Quality content to be king again (and word count will matter)

Reflecting on the fortunes of newspaper companies as digital disruption took hold, journalist and digital strategist Kevin Anderson wrote, “Digital advertising is booming, but the problem has been that newspapers simply haven’t captured that revenue… most of that revenue has gone to search and social”.  Digital display advertising, which suits the online newspaper model better than search and social, was a far smaller piece of the overall digital advertising pie.

The most successful newspapers, Anderson believes, were the ones who had separate digital divisions that focussed on commercial innovations like the purchase of digital marketing and advertising agencies.  Such agencies, like those at the Dallas Morning News, helped advertisers build websites, optimise for search engines and utilise social media platforms.

What the newspaper brought to the digital agency concept was a trusted brand.  What was less directly important to the concept was newspaper content.  It is difficult to imagine that sideline businesses will continue to benefit from a strong brand if the newspaper editorial teams cannot find their way out of the disruption.  As Mark Thompson, NYT president and chief executive, has said, “I cannot see a future for The New York Times Company in saying “Well actually the way we make money is not through journalism”.

In the last dozen years editorial teams have been finding their feet in this “search and social” world.  One result has been clickbait – mid and short length articles designed to attract hits from search engines.  The ‘most viewed’ lists of quality newspaper sites have shown the light matter rising to the top.

Over time, and as social has grown, newsbrands have got cleverer about getting articles noticed.  The FastFT initiative delivers up-to-the-minute reporting and commentary in short, sharp dispatches.  UsvsTh3m is a Trinity Mirror launch in which every sentence is written as though it were a tweet.  Newsbrands now provide a button for the fast tweeting of whole articles.  In 2014 expect to see more specially crafted and highlighted sentences within articles that can be tweeted.

Such initiatives work well in “The Stream”.  Since 2009 information on the web has been increasingly distributed in real-time streams instead of dedicated Web pages.  Robert Peston said in his 2013 James Cameron Memorial lecture that “if you want to boss a story, the tactics for doing so have changed even since 2009 – with social media now playing a much bigger role”.

Newsbrands have adopted their own streams with ‘tweet length’ updates within their own sites creating live coverage of events from The Ashes to The Budget.  Times Wire is a continuous stream of the latest content published on NYTimes.com.  Newness and frequency keep the stream flowing and short-form works well in this environment.

If The Stream has been running since 2009 and webpage clickbait dominated before, should we expect more light and short content in 2014?  Yes and no.  The Stream won’t stop flowing anytime soon and newsbrands will continue to fish for traffic.  However, data analytics has shown that The Stream has islands in it where people spend dedicated time digesting longer, more thoughtful articles.  In Nic Newman’s latest Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions he says, “In 2014 we can expect more innovations in long form, both from a content and experience point of view”.

These long form islands have appeared partly because of The Stream.  Tim Berners-Lee has said he sees a future in which people find bigger, more important news content via social media.  Studies, like one by the University of Pennsylvania which looked at shared NYT articles, have shown that the longer the article, the more likely it was to be shared.  The Stream can be so overwhelming, but so rich in information, that people need in-depth, analytical articles that make sense of it all.

The more pleasurable reading experience of tablet computers also makes long form reading more likely.  YouGov predict that 50% of UK households will have a tablet computer in 2014 and the percentage of multi tablet households will rise.  Also making long form article reading more likely are apps like Pocket and Listango that let you save content to read offline later.

Between articles designed for the stream and long form analysis there are mid length articles.  These do not work online, if a former managing editor at WSJ.com is to be believed.  Kevin Delaney heads the business news publication of the Atlantic Media Company, Quartz.  He has developed a model called the Quartz Curve.  This is a U shape upon which he places short-form articles one end, long form at the other.  Both are successful online.  In the dip in the middle are 500-800 word articles.  Delaney thinks they are particularly unhelpful if they don’t fit the requirements of The Stream by either relaying box fresh news or deep insight.  Many, he says, are fact packed but offer no real analysis.

The Media Briefing describes such articles as “based on a model designed for print – even if they may never appear in the paper at all”.  They took an “unscientific look” at the top articles on mid market and quality newsbrand sites and found “almost all fall within the borders of Quartz’s 500-800 word no-go zone”.

Newspaper editors (not least those at regional papers) could be forgiven their frustration at such criticism.  These articles include those containing the expensively derived facts that columnists later mull over and analyse.  These articles are probably also analysed (for free) in broader context by bloggers and digital only news site writers – people like those at Quartz.

However, these mid-length articles might also include what Guardian writer Nick Davies calls ‘flat earth news’.  He wrote a book by that name to condemn the rise of articles that are simply unchecked and unchallenged rewrites of PR releases or government and lobbyist propaganda.  They are there simply to provide content as under-resourced editorial teams are under a lot of pressure to produce far more content than is required for the newspaper.

The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, is taking note of analysis similar to the Quartz Curve.  He has spoken about having less reporting and more analysis, describing his vision as, “more Newsnight than News at Ten”.  So too Lionel Barber, editor of the FT, is thinking similarly.  He will offer a diet of snacks via FastFT and the slow food of analytical articles.  In the spring of 2014 his paper will be “commissioning more “value added news in context” rather than reactive everyone-else-has-it news”.

The revelation that long form works online will be seen as a blessing by journalists fed up of click bait, flat earth news and the limiting requirements of The Stream. To many it must have felt that all other forms of writing were being sacrificed to the notion that attention spans are getting shorter.

What those journalists should also take heart in is the notion that three trends in advertising are conspiring to put writing back at the heart of newsbrand businesses.

Firstly, digital display advertising is growing and taking a larger share of the digital advertising pie.  Search ad spend still dominates in the UK but digital display is the fastest growing sector and now accounts for 23% of digital advertising, according to the IAB.  Display ads tend to exist around editorial content which means newsbrands have a chance of attracting more revenue.  It isn’t easy and they will have to compete hard against non print legacy sites (and invest more in video and customer data) to maintain their share of this growing market but, in essence, it is good news for journalists.

Secondly, advertisers are getting to grips with how they will audit their digital advertising.  Companies like Nielsen and ComScore are creating success measures that score advertising performance on attention metrics like how long the ads were on screen for, what percentage of the ads were seen (did the user scroll down to reveal all the ad) and whether the ad was served around quality content or not.  Newsbrand sites can help advertisers score highly by supplying engaging, quality content that makes readers want to scroll down and read more.  Long form analytical articles tick the box.

Thirdly, content marketing is expected to boom in 2014 (in ‘old money’ these were called advertorials).  WPP’s Chief Executive Sir Martin Sorrell has said that greater flexibility in providing content marketing solutions would be the main way newsbrands can attract more money from his ad agencies in the coming years. In order to sell content marketing solutions advertising teams will need to know about optimised article lengths for holding audience attention.  The finding that people are reading long-form articles is good news.  Sales departments can, of course, charge more for long form – and newsbrands can supply the in-house skills required to write them.

These factors do not guarantee the long term future of newsbrands but they do, at least, point towards a return of quality content to the commercial heart of the newsbrand business.  The lessons that editorial teams have been learning about working with The Stream and building long form islands are important.  Hopefully these small steps are towards a future in which newsbrands will be able to say that the way they make money is from journalism… still.

[This blog post was later published as an article by The Media Briefing in January 2014]

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