The true value of John Waters
The Irish newspaper industry has realised there's easy money to be made from declaring war on its own online readership. By David Johnson.
Stop me if you've heard this one, "What's black and white and red all over?"
If you answered, "The Irish newspaper industry, which is only scarleh after yet another humiliating fiasco in which they displayed an appalling ignorance and lack of understanding over the basic concepts of the internet," then well done, gold star for you.
Unless you have been living under a broadband-free rock this last week, you can't help but have seen a flurry of online chatter concerning a declaration from the NNI, the Irish newspaper industry's lobby group, that Irish newspapers should be paid at least €300 each and every time an external website linked to some of their content. This was not a matter of having content republished without permission, this was simply for linking back to an article on the website of an Irish newspaper. The matter was first raised by a group of solicitors representing the charity Women's Aid, who had been targeted back in May 2012 by the NNI with a demand for payment from the charity for linking to two stories about itself that appeared in the online edition of a newspaper.
Yup, that's right. A newspaper published two articles about Women's Aid, then their lobby group tried to charge the group for referring back to them.
The solicitors for Women's Aid publicly raised the issue again in December, and then a few days later published an editorial piece, "2012: The year Irish newspapers tried to destroy the web" on their website that went viral, reaching BoingBoing, reddit and elsewhere. Everywhere it would seem, except the websites of Irish newspapers.
After a pretty intensive week of online chatter the Irish Times was finally forced to issue a statement on Saturday morning (5 January). Well, not exactly issue a statement, more announce that they would issue a statement, then have one of their reporters interview another member of staff about the statement, without ever actually publishing a statement. Let's call it a "Not-Meant". In this "Not-Meant" they said that they had no intention of charging individuals linking to their sites for personal reasons, but that companies and commercial services doing so were a different matter. In other words they continue to support the line of the NNI that they hold the copyright on all external links to their content but that at the moment they choose not to pursue individuals who link.
Tim Berners-Lee must be so proud of them right now.
Sadly you're going to have to find it yourself on their website as we don't want to run the risk of angering the Grey Lady of Tara Street by sending traffic her way. However as of Saturday afternoon, the "Not-Meant" had been shared 52 times on Facebook and 157 times on Twitter via the "Share This" widget that the Irish Times embeds in each and every online article it publishes, daring every reader to provide the newspaper with free advertising. In fact, you know what, the content on the Irish Times is just so damn marvellous, people should have to pay for the privilege of advertising it.
Oh, wait a minute. Right. The NNI. Got you.
All of this kerfuffle might not have been so damaging had the Irish broadsheets not recently published a series of inflammatory articles from socially conservative writers attacking social media. On 4 January in the Irish Times John Waters wrote, in his usual humble style, that social media was "venomous and toxic" and out of control, but couldn't understand why when he made death threats against Jack Dorsey, that Twitter didn't take it too well and asked him nicely to stop. It followed in the wake of an article in the Irish Independent by David Quinn, another deeply conservative anti-choice campaigner who clothed himself in the martyr's sack-cloth and ashes to bemoan his perceived abuse at the hands of the online lefties. It is clear that for the Right in Ireland, the myth of the liberal media is being replaced by the bogeyman of liberal social media, and the newspaper industry is happy to give them a platform to peddle their wares.
In fact all the broadsheets gave ample column inches to opinion pieces and "hard news" stories on the evils of social media in the aftermath of the tragic death of Minister of State Shane McEntee, for the narrative of an uncurated media accessible by all as being a cesspit of bullying and depravity suits a moribund industry seeking to staunch its hemorrhaging readership. Yet in all of this little has been said about the newspapers' own role in the increasingly polarised and vitriolic tone taken in Irish public discourse.
Let us not forget that a newspaper is not a public service, it is a business. It exists to make money for its owners and shareholders, and how it does that is not necessarily by providing the best coverage or most informative journalism. In 1898 William Randolph Hearst and Jospeh Pulitzer (whose name now graces the US award for excellence in journalism), started a war between America and Spain to sell their newspapers. Now The Irish Times and Independent seem to have declared war on the Internet for the exact same reason.
When I'm not writing poorly-spelled and misanthropic polemics, I work in the Internets. Specifically I help folks figure out how to make money from the Internets, and the number one way folks make money from websites is through online advertising. So bear with me now while I give you a crash course in Online Ads 101 (it'll be worth it, I swear).
At a basic level there are two types of online ads. The first type is normally text-based - the type you see when you do a search on Google. With these the advertiser is charged every time someone clicks on that ad. The second type is much bigger, normally more visual and maybe even animated. You'll find these Display Ads across the top of most websites, or along the side, and they work pretty much like an outdoor billboard. Here the key is not how many times someone clicks on the ad, but simply how many people see them. The advertiser is charged for every 1000 times the ad appears on a webpage.
The Irish Times runs a mix of Display and click-through ads on its website, but let's focus on Display for a moment. The front page of IrishTimes.com provides a snapshot of all current articles, and has three major Display Ad placements, one at the top and two on the right-hand side. The large banner on the top has a CPM (Cost per Thousand Impressions, M being the Roman numeral for 1,000) of €12 (as of Jan 2013, it was €10 last year), or €14 for the full masthead. The two Mid Page Units (MPU) normally on the right-hand column, also have a minimum CPM of €12. This means that for every 1,000 people who read the front page of the Irish Times (or every 1,000 times the page is loaded), the newspaper makes €36.
Of course the front page is just a snapshot of articles, so to maximise revenue opportunities to read any article in full you need to click through to a dedicated post page. Here the Irish Times prints a single article, with links to other relevant content on its site. On each individual article page they are currently running one banner ad at the top of the page and one MPU on the right, with a third text-based click-through Google ad unit (that means that Google is providing the text-ads in this space, and takes a cut of any money those ads earn). Ignoring the Google ad unit (which in all likelihood doesn't bring in a huge amount of money), that still means that each article brings in €24 per 1,000 readers, or €0.024 per reader. Assuming every person who comes to the Irish Times front page clicks through on at least one article, that means five ads have been loaded, and the newspaper has made €0.06. A far cry from the €2.30 cover price of the print edition.
In fact, to make the same money as the print edition they need a single online reader to see 191 ads a day.
Assuming a reader goes back every time to the front page after finishing an article to see what article they'll read next, that still means they'll need to read over 38 articles to see enough ads to equate to the print edition cover price.
However unlike a print edition of a newspaper, online readers are unlikely to sit down and do the equivalent of reading it from cover to cover - they are going to pick and choose those articles that match their specific interests. Once they've read through three or four articles, they'll head away and go somewhere else. For 2009 - somewhat bizarrely the year the Irish Times still bases its audience numbers and advertising rates on - it claimed a monthly audience of 2,314,196 readers per month, and total monthly page impressions of 26,125,949. This would mean that each reader accounted for only 11 page views per month.
While linking to other recent and historical articles are one way for a newspaper to expose a reader to more ads, a more successful way is to try and get them to come back to the same article multiple times. Now this might seem counter-intuitive, for once you've read something, why would you reread it? The answer is, of course, Social Media, in the form of a comments section. Yup, the very thing the newspapers have bemoaned is the one thing that they need to survive.
In May 2012 The Irish Times finally embraced the Web 2.0 and added a comments field to many of its online articles, realising that people (the author included) love hearing the sound of their own voice. If a person comments on a post, they're more likely to come back and look at that article again to see what other people have said. Each time a reader returns and reloads the page the ads refresh, slowly creeping up to that magical 1,000 impressions when the advertiser is charged. The more people who comment the more ads that are seen. The more inflammatory the article, the more likely people are to comment, and the more inflammatory the comments the more likely others are to add their own comments. The more reactionary the article and comment thread, the more likely it is that people will share it elsewhere via Facebook and Twitter, all adding more fuel to the fire.
This is why so few websites aggressively moderate their comments threads. It is in their financial interest to have as incendiary a thread as possible, all the better if the original article is relatively innocuous, as that allows the website to say, "Hey, don't blame us for lowering the tone, it's those damn internet users and their trollish behaviour." while the impressions build up and they laugh all the way to the bank.
TheJournal.ie figured this out pretty quickly, and it has been its business model ever since, and while Old Media was slow to enter into the troll-baiting game, they're now making up for lost time. They've suddenly discovered that nothing is more likely to stir up online readers than attacking their online readers.
Either through a deliberate editorial policy, or accidental happenstance, the Irish newspaper industry has realised there's easy money to be made and has declared war on its own online readership. John Waters's venomous piece has been shared 385 times between Facebook and Twitter, and generated a staggering 343 comments. In comparison the Irish Times's own 'Not-Meant’ managed 56, while Noel Whelan's call on Saturday for "new ideas" in Irish politics gathered but a paltry 10 (Michael McDowell and his dreams of a PDs Nua should take note).
There's a general rule of thumb, the 90:9:1 ratio, that suggests that 1% of folks in an online community create content, 9% contribute to it and the other 90% merely consume it, and with regards to online articles this can be used to guesstimate that roughly 1% of folks who read an article will comment on it, and 9% will share it. All very unscientific really. The Guardian recently published a few stats about who leaves comments on their site, with 600,000 being posted each month, and 2,600 readers posting over 40 comments each, and analysis done on these figures bears out (very roughly) the 90:9:1 rule, so if we went by the comments numbers rather than the total shares it is not that unreasonable to suggest that with 343 comments Waters's article was read, reread or reloaded 34,300 times in roughly twenty-four hours.
Which would have made the Irish Times a whopping €823.20.
If each of his posts generated the same response online and he wrote once a week, that would bring around €43k directly in online ad revenue just from his particular brand of odious conservatism each year. However this of course does not include the knock-on effect of people coming to the site to read and react to his poisonous prose, and then calming themselves down with a nice bit of Noel Whelan to lull them back into a soporific state.
Ca-Ching go the online cash registers.
Waters and his counterparts in the Irish Independent are thus anchor tenants that grab all the footfall for their website with their special brand of incendiary hatred; the Anchors of Evil, if you will.
The 26,125,949 total monthly page impressions that the Irish Times claims, taking their 2013 ad rates and assuming only two ads per page, would generate at least €627K in online ad revenue per month if all ad units were sold, or €7.5 million per year. However the real figure should be higher, given that at least three ad units appear on the front page, and they charge up to €14 for larger ad units. Total page impressions should also be significantly higher as the numbers used were for 2009, and reader comments were only introduced in May of last year.
But with dwindling print sales, €7.5 million just won't cut it, and their online business is going to come under increasing pressure to perform. While charging for links may no longer be a runner, a few more incendiary pieces by Waters, Quinn and their ilk will be guaranteed to bring in a nice chunk of change. Online revenue can be measured with a granularity that print media could only dream of. Websites can tell exactly which posts bring in the readers, how many times they return, and where they go afterwards. Direct and ancillary revenue can be easily calculated for each and every article posted online. The money folks on Tara Street can clearly say, "Get Waters to attack another group and we'll bring in exactly X," and the paper knows it needs the money to survive.
This is the direction the Irish newspaper industry is going, a race to the bottom that it is organising, yet still manages to stand above and condemn.
To finish let me offer by way of comparison between Old and New Media, the satirical website Broadsheet.ie, which saw 29.1 million pageviews last year. Their top article concerned a member of An Garda Síochána being romanced by an overly amorous horse (somewhat NSFW), shared over 13,000 times between Twitter and Facebook. With 205,679 pageviews in total if Broadsheet monetized as well as The Irish Times, that post alone would have netted them €4,936 in ad revenue.
So there we have it. John Waters, worth at least €823.20 per post to the Irish Times, but not as much as a horse's penis.