The Internet has harmed journalism in part by obliterating our self-delusions. In the past, when media companies funded labor-intensive journalism—foreign coverage, investigative projects, beat reporters who spend days tracking down leads—we believed this reportage was very valuable, even financially. Readers wanted to know, advertisers liked the prestige that high-quality reporting brought, and the publications made plenty of money.
Occasionally a wiseass would say something like, “The box scores are paying for the Baghdad bureau,” and we thought, Well, maybe that cross-subsidy exists, maybe it doesn’t—but the whole package seems to be doing just fine.
The Internet blew apart the package and eliminated the cross-subsidy. Now readers can go to ESPN and get box scores, and they can go to a separate site to get news. Sports scores no longer subsidize the foreign correspondent, and the comics no longer support the city hall reporter.
This has led us to confront the ugly reality of just how lousy—financially speaking—many of our journalistic projects were. Media managers can now produce a profit-and-loss statement not only for the news division as a whole, but for each reporter—and each piece of content. Managers have mostly concluded that volume—getting reporters to do faster stories and more of them—generates a better P&L outcome. Articles that take a few days to report, let alone a few weeks or months, rarely have a positive return on investment.
In a world where each piece of content has to earn its own way, we end up with more listicles (“The 10 Hottest Women on the Texas Sex Offenders List”) (yes, that list actually exists) and fewer reporters covering the sewer commission. ProPublica, a nonprofit online news organization, once estimated that it had cost them about $750,000 to do their exposÃ© on the health hazards of acetaminophen. To attract enough ad revenue to pay for itself, the project would have had to generate about 100 million monetizable page views. The entire (superb, Pulitzer Prize-winning) ProPublica site hasn’t generated that many page views cumulatively over the past five years.
This pattern has led many media analysts, including myself, to worry that certain types of reporting—especially reporting that takes real time and money to complete—would simply have no business model. Recently, however, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at a few efforts to reestablish the cross-subsidy. Huffington Post rose to fame and girth through aggregating and summarizing other people’s content, with very little original reporting. Arianna Huffington said she’d always planned to do real journalism, and it turned out she meant it. The Huffington Post has real reporters, and even won a Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting in 2012.
BuzzFeed is an even more surprising candidate to reestablish the cross-subsidy. It rose to mammoth size—more than 130 million unique visitors, far bigger than the New York Times—through delectable fare such as “Pictures of Animals with Betty White” and “14 Cats Who Think They’re Sushi.” And then, lo and behold, they started hiring real journalists to do real work. Recent pieces included “A Late-Night Phone Call Between One of Syria’s Top Extremists and His Sworn Enemy” and “Former Cisco Execs Allege Vast Kickback Scheme in Russia.”
Here are three reasons why my hat goes off to BuzzFeed: First, they figured out how to draw massive amounts of traffic in socially harmless, enjoyable, and sometimes informative ways. Second, when they got to be big they spent some of that capital on real journalism. Third, they have a sense of humor, and sometimes that punctures the powerful better than anything else—as with their masterpiece, “16 Homoerotic Photos of Vladimir Putin.”
But here’s why I don’t think this is going to become the new model—and why I fear that even Huffington Post and BuzzFeed won’t be able to keep it up.
First, the model won’t work locally. HuffPo and BuzzFeed are able to generate enough financial cushion to support harder reporting in part because of their mammoth size. That offers some hope for national enterprises but not for local news entities, whose size is fundamentally limited by their populations. “40 Things You Never Knew About Game of Thrones” may garner traffic from all over the world. “5 Most Significant Mistakes the Albuquerque Planning Board Made” may garner traffic from all over . . . well, Albuquerque. At best.
Second, the metrics will stalk them, rubbing their noses in the financially poor (and journalistically impressive) decisions they like to make. There will come a time at any digital media organization—and it will happen at HuffPo and BuzzFeed too, if it hasn’t already—when they hit a financial bump in the road, and the CEO scans the list of which efforts lose money. He will say, “What kind of business intentionally invests in products that they know are financial losers?” A few admirable media leaders will say, “To hell with you and your crass metrics!” But most won’t.
Third, advertisers care less about content than they used to. In the past, one of the strongest financial arguments for good journalism was that it made the publication more respected and thereby more desirable for advertisers. That translated directly into income because they could charge premium ad rates, unlike the bottom-feeding publications with lousy content. But most advertisers no longer care where their ads appear. They can market directly to readers, either through Google, Facebook, or new technologies that allow ads to follow consumers around the Internet.
The publications that want a patina of prestige can get it via less time-consuming forms of smart commentary—Ezra Klein comes to mind—or quick-hit reporting (covering events, press conferences, and so on). This can be valuable, and will often give us a sense that things are well covered. What will be lost is the stories that take time to tell.
Is all hope lost? No. Innovation is still occurring at the national level, and locally the nonprofit media sector can have a major impact. We just have to hope that funders of nonprofit media don’t start evaluating them with the same criteria as commercial players.
Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s talented editor, does not buy the argument that BuzzFeed is recreating a cross-subsidy, with frothy lists subsidizing the Russian coverage. He believes that excellent journalism is very much in their financial interest. Personally, I think he’s kidding himself—and I hope he keeps on doing it.