THICK END OF THE WEDGE: Measure of journalism transcends digital numbers

EVERY Monday, or is it Tuesday, the people who manage, or curate, or “do”, the Business Day and Financial Mail websites send out an internal e-mail that contains the Top 10 best-read articles from each publication for the past week. I am sometimes on the lists and when I’m not (especially not in the Business Day list) I console myself with the thought that as this column appears only on Fridays, it is at a natural disadvantage.

But that is just an excuse to mask a more terrible truth. The fact is that even though this column appears on a Friday (and even though its position in the print edition has recently changed, again), I am pretty well guaranteed a place in the Top 10 list if I write about Jacob Zuma, the Gupta family, Rob Davies or Ebrahim Patel.

Gupta Gupta Zuma Zuma. There, it’s done. Except that the terrible truth masked by my easy excuse itself masks something even worse, if you’re a media guy like me. It is this: the Top 10 list measures only the digital audience the column attracts.

No one really has any idea how many people read it in print. That is a problem because, while the digital numbers can look quite big (7,000-8,000 page views is a decent count for a column), there’s hardly any advertising money in the eyes reading the column. And in print, where you can’t measure the eyes, there’s still a serious amount of money.

Sooner or later, though, something has to give. Print readership, whatever the statistics say, is falling and digital readership growth is phenomenal.

That means it is going to become harder to find readers for newspapers to put the print adverts into and harder and harder to find digital adverts for blossoming digital publications. Someone was talking the other day about those adverts you can skip before watching a YouTube video after a few seconds?

Well the idea now seems to be to make you watch the full video, but to cut it back to just six seconds! For a six-second video, who is going to pay the kind of money required to run a decent-sized newsroom capable of providing a reliable and expert service to a demanding audience?

From where, in other words, will the money to pay for journalism come from in future?

It isn’t just small papers in small economies. A senior tech writer on the mighty New York Times reported recently that while the business of online news has never been forgiving, “in recent weeks, what had been a simmering worry among publishers has turned into borderline panic”.

The fact is that every device or trick employed by the armies of the internet to attract eyes and revenue at the same time has either failed or soon will. People are following the BuzzFeeds and Snapchats and Mashables and Salons (if you’re a print loyalist, you won’t know them), but the revenues aren’t, and they have all had to cut their ambitions back sharply.

Worse (because it is), where digital seemed to promise a brave new world, it is behaving just like the old world, only faster.

New “publications” are born, flame brightly and die. And for the desperate, there’s always Facebook to do your publishing for you, for free. From fragmentation to industrial-scale consolidation in the blink of an eye.

And because digital allows you to measure everything, you measure everything. You get captivated by measures and then addicted to them. You start chasing big numbers until, as someone put it so sweetly recently, you start chasing “the most of something rather than the best of something”.

“So over time, we built digital to replace user value,” wrote the American digital commentator, Joshua Topolsky, last month.

“We thought we could solve with numbers what we couldn’t solve with attention. And with every new set of eyeballs we added, we diminished the merit of what we made. And advertisers asked for more, because those eyes were worth less. And we made more. And it was less valuable.”

The obvious answer to this “crisis”, you would think, would simply be to make sure that your content is consistently superior to that of your rivals and that you focus with an iron determination on your exquisitely defined market. Never forget it is your mission to….

Oh bugger that. It’s too late. I’m an addict. Sure, I’m disgusted at what Zuma has allowed his carpetbagging friends to get away with in our country. But I’m much more passionate about industrial policy, about saving capitalism from capitalists, about creating an entirely black Springbok starting line-up (other than Pat Lambie at flyhalf). But none of it gets me into the Tuesday Top 10 list, where I feel safe.

So, Gupta Gupta Zuma Zuma. Sorry.

Bruce is editor in chief.

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