Why Herald Sun values subscriptions, e-mail — not clickbait

By Nathaniel Bane

Herald Sun

Melbourne, Australia


Let’s be frank.

The Google/Facebook duopoly is damaging journalism, and it’s only getting worse.

It’s not that they’re not damaging journalism on purpose, but the revenue models quality reporting rely on — at least in small-to-medium scale newsrooms — aren’t compatible with them. Both global giants continue to grow rapidly and pull in not only the eyeballs but the money.

Facebook and Google may make up the majority of digital advertising spending, but using these platforms is not the only option for publishers.
Facebook and Google may make up the majority of digital advertising spending, but using these platforms is not the only option for publishers.

Figures in a recent Fortune article claimed that both soaked up 99% of the recent growth in worldwide digital ad spend.

You read that right: 99%.

They have the funds to innovate and spread their control into owning the next generation of technology, including bots, Virtual Reality, self-driving cars, the lot. In short, they’re charging forward as many newsrooms around the world are shutting down, scaling back, or defaulting to fast-turnaround “churnalism” in a bid to survive.

This should be worrying people a lot more than it is as “fake news” becomes a thing and shining a light in dark corners is more important than at any time in living memory.

Under the “don’t be evil” corporate image, these two mega-companies hide massive money-making machines driven by the fear they could go bust at any time.

When Facebook took over the Sun Microsystems campus at Menlo Park in Silicon Valley, it kept its sign up at the gate as a reminder that even big companies go belly up. That scares them every day to keep growing, and growing, and growing.

So, what options do publishers have to find revenue streams that offset declines in print and restore support for the costly craft that is journalism?

Obviously, play the game and give Mark Zuckerberg the content, thus growing his profits further and driving people deeper into his walled garden. Or be radical and not post content to Facebook. Not going where the people are would be a high-risk strategy.

Facebook starting a news partnership unit is an interesting idea, but it really needs to come to the revenue/paywall party if it wants to see quality journalism flourish over fake news.

The Google conundrum for publishers isn’t as difficult in terms of drawing an audience; good SEO practices and solid underlying article page technology can draw in big, fresh audiences. But to remain on top of the SEO heap, publishers must poke holes in their own paywalls to allow readers from search to see their best content for free.

The commercial issue with Google is another challenge entirely.

What other levers can publishers pull?

To form the spine of our content strategy at the Herald Sun, we used subscriptions and e-mail as distribution channels.

We value original journalism and have avoided the temptation for churnalism and clickbait to drive audience growth. Instead, we employ newsroom reporters to gather original stories, make phone calls, interview people, and verify information. We also have photographers and video journalists to take images.

At times, it’s a challenge keeping up with sites employing mostly digital producers who rip content. But across a week, the more measured and deeper content offering is driving subscribers and building a foundation.

More than half of our revenue is now coming from subscribers, off-setting the difficulty in driving advertising.

The second plank of the strategy — e-mail — is also paying dividends.

Sending e-mails for breaking news plus curated a regular collection of quality stories gets a positive reaction from our readers. It takes out the middleman, gives us a direct channel to talk to our readers, and is delivered in a user-friendly format.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom from Silicon Valley.

Apple has long championed subscription content, and its Apple News service is no exception. The system the company has created is complementary to both free and subscription news services.

It’s too early to see if Apple News will be successful long-term, but we have high hopes. At least it’s one avenue for publishers that still value original journalism.

About Nathaniel Bane

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