Web Publishing and Monetizing Content, with Alex Fitzpatrick

By M. David Green , Tim Evko
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Alex Fitzpatrick on the Versioning Show

In this episode of the Versioning Show, Tim and David are joined by Alex Fitzpatrick, Deputy Tech Editor for Time Magazine. They discuss the viability of the web as a mass publishing tool, the challenges of monetizing content in the age of the ad blocker, and the battle between walled gardens, silos, paywalls and the open web.

Show Notes

Conversation Highlights

I think, given the trend right now, it does look like we’re headed back towards that walled garden world, where the platforms rule the day. … if I’m just in Facebook all day, at least the experience is the same. I know what I’m getting. I know how to use it. It’s more inviting for people who aren’t as savvy.

That’s sad, I think, when you look at the overall ecosystem, I think it’s probably better off to have a parity between the platforms and the open web. I don’t think the open web should go away, or that it will at all, but I definitely think you’re seeing the platforms being the more dominant spot. I think people just flock to that sort of calm cove in a ocean of torment, right?


I just basically grew up in a very tech-oriented household. My grandfather was a programmer and engineer. My dad is a programmer, and there was a thought that I would go to school for programming as well. But my hesitation — my very naïve hesitation at the time — was Oh, yeah programming’s great. I love logic and all that, but I don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. So, naturally, I became an internet journalist, and I sit in front of a computer all day — and probably make less money than I would as a programmer, so it bit me in the end.


the web, obviously, up-ended the advertiser-based business model that journalism relied upon for the most part, and what we’re seeing, and still seeing the effects of, is publishers like Time Inc. struggling to figure out, “How do we actually make money by doing this?” Banner ads can’t support that alone. That’s why you’re seeing publishers explore native advertising and branded content and all sorts of other ways to try to actually make money and make a business of it.


There’s also, correspondingly, a renewed interesting in distribution mechanisms that we control as publishers — newsletters being a really good example of that. I think the newsletter is really the last thing that we as publishers control that’s a distribution mechanism. It’s almost equivalent to the paper boy. … It’s a matter of balancing out the dominance of Google and Facebook and having something that we still control.


I also think that one of the bright spots of the industry to me personally is this experimentation with sites that rely on the subscriber model — that tight subscription model — meaning you can’t access anything without subscribing, and they’re sort of niche interest sites.


It’s already been a tumultuous year for online media, and I think you’ll see some sites that are not high quality sites suffer in this new age, as the belt tightens, and the winners and losers are divvied out in terms of who’s getting traffic from Facebook and that kind of stuff.


I think part of the reason I’m here is just straight-up luck — right place, right time — which I think is either thankfully or sadly how a lot of life works. It’s also a matter of just really putting in the work and networking and getting to know people and that sort of thing.

Alex Fitzpatrick on the Versioning Show

Transcript

David:

Hey. What’s up? This is M. David Green.

Tim:

And this is Tim Evko.

David:

And you’re listening to episode ten of the Versioning Podcast.

Tim:

This is a place where we get together to discuss the industry of the web, from development to design, with some of the people making it happen today and planning where it’s headed in the next version.

David:

Today we’re talking to Alex Fitzpatrick, who is the Deputy Tech Editor for Time Magazine.

Alex, how are you doing today?

Alex:

Good, good, good, how are you?

David:

Good. Did I get your title right there?

Alex:

You did, yeah.

David:

Fantastic. Can you tell me a little bit of what that means — to be a deputy tech editor?

Alex:

Sure, yeah. My primary responsibility is overseeing the technology and a bit of the business coverage on Time.com, our website. I dabble a little bit in print here and there as well, but mostly I work on the online side.

We’ve got a team of three or four writers, freelancers and whatnot, and I spend most of my time assigning them, editing them, and doing some writing myself.

David:

Fantastic. Cool.

Tim:

Alex, for our guests, we usually have a philosophical question that we like to ask at the top of the show. It’s sort of related to software versions because, as you know, software when it gets released comes out with a specific version for every release. So, on the heels of that, our question is, in your current career, what version are you, and why?

Alex:

I think I’m stuck in permanent Beta, I would say. I don’t know if the full release will ever be out there.

Tim:

Actually that begs the question, how did you get into this tech editor role? What brought you there?

Alex:

Yeah, it’s been a twisty path. I studies International Relations in college. I guess we can start there. So, obviously didn’t major in it, don’t have a journalism degree per se, but when I graduated, which was in 2011, I had a short stint in politics. I thought I wanted to do political communication. That wound up being not for me, and I sort of spent a few months wondering aimlessly. Then got a job as a social media editor at Mashable, a technology news site in late 2011.

Then that internship turned into a job covering the 2012 presidential campaign in terms of the tech and digital and social stuff that the campaigns were doing. Then a couple years later, I got hired to come on to Time.com as a Homepage Editor, which turned into a Breaking News Editor role covering stuff across verticals. Then about a year and half ago, our existing Tech Editor was leaving, and so that opportunity arose. I have a casual background in tech, so I raised my hand and said, You know, I can probably do that. That’s how I got there.

Tim:

Cool. How does that casual background in tech reflect? What is your casual background in tech?

Alex:

Oh sure, I just basically grew up in a very tech-oriented household. My grandfather was a programmer and engineer. My dad is a programmer, and there was a thought that I would go to school for programming as well. But my hesitation — my very naïve hesitation at the time — was Oh, yeah programming’s great. I love logic and all that, but I don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. So, naturally, I became an internet journalist, and I sit in front of a computer all day — and probably make less money than I would as a programmer, so it bit me in the end.

Tim:

I think that one of interesting things about your career path is it’s actually fairly typical of a lot of people who we interview here. You’re on the journalism side of it. A lot of the people we interview are designers and technologists, but a lot of us get here without actually having a degree in what we go out into the world and do, even though we’re professionals in these areas. I’m curious if you feel like that’s gotten in your way, or if you think it’s helped you?

Alex:

No, I think it’s helpful. I think in the journalism world there’s a definite split amongst people who think that journalism school or a J-School degree is totally necessary. I’m in the camp that I don’t think it is. I think some of the best journalists I’ve worked with are people who don’t have that formal training, and learn it on the job and are experts in whatever they’re covering. I think that can be pretty beneficial, but at the same time, going to J-School can teach you a lot of necessary skills, give you a boost in terms of networking. You can meet a lot of people there, can get a lot of internships through there. Then it’s a lot easier to learn harder skills, like video editing and whatnot through journalism school, rather than learning that stuff on the job or teaching it to yourself.

Tim [4:08]:

Speaking of learning on the job, and your technology background, how do you see the web so far succeeding as a mass publishing tool in the journalism industry?

Alex:

I think it’s a mixed bag. I know that’s not a great answer, but I think what you see is, on one hand we now have this incredibly powerful publishing tool. By “we” I mean not just mass media, but all writers of all stripes have this tool that connects them with millions, if not billions, of people instantly. Obviously, finding an audience and finding reach is still a struggle and still something that you have to work at, but any one piece of writing that you do can get a lot of eyeballs without a whole lot of work if things work out the right way.

At the same time, the web, obviously, up-ended the advertiser-based business model that journalism relied upon for the most part, and what we’re seeing, and still seeing the effects of, is publishers like Time Inc. struggling to figure out, “How do we actually make money by doing this?” Banner ads can’t support that alone. That’s why you’re seeing publishers explore native advertising and branded content and all sorts of other ways to try to actually make money and make a business of it.

Tim:

I know that that’s evolved rather quickly, probably even in the time since you’ve started as the Deputy Tech Editor. I’m curious what you’ve seen change.

Alex:

I think there’s been, over the past year or two, there’s been definitely a bigger movement towards native publishing, or native advertising. By that, for those who don’t know, is when a company — a publishing company — does a piece of content and it’s aligned towards a brand that’s putting its advertising all over it. For instance, Microsoft might sponsor a series of pieces about cloud computing, because they want people to know about their cloud computing platform. That’s got a synergy for them.

Another good example is the Wall Street Journal did a cool series about narcotics trafficking. It was all legit journalism and legit story telling, but it was all branded with advertising for Netflix’s Narcos, which is about the drug wars and whatnot. Again, it’s just that synergy in terms of content and advertiser.

Tim:

Do you ever feel that your visitors might think content is a little bit less authentic when it is attached to a large sponsorship like that?

Alex:

I think that’s a worry. I think that’s a concern amongst native advertisers of all stripes. I think it’s about really keeping that in mind when you’re doing it and making stuff. Like that Narcos series I hold in high regard, because it was such a — if you took the Netflix ads aways from it, it would just be a story that the Journal ran about narcotics trafficking. There’s no, at least from my perspective, I don’t what the internal process there was, but it reads like a normal story. I think your audience connects with that when they realize Oh, this isn’t somebody trying to shove narcotics coverage down my throat, because Netflix has this new show, but it’s actually good coverage of this important issue.

Tim:

It also helps that Narcos was such a good show too, I think.

Alex:

Yeah, yeah, of course.

Tim:

That’s interesting, because that also draws in an audience that might not otherwise be looking to read these kinds of stories. They are attracted by their interest in the show, and yet they get the actually coverage from the magazine.

Alex:

Yeah, exactly. I think it’s a matter of — it’s almost as if Netflix was treating Narcos the show as its own unique brand within the Netflix umbrella, and doing stuff to expand that brand, expand its reach. If you think about it, Netflix in terms of Netflix the publisher, is very much a publisher strategy.

Tim:

That’s interesting. I’m not used to thinking about Netflix as the publisher.

Alex:

Neither am I. I just thought of that, and feel pretty good about it.

David:

Definitely a tweet waiting to happen. This might be a difficult question for you to answer, but I’m going to just throw it out there anyways. If you could add something like a feature to the web or mobile web that would help your industry, what would it be?

Alex:

A way to make money, I think would be good.

David:

[Laughing] I like that.

Alex [7:56]:

I think that’s a good place to start. I think what Facebook and Google are doing with Instant Articles and AMP respectively — is really, really helpful in terms of speed. I think a lot of publishers struggle with speed, just because there’s so many cookies and so much other stuff that’s loading, especially on mobile. When you’re on a not so great wireless signal, pages take forever to load, and what we’ve seen is there’s a clear connection between speed and greater attention. Meaning if somebody’s loaded up an article and it doesn’t load quickly, people are bound to leave, and then they’re not seeing that article. So to have the help of both Facebook and Google in terms of getting stuff that loads faster is a big help.

Now that said, I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of monetizing those two platforms and whatnot. But I think you’re seeing both of them realize, “Okay, yeah, we need to figure how we can help publishers make money by doing these things and working with us. So, there’s a good conversation being had there.

David:

From a publisher’s perspective, how would you explain what Instant Pages and AMP are really doing for you? I’m not sure if all of our listeners are going to be familiar with them.

Alex:

Yeah, yeah, totally. Basically, they both work a little bit differently, but essentially the idea is for Facebook’s Instant Articles — that’s going through your Facebook feed — you might see a news article that has a little lightening bolt in the corner. That signifies it’s an Instant Article. When you click that, it’s basically already pre-cached in the Facebook servers. I don’t understand entirely the technical side of it, but when you click it, it loads ultra-fast, instantly. It’s not just the speed, but it also feels like a native experience of that platform, rather than when you click an article on Facebook on mobile and it loads in this crappy, third-party browser. That just feels sort of janky and bad as a user experience.

Google’s AMP works the same way. If you’re in mobile, searching Google, and you come across a news article and it say’s AMP (or whatever it is — I think there’s a little icon for them as well) — you click it, same thing, loads instantly, comes with all the photos and just is a really good user experience.

David:

Interesting. I’m coming from an old web development background myself, and I remember back in the day that a lot of the internet service providers — like, back in the day, America Online — used to cache articles in their servers. Then the problem was, while they were served very fast, the sites that were serving those articles couldn’t get good statistics about who was watching them, who was reading them, and how much usage they were getting. I’m curious if that’s an issue?

Alex:

That’s still an issue here, but, like I said, I think both Google and Facebook are realizing that is an issue. I think when we — and by we I mean publishers at large, not just us — I think when both of those services first started up, they saw a significant dip in what our respective audience measurement tools were registering, and we can tell, Okay, this is because they’re just not registering Instant Articles or AMP yet.

I think the tools — the measurement tools — and also Google and Facebook are doing a good job of addressing that problem. So, obviously, that sort of information is our lifeblood. We need to know how many people are on our site. We need to know who those people are, so on and so forth. Not who they are specifically, but who they are in terms of where they’re coming from and things like that, how they’re finding our articles. It’s incredibly helpful to have that information, as you might understand and acknowledge.

Tim:

I think we can definitely see speed as being one of the core things that helps your industry in terms of user retention. But certainly, I have seen a little of, I wouldn’t say tension when hearing about AMP or Facebook Instant Articles, only because it sort of brings this content under the ownership of two major domains, Facebook or Google. Does your industry at all worry about Google or Facebook pretty much owning this new platform that you’re using to publish what should be open and accessible information?

Alex:

Yeah, I think that’s a concern. We’re very clearly going from a totally open web to one that’s dominated that by these platforms. It’s almost coming back full circle to that walled garden experience of AOL, so on and so forth. At the same time, I think you’re seeing a little bit of worry about that, but there’s also an acknowledgement that these guys are the biggest players in terms of distribution and getting our content in front of people’s eyes. So, you have to play ball with them to some extent.

There’s also, correspondingly, a renewed interesting in distribution mechanisms that we control as publishers — newsletters being a really good example of that. I think the newsletter is really the last thing that we as publishers control that’s a distribution mechanism. It’s almost equivalent to the paper boy. It’s like throwing the newspapers in people’s patios. It’s like every morning, here’s out newsletter. Here’s the stuff that we’ve written and stuff that we think you’ll like. That’s why you see publishers do, not only one, but usually multiple newsletters across topics. They drive traffic. People, once they’re done well, the open rate’s usually pretty good. I think that’s why there’s so much interest in that. It’s a matter of balancing out the dominance of Google and Facebook and having something that we still control.

David [12:46]:

I like that you brought that up, because the subscriber model is something that’s the thing that newspapers and magazines were built on years ago. These days I feel like the email newsletter, even though it’s clearly a powerhouse in terms of marketing, it’s kind of the forgotten child of technology. I’m curious how you deal with the technology of making email newsletters compelling?

Alex:

Yeah, again, it comes back to the analytic side of it. The tools that we use show us very clearly when we have the subject line, here’s our open rate and here’s our click-through rate. So, here’s what we can go back the next day and say, Okay, here’s how many people opened this email based on the subject line, and here’s how many people actually clicked these article and whatnot. So, once you get a feel for what does well and why it does well, you start to craft those subject lines and those newsletters to really be optimized for the audience that they’re being received by.

David:

Speaking back to monetization real quick. Sorry to not let this topic go!

Alex:

No, go ahead.

David:

I know there are plenty of online media organizations that still use a subscriber model, where you have a couple of free articles and they you pay us for the rest. Do you see that as a declining trend, or do you think that might something that’s starting to resurface as the subscription model — especially one that something like Netflix provides — becomes more popular?

Alex:

Yeah, I think it’s a matter of experimentation: what works for different brands won’t work for other brands. I think what you’re describing is “metered paywall”, meaning that you might get ten for free, then it starts to hit you with now you have to pay. Really, the core difference between the web and print is that the web is unbundled. You might come across one of our articles from your Twitter feed or whatever, but that doesn’t mean you have to go read a bunch of our other stuff. You can just leave, and most people do. Whereas, when you’re reading a magazine, you pay for that whole package. It’s that bundle of content that you might buy it for the cover story or for one story in particular, but most people will flip through and read other stuff. That’s really a big difference there.

I also think that one of the bright spots of the industry to me personally is this experimentation with sites that rely on the subscriber model — that tight subscription model — meaning you can’t access anything without subscribing, and they’re sort of niche interest sites. The information is a really good example of that in a tech space, where it’s writers who are heavily sourced who have scoops — crucial scoops, very often — and really interesting stuff, and absolutely no clickbait or filler material. But they’re charging you — I forgot what they charge, maybe $30 or $40 a year, something like that. It might actually be more than that.

It’s enough that really the way to do it there — it’s not about ridiculous scale, it’s about just getting enough people to make it a profitable operation. When you’re charging that amount of money, it’s not that many readers. I think that you’ll see a lot of sites sprout up around that model. Will they make ludicrous amounts of money? Probably not, but they’ll have enough to keep the lights on and pay their writers well. I think that’s not a bad place to be.

Tim:

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’m also wondering, if you’re trying to run a media organization on a lean start-up model, wherein you have charging for a certain amount of articles but trying to keep your operating costs lean, does at some point the quality of your content start to suffer from that type of model?

Alex [16:08]:

I think you’ve seen that at some places, but I think overall it’s just a matter of using your resources wisely and knowing where to put money and where to put investment. It’s already been a tumultuous year for online media, and I think you’ll see some sites that are not high quality sites suffer in this new age, as the belt tightens, and the winners and losers are divvied out in terms of who’s getting traffic from Facebook and that kind of stuff.

David:

I appreciate that prestige of having a brand name like Time. I think it gives you the opportunity to push a little further beyond what some places that are really struggling week to week and don’t have a brand name to rely on can do.

Alex:

Yeah, building a brand is really one of the hardest things you can do in this industry, and the fact that we’ve got — across the building, across Time Inc. — we’ve got these brands that are instantly recognizable: Sports Illustrated, People, Entertainment Weekly. Ask anybody what these brands represent and what they do, they’ll know. And that’s a huge advantage in the digital era, when it comes to both getting people to see the Time icon on feeds and saying, Okay, I know this is a trusted source. I know they do good work, I’m gonna click this article.

But also in terms of getting access to news makers. When I call up and say, Hey, I’m Alex from Time, it goes a long way in terms of making the gatekeepers — in terms of PR people and whatnot — understand that this is a person, or a least a brand, who is reputable and is not looking to do some hit piece or whatever it is.

Tim:

Let’s pretend it’s five years from now. Where do you see the web and your industry interacting with it?

Alex:

That’s tough. I think, given the trend right now, it does look like we’re headed back towards that walled garden world, where the platforms rule the day. I think there are plenty of people who might loathe that idea, but at the same time, I think a lot of web design — and I might offend some people with this — but really, the problem with the web, from my perspective, is that everything is different. One website doesn’t work the same way as another website, and then they’re all loaded with trackers and cookies and stuff like that. It’s just such a Wild West user experience; whereas, if I’m just in Facebook all day, at least the experience is the same. I know what I’m getting. I know how to use it. It’s more inviting for people who aren’t as savvy.

That’s sad, I think, when you look at the overall ecosystem, I think it’s probably better off to have a parity between the platforms and the open web. I don’t think the open web should go away, or that it will at all, but I definitely think you’re seeing the platforms being the more dominant spot. I think people just flock to that sort of calm cove in a ocean of torment, right?

Tim:

I like that you focus on the UX and design issues around this, because I know one of the ways that Time built its reputation — the way that other magazines do — each one has a distinctive look, a distinctive feel, a distinctive style. You pick it up, you know you’re going to be in this magazine and not in that magazine, but at the same time, they all have a table of contents. They all have numbered pages, and it’s a question of finding that balance, I think, between the consistency and the distinctive voice that makes each publication unique.

Alex:

Yeah, totally. I’ll contradict myself a little bit, based on what I just said, but certainly a problem in the platform-driven world for publishers is losing your brand and your voice in that walled garden. Like I said, that icon, if that’s all we’ve got to let somebody know, Hey, this is Time Magazine’s content, does that make it harder for us? I think it might, but I’m not entirely convinced yet.

Tim:

It’s a tough point. Of course, a lot of people right now are reading things through third-party readers, and they’ll just suck out the text and suck out the images and then what do you do to distinguish your content from anybody else’s?

Alex:

Yeah, that’s when it boils down to having the best written words and having the best videos and that kind of thing. I think that’s a world where we can play in. I think our advantage over a lot of our rivals is that we’re still Time Magazine. We still do really great writing.

David [20:04]:

I think a lot of our listeners would also like to know how they can be part of something that’s that big, because a lot of them are out there struggling, working with smaller companies, trying to build up their own brands, and there’s certainly a lot of cachet associated with being part of an organization like yours. And you got in the door, and you’re working there. That path is a difficult one for people to achieve.

Alex:

Yeah, I think part of the reason I’m here is just straight-up luck — right place, right time — which I think is either thankfully or sadly how a lot of life works. It’s also a matter of just really putting in the work and networking and getting to know people and that sort of thing. I think, at a place like this, there’s always opportunities. Go look at timeinc.com/careers: we’re always looking to hire people, hire good people. I think it’s just a matter of getting that foot in the door, like you said. It’s just a matter of having the skills, and being in the right place at the right time, I think.

Tim:

Definitely, definitely. It seems — at least what I’ve learned — is that your industry, from web developers and designers, needs solutions that both make your platform easier to use and make it faster. Am I missing any key facets there? If I wanted to take this back to my industry and say, Here’s how we help the journalism industry, am I missing any points, or do those two pretty much sum it up?

Alex:

No, I think cleaner and faster are the two biggies. There’s a lot of incentive to do otherwise, but I think that’s — from a user perspective, and from an editor’s perspective — I think those are the two things that I think about the most. In terms of CMSs, I think that what I love most is Medium, and I’m really glad to see that grow in terms of not just a blogger’s platform, but a real hardcore CMS.

Time Inc. is experimenting with it a little bit. We’ve seen the The Awl move there, a few other major sites. It’s a place that loads fast, and it’s a place that looks clean and is easy to use. And it’s really just about the writing, which I think is really nice.

David:

One thing is for certain: the future of the medium is going to be completely … we’re not going to know what to expect. I think things are going to change dramatically as we move forward.

Alex:

Yeah, I thinks there’s a sentiment that we are on the other side of a big wave in terms of disruption and what the internet did to publishing. But I think we’re really still — it’s a more turbulent time than a lot of people think and give thought to. There’s still a lot of shaking up left to be done, but I also think, it’s a cliché, but there’s opportunity in crisis. I think it’s a really good time for experimenting in terms of visual design, user experience, but also monetization approaches and business plans, and you’re seeing a lot of really cool stuff being done. Some of it will certainly fail, but it’s failure in the scientific sense of we will learn through this failure, which is always good.

David:

That’s fantastic. How can our listeners find you, and get in touch with you, and find out more about what you’ve been working on?

Alex:

Yeah, totally, the best thing to do is follow me on Twitter. I’m @alexjamesfitz. I spend most of my day there, and I’ve certainly put all my stuff on there. Drop me a message or DM me if you want to get in touch.

Tim:

Fantastic. Thank you so much, Alex. We really appreciate you coming on the show today.

Alex:

Definitely, thank you for having me.


Tim [23:25]:

I definitely learned a lot there. I really wanted to have Alex on the show, just to learn where the publishing industry is at right now, and what they’re looking for what and what they could use from the web development industry itself, especially nowadays wherein journalism online is reaching so many people and having such an amazing effect in different areas. I certainly would love to be someone who can help contribute to that movement.

It was exciting to learn how they’re using the web and some of the challenges they’re still facing and looking to get over in the future.

David:

Absolutely. I think it’s really important for us, we come from the side of the industry where we build these things. We’re the engineers. We’re the designers. We’re the people working on them. It’s really important for us to talk to the customers. In this case, not the customers in terms of the end users who are going to see our products, but the customers being the publishers who are going to make use of those products and put them out there and take advantage of them for making their own messages come alive for their users.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. I think this is something that’s been growing and really coming to a head now, but it’s interesting to see just how focused the publishing industry is on stats — on how quickly our pages are loading, what our bounce rate is, and how quickly a user gets onto our page, and if it’s too slow for them to read an article, and if they just leave immediately. But, it really tells you just how important fast, well-performing pages are that are just easy to use.

David:

It’s true. It’s true. We all focus on trying to build those ourselves, because we know how much the users will appreciate them. We sometimes forget that there’s a bottom line criticality to this when it comes to a publisher. And what’s really interesting is for them to be able to see right there, in their statistics, exactly how this much of a difference — this many milliseconds difference — in page load time affects the bottom line for them.

Tim:

Yeah, definitely. As web developers, I don’t think it should be too much of a challenge for us to deliver fast pages. One thing I didn’t get a chance to ask: a lot of those requests for trackers and cookies and other JavaScripts that throw in ads, that stuff comes from a different … there’s no web developer sitting there saying, Let me add some ads and trackers onto this thing. That stuff comes from heads of business and stakeholders who want more ad revenue and more insight into what their users are doing. But there definitely are ways where you can still load those things — you can still accomplish the business goals — and develop really good, fast publishing tools.

I think a major hang-up there is, number one, it’s not as easy. A lot more thought has to go into the platforms that you’re building. Number two, it just takes a little bit longer. So, you can’t just use the latest framework, and just release something really quick, and then move on to your next thing. There’s a lot of forethought and planning that needs to go into it.

David:

I wonder if advertisers should be paying by latency? Like, when a publisher puts their ad on the site, I know right now they’ll say you can have this maximum this dimension. It can take this long to play. It can loop this many times, et cetera. I wonder if they could charge the advertisers based on the latency introduced by creating that ad and slowing the down the page by that much. It’s certainly something that we can track.

Tim:

It definitely makes sense from a cost perspective. That is definitely something you would want to charge for. If your ad is going to be displayed on our page, and it’s going to take a second to load, we’re going to charge you $1000 a second! Especially if the ad is intrusive. Nothing is more infuriating from a user’s perspective, when you are scrolling through and then ten seconds later this giant thing just comes up and pushes the content down, and you’re kind of lost. You’re trying to find the X button on this weird ad for something you probably don’t even care about. That would be very interesting to charge based on that level, because it gets everybody in the equation thinking, What is this actually doing to the person who’s just there trying to view the content?

David:

That would also encourage the developers who are working at those ad agencies to focus on those issues, because that might not be the priority for them right now. They might be more focused on I want higher-quality images so that people can really see the gradient on the label on this can of tomatoes.

Tim [27:52]:

Yeah, and I think that’s because the industry isn’t stacked against them to where they have to make those considerations. No one has said, Oh, your ad needs to load this fast, and it’s needs to be this performant. Everyone just says you have this 250 by 250 square. The most now is no Flash, but nobody is saying this 250 by 250 square, and make there are responsive images in there, make sure it’s fast, make sure you’re not introducing an extra JavaScript library onto the page.

It’s weird that that hasn’t happened, because you would think, as an advertiser, you would really want your ad to deliver the best possible quality while being the fastest, because you don’t want your ad network or your ads to be the reason that someone is bouncing on a page. You certainly want your ad to get the most clicks, so you’re going to want something that loads up quickly, is seamless, not too intrusive, and just doesn’t force the user to bounce.

David:

I think that that speaks to what Alex was talking about about the distinctions between interruption advertising, like what we’re talking about right now, and native advertising, where the content and the ads merge together, and it’s difficult for the user to even distinguish between which part of this is the ad and which part of this is what I was actually here because I wanted to read it. It’s a challenging thing, and I know publishers are struggling with that. I know Alex was talking a little bit also about the integrity of publishing things that are supporting ads and supported by ads and then actually become the ads. In that case, there is no interruption, and there is no separate latency to charge for.

Tim:

Yeah, it’s tough, too, because when you have sponsored content like that, I know in my head I always think, Oh, this is sponsored content, so this is less meaningful to me. I’m trying to think of what it is that causes me to have that thought. I think that’s a tough challenge to get over.

When you see something, for example, Netflix, a visual interactive article talking about Narcos, it’s sponsored by Netflix with a show of the same title. When I come across that, I’m going to think to myself, Oh, well this is sort of like just a puff piece, and money changed hands, and therefore it’s not really that interesting to me. I always want to suggest, Well, maybe money changes hands, but you don’t make it as obvious. Then there’s moral repercussions, because the user, or the reader, isn’t fully aware that it’s sponsored content. Then there’s a journalistic integrity problem that arises as of that. I don’t know, do you feel the same way when you see sponsored content?

David:

I do. These days I’ll watch a James Bond movie, and I’m thinking, This is just a big car advertisement, isn’t it? It’s tough to figure out where to draw the line, because companies will send free computers to a production company with the expectation that some of those computers will show up on screen, and maybe even with the explicit contract that we’re giving you this many free computers and we want this much screen time showing the logo, not showing the logo. Does it become, this is not really a show that I’m watching, but this is an advertisement couched in a show, and do I really care?

Tim:

Yeah, and I think it’s a problem that would be an interesting one and is one that I think web developers and designers alike should be motivated to help solve. Because we are the ones who benefit from publishers doing well and being able to make money off of the web. I don’t have to turn on the news anymore. Every single bit of information I ever want is either on Twitter or a newsletter that I’m subscribed to, or on Time or Quartz or Vice or any of them. I think, if that’s something that I want to continue — and I definitely do — then I should be interested in helping to solve this problem. How do we help these publishers to monetize while still keeping the interest of the readers and the visitors.

I think that’s something — and again, that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to have Alex on — I think that’s a problem that we can both help solve and that we should want to help solve.

David [32:08]:

Monetization is definitely the issue of the day when it comes to publishing. It was clear, he mentioned that several times and came back to it several times. We’re talking about advertising, but basically what we’re talking about is monetization, as you point out. It’s a question of what people are willing to pay for, and whether the content merits that kind of monetization.

Then again, we live in a country where the freedom of the press is something that has to be independent of sponsors and government paying for things. So, we as consumers do have to pay for that stuff in order to get something that really is free from that kind of bias.

Tim:

Yeah, I see that. I see that. Yeah, it’s an interesting problem. If anybody has ideas, let’s work on something. Let’s think of a way to improve it and make it better.

I know I subscribed to National Geographic Magazine, not because I had a burning desire to read National Geographic. It was really just because I followed them on Instagram, and I kept on seeing the most amazing, breathtaking pictures I’ve ever seen in my life. Things I would’ve never even thought to say, Hey, I wonder what that looks like — like a remote waterfall frozen in some area that you can’t pronounce or even point out on a map.

I thought to myself, I want to give money to the people that are doing this, because it’s such an amazing and explorative effort. I almost wonder if maybe something like that is possible — it’s a model that other organizations can follow. Like, Hey, if you like our coverage, here’s where you can send us money to help make that coverage possible. I know that’s a privileged effort. That’s something I can do because I can afford it, but I can do it.

There are certainly media organizations out there that, if it was available, I would be more than happy to give money for it. I know I’m of the mind already, because I’m not someone who uses ad blocker. I think if you’re going to be putting the content out there and not charging me for it, you have to make money somehow. There, of course, is overly intrusive tracking and outright stealing of information, but I think in some cases, advertising is a necessity, however much we don’t like it. But I think we can make it better. If there’s somebody out there that wants money to continue putting out good content, I’m certainly happy to give it.

David:

I think that it’d be great to get some people involved in that conversation. We should have them tweet us @versioningshow and get the conversation going, because I can tell you, even within this one conversation, you’re in the minority.

Tim:

[Laughing] Yes.

David:

Not only do I use an ad blocker, I use Ghostery. I will block and block and block, and then I’ll read everything through Clearly from Evernote. I want to get my content as refined as possible from the context of advertising, but that’s me. Different people have different approaches.

The things is that the industry, the publishers, should not have to rely on the altruism of people of privilege going out there and saying, Yes, I want to support your publication, and so I’m going to send you some money. When you get to that position, then you start to have to look at, OK, National Geographic, let me see, that’s published by Rupert Murdoch, and I want to give him some money because I really love the publication.

Where do you draw the line on something like that. How much research should a consumer have to do before figuring out what they want to support. Ideally, the publication itself should be so compelling, and the content should be so rewarding, that there’s value to the user in paying for it. How that value is added in such a way that the publication doesn’t have to hide its content, put itself behind a paywall, and yet somehow compel the user to find it more convenient to pay for access, than to go through a non-paid technique such ad blockers, or whatever, in order to get direct access to that content. That’s a challenge for us as engineers and designers to create those platforms, that medium through which a publisher can say, Yes, I’ll give you my content, and you can find out about it. It’s more convenient if you support me because of this, this and this. What’s the answer to this, this and this?

Tim:

No, that’s extremely well put and very eloquent. I like what you said about the altruism of privileged people that very much describes me very well. I’m not afraid to admit. That being said, I think we’ve covered some really, really interesting topics today, and we definitely want to hear from all of you.

David:

Cool. So, folks, tweet us @versioningshow. Get in touch, and let us know what you thought of this show. We’re going to try to bring on some more people who are not directly involved in the development of the web, but fundamentally affected by all of the work that we’re doing. Because, frankly, this is a back-and-forth, and we need to be aware of how the tools and products and the technologies that we’re developing affect the customers out there who are really using them.

Tim:

Very well put. I’m going to say it again, even though you already said it. Thank you so much for listening, and we always enjoy getting to talk technology with all of you.

David:

We would also like to thank SitePoint.com, and our producers, Adam Roberts and Ophelie Lechat. Please feel free to send us your comments on Twitter — @versioningshow — and give us a rating on iTunes and let us know how we’re doing.

Tim:

We’ll see you next time, and we hope you enjoyed this version.

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