Shares killed newspapers

TL;DR: by making it possible to share individual articles newspapers have to compete too hard for them to make a profit, which forces them to go with more annoying ads.

GigaOm recently had to shut down its operations because they ran out of money — or as they put it:

>Gigaom recently became unable to pay its creditors in full at this time

The oldest business story ever: we ran out money. Since GigaOm tried to be the old kind of media, the kind that produced writings of a high quality that their readers liked, selling advertising of a high quality that their readers liked. Yes they were online but that mostly means you (and your competitors) have lower start up costs, not that you are automagically new media. Also new media is pretty much a mysterious answer to mysterious question, it doesn’t really mean anything.

Ad supported newspapers worked for 200+ years (Wikipedia tells us that The Times started in 1785), so what changed?

It wasn’t that they stopped writing great articles, this one certainly is up there with the best I have seen and it isn’t that people don’t care about quality journalism, as it has been shared and debated frequently.

So was it the internet that killed newspapers? Yes, but not in the way the traditional narrative works.

Sure if you want to advertise you have many more options today, from Google ads to tv spots, but even so you also have many, many more products that could be advertised and good newspapers can charge premium rates, similar to how free newspapers get paid less per ad than paid for newspapers.

What really changed was how newspapers were read: if you buy a physical newspaper you will almost certainly read it from one end to the other, skipping articles as they aren’t of interest to you and perhaps jumping over some sections.

Online? Well here you might read a couple articles by The Times, a couple by somebody else and then move on with your day. Which articles are that gonna be? Those other share with you, most likely on Facebook or Twitter.

Not ever article is going to be shared on Facebook, those that are are done so for a reason and we can list some of them:

  1. The outrage axis.
  2. The news I care about axis.
  3. The quality axis.
  4. The click-baity axis.

The most shared article would be one that caused outrage, about something important to us, in a click-baity manner and be of high quality (this does not conflict with being click-baity, making a click baity article makes people more likely to click on it, quality helps you care). Since these are axis you also have to factor in how extreme the article is on each axis, compared to other articles – I am not sure you can give a virality potential just by taking the cross-product of the axis but it may not be a bad first attempt.

Most articles can be made more click-baity, so they are. Most articles can be written from a point of view of outrage, so they are. Newspapers have always had to write the articles in a way their readers care about.

That leaves quality. The article I mentioned in the opening was outstanding, very well researched and important. It was also much more costly to produce than the typical newspaper article and that is the problem. When each article has to sell itself you can’t have few outstanding articles that the rest have to pay for, you have to make each article about the same value (or charge different prices, but when the only price-point you can run at is zero you lose that option) and since that is below the level it takes to compete you lose readership, making you lose more revenue, making you less able to attract readership.

The spiral goes to the bottom, so to prevent that you can try making more annoying ads, ads for shadier products, using less honest tactics. That will cost you readers, but it may keep you alive.

If you are unwilling to go that route? Well you may end up in a situation where your are “unable to pay your creditors in full”. Your former readers will morn you on Twitter, but it isn’t exactly going to pay the rent.