Brands And Native Or Subscribers And A Paywall -- The Media's Stark Choice

Every journalist is frequently asked by friends for advice on getting their sons and daughters into the media. It's shorthand for asking if you know anyone who will give them a job. I normally go on about an unaided struggle into the industry being character-forming and leading to great clippings.

My last piece of advice was the first time ever, however, that I suggested that a friend's son get a job with a brand and produce content through them. In his case, as a sports journalist, I advised researching who is producing Adidas' or Reebok's content for the World Cup and seeking to get some experience there.

You see, there is a schism appearing in print and online newspapers -- and it's going to drive a massive wedge between who originates revenue-generating content -- journalists or brands.

On the one side we have The Guardian, whose editor has summed up what a free digital newspaper thinks of those who erect a pay wall in his Radio 4 comments, effectively labelling News UK's charging for content as Victorian.

The thing is, however, that somebody has to pay at some stage -- and so you can either erect a pay wall and rely on a mix of subscriptions and advertising or you can give everything away and rely on advertising.

There are issues on both sides. The pay wall is also a social wall. It's very difficult to share content from a subscriber-only resource. Sharing free content is easy and gives great traffic figures -- who doesn't like free? -- but papers are becoming victims of their own success. Their print editions usually measure sales in the hundreds of thousands, for quality titles, while online readerships can reach twenty million or more. Look at how many adverts appear on the average page and then factor in that the average person is looking at a handful of stores and you create a demand for hundreds of millions of adverts per month.

Trouble is, there just isn't enough quality advertising to fill the slot at a reasonable rate, and so the cost of a thousand impressions (CPM) falls off a cliff. Trust me -- the free newspapers are generating millions upon millions of impressions at the same time as they post losses. It reminds me of Pyrrhus of Epirus summing up a particularly bloody battle with the famous words, "another victory like that and I'll be finished" -- hence the phrase a "pyrrhic" victory.

So, what's the result? Apart from philosophical arguments over free content and subscriptions, the big outcome is the free newspapers overtly courting native advertising. There's nothing wrong with this. As long as it's transparent, clearly labelled and allows a brand to get over something that is truly entertaining or informative, it can work very well and certainly has greater scope to gain a wider reach on a free source with lots of social share buttons.

That's not to say that pay wall operators cannot run native. They can and they do. The scope for viral readers is diminished, but then gaining readers hasn't exactly done the free content sources a huge favour. 

I remember talking to the editor some time ago, and he maintained that stories about them losing readers was really not an issue. The company's mantra was always that they would make more money from 100,000 dedicated paid-up subscribers than a million tyre kickers getting their content for free. 

I've always been inclined to agree with him. Get too many readers for free and you water down the worth of your inventory but corral a focussed, valuable audience, and you get good returns on advertising and you can still offer focussed native content opportunities to brands.

There's an old phrase that he who pays the piper calls the tune. While we have not quite yet seen how true this is with nationals, there are many trade magazines that have set precedents and have advertisers front of mind in their editorial as well as advertising efforts. 

The current development is very clear, however. Free newspapers -- The Guardian prime among them -- are having to chase native content. Pay wall operators are interested, but it's not such a high priority, it's certainly not a make-or-break issue. 

So, trust me -- if we're ever on the phone talking about your son and daughter entering the media, you'll get the same advice I dished out yesterday.

While the papers are kicking up a stink about being controlled by a Royal Warrant via Parliament, a hugely influential new force has come in to being. It will shape much of the content we read in the future and pay a huge contribution to the free press.

The new force is brands, and their chosen route is native.

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