Stop attacking ‘web-first’ as if the world is going to stand still

The Hangover

The Hangover – a film from 2009 as well as a term which, coincidentally, can be used as a metaphor for the fact that we’re still talking about the same things now

This week feels very much like 2009. That year I published a post titled ‘How the web changed the economics of news‘, a brief overview of some of the economic factors impacting on publishing which has recently experienced a resurgence of interest thanks to a Kingston University tutor whose students have been asked to review it. Their posts have been illuminating: not much, it seems, has changed since 2009. Many still think journalism is a high priesthood which will continue to thrive.

Meanwhile, Editor and Publisher’s Kristina Ackermann argues in an editorial that “digital first wasn’t enough to keep [Journal Register Co] from sinking back into bankruptcy” because digital didn’t make as much profit as print and, therefore, it should be abandoned. The NUJ New Media blog piles in with “This has never been a strategy for increasing profitability, but rather a strategy for slashing costs.”


I am tired of comparisons between print revenue and web revenue.

I am tired of people who think content is the main business model of most publishing, rather than advertising.

I am tired of people who think web-first was just about making money.

I am tired of people who think journalism is about stories, rather than people.

No one has the answer to the question of paying for journalism, but we should at least acknowledge that the old system is broken. We cannot go back to print profit margins: readers have left, and advertisers are following.

Time spent on a medium vs ad spend

Image from Poynter

And when they arrive at the web, the offer to advertisers by news organisations has generally been far inferior to that being made by search engines and social networks.

Meanwhile, search engines are not busy stealing content or even selling advertising against it (try conducting a series of news-related searches if you don’t believe me: see any advertising?). Search engines and social networks are too busy selling advertising against searches and interests.

Dominic Ponsford’s recent suggestion that newspapers pull out of Google, for example, is just the latest example of a tendency among journalists to over-value content at the expense of advertisers. Instead, try following the money:

As for web first, that was always at least in part about protecting market share and extending brand reach (how many newspaper proprietors are in it for the influence, rather than on-paper profits?) as much as it was about making money.

Because what was the alternative? To leave a new and growing market wide open for competitors to launch their own web-only properties? And stay in the shrinking print market?

(It’s notable on that front that the Huffington Post avoided launching in Germany, reportedly because traditional brands have left no gaps in the online market.)

It was always going to be a tricky balance to maintain: protect shrinking print margins while developing growing digital revenues. Focus too much on one and you risk messing up the other. But we could not – and still cannot now – stop the clocks as Ackerman suggests, “until we figure out a way to make some money doing [web first].”

It may well be that there is a viable future for print-only newspapers. It may also be that dropping print costs entirely and going online-only is an option for others.

It may be that publishers are unlikely to maintain their previous advertising-based business models online, given how large a chunk of that market has been captured by search and social (and the indications suggest that share is growing).

More and more publishers are now supplementing those insufficient advertising streams with e-commerce, commercial partnerships, data services and apps. More are moving from general news to niche coverage. More are switching their focus to audiences who are engaged with their content, and willing to give more information about themselves.

They might all be wrong. Whatever the basis of publishing is to become, let’s at least have that discussion on the basis of evidence, rather than prejudice about ‘giving our content away’ or previous ways of doing things, or some chip on our shoulders about print revenues paying for digital experiments. Print revenues are shrinking, and every news organisation will need to find its own answer to that – they cannot wait for someone else to do it for them.

22 thoughts on “Stop attacking ‘web-first’ as if the world is going to stand still

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  3. Bill Lascher

    Paul, I think your critique is accurate if what you’re ultimately saying (and my apologies if I interpreted this incorrectly) is that news organizations are maintaining a false division between print and web operations. But I’m not sure I grasp where your critique of focusing on stories over people comes from. Stories (however they are shaped, disseminated, filtered or curated) are what draws the people to whatever format we use. A story doesn’t have to be a newspaper story, but it is the central value proposition of the news business. Journalists take raw information — be it in the form of government data, individuals’ statements, a photographed scene, a sound — use their hopefully well-tuned analysis to put constraints around the information that contextualizes it and produces something hopefully actionable (for business or political decisions, entertainment or intellectual value, cultural choices, etc.) by the public. The engagement that you say more publishers are switching toward comes from providing the stories that various publics seek and those publics’ inferences that they can find similar stories from a publisher. The publisher that wins is the one that builds that confidence. The one who loses is the one who squanders it.

    You’re right, there’s much more experimentation and much more risk-taking that has to happen (again, my inference from your post) coupled with much fewer fear-motivated decisions.

    We shouldn’t vaunt stories as immutable objects that only have one acceptable format, but we shouldn’t ignore the role they play in our ability to reach people. Having people is meaningless (and value-less) if we have nothing to offer them.

    1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

      I’m not criticising stories – I’m talking about the tendency to forget what stories are for (all the reasons you give). This tendency leads some people to cry about Google or reach thoughtlessly for paywalls or reject user comments – rather than thinking ‘What is this story for – and does Google/a paywall/comments help meet that objective, commercially and editorially?’

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  6. mark drasutis

    Great posting Paul and I couldn’t agree more. The focus has to be on what the customer is looking for, where they are and how publishers can help them to meet their objective.
    Print and digital have a place together, and the interests of the customers need to be served, and then the revenues will come from there, not the other way round.
    Be where the customer is (as newspapers and publishers were at the beginning of their lives) and recognize that there is a value chain. You make the point very eloquently that it is the role of publishers now to extend that, or make sure that they are at least part of it.

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  8. JT

    Maybe those wishing to protect journalism should take a long look at Kodak’s attempt to protect traditional photographers. Indeed, both make good arguments against change. In both cases the change is driven by end users. And in both cases, I predict, change will not cease (despite the arguably different quality of output).

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  17. Ross H

    Oranges and apples springs to mind (or square pegs in round holes). Print and digital can live together, but I think there is a real question to be answered about whether traditional print businesses can create harmony in both sectors. I’m still yet to see an answer about why newspapers who insist digital platforms are ‘killing’ or ‘damaging’ their core business bother with websites if they have no desire to utilise them effectively as a publishing platform, instead preferring to serve them up as a deposit for their existing content.

    I do remember asking one editor the very question of why he had a website because he admitted it was a pain in the backside and the last thing on his mind and he really couldn’t care less about it. His response? To stop anyone else running a website and making a success of it in the area.

    So rather than encouraging people to find a way to make digital work, too many traditional outlets are fearful of other organisations finding the goose that lays golden eggs. Surely, anyone finding the solution will be more beneficial for the industry than no-one finding it?

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  20. Steve Floyd

    It’s sad really. I have watched the demise of print first hand. When I first got into marketing I started as a print designer and slowly transferred to web. I haven’t had a single request for a print design in almost 4 years, which is telling. The way things are headed major publishers are going to go the way of the dinosaur. If they don’t wake up and start investing in a delivery model for their content that makes sense for publishers and those that consume it, someone else definitely will.

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