Posted by: structureofnews | December 9, 2010

No Magic Bullets

Apparently the Daily Mail now has the second-largest mainstream media website in the world, according to this NYT story.  And paidcontent thinks the Mail could overtake the Grey Lady once the Time’s metered model is put in place.

That’s pretty impressive for a site that’s just two years old, but already has 32 million visitors a month, attracted by its mix of celebrity news and smart, SEO-friendly headlines.   Plus foreign, science and history news.

So – a massive success story about how mainstream media companies can build large web audiences in hardly any time?  Absolutely.  Unless, of course, you want to get paid for doing that.

…for all the millions of Web visitors, The Daily Mail’s digital businesses generated a grand total of £12 million, or $18.7 million, in sales in the latest financial year, the paper’s owner, Daily Mail & General Trust, reported last month.

Not that I would sniff, personally, at 12 million quid.  But I suspect it doesn’t begin to cover the costs of a site that pulls in 32 million visitors a month.

But it’s not to say that 12 million pounds is something to turn down, either, or that advertising-led media businesses on the web don’t make sense.  It’s more that there aren’t any magic bullets out there – not huge amounts of traffic, not paywalls, not algorithmically-driven content on demand, or whatever, that will change your life if only you adopt them.  It’s more that in the future, we’ll much more likely be looking at a number of relatively smaller revenue streams – subscriptions, advertising, premium content, access to mailing lists, etc – rather than depending largely on a single big one as we’ve been doing.

That’s mirrored in some other industries – bands which now cobble  income from selling CDs, singles on iTunes, concerts, small gigs, ringtones, and so on.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing; having multiple streams means, in theory, that you can be insulated from sudden drops in any one source of revenue.  But it does make figuring out the business model even more complicated – with possibly even more hidden cross-subsidies built in.

Let’s take the analogy of a money-minded band trying to decide whether to cut this song or that song, and concerned solely about the return on investment on their time, creative input, etc.  Maybe one song will do really well on iTunes as a single, but not compliment a CD as well; or that the other is a likely candidate for a popular ringtone but isn’t going to go down well with concert-goers?  Where do they get the biggest bang for their investment?

OK, so that’s waaay contrived as an example.  But there are parallels to the news business, at least from a pure business point of view – and clearly some news executives are already “optimising” coverage to get particular results: The Daily Mail covers celebrities online because that maximizes traffic.

So in the future, what balance between public service, traffic, print circulation, online circulation, data and long-term content generation, conference expertise, advertising revenue and so on will need to considered by news executives?  Even the most public-spirited ones?

And how much of the what’s done will consist of “true” business and journalism synergy – for example, we cover environmental issues because it’s an important issue, readers in our area are passionate about it, we can build a conference out of it, advertisers like to be associated with environmentalism, lobby groups will pay a premium for a deep database on the topic, etc – and how much will be quick patches to gain more of one kind of revenue stream?  (Let’s jump on environmental issues because we think we can have a big conference next year!)

The business of journalism certainly isn’t getting any easier.  And we can’t ignore key business/revenue/sustainability issues the way we used to.  But it is definitely more interesting overall.


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