Quality Journalism as a Loss Leader

The latest episode of Limitless Adventure, a new podcast by G. Keenan Schneider and Charles Stark, had me thinking about the future of journalism and how publications can continue producing meaningful, deliberate, and creative content for the web. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to garner attention with the multitude of competing sites that resort to publishing linkbait headlines and do everything possible to generate pageviews. But, there’s plenty of ways that meaningful content will continue to be created and I think it’s bound to happen because there’s an obvious and clear market for it.

The first option, and one that was mentioned on the aforelinked episode of Limitless Adventure, is to be accepting of the fact that you’re never going to be as big as BuzzFeed. There’s still advertising revenue to be made while primarily producing longer-form, investigative thought pieces. But by placing your focus on quality, you will be leaving money on the table. And that’s okay.

Build an online publication made up of a small team of bright individuals who have grown tired of writing 150 word articles to accompany fail GIFs and run the business on a lean budget. Making the decision to publish less often might not make investors happy, but I think a publication that focuses on quality over quantity would be able to build a strong following of influential readers. And in turn, the business will be able to pay their writers a fair wage — no one’s going to walk away a millionaire, but they’ll be able to provide for their family and be proud of what their doing along the way.

The second option is for publications to continue producing high-quality content as a loss leader. Even though each individual article won’t recoup the costs associated with creating it, the revenue from all of the articles about squirrels on roller skates or cats playing Tomogochi will subsidize the cost of everything that’s more expensive to produce. This is something that I’ve noticed The Verge doing a lot lately. It infuriates me when I see them introduce a sex column or start reviewing animals, but if that’s what it takes in order to continue writing in-depth gadget reviews, I suppose I can withstand the constant barrage of junk for the times when they hit it out of the park. I think we’ll see a lot more of this in the near future, it’s an attractive model because it allows the site to make as much money as possible while still giving the incredible writers an outlet for their most fulfilling work.

The final option is for large corporations or wealthy individuals to start acquiring publications. There’s been a bit of this lately with Verizon’s purchase of AOL —which gave them control over TechCrunch, Engadget, and Huffington Post — and a couple of years ago when Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post. I’m sure many of these properties are making enough money, but let’s just say Engadget stops being profitable tomorrow. I don’t think it would be in Verizon’s best interest to shut it down. For one, it would be a sign of goodwill toward the community to continue running that type of publication at a loss for the betterment of society. But, Verizon might realize that they make a lot of money from their customers purchasing high-margin handsets alongside expensive data packages — many of whom are Engadget readers. Doing what Verizon can to foster a community like that would be good for their bottom line in the long run, they could simply consider it a part of their marketing budget rather than a division that generates profit. I’m sure there would be readers crying foul about conflicts of interest, but I’d rather have a publication that’s still trying to move the needle than not.

As another example, my favorite grocery store in the world, Wegmans, produces a monthly magazine that’s free to all Shoppers Club card holders (which is also free). The magazine is filled with articles about new food sourcing initiatives, the farmers who grow their produce, Q&As with one of the grocery store’s chefs, recipes, and new Wegmans products. There’s very few non-house ads and my fiancée and I look forward to it every bit as much as we do our monthly issue of Bon Appétit.

I doubt Wegmans is making much money directly from the magazine — certainly not a profit. But, they continue to produce it because it helps keep their customers interested in food and thinking about all of the great meals they can have after buying groceries from a Wegmans location. It’s operated at a loss because the company knows they can recoup the cost from each of its readers with their monthly grocery bill. It’s the quintessential example of a company running a publication at a loss for the betterment of their business.

The future of publishing may seem bleak, but things have a way of correcting themselves. I think all of the above options are valid and I bet we’ll start seeing far more examples of each in the coming years, but I’m sure we’ll also see a lot of publications with business models that no one’s even thought of yet. The world is full of really intelligent people, many of whom love to share their ideas and need a platform for doing so — someone will find a way to build a publication filled with high-quality content while still turning a profit. In the end it might mean one of the above, but as long as I continue to have thought provoking articles to read and a place to publish my own, I’ll be happy.