Times, or the Style section, or whatever it is that advertisers want that week.  Slideshows are just the latest manifestation of this trend – and at some level, there’s nothing wrong with them, any more than there was (is) an obsession with the latest hot accessories in the fashion pages.

Except that it doesn’t really work all that well any more.  The key difference in the digital age is that content is increasingly disaggregated; that cross-subsidies are less and less useful; and that the old tricks that used to let us trade off one kind of content for ad dollars while spending the money on another kind of content are going away – slowly in some instances, and very quickly in others.

In other words, pandering is less and less efficient.

As CJR notes, in a slightly different – and more optimistic – context:

But when even bad slideshows succeed economically, where’s the incentive to make them good? That incentive, eventually, will have to come from advertisers, as they tire of the tricks that their editorial friends are playing on them. Earlier, I noted that advertisers don’t care if dozens of page views are coming from the same user, because their ads are still getting shown. But eventually this will reach a point of diminishing returns. Telling the same person about a new movie a dozen times is not as effective of telling a half-dozen people twice.

That’s a more optimistic view than I have.  It would be nice to think that advertising pressure would lead to better content, but that seems unlikely overall; I don’t think advertisers are out to weaken content, but the key dynamic here is that internal cross-subsidies on traffic will go away.  If you’re great at slideshows, and can reap strong CPMs from them, that’s great; but it’ll become obvious to you – and your advertisers – that your 16-part series on corruption in city hall may be getting no traffic at all.  So unless you – or your advertiser – is incredibly public-spirited, you know what bits of content to kill off, at least from a business point of view.

Maybe I’m being too harsh here; maybe lots of publishers will take money from one part of the organization and feed to it another, money-losing arm.  But if you’re going to do that, why bother with slide shows?  Just set up a different company altogether and funnel any profits from that into your public-service journalism business. (Think Kaplan and the Washington Post.)

More broadly, it’s an illustration of how we’re all adapting to the new digital marketplace – we’re trying to game it at the same time that we’re learning the new rules of the game.  Not everything is going to be pleasant; but we should also realize that a lot of the old tricks of the trade won’t work in the new work – we’re going to have to figure out new ways to generate revenue, and I suspect the winners will be the ones that focus less on traffic than on long-term, scalable content models.

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Responses

  1. Slideshows often fail because they’re not optimized for web viewing–meaning they’re slow to load, slow to shift between pictures, and because they’re not properly thought through. The same rules apply: is this the best way of telling the story, or are we just throwing together a bunch of pictures we got from an agency?

    The most powerful slideshows carry audio with them, and so tell a story by combining two elements that add to more than the sum of their parts. But as with most newspaper content online these days, they usually seem to be cobbled together in some shameless hole-filling and eyeball-grabbing exercise that does little to differentiate the site from any others.

    The rule is: if you treat your content like a commodity without any proper editorial input, then that’s what your website will end up being.

  2. Couldn’t agree more – commodity content gets outed much faster these days, both by readers and advertisers. But more importantly, traffic-generating pap is less and less helpful to the site as a whole – except to less-discriminating advertisers – because the inherent cross-subsidies that exist in print slowly get eroded online where there’s more clarity of what people are actually reading. It’s as if the circulation gains at a newspaper from, say the sports section were confined only to the sports section, and the rest of the paper hobbled along on its true readership.

  3. ah. in JMSC we did spend lots of time learning to produce a decent slideshow – sth. i was pretty reluctant to learn. I didn’t realize that it (this form) used to bring much traffic, but it is just not appealing to me, neither as a news-consumer or as a news-producer.

    Even with audio as Jeremy mentioned doesn’t help much – that would be a product between video and photo, which presents less information than videos but requires more production time for producing and more concentration for consumers than photos.

    I would rather spend time to learn how to use adobe series.

    • Slideshows aren’t inherently bad ideas – but they can be if they’re slapped together just to draw traffic. But as Jeremy notes, too much is badly done.


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