What Can We Learn From Time Inc.’s “Spreadsheet-Gate”?
What does it say about our perception of online content when we learn that "only" writers who work for SI.com need to generate content that benefits the advertisers? What do we learn about our perception of print when we hear that -- in contrast to their online content creators -- Time, Inc. judges its print writers by "quality of writing" and "newsworthiness?" And what does it mean when the chief digital officer of this leading media company argues that "in a dot-com world, if you're judging people on audience traffic, one of the qualities of those things" is whether you can create content for the advertisers to monetize?
It means a lot of things. It means we still respect the authority of print more than online. It indicates that if this is the direction in which the major media companies are going, we will inevitably continue to respect print more than online content because its creators do. And it means that -- let's be honest -- content publishers still have a long way to go in finding an online model that consistently works, both to deliver great content and to make money.
Readers are less willing to pay for digital content than for print content. Advertisers are unwilling to pay as much for digital readers, and when they do pay they want to make darn sure they are getting what they pay for.
But is the need to deliver content that is relevant to advertisers as well as readers so unique to digital? I've worked for special interest print publications that were started with the express purpose of delivering content the publisher could sell advertising against. Hasn't everyone? If the content is good, and the audience is seeking that content, the publication is more likely to succeed. If the content is poor, a thinly-veiled attempt to fill in useless pages between ads with cheap copy, the publication is almost sure to fail.
I've worked for publications that were nothing but ads -- no content to speak of between the ads. If the ads fill a need, readers will pay for them. Really. Remember Computer Shopper? Remember the Spiegel catalog? Both publications had, at one time, a paid newsstand circulation that was the envy of many content-driven publications.
I worked for a computer magazine whose editor-in-chief was almost fired because of a bad review he gave an advertiser's product. And what woman is not familiar with the complaint that women's magazines use content to make them feel bad about how they look, so they'll buy the product that is being advertised?
I'm not advocating for a content sell-out to the highest bidder. I'm not advocating for the coercive use of content to help sell advertisers' products. But is the wall between "church and state" really just beginning to fall, as the outcry seems to indicate?
Methinks not. Methinks the publishing community doth protest too much.
Linda Ruth, as president of PSCS Consulting (www.PSCSConsulting.com), offers communication companies worldwide the keys to magazine launches, search engine optimization and audience development online and at retail. She is a pioneer in the fields of Online Audience Optimization (OAO) and gamification for content publishers. Her books, "Internet Marketing for Magazine Publishers" ; "How to Market your Newsstand Magazine"; and "Secrets of SEO for Publishers" can be found on Amazon. Find her online at Google Plus, Magazine Dojo, LinkedIn, and Twitter @Linda_Ruth.