Shoptalk: The True Value in News is Commanding an Audience

This article is worthless. You heard me. I wouldn’t pay a dime to read it, wouldn’t pay myself a dime to produce it and wouldn’t pay a dime to publish it.

Even if this were to go viral on BuzzFeed or Forbes, it’s not like it would feed my family.

The issue is this: The article itself, as a form of writing, has been devalued to the point where its essential value is zero.

Part of it is because platforms like Upwork and Fiverr have made it possible to commission 300 words on anything for a few bucks.

But more than that, there are thousands of people with real talent who are sharing their art with the world. There are more brilliant articles written each day than anyone could possibly consume. Even the best of them aren’t enough to move any financial needle.

The apocryphal example is the massive enterprise project from Mother Jones on the problems with private prisons. If you’re in the journalism world, you’ve probably heard about it. The story racked up more than a million views and had a tangible impact on public policy. It cost roughly $350,000 to produce. Online, it brought in roughly $5,000 in revenue.

An article is worthless. An audience — now that’s valuable.

Journalists, especially at the local level, have been conditioned to believe that they are cogs in a machine, replaceable, interchangeable and useful only for churning out content to fill a news hole. They’ve generally not been willing or empowered to wield their clout to push for change in their institutions or command higher salaries.

This must change, and quickly.

Chasing page views is a losing battle. Building a stable of committed, enthusiastic subscribers is the only way to sustain a news product in the internet era.

Journalists who are able to help do this will become increasingly valuable. A reporter who can pull in 1,000 paying subscribers is more than paying their salary.

The problem then becomes creating the right incentives. The metrics here are less cut and dry. How many people maintained their subscriptions with Mother Jones because of the prison story? It’s impossible to know. But clearly, that’s where you make a business case for laying out 350 G’s on a single story. According to the most recent numbers, Mother Jones has about 200,000 subscribers. If they all pay $12/year, that’s a nice $2.4 million per year in revenue before you get to still-lucrative print advertising.

An individual story on a county school board meeting might only pull 800 readers. Not worth the effort, right? Not necessarily. If these 800 people subscribe to the newspaper for education coverage, that changes the equation.

For some reason, I keep seeing news organizations hire reporters for continuous news desks or breaking news beats. Their job is to populate the website with articles throughout the day. At the national level, this makes sense. You can build a business with enough scale where a page view play is achievable.

At the local level, these efforts are mostly in vain. If a sizable group of people isn’t pulling out its wallets to read your coverage, your job is in jeopardy.

No matter how good an article you can write.

Andrew Dunn is the editor-in-chief of Charlotte Agenda, a rapidly growing local digital news company in North Carolina. Prior to joining the Agenda, he was a reporter and editor at The Charlotte Observer.

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