May 23, 2016 Last Updated 8:04 am

Traditional media sites are worth paying for – no, really they are – seriously, right?

With the wide use among quality news sites of content services delivering stories designed to attract clicks, it becomes that much harder to justify paywalls and ad blockers

The phrase “incremental revenue” is not some invention of the current generation of publishers, it has a long, long history.

Back in my newspaper days, incremental revenue meant special sections. Lots of them.

There was the section for the start of the baseball season where Tommy Lasorda came to give an inspirational speech that had us all charging out of the auditorium ready to sell ads (it didn’t work, the LA Times crushed us as usual). The Dodgers even brought in one of their peanut vendors to through bags of nuts to the assembled staff (I always thought it strange that those bags of peanuts were about the only bonus anyone us ever got working for Hearst).

Special sections meant a new reason to visit potential advertisers that generally said ‘No’ to us. It worked, otherwise we wouldn’t have published so many of them. There would be the section for Cinco de Mayo, or the Nisei Week Japanese Festival. There were special home improvement sections, and even the death and dying section, perfect for selling funeral homes (I don’t think I ever even tried to sell an ad into that one).

One of the last special sections I was ever involved with was a ‘Baby of the Year’ section that my staff forced on me. I had come back from a classified advertising manager meeting in Calgary (Banff, actually, really nice) and told the staff of some of the ideas other CAMs had – and mentioned a Baby of the Year section someone had published. I mentioned it as a joke, what a silly idea, right? The staff loved it.

Readers bought $25 ads for their babies, or grand kids, sent in a photm and received a small ad in the paper and a ‘Times Baby of the Year’ t-shirt for the kid.

After the section ran the entire readership area was filled with toddlers being paraded about town with ‘Times Baby of the Year’ t-shirts on. My competitor at the MediaNews Group paper called me and told me his boss was giving him grief about it.

The incremental revenue barely covered our costs, but the marketing value was enormous.

There are lots of reasons for, and ways to drive, incremental revenue. Most made a lot of sense, and readers actually like them.

Today, how do media firms drive incremental digital revenue? Often by signing up with Outbrain or Taboola.

Everyone seemingly uses these firms (except TNM, I guess).


The concept with these services is simple, and involves publishers in two possible ways. Publishers sign up with the service hoping their content gets used, or they dedicate ad space on their site for these stories to appear and get paid when readers click (on purpose or by mistake) on the stories.

Some publishers are on both ends of the scheme. For it to work for them, they need to produce stupid stories with clickbait headlines. Let’s not pretend the stories aren’t stupid, they are, but readers click on them. I sadly admit I have been guilty of clicking on more than one of these stories (which is why these companies really have an argument for their continued existence). For those who don’t participate by submitting their content, they run the ads, which (as seen above) show three to six stories – readers click on the stories and are driven off the website – but at least a click is registered and the publisher gets paid incremental revenue.

Since just everyone from The Boston Globe to The Huffington Post, from Talking Points Memo to Breitbart uses the services to try drive a few incremental dollars, what is the difference between these sites? Which sites are quality news sites and which are…well, something else?

Fortune looked at the services a couple of years ago and saw problems:

Despite their founders’ best intentions, many believe Outbrain and Taboola have made the Internet worse for the wear. It’s easy to see why. The links in their “related content” widgets, which typically appear at the bottom of a blog post or news article, often represent the worst of the Web.

Examples of recent headlines include “15 Good Looking Celebrities who destroyed themselves with plastic surgery,” which appeared on and led to a site called SheBudgets, “Dog Tells Cat To Get Off His Bed, Hilarity Ensues,” which appeared on a story about murder on and led to, and “Seven causes of low testosterone,” which appeared on and led to a website called HealthCentral.

As the article admits, however, that even Fortune uses these services.

Sometimes, actually too often, these services are confused with content marketing or native advertising. In both of these other content schemes the aim is to influence through quality editorial. Often the reader may not see the content as quality, because it is promotional, but it is hard to argue that the advertiser isn’t at least trying to deliver quality content. Plus, there are attempts to make the content relevant to the website it is on. You won’t see a native ad for day trading here at TNM, but one on a digital publishing platform would make sense.

That is simply not the case with the stories used in these services. And they know what they are doing.

For instance, on a newspaper website discussing the end game in the Democratic nomination race, I was delivered stories such as those seen above. Why would I click on such content? Well, I guess we all should be less proud about ourselves, because readers do click on the content, despite it being irrelevant to  surrounding editorial. And notice the story from Business Insider? They appear to be on both sides of the content scheme.

And that, ultimately, is the point: media properties have learned that if they are going to drive traffic they will have to engage in this game of clickbait.

Which website today contains these headlines: “Can Nightmares Cause a Heart Attack?” and “Why Does the Physical Exam Stop at the Navel?” or “Mini Microbes With Musical Tastes” and “Cattle on the Wild Side”?

It’s The New York Times, and each headline likely leads to an interesting and informative story, but the art of clickbait, with its question mark ending headlines or slightly vague writing, is now common place.

What’s the point, that we’re all just a bunch of junk pushers?

No, it is that readers are finding it harder and harder to differentiate between one news website and another. That because so many publishers use these content services, and write so much of their content to serve these services (or at least compete with them) that there is a commonness to the web today.

But, and here is the difference, many of the traditional media believe that their content remains worth paying for, that readers will willingly pay for subscriptions to climb over the paywalls being constructed. And even if they aren’t constructing paywalls, they are beginning to use mechanisms to prevent readers from using ad blockers.

That last bit is especially ironic, because readers who want to be presented with “11 Puppies Who Take Nap Time to a While New Level” can get that content on any site, which is one reason so many readers today love their ad blockers.

I would argue that some publishers pushing hard for paid content strategies need to reevaluate their websites to see if they really are delivering what they think they are. Because if, as I see it, website content is becoming more and more homogenous, then they will need to decide if they construct a paywall or throw up an ad blocker message if they can afford to lose their incremental revenue, too.

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