Three weeks ago, I quit my job at Ars Technica and launched Rethinking News. Over the last three weeks I've been on parental leave, taking care of my newborn daughter Fiona. But now I'm back in the saddle and you can expect regular updates from here on out.
Last summer, Vice reporters Jason Koebler, Anna Merlan, and Joseph Cox published a story about a feud between Silicon Valley and the media. In an aside, the reporters wrote that "the idea that fishing for clicks to drive ad revenue is a successful or even common business model is a fallacy." They noted that many publications are moving away from ad-based business models in favor of subscriptions, events, and other revenue streams.
I think their second claim is accurate: many news organizations have been trying to expand non-ad revenue streams. But the idea that ads were not a common business model in 2020 struck me as absurd. In a tweet, I accused the trio of gaslighting the public. In retrospect, that was too harsh. But at a minimum my journalism career has involved more "fishing for clicks" than I would have liked.
Until last month, I was working at Ars Technica, which is primarily ad-supported and evaluates reporters partly based on the traffic they generate. Prior to that, I worked at Vox, which was primarily ad-supported and evaluated reporters partly based on the traffic they generated. When I was looking to leave Vox in 2017, I talked to an editor at another prominent news organization that had an open position for a technology reporter. He made it clear that I would be expected to produce a substantial volume of traffic-generating content.
In the last year I've had a few conversations that lead to me to believe that news organizations really are moving away from ad-based business models. I'm skeptical that this has happened so fast that ads are no longer a common industry business model. But before I pontificate further on the subject, I want to make sure I know what I'm talking about.
So if you're a reporter, editor, or anyone else in the news business, I'd love to talk to you. I want to understand the current state of the art among news organizations: how do they make money and how do they evaluate reporters' performance? If traffic goals are being phase out, what's replacing them?
I'm happy to talk off the record. My goal isn't to embarrass any specific news organization, but to understand the overall industry trend. I'll write up my findings in a few weeks.
And to be clear, I'd be delighted to be proved wrong. I think the chase for clicks has harmed the quality of journalism. I'd love to be able to report that there's an emerging industry norm against evaluating reporters based on their traffic. Maybe writing about it would even help accelerate the trend. So if you have information to share, let's chat.
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter.