Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Links R Us, part II

Those of us who believe in the necessity of a future including and heavily dependent on print still need to say, OK, what if there isn't -- if nothing else, to look for good ideas wherever they come, and to look for the problems that always accompany good ideas.

In this post on click-through ads, Poynter's Amy Gahran talks about newspapers' apparent ignorance or dismissal of targeted online advertising. As she writes: "Advertisers want -- and are willing to pay for -- relevant exposure to relevant markets. ... In other words, they're starting to learn that 500 clicks on an online ad, or targeted exposure of their ad to 20,000 site visitors in a context relevant to editorial content, probably benefits them far more than shotgun-style, largely irrelevant exposure to the 200,000 circulation of your Sunday paper, or to the overall 100,000 daily visitors to your site."

She then goes on to say that when this is brought up, journalists get up in arms, saying all they see in this is beats or subjects being assigned on the basis of, can we make money at them? As she notes, compared to, say, home and garden, or religion, or lots of specialty beats we created because advertisers wanted "friendly copy," as we used to call it? Her aim is to show how it could be used to promote Capital-J journalism -- public affairs, the core mission, whatever you want to call it.

So let's think it through. Use this as an example: Here in Philadelphia, we have a huge central city whose political and civic operations draw a lot of interest -- not just a general readership with an emphasis on civic goo-goos, but employees of the city, employees of businesses doing business with the city, leaders of businesses who want to do business with the city, etc. A similarly sized community exists around our two state governments.

So imagine that instead of a newspaper with City Hall and statehouse bureaus subsumed in the greater A and B section ad world, you also have stories on those areas tied to specific advertising -- from consulting firms to restaurants near the statehouse -- that are sold by, in the case of national consulting firms, online advertising networks.

Too arcane? Probably. And I'm certainly not courant on who the advertisers might be. Macy's might say, we want customers who care about the city. Of course, you wouldn't actually need a newspaper for this. A group of four or five journalists could set themselves up to cover city politics in depth -- sort of like the Voice of San Diego as referred to by the Monitor -- and make their own deal with Google or Yahoo or someone. After all, Google would be quite happy to sell ads for me.

Then we may be back to economies of scale and the whole issue. We're also back to the audience size. Part of what gives a newspaper its influence is its size. It can bring the entire community's attention on an issue, as the Detroit papers have done with Kilpatrick's text messages.

Are the two non-reconcilable? Surely not. And I may be misreading Amy's point. But the point of targeting stories to the 500 clickers on an online ad is not about whether it's bad journalism. It could be, but we run lots of bad journalism. The point is whether journalism is about writing stories for the influence it will have in a small community as opposed to trying to use the newspaper to unify a greater community that may not even read that story. Even stories that largely go ignored by most in a newspaper help set the zeitgeist because they become part of the common parlance. Would that happen if there was no unifying newspaper in which they appeared? Amy is not arguing that, but the Voice of San Diego narrowcasting model makes as much sense in this as does the Union-Tribune model. Certainly, though, we have models for doing this -- classical music reviews, for example.

But now we're into the long tail, and the long tail can do a lot of things but I am not convinced it can support the sort of journalistic organization that we call a newspaper. A challenge for the print newspaper is to find advertising clients who want mass exposure to people who might not encounter their ads in a targeted manner, and for whom the canvas of print works better than that of online.

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