'Where Clicks Reign, Audience is King'

Ravi Somaiya, writing for The New York Times on the state of web media:

The shift is, perhaps inevitably, rooted in money. According to Brian Wieser, a web, advertising and media analyst at Pivotal Research Group, and a former advertising agency executive, in the early days of the web, publications operated much as they always had — selling advertising space to companies, person to person. “Then, of course, we got to the nuclear meltdown era, the vast wasteland,” he said.

Some advertising executives realized that the same people who were browsing the websites of glossy magazines were also buying pet food online, Mr. Wieser said. So why should the magazine sell its advertising at a higher rate, when companies could develop technology to track potential customers, and target them wherever they browsed online? That process became automated, and now many ads on the web are served, via algorithms, by specialized exchanges where they are bought and sold in bulk at steeply discounted rates. “The economics of producing original content, and the value of being associated with it, diminished,” he said.

There are so many cogs in this machine, it's hard to know who to blame. Advertisers use technology to lower their costs considerably; publications compensate with getting paid less by stuffing their site with not only more ads, but more aggressive ads; this also requires more and more eyes on their content to stay profitable; sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy explode onto the scene by capitalizing on misleading, inflammatory, or emotionally appealing headlines that are crafted especially for mass viral appeal; "legitimate" media sources evolve their own strategies to match, focusing on shallower articles to spike audience numbers; media sites create an endless loop of fluff, drowning valuable, informative pieces in a sea of festering shit regurgitated over and over by everyone tripping over themselves to get the audience numbers they need to break even. Any value created by these publishers is immediately washed away by the next big viral distraction extravaganza (perpetuated by the see-something-share-something culture of noise that is social media).

So what do we do? Advertisers don't want to pay premiums for spots. Consumers don't want to pay for fucking anything. Ads are the most logical route, but the dwindling payouts of the CPM model has driven the value of content down so much that 99% of what we're left with is the journalistic equivalent of "blockbuster superhero franchises," as Joshua Topolsky says in the article.

Something will change. With ads becoming more pervasive, and private data a commodity, something must change. I don't know what that change will look like, but I feel a shift coming. I can only hope it'll be for the better.