Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Oct. 23, 2017, 12:21 p.m.
Business Models

Maybe the future of American news publishing is…Europe? (and other bleak ad-related scenarios)

“How do we produce business models which will support durable, robust journalism? Or do we just give up on the idea that advertising is the right model?”

“It feels to me as though America is becoming more European,” said Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s saying the not-for-profit sector has a real place in publishing, not just a sort of patch to get from here to the next profitable model. And then it’s asking, please, Europe, help us with the regulation.”

This was in the middle of a free-wheeling discussion at Harvard Business School Friday, “The Future of Advertising and Publishing: Finding New Revenue Models for Journalism in the Digital Age.” The afternoon’s first panel was moderated by Bell and brought together Kinsey Wilson, digital strategist at The New York Times; David Carroll, associate professor of media design at The New School’s Parsons School of Design; and Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, for some #realadvertisingtalk.

“How do we produce business models which will support durable, robust journalism? Or do we just give up on the idea that advertising is the right model?” Bell wondered.

“I don’t believe that advertising offers any real future for funding journalism,” Mele said.

The New York Times, however, is “certainly not ready to write off the ad market at this point” despite the “degradation of the ad system we’ve witnessed over time,” Wilson said. About 30 percent of the Times’ revenue still comes from advertising. “We buy audience on Facebook to acquire subscribers,” he said. “Why? Because it’s the most efficient place we can spend money.”

Mele posed a hypothetical: If publishers somehow banded together to remove all their content from platforms, would that even be detrimental to the platform experience? “Is Facebook or Google less useful if there’s no news on it?” Bell pointed out that not only would many publishers not want to do this, it’s a “partially tested concept” in places like Belgium and Germany, where publishers “go on strike against platforms and shortly afterwards reverse their decisions because they are losing too much referral traffic.” The Times, in fact, is lucky in that it gets only about 30 percent of its traffic from Facebook and 20 percent from Google: “The digital pure plays are, in many cases, getting 80 percent of their traffic through social and search,” Wilson pointed out.

A moment of leverage?

Wilson suggested that publishers may have enough leverage over platforms at this precise moment in time that they could do…something. “We are at a moment where there is, on the one hand, heightened awareness of the impact on independent news gathering that these trends have had over the last 20 years. There’s growing awareness of local communities being without as robust a source of local news. That, combined with the — call them the unintended consequences to these problems, the proliferation of fake news and how it’s been used intentionally and unintentionally by various actors — all of that has created a climate where [the Times has] found it easier to engage Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon on these questions, and it has a different level of attention within these organizations.”

The big platforms may be more inclined to pay attention now that they’re being investigated by Congress. “[Europeans] love regulation,” Bell said. “It’s our first answer to most things, and what was interesting to me, coming here in 2010, was that there were two things which were routinely dismissed by everybody I met in America”: first, the lack of a BBC-like central organization, and second, “there was this idea that regulation was absolutely the last thing we needed…both of those arguments have tipped.”

She wondered if platforms like Facebook could be regulated as a new class of publisher. “Are we talking about a new classification of publisher here? And what are the consequences of that?”

A post-broadcast world

Bell pointed out that the Times is investing heavily in personalization: “Are we going into some kind of post-broadcast world?”

Wilson noted that so far, subscription is the only revenue stream (besides advertising) “that has shown it can be acquired in volume.” Other things — affiliate revenue, events — “contribute around the edges,” but “at the end of the day, people aren’t going to buy it unless it serves their needs. In a situation where we’re getting 60 percent of our revenues from our readers, we are going to make sure that we are, first and foremost, reader-focused. In a way, it removes some of the conflicts, historically, between advertiser interest and reader interest.”

“I think almost every day about that novel Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtyengart, because you can buy a war-free edition of The New York Times in it,” Mele said. “I’m not sure there’s ‘a public’ any more and right now I think it has pretty bad implications, broadly, for human rights.”

“Do we just have to live with where we’re going?” Bell wondered. “Because some of this sounds, almost, too pessimistic, and I’m really pessimistic. I’ve been in a really good mood lately because this is a great time for pessimists.”

You can watch full video of the panel here.

Photo of the apocalypse (actually Gdansk Old Town on a cloudy day) by Pe_Wu used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 23, 2017, 12:21 p.m.
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