At the start of July, Josh Sternberg of Digiday posted an article, "Who's winning at volume in publishing", that examined the ratio of editorial staff to content produced each day at:
- Forbes.com (1:8)
- The Awl (1:7.5)
- The Huffington Post (1:4)
- Business Insider (1:4)
- Buzzfeed (1:3.75)
- Slate (1:1.5)
- The New York Times (3:1)
A Digiday graphic notes that Forbes' output relies on a large network of outside contributors. These writers are typically paid based on traffic to their posts. Sternberg also writes that a smaller, niche site like The Awl "has to punch above its weight", creating many more new posts per staff member in pursuit of adequate volume.
The analysis that Sternberg offers is interesting, but I'm not sure that a spot at the top of the list qualifies as "winning". The post includes an implicit endorsement of advertising-supported content on the web, but that bias likely stems from what we know.
Even the oldest among us have grown up in an era of advertising-supported periodicals. With a limited time horizon, it's easy to think that newspapers and magazines "always" took in advertising.
In fact, the growth of large-scale advertising vehicles is a 20th-century phenomenom. Advertisers learned to put messages in front of audiences that grew larger by the decade, particularly after the advent of television.
The internet has changed that, shifting our focus from "communities of millions" to "millions of communities". That makes it much harder for most sites to pay for content with advertising. Other options are required.
Subscriptions are one such option, but so too is commerce. Take a look at Amanda Fayer's post about "AirBnB's content strategy" (fittingly available through the Huffington Post) to better sense how content is part of a value chain, but not all of it.
This shift was forecast in 2005 by Bob Garfield, then a columnist with Advertising Age, in "The Chaos Scenario". Garfield predicted a radical decline in the effectiveness of advertising, something that the money ("digital dimes") has come to confirm.
Garfield's most recent book, Can't Buy Me Like (co-written with Doug Levy), makes the argument that four forces have transformed the value of advertising:
- The collapse of "mass"
- An Internet-enabled increase in transparency
- A rise in social connectivity
- The primacy of trust
Taken together, these four forces are making ours what Garfield calls "the relationship era".
Garfield makes a good case for a new approach to advertising. I think the corallory for publishers is simple: ad rates are low because the value is absent. Rather than goose the content machine to make up for it in volume, we might focus instead on delivering a different kind of value, of the sort that Garfield and AirBnB illustrate.