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Move over, LiLo! Public-interest news can be more valuable to publishers than traffic bait

Conventional wisdom: What people really want from their journalism is some combination of celebrity gossip, naked celebrities, and gossip about naked celebrities. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s more than an assumption: Through the magic of web analytics, news publishers have access as never before to the collective Id of the people they serve…and again and again, such lowbrow fare as LiLo’s legal troubles and Favre’s photographic adventures rack up the pageviews, while their less sensational counterparts are rewarded for their dignity by being left alone. The more high-minded journalism — the public-interest investigations, the news about the economy and public policy — is still valuable, of course. But it’s also, we’ve assumed, a loss leader.

A study released today provides a hopeful counterpoint to all that (hopeful, that is, if you’re not Lindsay Lohan): For publishers, hard-news-focused, public-interest-oriented reporting might actually be more valuable than celebrity gossip and similarly LiLotastic fare. And not just in a good-for-democracy sense, but in a bottom-line sense. Perfect Market, a firm aimed at helping publishers maximize online revenue from their content, tracked more than 15 million news articles from 21 of its client news sites — including those of the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune — from June 22 to September 21 of this year. And it found that, while the Lohan sentencing and other celebrity coverage drove significant online traffic, articles about public-interest topics — unemployment benefits, the Gulf oil spill, mortgage rates, etc. — were the top-earning news topics of the summer. The latter stories offered their publishers, overall, more advertising revenue per page view (which is to say: more bang for their advertising buck) than their fluffy counterparts.

One caveat: Perfect Market has a vested interest in the financial viability of quality content. (“At Perfect Market we believe that content matters,” the firm says in its press release. “By delivering the right content in the right format to the right user with the right relevancy, Perfect Market has increased the revenue for partners in our program by at least 20-fold.”) That said, though, the study’s holistic scope — moving beyond pageviews to focus on revenue — is an instructive approach. Traffic is notoriously fuzzy as a metric; it’s also notoriously stingy when it comes to return-on-investment. (Take The Huffington Post, which, for all its skill — PHOTOS! VIDEO! SLIDESHOW! — at leveraging our love of scandal, and for all the traffic it brings to its site, has struggled with profitability.)

For publishers struggling to sustain their operations, let alone grow them, it’s revenue that matters. And in Perfect Market’s study, via context-optimized advertising, it was consumer interest — not the casual variety that leads to quick headline-views, but the more engaged variety that leads to high time-on-site numbers and increased chances of ad clicks — that translated to revenue. Articles about social security were the most valuable to news publishers, the analysis found, generating an average of $129 in revenue for every thousand pageviews. Articles about mortgage rates were next, at $93 for every thousand views, followed by Gulf recovery jobs ($34 for every thousand).

LiLo, on the other hand? She generated only $2.50 for every 1,000 pageviews.

(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.)

We talk about the convergence of mediums: TV and print products and the web, video and text and multimedia, collapsing into one mega-medium. What the Perfect Market study suggests, though, is that there’s another type of convergence we would do well to cultivate: the conflation of editorial content and commercial. Earlier this year, Ken Doctor compared the revenues per unique user at the HuffPo and The New York Times; he estimated that, while the Times brought in $1 per unique user per month, the HuffPo brought in only 12 cents per user. And he attributed the discrepancy in large part to the Times’ advertising savvy: Its longtime presence in the ad-sales business means that it “owns key agency relationships.” It’s able to invest in making its ads contextually relevant to its content and, thus, to its users: AdSense, writ large. None of that is to say that the old church/state wall that has separated ads from journalism should be allowed to crumble; it is to say, though, that engagement may be just as important to news sites’ commercial content as to their editorial.

Image by Globovision used under a Creative Commons License.

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
With $3.5 million in grant funding and an eye for collaboration, the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX aim to bring deep investigations to radio and podcasting.