Victor Navasky and Evan Lerner throw some cold water on the iPad party, suggesting that e-readers could save the floundering magazine industry at the expense of journalistic standards. They point to research by the Columbia Journalism Review (which Navasky founded) that revealed that magazine editors admit their practices are sloppier online than they are in print. Copy editing and fact-checking standards are looser and editors are more aware of the need to drive traffic to their work, which increases the temptation to sensationalize or invent. “Where advertising is based on traffic, and traffic is thought to depend on the speedy posting of new content, we’re seeing a gradual breakdown of [the ad/edit firewall] as journalistic standards become even more flexible to allow for greater and greater speed,” they write.
Their oped raises an important point about the influence of traffic on journalistic quality and the declining value of circulation. As we noted last September, circulation at some of the country’s largest magazines is down between 60% and 75% over the last eight years. This threatens the business models of these publications and the journalistic standards that they support. Here’s why.
Circulation is a complex and arcane discipline that is critical to the health of publications. Publishers manage circulation carefully, each seeking an ideal balance between subscription and newsstand sales. For consumer publishers, a high percentage of newsstand sales creates subscriber churn which delivers new blood that is desirable to their advertisers. For professional and trade publishers, many of which don’t distribute on newsstands, renewal rates signify reader loyalty, which their advertisers crave. In all cases, circulation quality is at least as important as circulation quantity.
All magazines have paid subscribers who contract to receive the publication for a defined period of time, regardless of whether they actually read it. Subscriptions provide a degree of security for publishers because they increase the likelihood that a reader’s perception of the product will be shaped over time rather than by one headline. One of the reasons newspapering has been such a stable business for so many years is that renewal rates for newspaper subscribers have been astronomically high. Subscriptions create incentive for publishers to produce information that has broad appeal to their target audience. While some would argue that this leads them to “dumb down” content, it also gives them the luxury to deliver information they believe readers need to have, even if they don’t want to have it.
Google Is the New Newsstand
On the Web, of course, there is no circulation. While a few professional publishers do limit access to their content to paying subscribers, most rely upon search engines and referral links for the traffic that sustains their business. This severely disrupts their business models. When the luxury of subscribers is gone, publishers must compete for readers on every single story. This means that speed, sensationalism and search-friendly headlines like “Top 10 Tips for Whiter Laundry” become more important factors in delivering a volume of visitors that can be monetized (Consumer magazines honed this to a fine art years ago). It also creates an incentive to shortcut quality for timeliness. A notable example of this was the death of singer Michael Jackson last June, which was first reported by the celebrity gossip site TMZ. The Los Angeles Times reportedly had the story at the same time but held the news because of lack of verification. Quality lost out to speed.
The impact of the industry’s shift from subscriptions to search results and links is enormous. Publishers now have to compete on every single story, which means anything that doesn’t deliver a large audience is bad. You can imagine how this influences reporting on niche topics. It also creates an incentive to make stories bigger than they really are. The problem is compounded when editors are rewarded solely on the basis of page views. Balance gives way to expediency and errors are more easily excused when they can be quickly and quietly fixed online.
Navansky and Lerner implore people who care about journalistic quality to “take up the challenge of debating and discussing — and, we would add, codifying — the values, standards and practices that ought to prevail online.” It’s an admirable call to action but unlikely to result in any enforceable standards. As long as publishing success hangs on a thin thread like traffic, the temptation to practice bad journalism will remain strong. If publishers can come up with a persuasive way to sell the quality of their audiences, then the tide might begin to turn. Until then, we’re going to see a lot of articles on whiter laundry.
Speaking of the iPad, TechCrunch reports that Apple sold 300,000 units in the US as of midnight Saturday. That’s about 10% more than the total number of iPhones sold during that product’s first week on the market. However, it’s worth noting that when the iPhone went on sale, there was no iPhone to compare it against. In contrast, the iPad has the momentum of the iPhone’s popularity along with a substantial base of applications. On that note, the product’s opening week performance is notable. Apple said customers downloaded over 1 million applications and over 250,000 e-books.
This entry was posted on Monday, April 5th, 2010 at 9:49 am and is filed under BusinessModel, Circulation, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.