Unbundling news and advertising

I’ve written earlier about how once news media became dependent on subscriptions, it started becoming partisan. Thinking about it, it is not particularly correct.

If we think of the traditional (physical) newspaper, it was seldom given away for free (when I lived in London I would pick up free copies of the Evening Standard on days when I needed to line my compost bin). Traditional newspapers relied (and still do) on a combination of subscription and advertising for their revenues.

In that sense, what the New York Times does now (read this nice interview with its outgoing CEO) is basically a digital transformation of what it has been doing for over a hundred years – make money off a combination of subscription and advertising.

So if the business model was the same, why did the online New York Times differ from its previous avatar and become politically partisan? Because the nature of advertising changed.

Nowadays I have this favourite theory that everything is a bundle (maybe I should write my next book about this?).

You can consider this post to belong to this meme.

The traditional newspaper, if you think about it, was a collection of news and advertisements all bundled together. While you could choose what part of the paper you wanted to consume, when you went to a page you would inevitably scan all the headlines. And whether you liked them or not, you would actually eyeball all the advertisements.

The important thing to note is that the paper was a physical product and what advertisement the reader was shown did not depend on that person at all. Whether you were a raving communist or a slaveholder, you would be shown the same set of advertisements.

This meant that physical newspaper advertisements were (and still are) dominated by mass products that were aimed at everyone. And since these advertisements were usually paid for based on an estimate (sometimes highly inaccurate) of how many people saw them, the newspapers wanted to maximise the eyeballs. This meant not taking any extreme political stances, and keeping all parts of the political spectrum onside.

What changed with the move to digital was that this bundle containing the news and the advertisements broke down.

With advertising being sold through data-driven ad exchanges, it was now possible to show different advertisements to different people. And with advertisements now dependent on your search and browsing history (apart from your political preferences), it was effectively personalised. The New York Times did not need to directly sell advertising any more. All they needed to do was to sign a contract with Google or Facebook or both. Job done.

Digital advertising doesn’t make sense for mass brands. Rather, it is highly likely that the availability of data will mean that they will frequently get outbid by highly targeted brands. So whether mass brands wanted to advertise in the New York Times became a less important decision. The paper had no compulsion to be politically neutral any more.

And once their early set of subscribers showed a marked preference for one kind of politics, it made sense to them to go after the subscription dollars of this audience rather than the already uncertain dollars of potential subscribers that preferred another kind of politics. And then there as a self-reinforcement cycle.

Media can crib as much as they want about the likes of Google and Facebook taking away their money. They can lobby, like they have done in Australia, to “levy a google tax“. People can crib about media having become biased.

However, we need to remember that all this mess started with the unmaking of a bundle – once news and advertising had been separated, there was no turning back.

Footage

So after a fifteen year gap, I was in the Times of India yesterday, writing about the joys of working from home (I’d shared the clipping yesterday, sharing it again). The interesting thing is that this piece got me the kind of attention that I very rarely got with my six ¬†years with the HT Media family (Mint and Hindustan Times).

The main reason, I guess, that this got far more footage, was that it came in a newspaper with a really high circulation. ToI is by far the number one English newspaper in India. While HT may be number two, we don’t even know how much of a number two it is, since it seemingly didn’t participate in the last Indian Readership Survey.

Moreover, ToI is read widely by people in my network. While the same might be true of Mint (at least until its distribution in Bangalore went kaput), it was surely not the case with HT. I didn’t know anyone who read the paper, and since my articles mostly never appeared online, they seemed to go into a black hole.

Another reason why my article got noticed so widely was the positioning in the paper – it was part of ToI’s massively extended “page one” (it came on the back of the front page, which was full of advertisements). So anyone who picked up the paper would have seen this in the first “real page of news” (though this page was filled with analysis of working from home).

On top of all this, I think my mugshot accompanying the article made a lot of difference. While the title of the article itself might have been missed by a few, my photo popping out of there (it helps I have the same photo on my Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and WhatsApp – thanks Anuroop) ensured that anyone who paid remote attention to my face would end up reading the article, and that helped me get further reach among my existing network.

ToI is going to pay me a nominal amount for this article, far less than what Mint or HT used to pay me per piece (then again, this one is completely non-technical), but I don’t seem to mind it at all. That it’s given me much more reach among my network means that I’m satisfied with ToI’s nominal payment.

Thinking about it, if we think of newspapers as three-sided markets connecting writers, readers and advertisers, it is possible that others who write for ToI do so for below market prices as well, for it has an incredibly large reach among “people like us”. And that sets the size-related network effects (“flywheel” as silicon valley types like to call it) in action among the writer side as well -you don’t write for money along, and if it can be sort of guaranteed that a larger number of people will read what you write, you will be willing to take lower payment.

In any case, this ToI thingy was a one-off (the last time I’d written for them was way back in 2005, when I was a student – it’s incredible I’ve given this post the same title as that one. I guess I haven’t grown up). But I may not mind doing more of such stuff for them. The more obscure the paper, though, the higher I’ll be inclined to charge! Oh, and henceforth, I’ll insist my mugshot goes with everything I write, even if that lowers my monetary fees.

 

News, Subscription, Advertising, and Bias

Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan have some very interesting research out on the political bias of Indian news publications. Rather than do complicated gymnastics such as NLP, they’ve simply looked at the share of articles from each news publication that is retweeted by BJP and non-BJP publications, to draw out a measure of their bias (see link above for methodology).

They have made a nice scatter plot (the other axis is how “popular” these news outlets are in terms of the number of articles retweeted), and looking left to right, you can see the understood (by politicians) bias of various Indian news publications.¬†As Helmet pointed out on Twitter, the most “centrist” news outlets seem to be the Times of India and the Economic Times, both from the Bennett, Coleman and Company group, who people crib about for “being too commercial” and “having too many advertisements”.

This reminds me of another piece of analysis that was in the news a few months ago, about how subscription-driven online news has led to news outlets being politically polarising. For example, Zach Goldberg did some analysis of frequency of words/phrases in the New York Times that are associated with the extreme left.

Note the inflexion point sometime in 2012 or so, around the same time when the NY Times put up its paywall.

David Rozado has a more comprehensive picture (check out his nifty tool here).

The idea is this – when newspapers depended on advertising for most of their funding, they needed to be centrist. Taking political sides meant that large mass-market advertisers wouldn’t want to advertise in this newspaper, and the paper would thus lose revenues. Hence, for the longest time, whatever the quality of the reporting and writing was, news outlets strove to be reasonably politically unbiased – taking sides would mean a loss of money.

Once digital took off, and it became clear that digital advertising wouldn’t really sustain the papers, they started putting their content behind paywalls. And subscription revenues meant two things – news outlets weren’t as beholden to advertisers as they used to be, and it was easier to get paying subscribers if you had a strong ideology. Moreover, online you can provide targeted advertising (rather than mass-market), so you can get away with being biased. And so with the coming of paywalls, newspapers started becoming far more political as the New York Times graph above indicates.

In India, there haven’t been too many publications behind paywalls, but media is evidently getting more and more polarised over time. Papers and channels are branding themselves (implicitly) as being pro or against a particular political party, and that is driving their viewership.

While these media outlets are good for fanbois (and fangirls) of particular ideologies, the ideological bent has meant that it has become harder to get objective news.

And that’s where money, and advertising, comes in.

The positioning of ToI and ET in the middle of the Indian media ideological graph is interesting because they belong to a group that is brazen about commercialisation and revenues (from advertising). And in terms of news objectivity, that’s a good thing. Since ToI and ET are highly money minded, they want to get as much advertising as possible, and in order to attract mass marketers, they need to not be biased.

Taking a political stand means pissing off people belonging to the opposite political persuasion, and that means less readership, which means less advertising revenues. And so if you read the editorials of these newspapers (I read ET everyday), you see that they maintain a careful balance of not appearing too biased in favour or against any party. And you see them raking in the advertisers while more biased (and “ideological”) competitors are forced to request for donations, or put up paywalls restricting their readership.

Putting it another way, there is no surprise that ToI and ET are not biased in their news, and are retweeted by politicians of all persuasions. It is the classic money-driven media model, and that is the one that is capable of providing the most objective news.

The problem with online media

… is that there is no ending. There is no sense of having “finished the newspaper”.

And there is no context. You see the homepage of a major newspaper, and you see a bunch of headlines leading to links. Occasionally there are section headers that tell you which broad section of the newspaper they come from (news/opinion), but that context is usually far inferior to what you see in print.

So addressing the issues one by one, the first “issue” with online media which no website (AFAIK) can solve is that online news is an online process (apologies for the pun) – as news comes in it needs to be displayed on the website, without really waiting for “editions”. This means there is a conflict between “importance” and “recency” – what kind of news do you show near the top and in bold? Stuff that came in latest or stuff that you think is important?

This means that you need a “live editor” (might be replaced by a bot very soon) all the time who takes a call on what comes on top. Yet, if I’m checking the news after a day, what might be “important” for me is very different from what might be important for you who is checking the news after half an hour. You most definitely want the latest stuff, while I possibly want to know everything that’s happened in the day. And a simple news website cannot cater to both.

The other problem is the lack of context and information before clicking through. In an offline newspaper, there is a large amount of information you have before you “click through” to an article. There is the page it appears on – if you are a regular reader of the paper, you know the kind of articles that appear on each page.

There is the author – you have most definitely built a model over time on which authors to not miss and whom to avoid. There is the length of the article. And there are articles that appear around it. And all these put together provide you enough information on whether it might be worth reading the content on an article.

Most of this is missing in online media, where you need to make your decision to read on headlines. Which can sometimes be click-baity and not all that informative. And so the chances of regret having clicked through to an article is high. Which means that you need some sort of external cues to make you want to click through and read an article.

And so you start consuming news through social media – articles that your friends recommend, with possibly some more information and context on what it’s about. This information and context would have in an offline world been given to you by the newspaper itself.

And so as you consume more and more news from social media, you have the usual problems of echo chambers, and not even glancing through the headlines of news you don’t like (notice how a traditional offline newspaper makes you go through most headlines, whether you like it or not!).

Finally, in an online newspaper there is no concept of having “finished” the paper, of having consumed all the news. As you keep consuming news, you find new pieces of information being thrown at you. Not knowing when to stop, you simply give up!

Context sensitive and context free journalism

My wife thinks that most of my writing for Mint is incredibly boring, and of a significantly inferior quality to what I publish on this blog. Initially I thought it was because I was taking myself too seriously for Mint (a national newspaper and all that), but despite my attempts to “loosen up”, and write my Mint articles “in flow”, the criticism continues.

Now thinking about it, one reason why my writing for Mint might be boring is that in the beginning of each piece I try hard to provide context. I write without assuming that my readers know exactly what I’m writing about, and so I spend some time giving sufficient background so that my readers appreciate my articles (and most of my pieces appear with minimal edits).

This, I realise now, is not how Indian journalism usually works, for in a large majority of pieces it is assumed that the reader has context. Many a time I find myself reading a piece and not being able to make the head or tail of it, and then going back and trying to figure out the context. The point of several articles I’ve read has become clear only in retrospect, when I’ve found something else that this article was referencing (but didn’t link to).

On the other hand, a “newspaper” like The Economist mostly does context-free journalism. Every piece comes with sufficient background for the reader to know what is happening. There may not be links to find out more, but the limited context provided is enough to understand the point of the piece. Maybe that they are a weekly, and cover news from all over the world makes them want to provide context?

In any case, I find context-sensitive journalism (like what most daily newspapers practice) irritating. Or maybe it is that they haven’t really made the transition from print to digital? Print is a medium where the publisher controls what articles are seen together by a reader, and so one article can provide the required context to an adjacent article.

There is no such “togetherness” in digital. This strengthens my belief that journalism is still yet to “get” digital.

Name mutilation

Like Bangalore supposedly became Bengaluru a few years back (when HDK was cheap minister), West Bengal is going to change its name to “Poschim Bongo” or some such thing. Now, unlike Bombay-Mumbai or Madras-Chennai, the thing with these name changes is that they are merely globalization of local names. Let me explain.

Bombay (bom bahia or good port in Portuguese) and Mumbai (of Mumba Devi) are fundamentally different. Madras (mad race? ) and Chennai (beautiful) are again fundamentally different. While I disagree with those name changes and still prefer to call those cities by their former names, I see that the change in those names at least has some merit. They wanted to get rid of their colonial British-given names (and i’m sure Tams wanted to prove they aren’t a mad race, though they might have achieved the opposite through this action) and chose local names in the local language.

When Bangalore’s name was supposedly changed to “Bengaluru” a few years back, Kannada newspapers (I used to subscribe to Vijaya Karnataka back then) had a tough time explaining the name change. Because Bangalore has forever been known as “Bengaluru” in Kannada. Even now, when I speak in Kannada I say “Bengaluru” but I say “Bangalore” when speaking in any other language. While it might have been a noble intention by HDK and UR Ananthamurthy and others behind the name change to get the non-Kannadigas to use the Kannada name, the effect has been completely counterproductive.

Till date, I’m yet to meet someone who is not conversant in Kannada to pronounce “BengaLuru” correctly. First of all, most people can’t say the “L” sound and instead pronounce it as “l” (in Kannada that can make a profound difference. for example “hELu” is “tell” while “hElu” is “shit” ). Next (this is the problem with most North Indians), people have trouble pronouncing the short ‘e’ sound. Finally, it’s hard for people to figure out that the first U in Bengaluru is to be pronounced long and the terminal u should be pronounced short. The combination of all these means horribly messed up pronunciation, which makes one wonder why they bothered to “change” the name at all.

West Bengal doesn’t seem to have learnt from this experience of Bangalore. They want to call themselves “Poschim Bongo” it seems. Not being a bong, I’m going to have major difficulty in pronouncing that name, and I might end up pronouncing it in a way that makes most bongs cringe. I really hope they see sense before they make this name change official and opt for a saner name, if they want to change their name at all that is.

One thing they could try would be to knock that “west” off their name (I believe the Times of India has been campaigning for this). West Bengal was the primary reason that I got my directions and geography horribly wrong till I was some eight years old. I used to assume that “West Bengal” was at the western edge of India! Especially since Bangladesh is no more called “East Bengal”.

Given that they are mostly commie, one thing they could try is probably to go the East Germany or North Korea way, and name themselves “Democratic State of Bengal” or some such thing.