Sunday, August 28, 2011

In which Jack Shafer is laid off, freemiums are considered, and a note about this blog

I don't know who the genius was who thought that giving away high quality written content on the web was a good idea, but I definitely remember when newspapers thought their websites would be cracking great promotion for their printed product. So,when I read Paul Carr's essay--Now Can We All Agree That The “High Quality Web Content” Experiment Has Failed? and a mention of Slate's decision to lay off Jack Shafer's and three others, well, there was a sense of "ha! I told you so!" as much as an accompanying feeling of dread....

Yes, it's been difficult for newspapers to make money, but it's been even more difficult for online publications to turn a profit and keep the best writers employed. Some are doing it by creating SEO tweaked headlines that lead to slideshows created from stock photography (or so I've been told is one of the tactics of the Huffington Post.) Others rely on free content contributions sorta-smart people (like Forbes has started doing.) Still a scant few others are working on a freemium model (like GigaOm) that gives readers more in-depth writing on niche topics like tech and business....

Carr looks at the advertising game as it relates to online content, and determines that too much cheap online content is being produced to generate income that quality, well-written online content just can't keep its numbers up to generate enough income to pay quality writers. Got to agree with Carr here. I've been looking at this situation too, from the unpaid-looking-to-get-paid angle, and there's not a lot in the way of markets to get paid anymore. When jobs appear for content production, they are usually linked to some type of web site development and social content development as well.

Simply writing for the web, for a web-based publication, just isn't paying any more.

Another reason is that journalistic content is competing with marketing content that masquerades as journalism. In my recent research into fashion journalism on the web (for a project I'd like to develop) I found a number of fashion blogs for women over 40 that were established to promote businesses of some sort. Other fashion blogs are simply income generators, with poorly written posts, product endorsements without disclosure, and all the rest.
Carr sums it up:
Out will go professional writers and church-and-state separation of content and commerce; in will come more Groupon-style “reader offers”, affiliate links behind every keyword and an Idiocracy of dumber and dumber linkbait. Ten ways to make extra income with Lady Gaga Sony Porn — Kittens!

Now, the FTC has stepped in to try to do something about the whole disclosure thing (the church-state separation of which Carr speaks.) Still, there are many ambitious marketing professionals dabbling in social media who have no knowledge of the FTC's regulations--yet are well aware of SEO tricks--and go right ahead with creating junk content.

So, where could things go from here? Carr is right in his assessment that the thirst for quality content on the web isn't going to go away. From my experience as part of the SIIA, the ONA, and a liveblogger for a number of Gaspedal's great social media marketing conferences, I can say that people within a number of industries beyond newspapers are interested in seeing quality content thrive on the web and see people get paid for it.

One strategy that has potential for the magazine industry (which is more of what Slate was like than a newspaper) that I have stood by is a freemium model, where either the print publication or the web publication will be paid for, while access to the other remains free. The New York Times, savvy about different digital forms, makes access on its apps available for those who subscribe to its digital content (which I do.) Some magazines are creating new content for the web, separate from their print content, which has the potential to drive readers to either one or the other. Right now, one magazine that does this sort of thing, More magazine, a beauty and fashion publication for women over 40, that features some different web content--which is some of the most lackluster online beauty content I have ever read. Recently, one piece of online content that did not clearly separate church and state was a pictorial on shapewear that read like an ad for Spanx (the only shapewear featured in the pictorial were Spanx products.) I left a comment telling them such, but there doesn't seem to be anyone home when it comes to listening to feedback through the comments, and spam comments are often left to linger beside legitimate, critical constructive or conversational comments.

The print magazine is only marginally better, with some recent layout changes that have made a snappier content presentation. It still features models that are way too thin, and some extremely sappy first person stories (then again, maybe sappy sells.)

However, we are still a few years away from knowing which strategy will be the best for creating the most income for quality content on the web. It may be a combined freemium strategy that links the web, mobile, social, and print, or maybe it will be something different altogether, and might just be relative to the niche audience of each niche publication.

Which leads me to a few words about this blog. Things here have been a bit aimless and inconsistent for quite some time here, and I even wondered why I keep this blog on life support. Over the years, this blog has been the vehicle for creating my reputation, for good or bad, and has been a place where I honed my particular conversational writing style (a style that, from what I've heard, takes a lot of people a long time to figure out.) It has, at various times, even created income for me--not through ads but through other perks like blogging gigs, etc..

Yet I believe that those times have moved on. There are new ways of publishing content on the web, some that limit distribution to social networks, while others expand it. Looking professional while still being considered "amateur" has become more important, which, in the long run, can be costly--if you consider looking professional to be a custom designed template with unique URL, at minimum.

It could be time for me to take a big step forward--to take my experience beyond the bounds of freelancing into a job that's more permanent and secure. I've loved being part of projects that have in some ways changed the ways we consider how journalism is produced, evaluated, and innovated--projects like Assignment Zero, Placeblogger, NewsTrust, and I've been very lucky to work with the likes of David Cohn, Lisa Williams, Jay Rosen, Fabrice Florin, Rory O'Connor, Andrew Nachison, and so many others. The experience I've gained from working alongside these visionaries has been invaluable.

It's like being that fabulous studio musician that has to go on and make her own record. Kind of like being the Cheryl Crowe of social media?

We'll see.....