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Media Businesses The Media

A Peek Into the Business Side of Online Publishing (Video) 43

Posted by Roblimo
from the it-takes-all-kinds dept.
Mark Westlake is the Chief Revenue Office for TechMediaNetwork. Slashdot has often taken a mediawatch role, especially when it comes to technology coverage -- which is what TechMediaNetork does for a living. As Chief Revenue Office, Mark is in charge of making sure enough money comes in to pay writers and editors, pay for bandwidth and servers, and hopefully have enough revenue over and above expenses to show a profit. We've interviewed editors and writers, and plenty of writers' work gets linked from Slashdot, but we pay little or no (mostly no) attention to the business side of the publishing business. Like it or not, if we are going to have online news someone has to sell the ads and make decisions about whether to set up a paywall or not. That's Mark's job. Like him or not, he does a job somebody has to do, and has been doing it for 30 years. He knows he's talking to a potentially hostile audience here, but he accepts that. As he says, near the end of the video, "...you can't please everybody, right?"

Robin Miller: I’m Robin Miller, Roblimo on Slashdot, here with Mark Westlake.

Mark, tell us about yourself.

Mark Westlake: I am the Chief Revenue Officer for Tech Media Network, the largest independent publisher of science and technology content. I’ve helped launch a number of successful online businesses or have been part of the teams that have built sites like AutoTrader, Juno, most recently was part of the management team at About.com that sold it to The Times, as well as part of the management team at How Stuff Works, which is now part of Discovery.

Robin Miller: Oh, yes, Mr. Brain.

Mark Westlake: Yes, Marshall was the leader of our editorial team, great man.

Robin Miller: Truly a great man, I am a fan of Marshall Brain’s.

(Text question about Slashdot never talking to business-side publishing people until now.)

Mark Westlake: I think you are smart. I think one of the major -- I mean there are a lot of things going on in the world, but I think what’s interesting is, I think marketers need to or you got marketers who want to go into the content world, and really got to understand of what it takes to be a publisher per se, and how they get their content to speak to consumers, just like publishers now have to start thinking like marketers. Publishers need to understand that there is things that you can do because of your relationship with your reader that to drive revenue to allow you to do the things that you need to grow your business.

Robin Miller: Okay. So, tell me the worst mistake that everybody makes from the editorial side when it comes to the money making and publishing side?

Mark Westlake: What are the mistakes? One is, one dimensional. What I mean by that is everybody focuses on one revenue stream, where they’ll focus on one type of advertising to drive revenue, when in reality there is a lot of things you can do on a page to help drive revenue that isn’t necessarily your traditional advertising. It might be how do you engage your consumer to do something or how do you help them answer a question and take it to the next step, kind of the Amazon model. Amazon, you buy a product and they say, “Hey, do you ever think about looking at these other products that might be of interest to you?” Think the same way from a revenue perspective. Many publishers don’t do that. They think it’s one and done. I think maybe you could say one of the interesting things is one-hit wonders. Everybody hits some ones and forgets about it. And the reality, it’s important for you to think like a marketer when it comes to your users and help them whether it’s providing them information and then taking it to the next step.

Robin Miller: Okay. Slashdot, let’s say our audience is not very pro-advertiser overall, and not necessarily too pro-business, so I think intrusive ads, how do we do what you are talking about, engaging people... how do you do it without making them angry or taking them -- I mean they are here for the content, let’s face it, they’re not here for the ads. How do you get their attention without making them angry?

Mark Westlake: Well, I think the best way is content integration, how do you integrate it into the user experience without being forceful. There is things, yes, when it comes to branding, everybody talks about brand dollars. And remember, our industry was built not only on brand, but also direct marketing. So, there are things that you can do that are not intrusive, but definitely engage the consumer and then you get compensated for it. So, it might not be – yes, you are seeing more and more advertisers look to do these native, what they call native ad units, which I think is just another way of saying they want big brand type of units. They are looking to do these things, but they can’t scale that, so what they do is they focus on content sites.

Robin Miller: What’s a brand type unit? That’s industry jargon, we’re not going to understand that.

Mark Westlake: Right. So, let’s say, there is a size, everybody has different terminology, it could be a 300x250 ad unit, a box unit, a billboard, right?

Robin Miller: Right.

Mark Westlake: That’s a standard size ad unit. The banners at the top of the page, those are standard units. Then people will take it now and what we have morphed into is, all right, let’s take those units and have them auto-expand. But the problem is at the end of day, consumers just probably like your readers, are individuals who just like, I don’t want to keep on bargaining with advertising. So, how do you talk to those people who aren't interested in the ads, who don’t click on the ads? Well, they’re coming to your site for an experience, they’re coming there because of the content and there’s probably stuff in that content that you are writing about. For example, let’s take antivirus software. You always got people pirating and block up ads or there’s a virus that comes out. So, if a person is reading that and they most likely are interested in antivirus software, wouldn’t it be interesting or wouldn’t it make sense to have some sort of service that says, “If you are interested in getting this, learning more about antivirus and you want to get the new antivirus software and what is the best antivirus software, click here.” And that can be not necessarily in an ad format. That could be in a text unit, it could be integrated to the content, it could be some sort of

Robin Miller: Well, if we integrate it into the content, certainly, I, as a long time Society of Professional Journalists’ member, I’m going to scream, and I have had to scream, but before I retired, when I was Editor in Chief with Slashdot’s parent company and on Linux.com and all, once in a while, they’d talk about integrating it into the content, and I’d say no, no, no, no, advertising has to be definitely separated from content.

Mark Westlake: I think everybody has a different understanding of integration. Now, you write a paragraph and the last sentence of the paragraph says, “Oh, by the way, you should buy this software for antivirus.” That to me is blatant. I agree with you and we here at Tech Media Network are very much about church and state, all right? It’s not about writing content for, I mean, if anybody who blurs the lines, it’s television productions where they have the whole branded entertainment and they push stuff into the programming. What we do and what I mean my integration is, if you’re writing a story, where on that page, surrounded by content, can you put a unit that will provide a service to the consumer if they are interested? That’s content integration.

Robin Miller: I can see an ad, your standard rectangular unit in that story by keyword, that’s in there and it says “interested in antivirus, click here.” It says advertisement on it.

Mark Westlake: Right and what I mean by integration is not a standard ad size, because consumers know, if it’s 300x250 really in there, it’s how do you make that look more like something that is not going to be intrusive, something that they’re going to think what the heck is this? But it’s something that is relevant to the story. That to me is integration.

Robin Miller: Now, I know none of our readers would ever use anything like Adblock Plus, and I would never use it myself, no, no, no, no way. With some of the intrusive ads, how did you deal with that, is there a way to deal with that that’s fair or is it just whatever?

Mark Westlake: (laughs) You have to understand your audience, you have to understand the user experience, you have to have people who are very protective of the user experience and that’s what we have, we have product people who are really, what we call site owners, who really protect the user experience, so that we aren’t bombarding them with the ads because we found if you bombard them with ads, it’s not going to help you, it’s going to hurt you because people are going to drop off, they’re not going to come back. So, you’ve got to balance, I guess you could say church and state, you got to balance that user experience, so that, in our case, we try to do one for 24 hours, no more, if it’s a real intrusive ad, and then we measure, you measure. We keep a very close eye on statistics, we look at pages, we look at users and we’ll see a drop off, if we see a drop off we try to understand what the drop off is. So from a publisher’s perspective and your readers would be, you’ve got to make sure you understand what is the optimal user experience and how do you integrate intrusive ads into that experience.

Robin Miller: Or even aside from advertising, now Slashdot’s original founder, Rob Malda is now working for the Washington Post. Now, Washington Post is not necessarily because of Rob Malda working there, talking about going behind a paywall, as The New York Times has done, and as a matter of fact, my local newspaper, The Bradenton Herald has done. Now, I’m going to tell you if you have any technical sophistication at all, those paywalls are easy to defeat. How do you charge people for subscriptions, or is that really even an option?

Mark Westlake: You have to give the consumer, the consumer has to want it, and it has to be something they can’t get anywhere else. Or it is content that it’s so valuable in their mind they’re willing to pay for it. The New York Times, Washington Post, even your local newspaper at a local level has a relationship with the readers that feel that that content is so valuable they’re willing to pay for it, but you have to understand what you are giving up in return. And in some cases, the big boys, The Times, and The Wall Street Journal, they’ve actually found that it’s not hurting their growth, it’s actually helping them. Because it’s helping them not only drive subscription revenue, but it also, they can demand a higher advertising because of the fact that they have people who are willing to pay for content they can normally get for free, they’re willing to pay for it because they value it. And therefore, they must be a unique consumer so as we move into this whole audience targeting almost TV buying across screens, that type of buying, you look at Wall Street Journal, New York Times or someone behind a paywall, that is a very, very valuable consumer, so

Robin Miller: I can see how that would be, because obviously there are – and here is the thing that I’ve often thought over the years and that is when somebody is buying an ad on you guys’ pages, on our pages or on your page which is linked to from our page, which they are buying a certain percentage of our cachet. Slashdot has a pretty good reputation for being honest and un-bought. We get knocked by a small group of readers all the time... they think we’re advertising for free or selling out. We’re not, never have, but we have a good reputation, your guys, I know some of your editors and they too, they have a good reputation, they’re not selling out, they’re not taking bribes or free computers or anything. So, we have that -- and isn’t an advertiser buying that to a certain extent? And isn’t that of value?

Mark Westlake: I think it’s important, the value, you look at search today, and how the value of the writer is playing a role in search results. So, the credibility of writers, the credibility of the content is so important and how I think for us, you are right, our guys, we’re a big believer of quality content. We believe quality content is going to win out over mass produced type of content. So, it’s that brand positioning that’s important, but most importantly, it’s the relationship your writers have with the consumers that drives the brand, which ultimately will position the quality of the content, it make sense?

Robin Miller: So, you are saying the individual byline does have value?

Mark Westlake: As far as the organization, correct.

Robin Miller: Interesting because

Mark Westlake: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, what Google is doing, how they have page rank, which values?

Robin Miller: Yes?

Mark Westlake: And we have page ranks that are very, very high because of the quality of the content, and who links to our content. We syndicate a tremendous amount of our content to Yahoo, Fox News, CBS News, Huffington Post and so forth, to a lot of big media companies and they like our content, because it’s unique, it’s different, it’s quality. So now the next phase of what Google is doing is they have like an author rank or an author relevancy. It’s how many of those people, it’s almost like tying in a social element. If that user has a lot of Google Plus followers, and there are lot of people reading that content from that writer, those are values that are added into the search results that to help it get a higher rank over like, let’s say, a mass produced content farm article that is basically being written so that it can buck the system.

Robin Miller: So, what you are saying is those of us who do real writing and research, that we still have value over and above Demand Media.

Mark Westlake: Demand Media and all that content, those content farms, correct. Quality will always win out. You look at YouTube and how consumers... more and more advertisers are looking for that, they have a lot of video bytes, but they will look for those quality views because that’s what’s important. The relationship, they want brand, they want their brand messaging associated with high quality content. So, it’s important if you have a very strong relationship and you have a very well established position in the market, you will be able to have – if you could have scale, you’ll have a very unique position, an opportunity with advertisers. At the end of the day, it’s your relationship with your readers that’s a value.

Robin Miller: Well, our readers submit and then we have little summaries and link to it, that’s what we do all day.

Mark Westlake: Correct.

Robin Miller: And some videos.

Mark Westlake: And I think it comes down to you have to understand and you have to manage the relationship with the consumer, because at the end of the day advertisers, us as publishers, we have readers at one side and you have advertisers on the other, and we have to figure out how to push both, bring them together, that’s our job.

Robin Miller: Is it fun?

Mark Westlake: Sure, I wouldn’t be doing this for 30 years if it wasn’t.

Robin Miller: And some people – it’s inevitable on Slashdot, there are going to be some negative comments. How do you handle those? Does that bother you?

Mark Westlake: No, well, you can’t please everybody, right? Nobody can please everybody, whether you are in politics, you’re a teacher, it’s just the way of life. It’s very hard to please everybody. But you know what? If you are fair, you create quality content, you’ll understand your users and provide them a service that’s like what we do and like you do, it’s rewarding, because you're helping people.

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A Peek Into the Business Side of Online Publishing (Video)

Comments Filter:
  • by Lunix Nutcase (1092239) on Friday December 28, 2012 @03:38PM (#42413515)

    How can we turn off the pop ups about the new mobile site? I don't really give a shit since the "new" mobile site looks like ass. The constant pop ups at every page load is fucking annoying.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Hell, with regular PC browsing, can the classic mode be the default?

      I've tried showing this site to co-workers, but I'm sick of cleaning up the puke.

    • by Nyder (754090)

      How can we turn off the pop ups about the new mobile site? I don't really give a shit since the "new" mobile site looks like ass. The constant pop ups at every page load is fucking annoying.

      There are popups? Wasn't aware of that.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Really. I think it's quite a change in posture what I have thought slashdot has been as I've followed it over 14 years. I understand there is a need for money too, but if that gets done I'm going say goodbye and thanks for all the fish past years.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Being a news aggregator pay-walls in general is bad news for slashdot.

      The only content that slashdot actually has is the comments.

      • Being a news aggregator pay-walls in general is bad news for slashdot.

        The only content that slashdot actually has is the comments.

        But... but... but... are you trying to say the comments are valueless? Can you imagine a Beowulf cluster of comments? Does it run Crysis? In Soviet Russia, Beowulf cluster of comments runs Crysis on YOU.

        See? Valuable, original IP!

    • by Roblimo (357) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:32PM (#42413977) Homepage Journal

      We weren't talking about a paywall for Slashdot, but about the New York Times and possibly the Washington Post, which is reportedly *considering* a paywall.

      • If they think they'll get subscribers through a pay wall let them. But there is allot more competition in the market journalist and information market. People and small orginizations without paywalls can produce news. Blogs, and such.

        NPR is one that works.

        Maybe they should take what they have and use it to buy and syndicate the parts of the market that are thriving without paywalls. Transfer assets and syndicate the small guys.

    • by Soulskill (1459) Works for Slashdot

      Paywall for us? Hell no.

      • by Lije Baley (88936)

        If we were the types to RTFA, we wouldn't be posting here. It's the Slashthropic principle.

  • It's just the opportunity we've been waiting for, to start our own *new* Slashdot, with hookers and blackjack!

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Ok, so lets say us, the readers of slashdot told dice or whomever to fuck off, what do you want to see in slashdots replacement?

      • Just random technology news and cool hack-of-the-day kind of thing. You know, REAL news for NERDS.

        • by Jeng (926980)

          And there are many sources for just that, slashdot though is more about the comments.

      • by Lije Baley (88936)

        Slashdot, but like it was before it had to make money, and maybe before JonKatz got too vocal. The first year was probably the best. (Back in those days, registering was for suckers, so my five-digit came months after I started hanging out here.)
        Anyway, money is the root of all this evil, and brings with it politics, slashvertisement, "broader appeal", and editors who must "look the other way" when a sensational submission needs to be corrected or ignored.

  • it or not, if we are going to have online news someone has to sell the ads and make decisions about whether to set up a paywall or not. That's Mark's job. Like him or not, he does a job somebody has to do, and has been doing it for 30 years. He knows he's talking to a potentially hostile audience here, but he accepts that. As he says, near the end of the video, "...you can't please everybody, right?"

    Why do I have to care your business model isn't designed to make as much money as you think you should make?

    • by Jeng (926980) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:56PM (#42414243)

      The biggest issue will be how do we know this news source is trustworthy.

      The internet is like a bullshit incubator, bullshit gets spread far and wide and the further it is spread the more it is believed.

      A news source that strives to be as objective as possible is extremely valuable to us the consumer, but is at odds with the industry as a whole and therefor how it gets funded is an issue.

      • I fully agree with you that's why I like new sites that allow comments which are not nazi moderated so people can at least post rebuttals if the story is bs. Unfortunately here Vancouver BC you have The Province and Vancouver Sun who are owned but the same company. Most of the stories could be reported on by regular folks while half of the shit on there is sensationalized news. Hell when a new iTem is about to be launched all you see on the front page of the Vancouver Sun is Apple promos.

        • by Jeng (926980)

          Yea, I tend to head to news aggragrators such as here or googles news listing.

          For actual news sources, when I have the choice I tend to go for The Christian Science Monitor (their religion may be nuts, but they know journalism) and the BBC. Or if it is a tech related story I try to go with the most relevant tech site for the particular story. I avoid Fox like the plague, their bullshit to truth ratio is horrible.

        • Unfortunately here Vancouver BC you have The Province and Vancouver Sun who are owned but the same company. Most of the stories could be reported on by regular folks while half of the shit on there is sensationalized news.

          Sadly, this is something of a self-sustaining death spiral. Newspapers have been struggling for a while to generate the funds for proper journalism, which makes the newspapers commercially less appealling.

          Very few TV news broadcasts ever do deep investigative journalism, and as traditional newspapers die off, we're becoming less and less well informed...

  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:49PM (#42414179) Journal

    So, you’ve got to balance, I guess you could say church and state, you got to balance that user experience, so that, in our case, we try to do one for 24 hours, no more, if it’s a real intrusive ad, and then we measure, you measure.

    Well, I will try to torture Mark Westlake for 24 hours if it REALLY hurts.

    My god... and the "none of our readers will be using adblockers" crap further down... WHY DO YOU THINK ANYONE WITH A BRAIN RUNS AN AD BLOCKER?

    Because it is the only way to keep some fucking sanity! READ the quote again. For 24 hours... what is MISSING is per what? He tries to run a really intrusive ad only 24 hours per day? Wow, well that is protecting the user experience alright, if said user experience is absolute horror.

    Not this guy does NOT state that they only test a potential new ad for how intrusive it is for 24 hours max and then measure the response to this new idea and then decide for or against using it again. That is NOT what he is saying. He is saying that if a really intrusive ad comes his way, he will run it BUT only for 24 hours because he knows that if he does it longer EVERYONE will leave. He does not limit how many DIFFERENT really intrusive ads he runs, just that any singular REALLY intrusive ad gets run for a maximum of 24 hours so that for a news site, EVERYONE who visits will have seen it... nice guy eh?

    I first looked into ad blocking when the ISP I was using at the time ran a banner add that was a blinking nightmare for a service I was already using (UPC Cable) it was REALLY annoying and so I searched in how to block it proxy level so it would work on all my computers and browsers. I never went back but I do routinely update it to catch the new ads.

    The reason is simple, give an advertising the finger and they will rape your children and sell their organs. It is NEVER enough for advertisers, the ads will always be more in your face, more jarring, more of them and getting more and more in the way of the content. TV ads are a prime example. Nobody really minded "this program brought to you by" messages. And interupting a 1 hour program three times gives those of us with bladder issues time to relieve themselves. And 4 times an hour, well why not. And 5 times an hour helps those with really bad bladders. And overlying ads over the closing credits hurts nobody. And overlaying ads over the actual program itself... FUCK IT! ENOUGH! NO MORE!

    Someone made a nice graph of the DVD experience for pirates vs saps who buy their DVD's in the shops. http://thenextweb.com/shareables/2010/02/19/experience-dvd-pirate-vs-paying-customer/ [thenextweb.com]

    Much the same can be said for the web browsing experience of those with and without an adblocker. Occasionaly I have to use a non-blocked browser and ARGH! The HORROR, the SLOWNESS, the virusses served by unchecked 3rd party ad servers.

    The STUPIDITY of advertisers is such they are their own worst enemy. So... you want to serve me a video ad before I can see the video I want... okay... I am slightly irritated and will associate that irritation with the product you are about to show me but hey, irritation is good in trying to get me to buy something... then I wait for it to load... slowly and the ad is TOTALLY irrelevant to me (some car ad for a SUV that is only available in the US, I don't drive cars, don't like SUV's and am in the EU). Then the real video refuses to load, I reload the page. Same ad again. NOT GOING TO BUY! Want to watch another video, same ad. Another video. Same ad. Week later another video. Same ad... I NOW LOATH THAT CAR AND BRAND WITH A FIERCENESS MOST PEOPLE RESERVE FOR... well other ads to be honest. Dog poo on the sidewalk you just stepped in when you took off your shoe to remove a piece of glass that just boar straight into your big toe you just stumped against something? HAS GOT NOTHING ON THAT CAR AD!

    So... I block and... life is wonderful, I get

    • by Jeng (926980)

      Another good reason to block ads is that ads have become one of the major vectors of your computer being infected.

      Especially on small hobby sites. A co-worker's computer was recently infected by a banner ad on a fly-fishing website he visited, while another co-worker was getting infected by ads on a wrestling website....... that he kept on going back to

    • I totally agree that when ads get intrusive and irritating, it automatically becomes an ad for a product I will not buy. Unless it is something I already buy, in which case I will start to look for alternatives.
  • So...that's an excuse to not even attempt to make ANYONE happy? Marky-Mark... that's why we hate people like you. It's not the idea of making a profit we hate, it's the idea of wringing every last cent out at any cost - no matter how despicable or ethically challenged your methods prove to be - in the race for *just that much MORE* profit from something. People watch ads because they don't get in the way, or they are fun. The harder you force the issue, the more people will leave or avoid your site(s).

    • "... it's the idea of wringing every last cent out at any cost - no matter how despicable or ethically challenged your methods prove to be..."

      I agree here, too. I don't have a problem with newspapers wanting to maximize their profits... after all, they are businesses. What I have a problem with is when they attempt to maximize profits at the expense of their own users' freedom and privacy.

  • We need to use online information to move more of our economy in the 21st century to beyond money (towards high-tech subsistence with gardening robots and solar panels, a bigger gift-economy with online exchange of ideas, and better internet-empowered participatory planning at all levels of government), and to soften the money-focused parts with a "basic income" (perhaps 1/2 of the GDP evenly distributed).

    See as just one example, from around 1986 (an example the web makes possible through online publishing)

    • P.S. I used to look forward to BYTE magazine in the early years often more for ads that articles. So, it was possible at least then with an ad-supported medium to do a good job. And it was not because the ads were funny, but because they told me a lot about what was going on in the industry, including what was possible.

"'Tis true, 'tis pity, and pity 'tis 'tis true." -- Poloniouius, in Willie the Shake's _Hamlet, Prince of Darkness_

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