Oct 18, 2010

Slapping down hits-based journalism

A study released today of online ad revenues found the stories that generated the most money for news sites aren't necessarily the stories that attract an explosion of clicks. The death spiral of Lindsay Lohan is less valuable to a news site than ongoing coverage of illegal immigration.

To capture the ad revenue, news sites need a system that matches ad content to news content. As Nieman Journalism Lab points out, this adds pressure on the news side to cover those issues that are more likely to attract advertisers:
It’s worth noting that the high-paying topics are united less by their hard-news nature than by their proximity to companies interested in hawking their wares. Immigration lawyers want their ads next to immigration stories; mortgage brokers and “Refinance now!” types want to be next to mortgage-rate stories; job sites want their ads on those Gulf-recovery-jobs stories. That makes sense, but it doesn’t do much for the sea of worthy news stories that won’t have an easy e-commerce hook. There aren’t many good contextual ads for Lohan court stories, but there also aren’t many for corruption investigations.
There are ways to protect editorial independence under a context-based ad system, and the numbers people are using to measure success shows content has value. However, some will read the study as more evidence for niche coverage, and the greedier news sites will undoubtedly begin to demagogue certain topics (immigration, for example) as a way to pull in money. Hopefully, though, a study like this shows that success in the news business means thinking more about content and coverage than fishing for clicks on a link.

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