If you’re reading this newsletter, you’ve likely read the work of Rachel Lerman. The Seattle Times technology reporter is one of my go-to sources for startup updates, and this week I read a story of hers about a collaboration between Porch and Wayfair. When I clicked the link to the story, this is what I saw:
I’m guessing Matt Ehrlichman isn’t the first thing you noticed on this page. If you’re like me, you looked at the disgusting bug (definitely not a yeast) and wondered what “extended belly” is before reading a word of Lerman’s story. (Go ahead and read her story today; last I checked, the rotating ad featured a King County tree-planting campaign.)
These interruptions are not rare in online journalism, especially on websites of print dailies. When a newspaper’s hunt for digital revenue results in unsightly ads, the credibility of folks like Lerman is tarnished. A reader, especially a casual one, is influenced by the entire design of a site, and any logical person would think a publication displaying shock-ya gut-yeast ads might not be the most trusted source of news out there. At worst, the reader would leave the page before reading Lerman’s story.
But there’s fix: ad blockers! This technology saves readers from the horrible ads that gum up load times, interrupt the reading flow, and pipe in audio from some widget on the page that, try as you might, you just can’t find. Unfortunately, this technology could eliminate the revenue stream that funds journalists’ work — nobody’s going to buy an ad that cannot be seen. Ah, quite the pickle we’re in.
Seattle’s an innovative city, and it’s a shame we’re not seeing more innovative attempts at revenue generation among the area’s journalism outlets. The Times is clearly still searching for the right ad approach online. GeekWire’s sponsorship-and-events revenue model appears to be doing well, and nonprofit Crosscut has released some interesting work after joining forces with KCTS 9, but neither of these models have yielded journalism powerhouses that employ dozens of reporters. On a larger scale, national digital-media darlings like BuzzFeed are also having a rough go.
Area journalism isn’t failing. The Times, GeekWire, the Puget Sound Business Journal, 425 Business, and other area media release important stories every day. But small staffs can only do so much; a good deal of the news you read each day, unfortunately, is the result of press-release scouring instead of time-consuming, dogged reporting.
Why should readers care? Between the aforementioned sites and Facebook feeds, most area residents get all the news they think they need. But consider this: If you’re an Eastside tech employee with friends in the field, it’s quite possible that this was the best online “magazine” story you read this week. It was a long, highly-produced, timely feature story about emerging trends in technology — the “invisible revolution” of AI, machine learning, cloud computing, etc. — that Microsoft is leading.
Or at least you’d think Microsoft was leading this trend, as a Microsoft employee wrote the story. As Sydney Brownstone noted in her Stranger essay on the Microsoft piece, “Where Have All the Journalists Gone?”, companies can push stories like this in the absence of voluminous, well-reported local news coverage. And as long as folks get their news from platforms (Facebook) instead of publications (yours truly), it’s harder to differentiate well-disguised PR from legitimate journalism. Native advertising further complicates news literacy.
Journalism has long been seen as the watchdog of the government, but it’s also the watchdog of companies. Microsoft is just as significant to the lives of Eastsiders as any government branch. If Microsoft (or Costco or Boeing or Expedia or Paccar) controls the message, we get the “Invisible Revolution” — important, interesting, but skewed stories. Companies won’t volunteer information about, say, tax dodging — it takes reporters like the Times’ Matt Day to find those stories.
Let’s hope journalism as a whole figures out how to finance itself, and who knows, maybe a Seattle publication can lead the way. I welcome a future where we can read timely, important stories that aren’t accompanied by gut-yeast bugs.
Elsewhere on the Web
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Believe it or not, employees care about more than Ping-Pong tables.
Value Village, the art financier.
Naveen Jain’s next “$10 billion company” sounds kinda gross.
I’m thinking Amazon Echo will be remembered as the unwanted castoff of an apparently grander augmented reality project.