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.