Football, Blogs and Newspapers Unite? Part Six

So, in summary, a partnership between online newspapers and blogs—for example, an online network linked on a football mainpage with rotating featured posts—comes with both potential advantages and drawbacks.

For bloggers, a network could provide a bigger readership and a closer working relationship with an expert newspaper editorial staff who could pitch story angles or offer general advice. Depending on the advertising model in place, it could also provide potentially higher revenue incentives to keep invest the time and energy necessary to maintain a top quality site, and motivate writers to build blogs worthy of joining one of these networks, improving the current standard above the eyeball-hungry, SEO shlock banner ad approach. For newspapers, a blog network can offer readers a much wider area of coverage, global perspectives, differing opinions, historical analysis than a single newsroom could produce on its own. It could also provide lower-cost content on the web, should news organizations decide to make news content available only through paid Smart Phone or iPad-like apps.

The drawbacks, however, are significant. For newspapers, a network would rob overseers of direct editorial control, leaving the possibility for some major legal department snafus. For bloggers too, the arrangement might cede more control to advertisers and newspapers. As someone who hasn’t put up an ad banner yet in three years going, I completely understand.

But any talk of newspaper/blog coops is just pipe-dreamery if there there’s no money to be made, and for that reason I think it’s important to leave this final part to a discussion about the absolutely woeful state of online advertising, especially with regard to football blogging. Keep in mind, this is going to be a low-tech breakdown; the issue is with philosophy, not mechanics.

Currently, advertising through blogs is fairly low-maintenance. The model is simple, generalized across the board, and easy to start up. If you have a Blogger blog for example, you can sign up for AdSense and watch as the pennies roll in from the rare wayward ad clicks from your reading audience. Or perhaps you want to be connected to advertisers in search of blogs of a particular kind. Well, Ahmed Bilal does a bang-up job helping out soccer bloggers with his Football Media ad network. But even with the narrower focus on content-appropriate advertisers, you’re still stuck with these two options—banner ads, meaning the more “Wayne Rooney is a Fuckhead” stories, the more clicks, the more revenue; or “Social Advertising,” which essentially means astroturfing your posts (the blogging equivalent of this).

This kind of advertising is built on the Necessary Nuisance model. You want to watch the newest episode of your favourite TV show? Go to a newly-released movie? Walk downtown? Watch a popular YouTube vid? Listen to top 40 radio? Read a magazine or a newspaper? You have to deal with ads. Advertisers don’t care as much if you hate them, because the endgame is not necessarily consumption (a common mistake among anti-consumerist lefties, incidentally). The end game is product awareness, which helps consolidate brand loyalty. Ads legitimize brand, which comes in handy for producers when you’re at the grocery store buying one of the several thousand deodorants on sale.

This kind of advertising this is usually expensive to produce and sell. We know the famous line about ads costing more than the shows they appear on than the show itself. And selling print ad space in the analog age, as we know now apres le deluge, was (and still is) the primary source of revenue for both newspapers and magazines. Yet the high costs are justified; while TV shows and magazines are expensive to produce, the networks and media conglomerates share a much larger portion of their respective markets than an individual blogger floating on the interweb, and therefore get a lot of eyeballs by default (e.g. two national papers in Canada, three major networks). And the bigger the content-producers’ chunk of the media consumer pie (measured in ratings, circulation), the more they can charge advertisers for access to said chunk. The system works!

The online incorporation of this model is, on the surface, ingenious. Contrary to other media, banner ads and widgets are often cheap to produce (and cheap looking), and endlessly reproducible. Pretty much anyone can put them up on their site, and because of the miracle PPC and CPM, the onus is on the individual blogger to get in the necessary eyeballs to generate more revenue. No clumsy Nielson ratings, no circulation statistics. You take an hour to post something up, a reader takes thirty seconds to give you a page impression, and five seconds to click on an ad. Clink, penny in a cup. The more eyeballs you get, the more clinks you get.

But there is a major problem: this model works against the essence of what makes the internet the internet. No, it’s not memes or viral videos or any of that HuffPo hooey. To put it simply, it’s diversity. While many of us would be content to visit Slate, Gawker, Boing Boing and the Huffington Post before calling it a day, there are many online readers who prefer something more personalized to their tastes. Some prefer even more specialization within their chosen niche. Even though the bloggers who attract these like-minded readers might get fewer uniques (meaning, under the current model, less penny clinks), they carry a significant level of value for a producer with a niche product geared toward a particular demographic (educated, psychic, Japanese, whatever). Some of these producers don’t have much of an ad budget, and never have.

Some bloggers have already realized this and formed their own ad networks. Yet bloggers aren’t in the ad business, and don’t have the time, resources or energy to pitch to companies that aren’t used to doing much advertising beyond word of mouth at all. Ad companies don’t have the resources (finance and time) either to deal with a myriad of different blogging networks, each focusing on a niche within a niche. Much better to deal with a single ad department at a newspaper, for example. This is obviously where a newspaper blog network could come in handy, but I think the real key difference is the noise filter that newspapers could provide.

There is a reason why Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” is one of the most popular blogs on the internet—it is an incredible filter for the most relevant political and cultural happenings of the moment. But Sullivan’s blog is still a general colloquium featuring this and that interesting article or video; most of the time, a lay reader who wants to get into a particular subject, like football history for example, will have to try using Google to find blogs suited to her tastes. She might click on the top-rated site, which could be great, or, could be crap. Maybe there are also countless other sites she might find interesting, but she’ll have to dedicate a lot of time on the web, carefully looking among blog link lists and compiling her own personal network of top football history blogs. After awhile, she might go extra mile and set up an elaborate system of RSS feeds or bookmarks or saved browser tabs. But at this point, she’ll probably have to be a hardcore football history nerd to keep this effort up.

What if I just want to get an overview of the best sites covering a particular angle on a particular topic? Where do I go to find what I’m looking for? Newspapers would go beyond self-appointed networks in that they provide key editorial oversight, oversight that would likely reflect the readership of the paper (quite a different list of football blogs you’d see on the Sun than on the Guardian). And as these networks attract more online newspaper readers interested in particular subjects, trusting in the editorial judgment and brand behind the selection, the value of these readers for advertisers despite their smaller numbers, increases. And that doesn’t just (or at all) mean the big brand, product legitimacy advertisers—that means advertisers working on behalf of much smaller, niche companies, to get people to directly buy a particular product. And the product ad might not even be a nuisance; depending on the specialization, it may be something these blog readers want to buy. EFW readers might want cheap flights from Gatwick to Barcelona; Run of Play readers might want to buy a copy of the latest Football Manager, or a subscription to WSC.

This is the value I think the web provides, a value that it has yet to take advantage of. I think a partnership between newspapers and blogs, especially in football, could form a group of dedicated, special interest readers. But I think the movement in making this happen has to come from advertisers. Perhaps as more money goes into online advertising, we might see this kind of thing, or perhaps the money will go into making flashier videos that obstruct text and clutter websites. It’s an idea, anyway. Thanks for reading.

Image credit: burtonwood + holmes.

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