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Niche Websites Aren’t Trying Hard Enough To Make Money

Blinded by Journalism
Photo by Ahmad Hammoud.

How to fund online journalism? For the most part, the conversation has focused on advertising. Hampton Stephens, founder of the self-sustaining World Politics Review, finds this puzzling. He cautions websites backed by venture capital, like BuzzFeed and Vox:

“The lesson that most media startups seem to have taken from the evisceration of advertising-supported journalism over the past two decades is that more innovation is needed… in advertising. […] To ensure the kind of ‘accountability journalism’ that is critical for any democracy to flourish, well-funded new media players must experiment with models other than advertising.”

Apparently everyone wants to copy the free metropolitan weeklies stuffed with “medical” marijuana enthusiasts. (No offense meant, East Bay Express.) A few high-end legacy newspapers—and premium newcomers like Stephens’ World Politics Review—have made subscription systems work, but only up to a point. The signups are slowing down. So… that’s it. Alternatives are strangely infrequently discussed, despite the occasional hat tip to research divisions.

Here’s the problem: Advertising works reasonably well when a website is deluged by traffic, but what about smaller operations? Are niche editorial websites doomed, or are they thriving? The general trend can be difficult to track, but journalistic endeavors of all sizes are trying to guess how they will be funded in a mobile-first world populated by Millennials who balk at paying for information.

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Facebook Can’t Excel At News Design Because…

1 Like Thumb War
Image by Surian Soosay.

The Society for News Design crowned Facebook “World’s Best-Designed Digital”, although without specifying digital what. Presumably “digital experience” is what they were going for. Here’s some malarkey from the announcement page, on how to qualify as “World’s Best-Designed Digital”:

“You must be thoughtful and meaningful, but fast. You must be clear, engaging and engaged. You must be available anywhere and everywhere. Now, more than ever, your audience is in control.

From desktop to mobile to app, this year’s winner works. […] It provides a richer news experience than any one ‘site.’ It is redefining ‘community,’ by evolving our relationships with the news and each other. […] It is the platform that you love, or hate, or love to hate. But increasingly cannot live without. This would not be possible without world class design.

This year’s winner is Facebook.”

SND’s choice is particularly interesting because Facebook’s mobile website and app are both garbage, meaning the judges’ concept of “design” must be quite… expansive. If they were examining beauty and ease-of-use, Evan Williams’ website Medium would have won. (Or, you know, an actual news site. I mention Medium because it was a contender.) Apparently aesthetics and UX were not high-rated factors:

Audience — Scope of organization: To be World’s Best, recirculation strategy has to be excellent as well Mobile web / responsive vs app —  It has to work well across devices and breakpoints, unless strategy is to treat devices separately. Apps are strictly judged on the app experience Performance — Speed, easy to use / intuitive The content — Relevant to you, easy-to-find presentation. Elegant, clean, intuitive Community — A safe place that fosters conversations Portability —  Of content, or elements of the site or experience, atomic

Presumably Facebook won because they have billions of users.

Twitter commentary from the #OmgMedia crowd was wry and pithily outraged:

Comment by Andrew Losowsky.
Comment by Andrew Losowsky.
Comment by Dan Sinker.
Comment by Dan Sinker.
miscellaneous outrage
Comments by Dave Stanton, Scott Klein, and Losowsky again.

The best reactions emerged on Facebook itself. SND posted that their announcement “was met with tepid applause” and asked, “Do you agree with the decision?” The response was, basically, “No.” Sue Apfelbaum said it very well:

“All the nominees might provide news and community, but to liken the New Yorker to Twitter, or NPR to Facebook, is hardly a fair comparison. Imagine we were talking about food and not this stuff we’re just lumping together and calling content—Andrew Losowsky and I were riffing on this analogy.

What this award does, essentially, is compare fine dining with someone who hosts an excellent potluck. It could be an amazing potluck, where all your favorite people are, and everything you need to serve your dishes is provided for you, and the ambiance is just right for socializing, but it’s still up to those guests to provide the feast.

On the other hand, fine restaurants source their ingredients, produce menus to nourish and please customers (in these cases 24/7), staff their establishments with chefs, food preparers, and servers, and create an atmosphere as welcoming to the first-time diner as their regulars. Would you really put these establishments in the same category?”

[I edited the quote for readability; see the original on FB.] A+ analogy; Apfelbaum has it right. We don’t even need to talk about Facebook’s bad design. The crux of the matter is that Facebook is a coincidental conduit between journalists and audience, not an entity that creates and sustains those relationships on purpose. Facebook is a news middleman, not a creator or a consumer!

potluck dessert table
Facebook = information potluck. Photo by Loren Kerns.

Commenting on the same post, Leah Nicole protested:

“The decision was an insult to digital news teams that invest a lot of time into designing and understanding the audiences they serve.

And it’s difficult to believe a social media site with an algorithm focused on ‘trending topics’ would be compared to news teams producing real journalism.”

Whereas Ted Han asked:

“What aspects of Facebook are responsible for its praiseworthiness (even if it’s a gestalt) in a news context […]? […] Facebook certainly is the platform among platforms for the conveyance of news (and everything else) to an audience… but why stop at Facebook? Should Google win an award for having a fast secure browser? Should Apple be lauded for killing Flash? Android/iOS for giving people access to news content anywhere/everywhere?”

IMO the answer to these queries is… no. Let’s refrain from blending categories until they’re senseless.

Meta blogging note: I’m discovering that one of the things I want to do with this blog is highlight ideas or ways of approaching ideas that are really good (for example, Martin Weigert re: Apple Watch). I’m even happy to post tidbits that don’t ascend to the level of “idea” but which are interesting nonetheless (Ben Thompson re: RSS users).

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