Financial Models For The Media

Commenting on Greg Sargent's piece on discontent in some Left blogs about the lack of financial support from ostensible allies (Full Disclosure - I have no idea about the finances of this blog other than it costs money to have it. I know that attracting advertisers has never been a thought in what I write. The fact is none of us are professional bloggers in any sense.), Eugene Volokh writes:

[I]f an ostensibly independent blogger has a general pattern of demanding advertising even indirectly, rather than in some personal communication from institutions in exchange for publicizing the institutions' work, that sort of relationship strike me as harder to disclose in any transparent way. And my sense is that historically this sort of deal has been seen as not entirely kosher in the newspaper business, or for that matter in the opinion magazine business. Naturally, readers expect that an opinion magazine would have editorial biases. But I don't think they expect that the opinion magazine would be making advertising dollars from positive coverage (or "free publicity") that it provides to various organizations.

(Emphasis supplied.) More . . .

I do not disagree with Volokh's point, but I do think he overlooks a more obvious, yet technically undisclosed, influence on "editorial biases" - the desire for an audience. Fox News does what it does not just because Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes have "editorial biases," but because they are providing an "editorial bias" that attracts a significant audience. The same with the shift in MSNBC's nighttime programming and most of CNBC's programming. The traditional fear in journalism is of course "payola journalism." But the more significant effect, in my view, comes from the desire for audience.

It would be great if "editorial bias" was merely caused by one's own, um, editorial biases. But it is naive to think that the only external influence can be advertising dollars.

Editorial bias is caused by many factors. Among up and coming journalists and bloggers - calculations on climbing up the ladder will effect it. Among established Media, access and DC mentality. Among blogs and cable news networks, the desire for eyeballs.

Certainly the demand for "a two way street" with potential blog advertisers, as described by Sargent, is a pretty jarring idea. But I think there is less there than meets the eye. I think it is more about awkward language than demands for a quid pro quo. The argument I think is better understood as questioning why these entities are not seeing that advertising on Left blogs serves their core objectives. It is a fair question it seems to me. But coming from the potential recipients of the advertising dollars, it has a serious appearance problem.

One final note - Jane Hamsher wrote:

There's a big problem right now with the traditional liberal interest groups sitting on the sidelines around major issues because they don't want to buck the White House for fear of getting cut out of the dialogue, or having their funding slashed. Someone picks up a phone, calls a big donor, and the next thing you know...the money is gone. It's already happened. Because that's the way Rahm plays. Just in case you were worried, that's not a problem for us.

(Emphasis supplied.) That's a serious charge from Jane and it deserves some attention. For this is the flip side of what Volokh is talking about - interest groups (yes the White House is an interest group too) demanding certain "editorial biases" in exchange for support (in this case, the assertion is that the WH COS leaned on wealthy donors to NOT fund folks who did not toe the WH line.) I would like to see some reporting on that. I do not doubt Jane on this. It is not contra to what we have seen reported about Rahmbo, but Jane is asserting this without reservation. More details please.

Speaking for me only

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    Two points: (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by scribe on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:23:27 AM EST
    First, I think the point Jane was making was a sound one:  the Left bloggers are, by and large, either self-funding or dependent on what advertising they can scare up and they deserve to have some coin tossed their way.

    Second, for the established left organizations, their funding model has evolved (or devolved - take your pick) to oftentimes relying upon a few well-to-do funders.

    In the past, with paper-based models of advocacy journalism, those well-to-do funders were vital, both as a source of regular funding and as an entree to others who would do likewise.  If you go back to the wingnut magazines of the 80s (like, say, National Review, which I subscribed to then), you would see relatively obscure companies regularly taking out full page ads week in and week out.  I remember one company - a maker or seller of those carpets you could get with a message imprinted - that bought a full back cover for literally years on end. There were doubtless some people who benefitted from finding out about that carpet company through its ad buy because they needed carpets, but I suspect the biggest beneficiary was the magazine, which had a regular funding source.

    The pitfall of such regular, bigtime funders is twofold:  the organization makes itself vulnerable to having to satisfy the funder's whimsy, and the organization can get lazy about developing more support and supporters.  The first pitfall itself has two dimensions:  the funder's personal satisfaction and, as Rahm is showing, the susceptibility to indirect control of the organization by TPTB, through a little lean on the funder by TPTB.

    So, the organization winds up toeing the line that TPTB puts out, day in and day out, lest it go under.

    In blogworld, as we all are aware, both the entry costs and the costs of staying present are a lot lower.  It's the transition from part-time avocation to full-time operation that makes a blog expensive.  That expense is not in the medium:  electrons and the means of expressing them are next to free.  Compare that to paper and printing. Rather, it's in stuff that supports it:  server space, research (PACER access still costs 8 cents a page, and court transcripts are wildly more).  Compare that to postage in print-world.  

    And then there is the cost of the author's time.  In print-world, a lot of those authors were willing to get a start on the ladder of politics for minimum wage or so.  Not so in blogworld.

    Many of us here are lawyers:  the 20 minutes I'll spend writing posting this comment is time I could be billing (if I had clients);  my experience would justify that third of an hour being worth $60, $80, $100 or maybe more.  I will get no money for it.

    Blogworld, though, has the real benefit of being amenable to grass-roots organizing and collecting.  If a blog develops a following (because it's well-written, makes sense or for whatever reason), then an appeal for a couple bucks to the readership can yield a decent sum in relatively short order.  But that grass-roots organizing can also be used to encourage calls to Congresscritters, letter-writing campaigns, primary challenges, and the like.

    What Obama and Rahm have done is interesting.  They built a campaign around grass-roots organizing (and self-replicating organizing) and won.  Then, once the campaign was won, they just put that organization on ice, turned their back on it, and went to a very top-down model.  Signally, when it went from Change.gov to Whitehouse.gov at noon on January 20, the "ask us questions/raise issues" box on the site disappeared.  They did not want any inconvenient questions - like "when are you going to prosecute torturers?" being raised, so they closed the question box.

    I get emails from the campaign, like a lot of people, a couple times a week I guess.  I don't even bother to open them.  I don't want to be told what to think.

    In putting the grassroots on ice and closing the question box, though, Obama and Rahm went one further - they won't even talk to the people on the Left who were so instrumental in building that organization and ensuring that victory.  Rather, they spend their time sucking the sh*t out of the backsides of the banksters they should be putting in jail and give the back of their collective hand to the people who brought them to the dance.

    For that reason, I commented on Jane's post yesterday that, come election time, I'm just going to sit on my hands.  My senators voted for the MCA and I told them then (one to his face, politely) I could not vote for them because of that and would not until it was changed.  It hasn't changed and I haven't voted for them.

    The problem is navigating the inevitable blame-heaping which will come if and when the Dems take a beating in 2010:  Rahm and his ilk will blame the liberals for the losses suffered when, in reality, Rahm, Obama and the corporatocrats turned their back on being Democrats and thereby will have cut their own feet out from under themselves.  

    So, I don't have a solution on how to navigate it just yet, but things are not so far down the road that there is not time to figure it out.

    Although I like Jane (none / 0) (#1)
    by CoralGables on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:25:19 AM EST
    she also recently said.

    "They come to us, expecting us to give them free publicity, and we do, but it's not a two way street. They won't do anything in return. They're not advertising with us."

    To me, that sounds like Jane Hamsher is expecting payment in return for her blog support.

    So I guess a pertinent question is, do political blogs expect payment in return for their postings? Are all political blogs well on their way to becoming blog hookers?

    There was a larger context for the comment (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Jane Hamsher on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:43:41 AM EST
    I was referring to advertising campaigns with big budgets that are leaving the blogs out of their buys.

    A traditional marketing push has two components -- paid media and earned media. Paid media (advertising) is purchased, and earned media would be in the form of reviews, articles and other "free" content that a PR department pushes.

    AARP, for example, had the "Divided We Fail" campaign. They put millions into buying ads in newspapers and networks, but sent the blogs a press release. Which means that the New York Times fell into the "paid" media category because of an ad buy, but was also counted on to be "earned" media in the form of news.  Blogs were simply consigned to the latter.

    The reason the New York Times is around to do "earned" media is because they make revenues off of "paid" media.  Everyone understands that, it's just how business works in a capitalist system.  And if you look at an advertising campaign for Toyota or Dove or Marlboro, they devote an increasing percentage of each campaign to online advertising.  So it's not like we're asking for them to participate in a system that has no benefit to them as advertisers.  

    The problem is that groups who send us their press releases expecting "earned media" just as they do the New York Times get the same "earned media" from us that they do from the New York Times.  The difference is that they aren't factoring us into their "paid" media budgets, and like the New York Times, without that, we don't have a sustainable business model to keep offering "earned" media.  As groups increasingly depend upon us as the only news outlets covering their issues (which we do without consideration as to whether they advertise with us or not), participating in a sustainable structure is something they need to be thinking about.

    I get that people may not understand how a media business  operates.  But regardless of that,  unless you can point to something that's appeared on my site that seems to have been written simply because we got advertising, the charge that we're asking to be paid for our content is unfair and unsubstantiated.


    I figured that was what you meant (none / 0) (#7)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:49:41 AM EST
    Still doesn't eliminate implication of (none / 0) (#10)
    by oculus on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:18:49 AM EST
    pay to play.  

    The optics of the quote (none / 0) (#13)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:22:43 AM EST
    are not good I grant you.

    BTW (none / 0) (#8)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:50:34 AM EST
    Is it possible to hear more about that Rahmbo story?

    Second that (none / 0) (#19)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 12:32:24 PM EST
    As you say, it's a pretty serious charge.

    Given that there was considerable talk during the campaign of the Obama operation telling its big donors not to give money to outside groups so they could completely control the message themselves, I wonder how that fits into this story.

    Do we know if they're still doing that? And if so, could that be what this is about, or are donors only being told to withhold support from some selected out-of-favor groups?  IOW, did somebody just assume they were being targeted by the White House because of their inconvenient positions, when in reality, it's a broader effort to squash funding for all independent groups?


    I should have been more clear (none / 0) (#11)
    by CoralGables on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:19:05 AM EST
    originally and hopefully was in my brief followup that my question wasn't directed at either you or BTD or anyone at TL, but more of a randomly thrown dart of a question. I used a selectively chosen small grab from your mountain of work (which admittedly is totally unfair) that raises a debatable issue about political opinion in radio, newspaper, television, and blogs in general which is:

    That very fine debatable line between paid media and earned media, and pay for play.

    It's something that can never be deciphered from one article. It's the body of work from an editorial writer that eliminates or clarifies the need for further questioning of the editorialist. My apologies if my grab from your body of work came off negatively.


    Is the problem the lack of an ABC (none / 0) (#12)
    by Cream City on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:19:06 AM EST
    for blogs?  I.e., the Audit Bureau of Circulation that provides really reliable, outside verification of the actual reach of, say, newspapers.  The NYT is not offering space, earned or otherwise.  It is offering its audience.

    And advertisers can rely on the circulation count of that audience at newspapers that pay to have the ABC come in, open the books, and verify that the reach really is what the NYT claims when it sells its readers.  There are the means of counting hits and such online, but I don't see the same reliable, reputable, and long-respectedmeans of verifying the real reach of blogs.

    (Additionally, of course, few blogs would have the reach of the major circulation of media such as the NYT -- and the major blogs that do have major reach are receiving fairly good levels of advertising, it seems.  Also, how many blogs invested in ad staffs to compete with other media?  Not that any of this matters much now, in this economy, when ad budgets are being slashed.  And so are ad staffs at media.  But when the economy returns, will blogs invest in ad staffs to compete with other media?  Will they establish an ABC?  Or will they just count on those media to do the right thing re advertising, which seems an odd thing to do, considering that some of the same blogs criticize those media for not even being able to get the simplest reporting right.)


    Ad sales staff (5.00 / 2) (#18)
    by gyrfalcon on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 12:22:52 PM EST
    You're totally right.  Advertising in the Times or trade magazines or TV networks doesn't come flooding in on its own.  All of them have ad sales staff whose job it is to persuade advertisers of the value to them in placing those ads.

    I used to edit a couple of trade magazines, and although you'd think in that medium the value of supporting the existence of the magazine would be obvious to companies in the field, it wasn't and the ad sales staff had to work to explain it to them.

    I assume the liberal blog ad network, or whatever the advertising aggregator is called, does have such staff, but how large and how effective it is I have no idea.

    I would assume that AARP in Jane's example would have decided not to spend ad dollars on blogs because the demographics are younger than theirs.  This is short-sighted thinking on their part, but somebody has to call them up and make the case convincingly in order to get them to think beyond their long-standing model.

    But that's just my assumption about AARP's thinking, and they may have other concerns in mind.  Again, that's what a good ad sales person does, find out what the barriers are that are keeping an organization from placing ads and figure out how to overcome them.

    If I were Jane, I'd be calling up the liberal ad network people rather than writing blog posts about it.


    Well put. Yet we read below (none / 0) (#22)
    by Cream City on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 06:55:28 PM EST
    that the blogger comes from Hollywood.  The capital of commercialism, of promotion -- indeed, of self-promotion.  Who would expect all that marketing (per your penultimate sentence re barriers and overcoming them) of movies to just occur on its own?:-)

    I think it was awkward language (none / 0) (#2)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:31:12 AM EST
    I think Jane was not expressing herself well. And before I get accused of logrolling, I have been critical of Jane many times in the past and will no doubt be so in the future and vice versa.

    I really do believe if you put the idea being put forth - that is in the interests of these groups to support Left blogs that support their message - in the mouth of someone not standing to benefit from that support, you would not find it controversial.

    Here's the point - is Jane or any other blogger writing anything because of advertising they receive? Almost certainly not. On the other hand, I think there should be a concern that you will write about something as a result of it being an issue of concern for an advertiser (even though you agree with the message of the advertiser.)

    But my post is trying to look at this from a broader perspective - how often are editorial biases based on expectation of audience preference?  I think that is at least as big a concern if you are concerned about "editorial bias."


    I agree (none / 0) (#4)
    by CoralGables on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:58:54 AM EST
    with you on Jane's language from that particular quote. To yank one or two sentences from a mountain of available material would be dishonest of me. My statement isn't really about Jane but really the future of political blogs in the world of quid pro quo.

    When it comes to editorial biases based on expectation of audience preference, we may have a chicken or the egg issue in play. Do editorial biases begin by playing to a perceived audience for market share? Or do editorial biases begin by playing to purse strings for financial support? I believe editorial dishonesty has always been in small town newspapers as well as trade magazines for financial support. With the introduction of media empires, it has to be disconcerting that it may now be standard fare everywhere.

    What is the lifespan of any pure as the driven snow editorial writer before finances alter the gameplan? It's hard not to love a dyed in the wool muckracker (unless they are coming after me).


    And to personally answer your question (none / 0) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:33:10 AM EST
    I make no money from blogging. Never have, even when I helped attract the biggest audience in the political blogosphere.

    This is a passion for me, not a profession.

    My profession is attorney.


    Go read what Jane just put up (none / 0) (#15)
    by scribe on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 10:39:30 AM EST
    further elucidating on her points of yesterday.

    Y'gotta remember:  she comes out of the film industry which, for all the tropes spread about dippy liberals running rampant in the movies, is and has always been one of the "purest" (if I can use that word) forms of capitalism going.  If your product makes money, you get to stay.  If not, you don't.  If you want to stay, you figure out how to make money.  

    Jane knows whereof she speaks.


    Ethics models for the new media (none / 0) (#5)
    by Cream City on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 08:59:06 AM EST
    more than financial models is what this is about.  And as ever, the lessons of history -- the long, hard learning curve that old media took to figure out how to construct at least some walls between business and editorial sides -- might be of use.  Yes, there certainly are sources of bias other than advertising, such as the perilous symbiosis with sources noted here, but those walls are a start.

    If the past is prologue, professional organizations and then serioius standards and then statements of ethics codes will come to blogging . . . in a century or two.

    Let's Hope That It Won't ... (none / 0) (#16)
    by santarita on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 11:14:13 AM EST
    take that long.  

    Journalism seems to be going electronic and interactive.  Could Dailykos, for example,  become the substitute for the NY Times?


    More likely a substitute (5.00 / 1) (#17)
    by Cream City on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 11:35:43 AM EST
    for the National Enquirer.

    And yes, it never need take as long to learn from the past -- if there is a willingness to learn.  That first requires recognition that the past, and others, have something to teach us.  But that means putting a premium on experience, and we know that is just not done these days.  


    I think this is more striking (none / 0) (#9)
    by lilburro on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 09:56:01 AM EST
    "Most want the easy way -- having a big blogger promote their agenda," adds Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos. "Then they turn around and spend $50K for a one-page ad in the New York Times or whatever." Moulitsas adds that officials at such groups often do nothing to engage the sites's audiences by, say, writing posts, instead wanting the bloggers to do everything for them. [emphasis supplied]

    Again, if these are explicit demands, then yeah that's an image problem.  

    When it comes to blogs, I think the worst type of editorial bias is the "moving on up" bias.  And then sometimes there's a need to kiss up to your sources - which you see in intelligence reporting/blogging a lot.  As an example, this post annoys the h*ll out of me.

    More broadly, though, there's a tendency in the blogosphere to presume that the Google-able corpus of knowledge on torture is a definitive account of our government's dalliance with it over the last decade or so. That's just not the case.

    The frustrating thing about intelligence reporting is just how dense and murky and opaque it is, and very few people who do it are able to create comprehensive accounts of what goes on. That's why it's necessary to hedge conclusions. A piece I've chased for years concerns internal CIA resistance to torture. I've confirmed very little of it, which is why I've not yet published anything. But if it pans out, I think it's fair to say that it would complicate much of the picture of what people inside the agency did and didn't resist, and how and why they did it.

    BFD.  I fail to see how if you signed off on a rendition to torture but possibly, maybe, felt conflicted, you are therefore not someone who just SIGNED OFF ON TORTURE.

    That post is crazy to me.

    To toss coin, "ostensible allies" ... (none / 0) (#20)
    by lambert on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 03:21:52 PM EST
    ... can buy an ad. Otherwise, I might as well be working at AEI or Heritage, which is exactly what I don't want to do.

    Why is this complicated?

    And if they don't (to follow up) then... (none / 0) (#21)
    by lambert on Thu Apr 09, 2009 at 03:22:59 PM EST
    ... I have to assume it's for good business reasons. Again, why is this hard?