Not all stories end badly, but this one does. Of all the industries unravelling upon our screens since the advent of the Web almost 20 years ago, traditional news media is dying the hardest, or at least the loudest, since it has its own platform from which to decry its inevitable undoing. Slowly, stupidly and with contagious incompetence, metropolitan news media companies around the world are drafting the longest obituary in commercial history.
The managers who run these empires are often steeped in journalistic practice and are traditionally driven as much by a desire to propagate bylines as to buttress the profits of the business. They remain trapped by nostalgia, or hubris, or just sheer bloody mindedness in the case of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
Murdoch at least has an excuse; they're his newspapers after all. And if a billionaire wants to indulge his passion for ink, then who’s to blame him. Murdoch still commands a majority of shareholders at News Corp through his family, his proxies and his allies despite all the legitimate criticism about governance to the contrary. And until the ice melts in the old man’s veins, it will remain so.
Murdoch also has a get out of jail free card. While his newspapers are described by the investment analysts as “toxic” assets and his Web strategies over the years have delivered nothing but loss and brutal failure, he is murdering it all in pay TV, notwithstanding his well-publicised problems in the UK.
News Corp is a hydra, but most newspaper companies and the people who run them remain anchored to a single idea. If only the news was a little bit stronger, if only we were better journalists, everything would be all right. But it won’t be, because journalism no longer matters to the commerce of the advertising sector. Print is dying, no surprises there, but so is Web based news and that’s the part everybody is missing.
The law of unintended consequences
It turns out the real problem with the free news model is not the news being free, but the advertising being effectively free. When you can buy several million page impressions on marquee sites such as The New York Times and the Guardian overseas, or the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, for less than the price of one small advertisement in print, then the economics of the model have broken down irreparably.
It's important to understand that we arrived here by choice and design, not by accident. From the mid ‘90s to the heights of dotcom 1.0 in the year 2000, consumption of news on the Web flourished. Suddenly, publishers had access to customers at their desktops all day long. Drunk on the easy currency of page impressions and the seemingly insatiable demand for online inventory by emerging dotcoms, publishers missed the curse within the curve. They shouldn’t have missed it. It was simple mathematics and underlying it was an idea that had been known about for decades — Moore’s Law — which to bastardise for the purposes of this story represents the capacity of Web servers to spit out twice as many pages every 18 months for the same unit of cost.
Inventory (the stuff publishers really sell) was apparently infinite. If a website didn't have sufficient inventory to meet a campaign they just manufactured more of it. Initially, this took benign in slightly annoying forms, such as breaking longer stories into two or three pages to double or triple the value of the piece. These days, celebrity photo galleries are the big volume play. As page inventory became the defining measure in the beauty contest for emerging online dominance, media companies took to inflating inventory any way they could. All that mattered was topping out in the Nielsen data each month. And when fair means weren’t enough, other opportunities presented themselves.
The foulest of common mispractice is auto refresh. Here, publishers artificially generate page inventory by refreshing the page every few minutes with a piece of code. The excuse given, it is required to refresh the news content, is nonsense of course. Pages can be refreshed without the need to republish the advertisements. The issue is that most of the advertisements can never be seen by human eyes because of the way modern browsers work. Auto refresh is banned under the audit rules in Australia, and in the US and the UK, but that hasn't stopped the biggest publishers locally — News Limited, Fairfax, and NineMSN from continuing with the practice. Without auto refresh, their inventory would more than halve.
Back to the curse, the problem with inventory levels trending towards infinity is marketing budgets are finite. Now, when you take any finite number and divide it by a number trending towards infinity you end up with an outcome that trends to zero — and that is exactly what has happened to yield. Pricing, along with scarcity, collapsed. This is the curse within the curve.
Also, it fed a vicious cycle. As prices collapsed, ever-more inventory was required to fill the revenue bucket. Publishing companies, which for years prided themselves on building quality environments and valuable audiences through the exercise of news judgment, abandoned the core values that made them successful in their addictive pursuit of scale.
If you have ever questioned why so many news websites these days are little more than vehicles for celebrity and prurience, and why online brands are so in conflict with their print antecedents, there’s your answer.
The law of too good to be true
That entire inventory needed managing and selling, and the scale cost of adding ever-more sales people opened the door to third party advertising networks. These companies arrived on the scene during dotcom 1.0 with the seductive implication they would unload all that spare capacity at incremental rates, allowing the publishers to focus on building value (yield, in other words) amongst their core advertiser set. ‘Let us sell the left over bits — we’ll send you the cheque, minus our commission of course’.
Agreeing to this bargain was a profoundly damaging error of judgment that even cursory analysis would have avoided. And yet, almost everybody made it — it's the madness of crowds. What the Networks were really offering was to intermediate between the publisher and the client, and to sell the same set of eyeballs to the same advertisers on the same page at the same moment in time as the publisher, but at a fraction of the cost.
Advertisers, like all human agents, are rational. They simply stopped buying from the publishers and started buying from the networks, always at distressed rates. Furthermore, sales lead times contracted from months to weeks to days. Advertisers only had to wait until month-end to buy inventory and get the best deals, confident in the knowledge that they would never miss out because of the huge overhang in page inventory supply.
Since the emergence of the networks, online advertising yields have dropped from hundreds of dollars per thousand to $1 to $2 dollars per thousand in Australia across general news websites. In the US, they are now measured in cents per thousand.
Tellingly, yields remain strong in niche sectors such as finance and technology where publishers ignore the false economy of auto refresh, or the lazy promises of networks.
The law of fool me twice
It may seem inconceivable that intelligent media managers could make such appalling errors of commercial judgment — but they actually made the same mistake, twice. Not only did they allow the networks to farm space, they invited the most rapacious competitor in the world to the party. Google gleefully offered publishers the opportunity to run Google linage adds on their websites. Again, the pitch was incremental revenue for the publisher at almost no cost. Just a few lines of extra code on the page, a few centimetres of extra space on the website and Google would send through a cheque every month.
Google, like the networks, was allowed to compete with the advertisers on their own websites. Once again, like the networks, Google was selling the same eyeballs to the same advertisers on the same page, at the same moment in time, but at much lower prices. Except, Google applied search and targeting algorithms to its creative and this meant its advertisements were often more relevant and effective than those of the publishers. So not only was it cheaper, it garnered better results. Buyers made out like bandits while publishers piled irrationality upon irrationality, and the madness continues to this day.
At the same time as online display prices were collapsing, the print revenue base was disintegrating. Sure, dollars where migrating online, but at a fraction of the value. By providing news for free online, newspaper publishers sent a very clear pricing signal to their customers to abandon print where the majority of profits were still generated. Readers, like advertisers, behaved rationally.
A big problem was that media companies too often treated their print and online outlets as separate ideas, when in fact it was all the same bottom line to a shareholder. The industry’s leaders were so enthralled with the irresistible lure of scale online, that nobody bothered to do the basic analysis about whether that scale could be parlayed into profits.