Thank god for ad blocking.
Thank god for the handwringing and number-crunching over its impact on digital revenues. Sure, the jury is still out on what exactly that impact will be; but no matter what the future holds, it’s likely the kerfuffle will have one incredibly positive effect on the media landscape in 2016: It will change the conversation about revenue models for media companies.
There has been an enormous amount of creativity in the digital newsroom, with an explosion of new ways of telling stories and presenting information, much of it chronicled here at Nieman Lab. Consumers are spending more time with digital media than ever before, and storytellers are finding myriad new ways to bring news and reporting to life.
Newsrooms now regularly produce interactive and data-driven stories, launch podcasts, and experiment with new, structured formats (like, say, Vox’s card stacks). Longform storytelling is in a serious golden age, email newsletters are better than ever, and short- and long-form video is booming. Distributed content has encouraged new ways of telling stories, too, with journalists crafting content for Snapchat Discover, building Twitter bots, Instagramming photo essays, and chatting with users about elections and disasters on WhatsApp. Given this flurry of creativity, it’s hard to see why these are hard times for journalism.
But as we’ve poured resources and heart into editorial innovations like these, we haven’t yet seen similarly ambitious innovations in how we earn revenue from these things. All too often, we’ve been asking: What kinds of ads would work well in this new format?
In 2016, the ad blocking conversation could finally drive the industry to grapple with the need for new revenue opportunities. Native advertising and sponsored content have been our first line of defense to the adblocking problem, but there are signs of revolt on those fronts, too. The limits of whatever is left of the ad market are becoming particularly apparent to news organizations that lack the massive scale or highly lucrative niche audiences that advertisers covet.
So, consider this: The newsroom’s creativity over the past few years has been part of a radical reimagining of what journalism looks like. In the early days of the digital transition, news organizations simply used the web as a new way to distribute their traditional content — whether it was articles, images, or broadcast media. But journalists today no longer assume that these are the best way to capture the value of their reporting.
Revenue models need to undergo a similar transformation. Advertising and sponsorships are no longer the only ways we can capture the value of our reporting, and thinking more broadly about what new technology makes possible could offer just as much opportunity on the business side as it has on the editorial side of the house.
Fortunately, 2016 is the perfect time for such a reimagining to take place. We’re in the midst of a second round of digital transformation, led this time by wireless broadband, mobile, and Internet-connected devices. Looking at where our journalistic skills and resources can use the new capabilities of these technologies to better serve our users’ needs points in new revenue directions well beyond the ad unit. I look forward to seeing — and being part of — the experimentation that 2016 will bring.
Celeste LeCompte is director of business development at ProPublica and was a 2015 Nieman Fellow.