Come On Nick, You Can Do Better Than That

Choire Sicha, former editor of Gawker and now co-founder of The Awl, points out that the Gawker offices have a large screen mounted on the wall that shows the top most-read stories on the site in terms of unique visitors, allegedly to motivate writers at the blog network (although it’s interesting to note that this screen is described as being in the reception area rather than where the writers can see it). Gawker also posts its top-read stories in terms of both pageviews and unique visitors, which is an interesting page to watch.

That said, however, pageviews and even unique visitors are only a couple of the factors that media entities need to be concerned about — as I tried to argue in this post (check the bottom for recent updates), based on the Twitter debate between Reuters writer Felix Salmon and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget — and neither one of them is arguably the most important. Yes, they are the metrics with the largest numbers, and so they impress some advertisers and possibly some competitors. But they are also subject to inflation by girls kissing and slideshows, as Felix noted in the tweet that started his battle with Blodget.

Denton says he agrees that pageviews and uniques aren’t the best measures, and asks for others that are better. Okay, Nick — what about time spent with a story? Why not put that up on a big-screen TV on the wall? What about the number of repeat visitors that a writer gets over a month? Or what about the number of comments on a story, multiplied by the number of times a writer actually responds? Gawker is one of the most forward-thinking sites on the Web when it comes to comments and how they are managed, and from what I have seen their writers — particularly Denton himself — are good about responding. That’s a far better metric of value in my books.

Soon, advertisers will realize that chasing after raw pageviews and
big unique visitor numbers is a mug’s game, and one that Demand Media
and Associated Content and similar content factories will win every
— and arguably many advertisers are already realizing this,
which is why CPMs generally suck. So what starts to matter more?
Engagement. Admittedly, it’s difficult to measure (let alone define),
but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.

Update: In a tweet to me, Nick says that comments are “a horribly misleading measure, e.g. commenter delight at a blog squabble is inversely related to wider appeal.”

Mahendra Palsule also has a thoughtful post about the move from number-based metrics such as pageviews and CPMs to relevance-based measurement and tools.

Twitter Fight a Symptom of Old vs. New Media

Update 2: Felix now has his own response to Blodget’s tirade, in which he makes many of the same points that I tried to make, including:

Blodget should remind himself on a daily basis that publishers make money by selling readers, not adspace, and that if he’s going to make money, he’s going to have to do so by getting high-value readers that companies want to reach. At the moment, both Blodget and his advertisers are stuck in an increasingly out-of-date paradigm wherein pageviews serve as a proxy for readers, but today, unless you’re Demand Media or the like, that paradigm is doomed.

Update: Elizabeth Spiers, founding editor of Gawker, has come out in favour of Henry Blodget on this one. As she puts it in her Tumblr post:

I don’t agree with everything Henry Blodget has been saying, but between Blodget and Felix Salmon, Blodget sounds like someone who runs/has run a new media business before and Felix sounds like someone who’s never been anywhere near the business side.

She also said that while Felix was a “smart and agile writer,” she thought he was “very naive about the granular economics of an online biz.” In case anyone is keeping score, that makes one Gawker founder and one former Gawker editor on Blodget’s side.

Not content to respond to Felix just once, meanwhile, Henry has responded a second time in this post. Among other things, he says that Salmon’s criticism is unfair because “We’re publishing a huge amount of content that is exactly what this particular critic thinks we should be producing — long, text-heavy analysis, original reporting, and commentary.” And he says he loves slideshows.

Interestingly enough — once again reinforcing his argument about the economics of online publishing — Blodget’s post doesn’t have a URL packed with keywords, but it does have another money-making feature (one I personally loathe): double-underlined pseudo-hyperlinks under certain words that trigger popup advertising windows from a company called Kontera (this kind of gimmick isn’t specific to new media entities, incidentally; the paper I used to work for uses them all the time as well, although I did my best to eradicate them from the website).

Original post: There’s a certain sense of the Roman Coliseum to a good Twitter fight, which typically features two combatants (although others can throw in comments from the sidelines) and an invisible mass of spectators, taking in every uppercut or knife gash and cheering the participants on. Plenty of people crowded around on Friday when a Twitter fight started brewing between Henry Blodget, founder/editor of The Business Insider network of blogs, and Reuters media writer Felix Salmon, and the resulting skirmish was written up by Vanity Fair magazine and The Atlantic, who called it an “epic Twitter tussle” (although Choire Sicha dismissed it as a “snippy little girl-spat”). But beneath the sniping and 140-character witticisms was a real question: What does a successful online media business model look like?

Salmon appears to have started it with a tweet mentioning @hblodget’s business model thus: “Take a story about M&A fees associated with AIG. Illustrate with 2 hot babes kissing.” (Salmon also took a shot at Blodget and his business model after Blodget fired former Clusterstock editor John Carney). For the full back-and-forth, you can check out the post that Blodget later wrote summarizing his view of the debate (just to rub it in, he turned the back-and-forth tweetstream into a slideshow). During the skirmish, Gawker Media head honcho Nick Denton even waded in with a tweet, saying: “Of course @felixsalmon has such animus to commercial web media: the online audience is so measurable and his so small.”

Blodget’s response itself is like a microcosm of his argument: a careful reader will notice that he stuffed as many potential keywords as he could into the URL of the piece, which uses his name, the word “furious,” the word “attack,” the name of the blog and the term “twitter” (check out this TMZ link on Corey Haim for another example). Both of those features — the slideshow and the URL stuffing — are designed to build traffic, either by boosting pageviews (slideshow) or by improving the likelihood that someone might find the post by searching, or that it would turn up in an aggregator such as Techmeme (in other words, search-engine optimization). So even with his summary of the debate, Blodget was making a point: as far as Business Insider is concerned, pageviews rule.

Salmon also wrote about the Twitter debate, but he stuck to the business issues behind what he was arguing about: namely, whether the model defended by Blodget makes any sense or not. That defence came in a stream of tweets following Blodget’s debate with Salmon, in which he tried to explain how online media works. In a nutshell, he said, such businesses live or die based on CPMs (cost per thousand, the price paid by advertisers per thousand pageviews). If a writer is paid $60,000, Blodget argues, then they have to generate 1.8M pageviews just to pay their salary at a $10 CPM. Hence, presumably, the slideshows and girls kissing.

Salmon argues that this model would work if the site charged the full rate for its ads, but says Business Insider (like many sites) discounts its rates in order to fill all of its pages — for which he blames the ad-sales staff. But is that fair? Not really. For one thing, lots of sites discount from their published “rate card.” But the reality is also that there is so much inventory on the Web that it’s virtually impossible to sell it all, and there is more being produced every day, thanks to places like Demand Media and Associated Content (the latter produces several thousand new pieces of content every *day*). That’s just one reason why relying solely on a bog-standard pageview/CPM-based model is an inherently flawed model.

Later, however, Felix nails it when he says that there are other monetization strategies that can apply apart from just advertising, including “syndication, conferences, stock indices, e-commerce, brand franchising opportunities, wine clubs… you name it.” Of course, there’s also the monetization strategy of selling dedicated terminals with financial data to traders, brokers and bankers, which — as Blodget notes in a tweet — is part of what pays Salmon’s salary. That’s about as old media as a business model can get, and Reuters (like Bloomberg and virtually every other traditional media entity) is also having to confront the disruption of its business model by the Web.

So what are smart online media outlets doing? Two things: One is focusing on building businesses such as conferences and events, as well as subscription-based, proprietary content (something Business Insider is also experimenting with). The other — and this is what I think Salmon was driving at — is thinking about traffic and pageviews in a different way. Not all pageviews are the same, and as a result not all CPMs are the same. Does forcing readers to click through multiple pages to view a slideshow add any real value? No. This is the digital equivalent of newspapers throwing extra copies into a ravine (or dumping them at a taxi stand) to boost circulation.

At some point, online publishers have to decide whether they are pursuing a lowest common denominator strategy of raw pageviews at some bargain-basement, remnant-priced CPM, or a higher-value strategy that focuses on building relationships with readers around content and enhancing that relationship in as many ways as possible. Felix (in Blodget’s view at least) may have the luxury of the Reuters infrastructure and terminal business behind him, but that doesn’t make what he’s saying any less accurate. And I think one of the reasons Henry reacted the way he did is that he knows Salmon is right.

Anonymous Comments: Are They Good or Evil?

Updated: I enjoy a good debate about media-related topics pretty much any time, even when I’m supposed to be on vacation with the family in Florida. Today, in between playing shuffleboard and bocce and taking the kids to the swimming pool, I had a rousing back-and-forth on Twitter with Howard Owens — who was formerly with Gatehouse Media and is now running a local news site called The Batavian — about the evils (Howard) and virtues (me) of anonymous comments. Along the way, we sucked Steve Yelvington and others into the fray as well. Did we settle the issue? Not even close. In fact, I’m not sure it can ever be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

In a nutshell, Howard said that anonymous comments were an abomination (I’m paraphrasing somewhat) and were in fact unethical, since commenters on a news site had a “fundamental right” to know the identity of the other people commenting. I tried to make a number of points, including the fact that anonymity is a red herring, and that the more important thing in encouraging a strong and healthy community conversation is standards of behaviour, regardless of anonymity. I also tried to make the point that anonymity has its benefits, and that many people — some of whom might have valuable contributions to make — would never comment if they had to use real names (Howard made the point that allowing anonymity excludes other people).

Howard noted that his beliefs about anonymous comments come from “a vast body” of real-world experience, not just theories and supposition. While I may not have a vast body of experience, I spent several years dealing with comments at the Globe and Mail, where we routinely got 7,000 or more comments every day — and for the past year or so I was in charge of moderating those comments, so anonymity is something I not only have seen the downside of, but feel pretty strongly about (hence the debate). And I surveyed our readers about it extensively, so I know how many of them feel as well — in fact, I wrote a whole blog post about exactly that topic in 2008.

After I took the job as online Communities Editor, the first thing people said to me was “You have to fix the comments — they’re terrible.” And the second thing they said was: “We should make people use their real names. That would solve everything.” The first of those observations was arguably true, since the Globe and Mail comments were in many cases terrible. But the second observation was not even close to being true, or at least I didn’t think so. For one thing, I knew that there were some online communities that allowed anonymous comments and yet had pretty healthy comment boards, including Metafilter (one of my favourites) and Slashdot. (I’m not the only one to defend anonymous comments — a former executive editor of did so as well, despite his earlier dislike of them).

The other thing I knew was that it is virtually impossible to actually verify someone’s identity online, unless you ask them for their social insurance (or social security) number, or their credit-card number. And while I have no empirical evidence to prove it, I have a pretty strong feeling that this would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (as would charging for the right to comment, which someone on Twitter suggested as a solution). And I believe that one of the principles of running a media site is that you should open up interaction to as many people as possible. Not that you don’t moderate offensive comments — far from it. In fact, I think moderation and engagement (as Steve Yelvington notes in this post) can make up for a lot of what Howard sees as the downsides of anonymity (a point Jim Lippard also made).

When I’m asked about comments, I often say that to me, comments and the ability to interact through them are like democracy. Most people support democracy and its various principles, even though in practice it is frequently ugly and brutal and betrays some of the worst elements of humanity for everyone to see (Winston Churchill said that democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others). So it is with comments. And just as anonymity has a broader purpose in a democratic society — whistleblowing, for example (a point Topix CEO Chris Tolles made), and keeping a check on arbitrary authority — I think it has a purpose in comments and online communities as well.

As I mentioned during our debate, I think that persistent (and quasi-verified) identity agents like Facebook Connect and OpenID can help with some of the problems that online comments have — not necessarily “real” identity so much as persistent identity. It’s not really important that I know who Shelley456 is when she comments, but if she is Shelley456 everywhere she comments, then she has devoted some time (theoretically) to establishing that identity, and therefore will be less likely to destroy it by spewing Nazi hate in some online comment board. Sites that take advantage of persistent identity can become a little like World of Warcraft, allowing people to “level up” through good behaviour, relying on the fact that they won’t behave badly because they have devoted so much time to their virtual identities.

In any case, as I noted on Twitter, I didn’t pick on Howard because I wanted to start a fight over comments — I got into the debate because I think it’s an important issue and because it needs to be thought about and talked about if we are to get it right (and I’m willing to admit that what is right for Howard on his community news site is not what might be right for another news site or entity). Thanks to everyone who took part.

Update: John Bracken of the MacArthur Foundation wrote a post about this discussion, and so did Steve Buttry — who is director of community engagement for the new hyper-local Washington news site that Jim Brady is setting up for Allbritton Communications, and therefore is pretty interested in different approaches to reader comments. Steve’s post is here.

John Temple also said he is interested in the discussion — John is the former editor of the Rocky Mountain News and is now with Pierre Omidyar’s new Peer News startup, and his recent comments about comments started me thinking again about anonymity and how it is a red herring in online community. As Chris Garrett noted in the context of another discussion about online community, “pseudonym does not mean fake.” Jack Lail also has a post with a collection of links he has been putting together about online news site comments.