By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Where it all went wrong

I’m no advertising expert, but Steve Buttry’s post on newspapers’ original sin strikes me as being exactly right:

The disastrous error that newspapers made early in our digital lives was treating online advertising as a throw-in or upsell for their print advertisers. Helping businesses connect with customers was always our business. We were facing new technology and new opportunities and we did next to nothing to explore how we might use this new technology to help businesses connect with customers.

We just offered businesses the same old solutions that we offered in print, but pop-up ads and web banners somehow didn’t work as well as display ads. Which was just as well, because we told our business customers the ads weren’t worth much by the way we treated them.

Having blown the online-advertising business, newspaper executives are now going to make up for it by charging for online content — likely with miserable results. (Via Steve Yelvington.)

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  1. Don, American

    Suggest you may want to become an expert on advertising, because the lack thereof is exactly what's causing newspaper failures. It's always been primarily about the money. And you thought it was about freedom of the press. . . . Sorry.

  2. Judy Meredith

    Dan, The Globe could have done a much better job making an excellent Saturday series of op eds on Mass Health care reform more "sharable". I posted a complaint on Blue News Tribune for the fun on it, but it's really a pity.

  3. lkcape

    Ironic, isn't it, that the ad dollars keep flowing to Google and Yahoo.Wonder why….And most of Google's offerings are free.

  4. O'Reilly

    In print, ads space is sold by circulation and placement in the paper, with discounts for a long buy. I wonder how it's structured on-line.

  5. Three

    I remember working for DexMedia back in 1999 (It was USWestDex then, and then became QwestDes) and we were calling Yellow Pages advertisers to have them "upgrade" their listing to the "online yellow pages". This was when the rural areas we were calling didn't even have high speed Internet yet.It was a high pressure environment. I learned a lot there… mostly that in their model, each customer had to work with 6 different people to "upgrade" their listing.It was a fallacy in approach which has led to the downfall of Dex, which has been sold and re-sold since then.Thanks for the post Dan!Warmest,

  6. mike_b1

    Google and Yahoo get the ad dollars in large part because no advertiser holds them accountable. Think about it: How can you accurately audit a search engine? But advertiser buyers, most of whom are even dumber than the people who regularly comment on these posts btw, look at the hits provided by the search providers and assume they are accurate. As if the same guys who develop these sophisticated algorithms whereby, say, lckape, if she wanted to, could find out how many references there are to "liberal commie acupuncturist," couldn't come up with a way to inflate the hit counts. It's like investing in GE without any SEC oversight. Might be a great buy, but without oversight the fox is guarding the henhouse.

  7. Bob F

    Google and Yahoo get the ad dollars because they get the eyeballs that many newspaper websites get, but they dont have to bare the financial burdon of collecting the news and opinions that newspapers do. Any web advertiser who doesn't monitor their results is foolish. Your web stats can tell you exactly when, from where and how each of your visitors got to your website. You dont have to audit a search engine, between your stats and their pay-per-click reports, you can get a very good idea of the traffic you receive from them, paid or through their natural results. While 'click fraud' is a significant problem, your stats can tell you if the same IP adrress is responsible for a disporportionate numbers of clicks to your site. I worked for a Cape Cod newspaper, sold them a Cape Cod Real Estate .com business, and I was amazed at how they view my business as a tool to sell more print. Therein lies the problem, the people who run these papers spent their lives in print, not only were they unable to see that the internet was a game changer, but even when they bought their way into the game, as in the case of my business, they did so for the benefit of print. I sold print and online, but print would reach your customers around town, and online would deliver customers from around the world. Ya, they made the web ads look like ad-ons, that was a huge mistake. But lets face it, "news" by it's very nature needs to be reported quickly.. I can post a news story on any of my websites within 5 minutes, for the world to see. The paper has to process it, print it, deliver it by truck to a limited market. I just dont see how they can compete. And i'm not even talking "financially".

  8. mike_b1

    Bob, the point I'm making is that Google/Yahoo could easily inflate the amount of traffic that a site sees — or thinks it sees. You may trust the IP address stuff. I don't. It's too easy to fake. Ask any spammer.

  9. aml

    I'm not sure the Boston Globe and fit quite into this model, but if it fits most of the media landscape, it probably had its effect in bringing down ad rates.When I first worked at, its sales department was an entirely separate team from the paper. Then (maybe 2004?) they rearranged things so that financial results were reported through New England Media group, but managerially departments still reported to's general manager and from their to New York Times Digital. (the reasoning I remember from the time was that most newspapers and their web properties were reported that way so the Boston Globe's earnings could be compared more accurately.) Then a year os so later, the sales teams were changed to report to sales managers at the Globe for better integration of the two sales teams. (terms like "four legged sales call" and "brick and click" were thrown around.) (A bit later in 2006 the editorial department moved its reporting from to the Globe editorial department and in 2008 the rest of the departments moved to reporting to the Globe too. These final stages don't apply to advertising, but I figured if I told half the story I might as well finish it.)So for a good chunk of's existence, the sales people selling print content and the sales people selling online content were different groups, and one wasn't trying to "upsell" the other. In some situations, the problem is the reverse (their prices for classifieds may be priced in a way that keeps them in line with the paper rather than online competitors.)

  10. bostonmediawatch

    Well, the problem was back when newspapers first went online, it was all about getting eyeballs, and then advertising $ would roll in. So the risk of charging was that people would go elsewhere.Now the horse is long out of the barn. Even in hindsight, it's hard to see how it would have played out any other way.

  11. aml

    bostonmediawatch's eyeballs over advertising argument does fit better. Its hard to find an article from the 2000-2005 time frame featuring New York Times Digital's Martin Nisenholtz not discussing scaling the business through audience growth.

  12. Bob F

    Mike.. you're right, they can increase your traffic. which is why SEO is such an important factor in getting a higher ranking, hence more traffic. As far as the IP stuff – if you look at the traffic logs of your own server you can get a very clear picture of who came to your site, where they are from, the time, how long spent, the page they visited on your site, entry page, exit page, which search engine(s) and the exact terms they used, if that was their 1st visit, etc.. That can be a very key tool. A given search engine cant change your server activity stats. Pay-Per-Click and click fraud, well that's another story. But for natural search engine position and traffic, you can gather more information about the behavior of your site visitors than any other medium, by far. I've been doing this since 95 and I analyze stats every day. The sources of traffic to most websites includes hundreds of different sources a month. 90% of business website owners don't even bother to look at them, and they're free.

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