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Mar 26 / Great Apes

538 and the Problem With Ad Revenue

So the other day I came across this tweet:

And I’ve been thinking about it, because on the face of it the idea sounds great.  But I don’t think, generally speaking, it’s feasible.  Here’s why:

Nate Silver’s new “data journalism” web site 538 has come under a lot of criticism since it launched recently.  One article claimed that quitting your job could help increase your wages.  I criticised that one sharplyThis excellent piece by finance professor Noah Smith explained the problems with a number of 538’s articles, including the one I mentioned.  The author of the 538 post on quitting your job, Ben Casselman, showed up in the comments to defend the piece.  Here is his defence of it:

First, we’ve made a conscious choice to distinguish between blog posts, which are intended to be quick-and-dirty, and features, which are intended to be more in-depth. (More about how we’re thinking about this here.) The “quits” post you reference is in the former category–I saw what I thought was an interesting tidbit at the bottom of a Journal story, and wanted to call it out.

Now, I think the distinction is strange (isn’t everything on 538 a blog post?) and I don’t think he really answers the substantive criticisms that have been made of the piece, but that’s not really what I’m interested in here.  What I’m interested in isn’t whether the distinction is linguistically appropriate, but why it exists at all.  And I think this gets to the root of a major problem with web publishing generally.

If the purpose of 538 is to do “data journalism” then the kind of piece that Casselman wrote – which he expressly acknowledges isn’t really what 538 is about – doesn’t make sense.  But that presents a problem.  538 is a “free” (I hate that word, ads aren’t free) web site that makes its money by selling advertising.  And advertising is based primarily on page views.  (Yes, I know that people love to argue that “the page view is dead” and that other metrics are replacing it, but they still operate on the same kinds of principles).

This may all be Media 101, but I’m going to make a couple of points just to draw this all together.  What an ad-supported web site is selling isn’t content, but readers.  The business relationship exists between the web site and the advertisers.  The goal of an ad-supported web site, then, is to draw in as many readers as possible to sell those readers to advertisers.  And not just the greatest possible number of raw readers, but the greatest number of visits from those readers, so that more ads can be served to them.  This gets even more complicated when you start taking into account the constant tracking of your web surfing by various ad and Internet companies, who also want as many page views as possible so that they can build up a broader understanding of your browsing habits so that they can target you with increasingly tailored advertising.

This business model essentially requires giving you a reason to visit the site each day, and ideally multiple times each day.  In order to do that, there needs to be a constant flow of new content.  The problem for 538, though, is that it’s not possible to produce in-depth data journalism every day on a wide variety of topics for a number of reasons: it takes a lot of time to research and write, there simply isn’t enough new research every day to report on, and so forth.  But 538 still needs a constant flow of content in order to get people to the site so that those people can be sold to advertisers so 538 can pay its authors to write the more in-depth pieces the site claims to be primarily concerned with.  Which means that what we get are poorly thought-out “blog posts” that don’t fulfill the site’s mission or give us much interesting information, because without those “blog posts” what are people going to come to the site multiple times a day for?

While I’ve written here predominantly about 538, what I’ve said is broadly true of any ad-supported news or information-related web site.  Buzzfeed, for example, does publish legitimately good journalism, but it’s swamped with awful posts designed to exploit behavioural psychology so that they can draw in readers to sell to advertisers.

And this is a significant cost that we pay as readers (and, I would argue, it is paid by writers as well): there is really only one business model being pursued by the vast majority of information-driven web sites, and it precludes lots of interesting things from being done in terms of web content.  When what you’re selling is readers not content, the content that you produce is going to reflect that business arrangement.

So I think it’s a real shame that everyone simply accepts that ad-driven sites are the only possible option.  That decision has major effects on how content is produced and delivered.  And until people decide to try to pursue other business models to support web businesses, we’re going to be stuck with bad 538 “blog posts” that make the site look worse than it needs to.

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