'The internet can work in a much better way sometimes than newspapers have'

Last week, we published a piece, The true value of John Waters, which speculated as to the possible value, in cold hard cash, of controversial opinion columns to a newspaper website’s bottom line. The piece was intended as a thought experiment, rather than as an accountancy exercise, as clarified by its author in a follow-up piece on his blog, but caught the imaginations of enough people that the Irish Times’s online editor, Hugh Linehan, was prompted to respond – in a comment on his own column, Online issues lost amid Twitterphobia, on the Irish Times website:

“I can honestly tell you that the financial benefit of these pieces is negligible. Some people have been impressed by the article you've linked to and the conclusions it draws because it appears to have crunched real numbers. However, all those conclusions and most of the numbers are wrong.”

Which led to the following exchange on Twitter:

[View the story "Twitter exchange: hlinehan and cybernoelie" on Storify]

We gladly took Hugh up on his offer. Interview below. By Eadaoin O’Sullivan.

Eadaoin O’Sullivan: You responded to somebody who left a comment on your piece last week in the Irish Times and who pointed towards that article [The true value of John Waters] on Politico by David Johnson, by saying that the financial impact of these pieces – by John Waters, David Adams etc – is negligible. I understand you can’t go into the specifics of Irish Times business data, but would you agree that these kinds of controversial, and or inflammatory pieces - they’re widely shared, they’re heavily commented on – so they do have a financial impact, they do have an impact on the bottom line of a newspaper. They push up page impression figures, which you can then show to advertisers, if you’re using a measure like CPM, as opposed to say click through rate, and that does have some kind of an effect.

Hugh Linehan: I think there’s no doubt that traffic is important, and traffic numbers and audited traffic reports are important. There’s always an element of one-upmanship between various websites, news websites, as to who’s biggest and who’s best. Mind you who’s biggest, is not necessarily always the same as who’s best. The Irish Times, as a print product, has historically always been comfortable with not being the biggest newspaper in the market, but it would always argue that it’s the best newspaper in the market. And I think, very often some of the core principles when you’re faced with a deep technological disruption from your traditional way of doing business, which is what we’re faced with right now – and by doing business I don’t just mean making money, I mean practicing journalism as well – when you’re faced with those things, it’s important I think to keep an eye on the really core reasons for your existence.

In the case of the Irish Times, our objective is not to be the biggest, it’s to be the best. To be the best is our business objective as well as our editorial objective, and I think that that will be no different online from what it was in print.

By that I suppose I mean that it’s quite easy on the internet to go and get an extra 200,000 page impressions by shocking people or making them upset in some way, or just attracting them with a titillating headline. And I think that some people who don’t understand this business very well, both inside this organisation and also outside – from some of the comments about columnists as trolling, and so on - think that that might be a sensible business strategy for us, or indeed a worthwhile editorial strategy.

I suppose the point that I was making in that response was, number one, part of me wishes that we were that coherent in our strategy, that every time we commissioned an opinion piece for the print product we were thinking through exactly what the implications might be for traffic over the succeeding 36 hours. But I have to tell you, we’re not.

What we have is a print product which gets uploaded online, and it’s interesting to me how it plays differently online. That’s an interesting thing to explore. But the headline is written for print, the column is written for print. Chris Dooley, our opinion editor, commissions it primarily for print, although of course he’s aware that it is going online, and there are implications for it online. But the idea that we would run around shocking people in order to get another couple of million page impressions a month – my view as online editor is that the downside to our business of that, in terms of the reputational damage if you kept doing that over and over again, and how that would change people’s perception of the Irish Times, would hugely outweigh the benefit of the two million page impressions or three million page impressions, because I think, ultimately, the gain that you would get, numerically, in those page impressions would be offset by the reduction that would happen in page impressions by people who didn’t take us as seriously anymore, and didn’t trust us, and went elsewhere for their news.

And also, without getting too fluffy bunny about it, we do believe that we have a relationship of trust with our readers, and our readers have certain expectations of things we would do, and things that we don’t do. And to my mind, trolling for cheap traffic would cross a line in that regard.

Now, there is another thing to say there, and this ties into, I think, some of the changes that we hope to introduce in the website and the newspaper over the course of this year, and it is that some of these controversial articles, particularly around the subject of the internet, it becomes more apparent how differently they play online. So for example, a headline which might seem mildly provocative when it appears on the top of the op-ed page, with the author’s byline, reads quite a bit differently when you see it on the top of an index page or a website, or even more so when you see it in a Twitter feed with somebody’s, yknow, ‘OMG!!’ beside it. It starts playing in a different way, and one of the changes we’ll be happy to introduce this year is we’ll be tailoring our content more appropriately for different platforms. Now, what does that mean? I can’t tell you exactly what that means, but it doesn’t mean that we’re going to write really boring headlines for the opinion pieces so that people don’t get overexcited by them, it certainly doesn’t mean that. But it might mean that we’re just a little bit more conscious about writing stuff that’s tailored correctly for the web.

'These things do work a little differently online' 

The thrust of your argument then is that, the Irish Times has been a print-first product which has then been thrown over a wall onto an online platform…

Hugh: It is, that’s the way we’ve done it since 1994.

In that sense, it’s the same logic that has guided the Irish Times since its inception, in terms of employing somebody like John Waters or having him as a regular columnist. You’ll get your readers [through employing him]. So, your strategy hasn’t changed, but people could still level the accusation that there have always been, since time immemorial, in any newspaper, there have been…

Hugh: Provocateurs.

Yes. It’s a calculation on the newspaper’s part to employ those provocateurs, because it gets readers. So… nothing has changed online?

Hugh: I suppose you could say that that’s largely true. I should just say that I absolutely don’t want to personalise it in relation to any specific writer at all, but if you think about it in the general sense, opinion and analysis writers do need to be provocative, and I think any self-respecting newspaper will, as well, always seek to have at least some of its writers who go against the grain of what the general perceived editorial ethos is. And obviously Kevin Myers, for example, fitted that bill for many years, or was seen to fit that bill in the Irish Times. And that’s seen as being part of what the broad church of a general interest newspaper is supposed to do, it’s supposed to annoy its readers sometimes, because they like to be annoyed sometimes.

I suppose, thinking about it, these things do work a little differently online, though. Newspaper publishing is a form of broadcasting, and the world of online, particularly as exemplified through social media, but in fact in most forms of communication, is more a narrowcasting kind of a mode. So rather than – sticking with the example of Kevin Myers – him writing a column which upsets every right-thinking liberal in the land, and therefore he’s seen to have achieved his mission, what you end up with is this column which is taken incredibly personally by a much smaller cohort of people, very often. And the way in which the dynamics of that work are different.

Now, I’m not sure what conclusion I take from that as to what we should or shouldn’t do online, but I suppose, ultimately, what’s going to have to happen here – and I was talking to various people over in the Guardian about his last week – is that gradually our forms of content, and the reasons why we produce content, and the way in which we understand how that content interacts with our users, will change. So we will move, obviously as print declines, and I believe print will continue to decline - hopefully gradually enough for us to build an alternative business model, but we’ll see - as it declines we will develop new forms.

An obvious new form is the liveblog as opposed to the news report, and my personal view is that the liveblog, and things like Storify, are all harbingers of a new kind of media, which is more real-time, which is more provisional, to reflect the provisionality of rolling 24-hour, no beginning and no end narrative, which is more interactive, in that it opens itself out to at least some degree to input from people outside the sacred mountain on which the journalist stands before handing down his tablets.

Can you explain a bit about what it means for the Irish Times to be ‘print-first’? 

People talk a lot about print-first or digital-first as philosophies or business models, but sometimes they’re just limitations imposed by systems or infrastructure. That’s been the case with the Irish Times, where essentially for the last two decades we’ve done a single content upload – some might say data dump – of the entire contents of the newspaper every night, then alongside that we’ve run a breaking news service, blogs, etc. Over the years we’ve done our best to make that as seamless-looking as possible, but in truth it’s always been lipstick on a pig, and many of the things our users find unsatisfactory on our site – repetition of the same story, thematically related articles not grouped together properly – derive from that.

We’re just about to implement major technical and design changes which will integrate these processes. As a result, we’ll be in a position for the first time to make decisions on what to publish to what platform at what time based on our own editorial and business strategy. This means that you’ll immediately see a more nuanced approach to the way we publish content over the course of each 24-hour news cycle. 

‘Opinion columnists are rarely dissuaded from the subject matter they choose to take on’

You were saying earlier that it’s slightly unfortunate that you have four or five articles on the same topic published in op-ed pages over a given week. In an editorial meeting, if you hear four or five articles are going to be published on a particular topic in the same week, in your area of interest and expertise, do you not have license to say: ‘Don’t!’?

Hugh: Well, without giving too much away about the incredibly secretive and freemasonry-like – I am joking – nature of Irish Times editorial meetings, the reality is that the newspaper still, for the most part, works to a 24-hour cycle. Most of the pages, including the opinion pages, work to a 24-hour cycle, so if you’re at an editorial conference on a Tuesday you’re really not going to know what’s going to be in the op-ed pages on a Friday, and neither is the opinion editor. And I think that’s pretty common to all daily newspapers. To maintain freshness you don’t want to be over-planning those kinds of pages. Also I think it would be fair to say that we are still at this point in time a print-first operation, so those decisions are made on the basis of print.

But also, I think it’s fair to say that the opinion columnists themselves have great autonomy, and they are rarely dissuaded from the subject matter which they choose to take on.

I want to put something to you that David said during an exchange on Twitter about his piece. I’d like to get your response to it now you’re not constrained by a 140-character limit: ‘At a time when the Government is seen to be attacking freedom of online expression, should the Irish Times be seen to be reinforcing that message?’

Hugh: I think it’s really important to make the point that nobody, no column on the Irish Times op-ed page, which is where all these columns appear, should be seen as reflecting the position of the Irish Times. In the purest sense, from an editorial point of view, the position of the Irish Times is reflected in its editorials.  From the point of view of corporate policy, they would be reflected by the managing director, who frequently gives interviews and is available for comment. We have a dual system where the editor and the managing director have autonomy, and have equal say in terms of any key decisions about the future of the company and are answerable through the board of the Irish Times ultimately to the Trust of the Irish Times, which is the owner of the Irish Times and which exists to fulfil certain principles. So Hugh Linehan, or John Waters, or David Adams, or Stephen Collins, none of those people are speaking as the Irish Times. They are speaking as political editor, online editor, Friday columnist, whatever it might be.

Now, people seem to find that a little hard to believe sometimes, but I’d just say to you if you look at the difference between Fintan O’Toole’s analysis of the current political situation, and Stephen Collins’s one, it would be hard to argue that both of them reflect the same position. So clearly it’s not the case. There was a conspiracy theory going around that somebody in the Irish Times was commissioning lots of anti-internet articles in order to make some kind of a point, so I think it’s important to say that Kevin O’Sullivan, who’s been in the job a year and a half now, is extremely positively inclined towards moving the newspaper much more into the digital future and faster. I think the points which I made in my column, I did try and say definitively: this is not the policy of the Irish Times, I think it is fair to say that I was reflecting the view of the editor there.

‘There’s a whole slice of data about our online users that we don’t have, that we do know about our print readers’

In terms of banner ads, how important are they in general? How important are they to a newspaper’s bottom line, relative to, say, dating services or property websites, or whatever else, as a revenue stream?

Hugh: I think that in terms of digital revenues it would be fair to say that banner ads are extremely important, and form a very significant proportion of overall revenues. However, having said that, it’s not a secret that newspapers are finding it difficult to grow their digital revenues at the speed which they perceive they need to in order to counteract the decline in print revenues. So, that’s probably quite a long-winded way of saying that, while they’re important, I think most newspaper websites would acknowledge that they haven’t necessarily grown to the extent that people projected or hoped that they would five years ago or seven years ago. They’re growing but most newspapers are finding, both in America and in Europe, that they’re not growing at the speed that we hoped and wished for.

The Irish Times was behind a paywall between 2002 and 2008. We came out from behind that paywall on the basis that free to air offered a better economic model because of the advertising potential that was there. Some of those hopes have not been fulfilled, and obviously the economic background has something to do with that too. But generally it does appear as if with generalist display advertising online that the CPMs are going down all the time, that generally, it’s a game of huge scale, or else you’re just not going to get sufficient revenues. It’s the classic thing of where you used to get dollars in print you’re getting dimes online.

I think increasingly our thinking and other newspapers’ thinking would be that you need to move from the traditional revenue streams of print where you sold newspapers and you sold ads in those newspapers, and that was your business, into a situation where there’s multiple revenue streams and it’s more complex and more challenging and more difficult. And yes, generalist display advertising will continue to form some part of that, but really things like sponsorship may sometimes be more appropriate than just commoditised display advertising. Getting involved, as some news sites have become, as retailers, one might at least explore the possibilities of that, if one had a way to present one’s data in a way, whether you’re in the area of book sales or ticket sales or commercial partnerships with people, those kinds of things might be things that might do. I think there’s no doubt but that looking for some users to pay to read your content is bang right back on the agenda and is going to happen, albeit in a more nuanced or sophisticated kind of a way…

Like the New York Times?

Hugh: Yeah, that kind of a model more. So display advertising, as a proportion of what you might call the global digital revenue basket, I think we’re probably looking, we’d probably hope to see sufficient growth in those other areas that its proportion of overall digital revenues will decline. Then you add to that the other part of it is we are conscious that the really successful online businesses, the Googles and Facebooks of this world, have a different kind of business model, which is based to some extent on knowledge of their user base, which the likes of us don’t have.

Now this is the kind of stuff, I fully acknowledge, that creeps people out, too, and there are both ethical and legal issues around data protection and personal data and all those kinds of things. But taking all that on board and saying, ‘We will absolutely follow the letter of the law and will not abuse our relationship with our users in any way,’ we would be insane if we weren’t trying to find some equivalent for us of the kind of business model that search and social are successfully building on, which is based on knowing something about your users or your readers.

Because in fact, to go back to the point I made earlier about core principles of our business, the traditional business of the print Irish Times is that we know who our readers are, because we have a close relationship with them, through retailers or directly, we know quite a lot about them, and to be honest, we’ve always invested quite a lot of money in market research to find out about their preferences and how they’re changing and what they’re interested in and what they’re not interested in, and a huge amount of that data, although Google Analytics is fantastic on one level, and it tells you a lot about traffic patterns and things, there’s actually a whole slice of data about our online users that we don’t have, that we do know about our print readers. And that’s one of the areas where our online business falls short at the moment. So I would think some combination of encouraging registration to carry out certain actions on our site, and other ways of installing cookies of one sort or another with people’s consent, we’d be looking to get more value into our display advertising market. Because obviously, if we know a bit more about you, we can sell a higher priced ad against you, frankly.

Or target ads at you.

Hugh: Or target ads at you, exactly.

‘At a business level perhaps our industry is not as up to speed with the nature of what’s going on online as it should be’

Anything you want to say about the NNI/NLI linkgate disaster?

Hugh: I’m on the record as saying I don’t think links should be copyrightable. We still have wording on the terms and conditions of our website which says we claim copyright on our links, I don’t really need to comment upon that except to say that clearly there is an irreconcilable contradiction there which it is incumbent upon us to sort out as soon as possible. I’ve made my position clear: I don’t believe that links are copyrightable. Equally then, in relation to the NNI issue, and the links issue, I think it reflects two things. I think it reflects first of all at a business level that perhaps our industry is not as up to speed with the nature of what’s going on online as it should be, because there are certain concepts around issues such as what is called, quote unquote, deep-linking, which are really rooted in a previous business model, which has already failed – the notion of a portal, where everybody comes through the front door and the main url, and that’s the basis of the business.

Obviously, particularly since the advent of social media, those of us who are actually doing this stuff on a day-to-day basis moved on from that some years ago, but that’s not reflected in all policy documents. That’s one part of it. And I think the other part is that, in an admittedly somewhat ham-fisted way, it does reflect some serious issues which newspapers and other content creators have around the subject of the repurposing of their content by other commercial organisations, basically theft of their content. Clearly we’ve had issues in the past with organisations such as The Journal, about those issues. Clearly there are ongoing issues across Europe about Google and Google News. I don’t really have a personal position on those except I know that in Germany they’re looking at some form of a Google News levy. I’m not informed enough to have a position on that, all I do know is that these are political issues that are in the mix at the moment.

And it’s not even so much about news aggregators, it’s not even so much about some news aggregators essentially copying and pasting content onto their own websites. Because to be frank, there was always a certain amount of that happened between newspapers anyway, once a news story is out it takes on a life of its own, and we repurpose stories that other people broke, and they do it with us, and we do our best to follow certain codes of practice about attribution, and some of us do it better than others, and that’s all part of the hurly burly of life’s rich tapestry in media. The difficulty is when you get to a point where those processes become industrialised, and companies are set up whose business model is the accumulation and regurgitation of our content for their own business purposes, and ultimately, causing us commercial damage.

And I’d almost say that the aggregators are last year’s story. I look with more concern currently at an application like Summly, which is algorithmically putting together pieces of stories to create news bulletins, pulling them off the web. And, I think, there is a serious copyright issue with this, there are no journalist jobs of any sort being created, and, they are essentially harvesting this content and pushing it out again, and regardless of the inglorious chapter of the last ten days or so, I think newspapers do have to stand up for their right to copyright in certain circumstances in their original content. But it’s difficult, in a 24-hour wired world, the concept of breaking a story, and holding a story, and ownership of a story, I fully acknowledge that all of those kind of rules of these games are changing all the time. The focus, I think, of newspapers, should be on people who are doing this as an industrialised process, and running a business solely on that basis.

It’s already in the copyright legislation, isn't it, if you want to use something for the purposes of criticism or review, that’s ok. Whereas if you’re just coming along and mechanically scraping lots of content out… I would wonder if it’s even a difficult question to answer then. I look at something like Broadsheet, if they take something from the Irish Times or the Irish Independent, they add something to it, it’s always, in a sense, for purposes of criticism or review…

Hugh: Broadsheet is an interesting example. I agree with you, I think they do do that for the most part. I think that they have an active bunch of users who, if they do something that’s not quite on the money, their users tend to pick them up. I remember, I can’t remember what the column was, but Fintan did a column about a year ago and, they put about two-thirds of the column up and then they put a link at the bottom. Now, to be fair, their users were in straight away saying, ‘No, no, that’s breaking the rules.’ And they changed it. And that’s an example of how the internet can work in a much better way, sometimes, than newspapers have.

Image top: JrGMontero.