21 September 2015

It's a free ride, when you've already paid


I don’t actually want to pay for the news. Why should I? Everything I need is served up to me for free. And that’s not just the news websites. It’s my social media feed that blinks rapidly 140 characters upon another telling me about an earthquake or a fire or an announcement someone just made.

On the other hand, this is how I make my living. I write words for an audience, and the audience is meant to pay for my words. I have a dog in this fight, as it were, and it makes sense that my money comes from the people who read me. However, it doesn’t, for the most part. If I—as a writer—want free news and free articles—what is the incentive for someone who does not do this to pay rent to want to pay me? After all, my need for free news overcomes the need I have to read something, no matter how good, and if faced by a paywall on a website, I click away, thinking I’ll come back to it next month for my quota of five free articles. I am a traditionalist when it comes to paying for my news: I pay for three newspapers and one magazine, somehow the idea of paying for something and having it arrive at your doorstep is a concept I understand more than the far more ephemeral idea of paying for a web link to load. Where’s the thing to touch online, how can I hold it, it’s just a concept, and concepts are hard to put money behind.

All this because I’ve been reading articles lately on small news websites about how if you like the content of a website, you shouldn’t have an ad blocker enabled. The ad blocker stops ads, the website doesn’t get a revenue, but apart from that, the experience is fuss-free and beautiful. No annoying products in your face, no auto music that loads as soon as you click on an article, why would anyone not have an ad-blocker?

Advertising and the internet go together. As advertisers figure out how to best reach their consumers, they tie up with content creators to “borrow” their audience as it were. I have had a blog for the past eleven years, which has a fairly good readership for a personal blog, which everyone knows is a dying art form. In its heyday, it got as many as 2000 to 5000 visitors per day. Now, at a more modest 1000 average, it’s still fairly widely read, but the total income I’ve made from Google ads in the last decade is a princely sum of $100. It was then I started to realize that traditional models of advertising were not going to work for me. I do my blog as a labour of love, something I enjoy doing, and in return it also works as public relations for me. If I want to announce a new book, my blog readers can read about it, and click a link to follow  through and buy something. I also received a book deal from the blog, and several writing assignments. But making money traditionally off the blog didn’t seem like something that would happen to me, until both I and the advertisers figured out something called native advertising. In un-commercial-jargon, this is when you place the content for an ad within a text post, an advertorial, as it were, and serve it up as regular blog content, which your readers should click through on, thus spreading the message further than an ad which could be ignored (or blocked.) I began by marking these “sponsored posts,” but of late, people who wanted my words or my audience, want me to make the tags smaller and smaller, so it’s only when you read the post that you figure out its motive.

Other bloggers have been doing this for far longer than I –and with far greater subtlety. But as a reader as well as a writer, I checked with my audience to see if they’d be okay with getting the occasional sponsored post, since it kept the bread on my table. Overwhelmingly, the response was positive. “You do what you have to do,” said one commenter, “And people can either read the post or not.” With the backing of my readers, I was able to monetize myself---not greatly, not multi-millionaire certainly (I lack the business-negotiating gene)—and the money started to trickle in, little by little. It’s only not coming through in a torrential flood because I decided that I’d only do it for a certain amount of money, otherwise it would not be worth my time. Think of it like tattooing your baby with sponsored stickers. You’d only do it if the tattoo came with a nice price tag. Otherwise, why ruin your baby?


The downside of sponsored posts are of course, the insidious nature of them, when someone doesn’t clearly mark them out as advertorials (big websites like Buzzfeed are guilty of this), and you’re reading content which is basically an ad, but no way to figure that out till it comes to an end. What is a content creator to do? A micro-subscription model seems to be the best answer. No ads, and you pay directly for the website to hire writers you’d like to read. Everyone wins. The problem is, would you pay? If so, how much? And if no one wants to pay, we’ll be forced to read ads after ads, our news experience completely sullied by how much money a major company has paid a website to be on their side. 

(A version of this appeared as my column)

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