All The News That's Fit To Monetize

In spare moments I try to get caught up on national and global events because, believe it or not, not everyone at cocktail parties cares about issues facing digital advertising distribution or brand advertising's uphill battle in new media. This past weekend, whenever I had one of those moments, there was only one story across the major cable news channels: Anna Nicole.

Before I get a lot of angry emails from Anna fans, let me say that her death is a tragic event. The specific event aside, however, every time I see some sensationalized story hijack the cable news stations for days at a time, I wonder: if it's this easy to drop coverage of all other stories, why do the 24-hour news stations exist at all? Obviously the stations themselves are implying we can live without whatever filler they would have run had some sensational event not occurred to fill these news cycles. But we know there are important stories occurring all the time, and there is a need for people to be more connected to world events. So why a weekend of in-depth reports on who gets Anna's house? Because that's where the ratings (read: money) is, and shame on us for allowing ourselves to be so enamored by the sensational -- but even more important, shame on the "legitimate" news stations for giving in.



Walter Cronkite hit the nail on the head when he addressed the issue of profit-seeking affecting new media in his keynote to the future journalist at Columbia. Many of us may assume that choosing stories based on profits is an evil of big media, right? Don't worry; the digital journalism revolution will save us, right? The truth is, I am worried for the future of journalism because the Web 2.0 fragmentation of media has the potential to magnify the issues Cronkite discusses.

Consider that when a journalist is an island unto his/herself, he or she must also assume the roles of advertising sales, marketing and finance. If you thought it was tough for massive corporations to deal with the bipolar issue of maximizing profits and maintaining journalistic integrity, imagine when it is one individual fighting that battle with his/herself everyday. Massive corporations at least provide a paycheck and platform, allowing great journalist to focus on what they do best while "the suits" focus on the advertising and profits. It may have been a constant internal battle for journalistic integrity, but as much as you might want to despise media moguls, at least there was a battle happening. There was also some comfort to knowing that there were rules regarding the operation of the news divisions, a sort of church and state separation.

Think about the ability of the next generation of online reports to tailor news coverage to advertising. Most self-publishers know all the tricks of the performance marketing trade. Place an ad unit in certain places to increase clicks. Color the ad unit in the same color scheme as the site content. Maximize revenues by mixing CPC with CPM advertising. Most tempting of all, publishers get reports in real time on what content they can use to generate maximum revenue (mesothelioma or mortgage refinancing, anyone?). At least in traditional media there was a layer between the journalist and the advertisers. In general, many performance advertising networks do little to incentivize quality journalistic content, and in some cases encourage compromise.

Also consider that the massive media companies could exert pressure with even the biggest advertisers. Dell doesn't like a story Fox News runs, tough. It's not like Dell is going to stop buying advertising across Fox. Even if it does, Fox isn't going under. Try having that same conversation as an independent journalist. One of the top prerequisites online advertisers have, is that they don't want to be showing up next to stories bashing their products. Understandable, but where is the line? Thankfully there are thought leaders, like Federated Media Publishing, that may someday provide the scale of operations and monetization necessary to create the next generation of church and state separation between journalism and ad sales, while nurturing/encouraging quality independent journalism in a way pure performance networks never could (but this a fight that is far from won).

In addition to the internal conflicts content monetization can cause the independent journalist, monetization's cousin -- traffic acquisition -- can potentially place even greater strain on journalistic integrity. Applications of black-hat practices, link trading, story scooping (commonly at the expense of verification) and sensationalism are key to distribution through current search -- and even so-called "social search"-- tools. If you think Digg et al. are a perfectly democratic way for raising the cream to the top, then you haven't seen the latest graphs showing the concentration of power among Digg users.

But even if there were a perfectly democratic way to sort news, who would want that? The masses' opinion is a great way to choose the next American Idol, but I would prefer to have people with far more knowledge of world events than myself or my know-it-all neighbor voting on what I need to know about the genocides in Africa, and balancing that with what I should know about Iraq. I want them to tell me what I can trust. I only have so much time. If only I could convince tomorrow's news director to help me be a better person, and not to play to my thirst for sensationalism. Now that's all the news that's fit to digitally publish.

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