Reporter, Know Thy Advertiser

Columbia J-School study says media companies must do a better job of integrating social media and web video into their sites

The old wall between editorial and advertising could stand to have a few more chinks in it, a new report on the future of digital journalism from Columbia Journalism School argues

Compiled by faculty members and a graduate student over several months, the study examines the challenges for-profit digital media face. The proposed cures for the losses newspapers and magazines have sustained as readers change their news consumption habits and once thriving classified sections wrap up their decade-long death crawl largely call on them to more skillfully employ social media and web video. 

Also read: Lots of High Decibel Talk But Digital Dollars Still Amount to Diddly Squat

Interesting points, though ones that have largely been made before. More controversial, however, is the argument that news reporting can no longer exist in a vacuum and that journalists must better understand the business side of their industry.

It's a notion that flirts with being incendiary, coming as it does from an institution that prides itself on instilling reporting fundamentals, with only a grudging acknowledgement of the economics behind news gathering. 

To that end, the Columbia study maintains that journalists must report with an eye toward the audience for their stories. 

“Media companies ought to rethink their relationships with advertisers. This doesn’t mean allowing them to dictate coverage or news priorities. It does mean understanding that advertisers now have many more ways to reach customers than they used to and that some of these methods, such as social media, can be cheap and effective,” the study reads.

Entitled "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism" and authored by the school's dean Bill Grueskin, Adjunct Professor Ava Seave and doctoral candidate Lucas Graves, the report emerged out of a series of visits to news organizations across the country. The authors examined the way publications allocated resources and how their business operates in the digital age. 

In a surprising move for an ivory tower institution, the report's authors argue that media's salvation has to be a commercial enterprise. Newspapers and magazines, the report argues, cannot depend on government or public support for their longterm sustainability. 

The onus doesn't just lie with journalists, the reports authors write. Media companies have to better understand how advertisers reach customers through social media, new-media ads and the dread search engine optimization (the key, it should be said, to Huffington Post's rise). By more fully embracing those platforms, media companies can reconfigure the impression-based pricing that consigns them to selling digital ads for pennies on the print dollar. 

The report maintains that more established news organizations must do more to embrace the Internet — through video offerings and by maintaining a hyper-motabolized approach to news — rather than simply repurpose their print products for web. 

The report's authors have a warning for organizations that pin their survival on pay schemes, writing that while charging for digital access may ease the pain from subscription losses, it will not provide enough revenue to make up for the shortfall. 

"A pay plan merged with an ambitious strategy to improve users’ experience on mobile platforms has a much better chance to succeed," the study reads. 

That conclusion can't be welcome news at the New York Times, which carried a thorough account of the study Tuesday morning. After all, the Gray Lady unveiled its own pay wall in March. 

If the study is correct, the Times may have to look elsewhere to prop up the paper of record.