Transparency report for November, 2013
We didn’t take in as many donations in November and our web traffic declined a bit.
Let’s look at the numbers.
To see last month’s stats, click here.
If this were any other month, I’d be more concerned about those indicators. Based on my experience managing website traffic, November and December are just difficult months. We are competing with people going on extended vacations – weekend traffic is usually low point in the week, too, regardless of the month – and with the busier work weeks leading up to those vacations.
To be totally honest, I’m surprised we didn’t see more of a drop in traffic. We pulled in 26,905 views in November, compared with 27,330 in October. Unique visitors, the total number of individual IP addresses that visited the site, were also holding up, with 8,236 uniques in November compared with 8,995 in October. There’s a little more daylight between the numbers of uniques month-to-month, but still not bad.
All of this underscores a fundamental problem I’ve been contemplating.
For the longest time the industry has treated views like circulation for the purposes of setting advertising rates. They’re not the same thing at all, for a few reasons:
1) The method of content delivery is totally different. Imagine if you opened your copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and it was a different section each time you opened it. First open it’s A section, but the second open it’s a week-old story in the back pages of the Sports section. A news website doesn’t arrive in someone’s driveway. You access the content any number of ways. Facebook is consistently my No. 1 referrer of internet traffic. They’re not always being referred to the most-recent article. It could be something I wrote six months ago and forgot about. We’ve gone from a publisher-based distribution method to a user-based distribution method. That’s not circulation. That’s the orderly chaos of the internet at work. Circulation involves some level of predictability. You can’t predict what people on the internet are going to lose their shit about in any given week. It’s a beautiful thing, as long as you’re not trying to develop a sustainable profit model from it.
2) Page views – both regular and unique – are a poor metric for selling online ads, because they can fluctuate dramatically. You see how traffic can vary, depending on a number of factors. One day I imagine we’ll have an absolutely stellar month for internet traffic, probably because one post will get shared around. Then we’ll have a precipitous decline and the number of views achieved in that one stellar month will be the new unicorn we’ll have to chase for awhile. A sharp decline in numbers month-to-month doesn’t necessarily reflect a decline in influence or reach.
3) Ad positions are fewer and are not fixed in an online model. Let’s say you’re selling home page ad space at one rate and selling different positions for lower rates. But let’s say one article that you publish does exceptionally well and it’s older. All of a sudden that one page you’ve sold very cheaply is generating more views for that advertiser than the home page is for the advertiser who paid more. If you consider that many people are accessing websites with mobile devices, it further dilutes one of the key selling points of ad space: the ad’s position on the page. The page renders differently on a mobile device. There are other impediments completely beyond your control, like ad blockers used by your readers. Newspaper profit models are based on a degree of certainty. The internet’s content distribution methods can change rapidly. You can’t use the same logic used to sell ads in one space and apply it to the other if you want to create something sustainable.
4) Online ad rates are much cheaper than print rates. Print ads cost more and that reflects the cost of printing something. Publishing something online costs little to nothing. (Not to be confused with the cost of creating the content to be published! That’s still expensive.) A print product offers more fixed ad spaces. It’s hard for an online product with fewer, cheaper ad spaces to generate as much income from ad sales as a print product that offers more ad spaces at a higher price.
When a sales rep goes to discuss a potential sale to an advertiser, they’re going to have to convince that advertiser that they’re getting a thing of value for the money that they spend. Currently, that value is based circumstances that can quickly change.
I’m not saying you can’t sell ads and be successful. You’ve just got to find a way that’s more suited to the reality we’re living in as opposed to the one that existed 20 years ago.
No, I haven’t found a way yet. I am in a good position to do it, however. Decatur is the perfect city to become a new journalism incubator. It has all of the right ingredients: a well educated and diverse population, dense geography and proximity to a large city with lots of attractions. You can be as small town or as big town as you want. You can try things that you wouldn’t be able to try anywhere else.
So I’m coming back to my 8,000 or so unique viewers, most of whom live in Decatur or the surrounding metro area, and I’m asking you for guidance. Most of you are accustomed to getting the news for free. I respect that. I’m committed to working with it. But as consumers you have to realize that the production of news costs money. It will not cost as much for us as some of the big companies, like Associated Press and Reuters, but writers have bills to pay. Across the industry, advertising just is not getting it done, even at the “successful” websites. If it were, newspapers would quit erecting and then removing pay walls for readers.
You need to ask yourselves what you would consider paying for news. Because if your answer is no, you have to accept the reality you’re creating for yourself. You will have a harder time learning about what’s going on in your community. The bulk of what you do learn will be created by PR flacks and other people with agendas. Accountability will be a luxury. Sunlight will be fleeting, at best.
If your answer is yes, then there might be some hope for us yet. To my 8,000 unique users, I’d like to pose a simple question: Would you pledge donating $1 or more a month for one year to support journalism in your community?
If all 8,000 of you committed to this idea, I could put two full time writers to work covering the area. The transparency would remain, but the funding mechanism would be much different. Even if it isn’t sustainable long term, it will at least help us buy time to come up with something better.
I’m going to change up my usual questions this month to get an idea of what options are available to me. My expectation is to make some kind of formal announcement in the first quarter of 2014 about what the next steps will be. In the meantime, your donations are very much appreciated.