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

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Semafor provides some clarity on The Washington Post’s massive failure

We now have some clarity as to why The Washington Post sat on information it had in January 2021 that an upside-down American flag, adopted as a symbol by supporters of the failed coup that had just taken place, was flying outside one of Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s homes.

Ben Smith and Max Tani report in Semafor that then-senior managing editor Cameron Barr and reporter Robert Barnes didn’t think it was worth a story in and of itself, and that they discussed reporting a deeper story about a dispute between Alito’s wife, Martha-Ann Alito, and her neighbors. That story never came together.

“In retrospect, I should have pushed harder for that story,” Barr told Semafor. You think?

As I speculated on Sunday, Barr said that executive editor Marty Baron, then in his final weeks on the job, did not know about the flag. What remains unclear is what prompted the Post at long last to reveal what it knew (free link) three and a half years later. Did Barnes, who’s now retired, or Carr tip someone off? Or has the story remained part of the institutional memory of the newsroom, and that someone finally decided to surface it following reporting by The New York Times about the Alitos’ pair of insurrectionist flags?

Smith tries to run interference for the Post, but even though the story may not have seemed like as much of a big deal then as it does now, taking a pass on it until now was nevertheless a deeply wrong decision by the Post. It makes you wonder what else they know that we don’t.

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Thinking through what’s next following The Washington Post’s Alito debacle

Justice Sam Alito. Photo (cc) 2017 by JoshEllie1234.

A few quick follow-ups on The Washington Post’s mind-boggling failure (free link) to report that an insurrectionist flag was flying outside Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s home when the paper discovered it way back in January 2021:

• As I’ve written previously, news organizations never should have gotten rid of their public editors, also known as ombudsmen. A number of these positions disappeared when newspapers were shrinking and losing money. But though some newspapers that eliminated their public editors have returned to profitability, including The New York Times and The Boston Globe, the Post is in dire straits these days. Too bad. A public editor could demand answers as to why a story wasn’t published at the time and how it happened to surface right now.

• Speaking of which — why now? What happened? According to the Post’s own story on Saturday, the flag was verified by its now-retired Supreme Court reporter, Robert Barnes. Given that the court is taking some important cases related to the insurrection, did Barnes contact the newsroom to remind them?

• The Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, announced in late January 2021 that he was retiring, and he left the paper about a month later. Baron was someone who was seemingly on top of everything, but if there was ever a time when he was giving the Post less than his full attention, this would have been the moment. Conversely, the Post was caught up reporting on the actual events of the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6. At that moment, the Alito matter may have seemed like a sidebar to a sidebar.

• As deep as the Post’s failure may have been, it may have done little damage in the long run. Alito wouldn’t have recused himself from insurrection-related cases then, and at that point there weren’t any. Nor will he now. But with Jan. 6-related cases finally coming before the court, and at a time when Justice Clarence Thomas’ corruption has been fully exposed, the story that insurrectionist flags appeared over two of the Alitos’ homes may hit harder now than it would have three and a half years ago.

• All of this serves as a reminder that no matter what you think of the three justices appointed by Donald Trump (Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett), the two worst were appointed by the Bushes — Thomas by George H.W. Bush and Alito by George W. Bush.

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The Washington Post knew about one of the Alitos’ insurrectionist flags

Shocking news from — and about — The Washington Post: the paper knew (free link) that an insurrectionist flag was flying over Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito’s house in January 2021, right after the attempted coup, and didn’t publish anything. From today’s Post story:

The Post decided not to report on the episode at the time because the flag-raising appeared to be the work of Martha-Ann Alito, rather than the justice, and connected to a dispute with her neighbors, a Post spokeswoman said. It was not clear then that the argument was rooted in politics, the spokeswoman said.

Needless to say, whenever something is “not clear,” that can often be rectified with reporting.

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Apple News Plus: Promising, or just another example of promises, promises?

Photo (cc) 2019 by Lisa Main Johnson

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when news organizations were all-in on social media as a way to distribute their journalism. But that was then. In recent years, Facebook has fiddled with its algorithm repeatedly in order to play down the amount of news that will show up in users’ feeds. Actual partnerships with the likes of The Washington Post are a thing of the past. Google is unreliable. And let’s not get started with what has happened to Twitter/X, the other main source of click-throughs to news stories.

To compensate, media outlets doubled down on newsletters, which don’t drive as much traffic as social but which do have the advantage of being under their control. Of course, all this is playing out at a time when many if not most newspapers and magazines have put their journalism behind paywalls, which further degrades the value of relying on social. A click from Twitter doesn’t mean much if the clicker can’t read the story they’re interested in or — more to the point — see the ads.

Now we’re experiencing a bit of excitement over a newish platform: Apple News Plus. The free version comes preinstalled on everyone’s iPhones and Macs. For $12.99 a month, you get a whole lot more (though not The New York Times, which is skeptical).

Apple News Plus got a big boost earlier this week when Semafor media reporter Max Tani wrote a mostly favorable story. He begins with quite an anecdote about The Daily Beast, which had been on the ropes as its reliance on Facebook and Google was resulting in a dwindling number of clicks. Thanks to its partnership with Apple News Plus, though, the Beast is on track to earn between $3 million and $4 million this year, more than its own in-house subscription program.

Better yet, you don’t have to click through. Stories load instantly and in many cases are more attractive than the publications’ own websites. Tani writes:

The Beast is hardly alone in its increased reliance on the iOS [and Mac] news aggregator. The free version of Apple News has been a source of audience attention for news publishers since it launched in 2015. But while many publishers have come to the conclusion that traffic has less business value than they once thought, they’re still desperate for revenue. Executives at companies including Condé Nast, Penske Media, Vox, Hearst, and Time all told Semafor that Apple News+ has come to represent a substantial stream of direct revenue.

Which raises a question: Haven’t we been down this road before? Indeed, Facebook and Google both experimented with partnering with news organizations and republishing their content on its own platforms, but those arrangements ultimately came to a bad end. Needless to say, Apple News Plus also privileges national publications over local media outlets. Tani mentions partnerships with large regional newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but it’s hard to imagine that they’ll get down to the level of hyperlocals that cover small communities and neighborhoods.

Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers put it this way on Twitter: “Every time I watch this movie the ending is the same.”

Let me point out another problem. A few large newspapers, both national (principally the Times and The Wall Street Journal) and regional (including The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis), have achieved profitability on the strength of digital subscriptions. Key to that is that they get all the revenue. The Globe’s non-discounted digital subscription rate of $30 a month is more than double what you’d pay Apple, and that money is being split among all of the media partners that are taking part, as well as with Apple itself.

Journalism is expensive, and news organizations with large reporting staffs need as much subscription revenue as they can get. What Apple is offering, essentially, is iTunes for news, an idea that the late David Carr was promoting 15 years ago. There are good reasons it’s never caught on — until now, maybe.

Long-term, no tech company is going to be a reliable partner for news organizations. Apple is attractive in ways that Facebook and Twitter never were: it’s not a social network, and charging subscriptions for users provides a more solid underpinning than anything the platforms offered. And of course journalism should take advantage of what Apple is offering. At this late date, I think every news executive knows the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. But they ought to take the money while it’s there.

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GBH cuts claim three local TV shows, including its only Black-oriented program

Photo (cc) 2019 by Dan Kennedy

There are many things to say about the cuts announced Wednesday at GBH, so pardon the random nature of this post. As Aidan Ryan reports in The Boston Globe, 31 employees were laid off, comprising 4% of the staff. Now, 4% doesn’t sound like a lot, especially at a large operation that encompasses national and local programming across television, radio and digital. But management chose to decimate its local TV operation covering news and public affairs. “Greater Boston,” a Monday-to-Thursday program featuring interviews with newsmakers, was canceled; so were two weekly shows, “Basic Black” and “Talking Politics.” All told, a reported 10% of the cuts came at GBH News, as the local operation is known.

Shuttering “Basic Black” is inexplicable. Originally called “Say Brother,” it was GBH’s only local television show devoted to covering the region’s communities of color. There’s nothing in the regular radio lineup, either. This is an abdication of GBH’s responsibilities as a public media institution supported by grants, donations from “viewers like you” and taxpayer dollars. Yes, I know that chief executive Susan Goldberg says the three shows will come back as digital programs, but no one knows what that’s going to look like.

“Talking Politics” was a weekly program on local politics and public policy ably hosted by Adam Reilly, with whom I worked both at The Boston Phoenix and, later, at GBH News. It was launched after the August 2021 cancellation of “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” an award-winning program I was part of almost from its inception in 1998. There’s a lot I could say about the decision to end “Beat the Press,” but I’ll leave it at this: The program was pulling in strong viewership numbers right up to the end, and I still hear from people wherever I go who lament its passing.

Getting rid of “Greater Boston” strikes me as a rerun of past events. The show, with Emily Rooney at the helm, was created in 1997, six years after the cancellation of “The Ten O’Clock News,” which was anchored by Christopher Lydon and Carmen Fields. Emily presided over a compelling program characterized by her intelligence and quirky appeal. But let’s not forget that it was also cheaper to produce than “The Ten O’Clock News,” which was a full-fledged newscast. (I wrote about those early days in a long Phoenix feature.) “Beat the Press” was born a year later when the Friday slot became available and Emily was able to fulfill her ambitions of putting a media-criticism show on the air.

As Emily moved closer to retirement age, she gave up “Greater Boston” while keeping “Beat the Press.” Jim Braude, who also co-hosts GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” with Margery Eagan, took her place and proved to be popular and successful in that slot. But he gave it up in 2022 in order to concentrate on radio, and “Greater Boston” has been helmed by a rotating series of hosts ever since. One of those irregulars was Adam, and I was on with him May 15 to talk about “What Works in Community News,” the book I wrote with Ellen Clegg. We knew cuts were coming, but I certainly didn’t realize I’d be one of the last guests.

Another observation: From the moment that WBUR Radio and GBH reported financial problems earlier this year, some have questioned whether Boston could accommodate two news-focused public radio stations. In April, two dozen people took early-retirement buyouts at ’BUR while another seven were laid off. The Globe’s Ryan even raised the possibility that the two radio stations could merge.

So it’s striking that when GBH finally brought down the hammer, it was on the television rather than the radio side. Of course, television is much more expensive, and the entire institution reportedly had an operating deficit of $18.7 million last year. Still, it seems like an odd choice given that GBH has no direct public television competition while on radio it lags well behind ’BUR.

The day of reckoning at GBH also came just two days after GBH News general manager Pam Johnston announced she was leaving after four years of running all local programming — radio, television and digital. And her departure, in turn, followed a Globe story in February by Mark Shanahan in which he reported that Johnston ran a newsroom beset by turmoil and a toxic culture.

Sadly, all of this comes just as GBH News had won its first Peabody Award, for its excellent “The Big Dig” podcast. Ambitious, deeply reported podcasts are expensive, and even the best of them draw relatively small audiences — so it could be a while before we hear anything like it again.

Finally, being a part of GBH News for many years was one of the highlights of my career. My roles over the course of 24 years included being a panelist on “Beat the Press,” writing a column for the GBH News website and appearing occasionally on radio. Wednesday was a sad day. My best wishes to those who lost their jobs and to my friends and former colleagues who are still employed.

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Broadcast nets highlight Trump’s latest Nazi dalliance while newspapers fall short

Assert, deny, project. Repeat. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

Whenever Donald Trump erupts with rhetoric that is disturbing and offensive, questions are raised as to whether the media should amplify it. My own view: Yes, usually, although it shouldn’t be repeated over and over to the point at which it drowns out all other news. President Biden is struggling to get his own message out, and surely one of the reasons is that Trump is dominating just about every news cycle — not in a good way, of course, but that hardly seems to matter.

Yet how can we ignore the reality that, on Monday, his campaign promoted Nazi rhetoric on Trump’s own Truth Social platform? Among other things, the 30-second video that was posted refers to “the creation of a unified Reich” and says that Trump will reject “globalists,” code for Jews among the far right. The Trump campaign responded with the usual drivel. According to The New York Times (free link), the response was that the video was shared by a campaign staffer who didn’t notice the Nazi content and that Biden, naturally, is “the real extremist.” The post was reportedly left up for many hours, though it was taken down Tuesday morning. Trump himself has not addressed the matter.

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What’s interesting is that, far from giving the story too much attention, our major mainstream newspapers have actually paid little attention to it. Our three national papers, the Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, all published stories about it online. But only the Times saw fit to include it in its print edition, relegating it to page A17 of today’s paper, with no tease on the front. By contrast, there’s nothing on page one or inside the print editions of the Post or the Journal, either today or Tuesday.

Locally, The Boston Globe actually has two stories in its print edition today, as it’s the lead item in its political roundup and the subject of a metro-front story on Biden’s speech in Boston. Neither, though, is on page one.

It seems like a classic case of being caught between news cycles — too late for Tuesday print, too old for Wednesday print. The Nazi story certainly dominated the political conversation on Tuesday, but for casual news consumers who aren’t constantly plugged into social media and cable news, that’s scant consolation. Print still matters, if only as a way for editors to communicate what they think are the most important stories of the day.

The Big Three national evening newscasts actually did better on Tuesday. I downloaded the audio and plugged the files into Otter, which uses artificial intelligence to produce reasonably good transcripts. I also watched a few minutes to fill in the gaps. Here’s what I found:

  • ABC’s “World News Tonight” had a story about 12 minutes into its newscast and stuck with it for almost a minute and a half. It included both the “N”-word (Nazi) and the “H”-word (Hitler) and incorporated Biden’s outraged response. There’s also this straightforward assertion by reporter Mary Bruce: “The Trump campaign is adamant this was not a campaign video, that it was reposted by a staffer who clearly did not see the word while the President was in court. But that video that included three instances of the word Reich remained on Trump’s page for more than 18 hours.”
  • The “NBC Nightly News” actually mentioned the Nazi story three times. Anchor Lester Holt teased it in his opening, and reporter Laura Jarrett referred to it at about the 10-minute mark in beginning her roundup of that day’s Trump-related news before offering a 30-second story at about 11:30. Again, the word “Nazi” is used several times.
  • On the “CBS Evening News,” anchor Norah O’Donnell teased the story about six minutes into the newscast, straightforwardly asserting that the term “Reich” is associated with Nazi Germany. Reporter Robert Costa then offered up some Trump news that provides the most thorough overview of the three networks, pivoting from the post and Biden’s reaction to this: “It’s not the first time Trump has used rhetoric prompting outrage for its echoes of hateful extremists.” That’s followed by some of Trump’s worst comments over the years, from saying that immigrants “are poisoning the blood of our country” to “radical left thugs that live like vermin.”

All of this matters because the three evening network newscasts are the closest thing we have left to a mass medium, with a combined audience of nearly 20 million. By contrast, Fox News, which attracts by far the largest audience of the three cable news stations, has an average of about 2 million viewers in prime time, generally defined as 8 to 11 p.m.

I harbor no illusions that Trump’s latest dalliance with Nazi and antisemitic rhetoric is going to have a lasting effect. It all played out in a manner that we’ve seen over and over: assert, deny and project — and then quietly remove the offending message after it’s accomplished its purpose of assuring the far right that he’s one of them. Stand back and stand by, everyone. It’s going to get a lot worse.

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GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving at the end of the month

Pam Johnston. Photo © 2021 by Dominic Gagliardo Chavez/GBH.

GBH News general manager Pam Johnston is leaving the station at the end of the month. A friend was filling me in even as Aidan Ryan was reporting on her departure for The Boston Globe. GBH News comprises the public media behemoth’s local programming across television, radio and digital. On the radio, GBH (89.7 FM) lags well behind WBUR (90.9 FM). Both stations emphasize NPR programming and local news; ’BUR is in the midst of buyouts and layoffs, and GBH may not be far behind.

Johnston’s announcement comes nearly four months after the Globe’s Mark Shanahan reported that GBH was in turmoil. Based on my own conversations with current and former station employees, I know that Johnston had both supporters and detractors among the staff. “With new leadership at GBH, there are new opportunities and new strategies for our newsroom,” Johnston said in an email to the staff that was obtained by Ryan. “I’m excited about what comes next. I will continue watching, listening, and cheering you on every step of the way.”

Ellen Clegg and I interviewed Johnston on the “What Works” podcast in March 2022. My standard disclosure: I was a paid contributor to GBH News from 1998 to 2022, mostly as a panelist on “Beat the Press with Emily Rooney,” the award-winning media program that was canceled under Johnston’s watch in 2021.

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The progressive left takes to social media to battle with The New York Times

Maggie Haberman at the University of Louisville in 2023. Public domain photo by uoflphoto3.

Ask ordinary people whether they think The New York Times leans left, and nine out of 10 will tell you yes. The Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent, wrote a famous piece years ago with the headline “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” His lead: “Of course it is.” The website Media Bias/Fact Check rates the Times as having a “slight to moderate liberal bias,” although it also assesses its factual accuracy as “high,” the second-highest rating. My own view is that the Times’ news judgment is shaped in part by its embrace of cultural liberalism, but that its day-to-day political coverage is timid and marred by both-sides-ism at a moment when the Republican Party has devolved into authoritarianism.

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Now let me tell you about Threads. The Meta-owned would-be replacement for Twitter/X is my main stop these days for short-form, text-based social media. And it is filled with progressives who deride the Times as blinded by pro-corporate bias and fealty to Donald Trump. My feed is bombarded with progressives (that is, people I would regard as being somewhere left of liberal) who proudly announce that they’re canceling their subscriptions because of some perceived breach of left-leaning orthodoxy. They were particularly apoplectic over a recent interview that executive editor Joe Kahn gave to Semafor in which Kahn said, among other things:

To say that the threats of democracy are so great that the media is going to abandon its central role as a source of impartial information to help people vote — that’s essentially saying that the news media should become a propaganda arm for a single candidate, because we prefer that candidate’s agenda.

I will grant you that Kahn’s performance was suboptimal (democracy is kind of important) but liberal critics of the Times lost their minds over it. It happened again this week when it was revealed that reporter Maggie Haberman, a longtime target of the left, had coordinated with Michael Cohen back when he was Trump’s goon so that she could make sure she’d get a quote in time for her deadline. As a result, Haberman came under brutal assault on Threads — and apparently on Twitter, too, as described by CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy:

The message Cohen sent Haberman said Trump had approved him responding to the Stormy Daniels allegations back in 2018. “Please start writing and I will call you soon,” Cohen wrote. Some on the left have twisted that message to assert it is proof that Haberman takes orders from the Trump campaign. Which as Mother Jones’ Clara Jeffrey pointed out is “patently insane.” As Jeffery explained, “Guys, texting with sources is how you get the inside dope and ‘start writing’ isn’t an order from Trump HQ, it’s like, start your process and I’ll maybe feed you something.”

In response to all this, I posted, “Threads is driving me back to the NYT.” And though I got some likes, I also got this response: “Hope that’s sarcasm.” It was not. I’ll go so far as to say that we know more about Trump because of Maggie Haberman than perhaps any other journalist, and that the Times is still a great paper, though deeply flawed. And no, I’m not canceling my subscription. I wouldn’t even consider it.

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The Globe’s subscription growth stalls: Digital is up a little, print is down by more

The Boston Globe’s digital subscription growth continues, but at a slower pace, while print keeps on sliding. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has been looking at numbers from the Alliance for Audited Media and reports that the Globe has added 22,000 digital subscribers over the past three years while losing 24,000 print customers. Paid digital circulation is now at about 257,000, well below CEO Linda Henry’s “North Star” goal of 400,000, although she has not set a timeline for reaching that number.

Weekday print circulation is now below 54,000, according to a chart accompanying Seiffert’s story. Although he didn’t include a number for Sunday print, it was about 116,000 as of last October.

Henry told Seiffert that the Globe is making investments that she expects will lead to future growth:

Our subscribers can see this investment with our expanded daily news videos, our new weather center, better games, new podcasts, deeper geographic expansion, and more. We do not expect growth to follow a linear pattern — we have a long-term strategy for continuing to serve our community as a strong and sustainable organization.

Of those initiatives, moving into new regions strikes me as the one with the most promise in terms of driving subscriptions. The Globe has had success with its Rhode Island and New Hampshire coverage. And though those areas were easy pickings (especially Rhode Island), there are certainly other parts of New England where residents might welcome a regional edition of the Globe.

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Publishers sound alarm over Google’s AI search plans. But let’s dial it back a bit.

What does AI say about RFK Jr.’s anti-vax activism? Photo (cc) 2023 by Gage Skidmore.

The latest freakout inspired by artificial intelligence has hit the news business. On Tuesday, Google announced that it will merge its AI tool, Gemini, with its search engine. What that means for publishers is that someone seeking information about, say, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vax crusade will receive an answer right in Google rather than being prompted to click to a news source. Let’s try it:

First, I entered <Robert F. Kennedy Jr. anti-vaccine activism> in Google Search. The top five results were from The Associated Press (two), Scientific American, the Annenberg Public Policy Center and the PBS “NewsHour.” In other words, good, respectable sources of independent journalism.

Next, I entered the same search at Gemini and got this: “I’m still learning how to answer this question. In the meantime, try Google Search.” OK! But then I tried the same thing at the free version of ChatGPT, which provided the following answer:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of former U.S. Senator and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, has been known for his anti-vaccine activism. He has been a prominent figure in the anti-vaccine movement, particularly regarding his views on the safety of vaccines and their alleged connection to autism.

Kennedy founded the Children’s Health Defense organization, which has been criticized for spreading misinformation about vaccines and promoting unfounded claims about their dangers. He has spoken at numerous events and rallies, advocating against vaccination and promoting alternative views on the subject.

It’s important to note that the overwhelming scientific consensus supports the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and the alleged link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly debunked by multiple scientific studies. Kennedy’s activism has been met with criticism from public health officials and medical professionals, who argue that his views are not supported by scientific evidence and pose a danger to public health.

I think we can agree that’s pretty good — and it includes exactly zero links to any of its sources, depriving some excellent news organizations of web traffic. I should note that, according to CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy, Google is promising to include links in Gemini, so it may end up looking something like Perplexity, an AI-powered search engine that provides plain-English answers and reliable links.

When I tried our RFK Jr. search at Perplexity, I got a very good answer — as good as ChatGPT, if not better — along with links to Wikipedia, The AP, the “NewsHour” and NBC News. But would I click on them? At the moment, I would, because of AI’s well-known proclivity for providing fake answers. At some point, though, that problem will be solved.

“This will be catastrophic to our traffic, as marketed by Google to further satisfy user queries, leaving even less incentive to click through so that we can monetize our content,” Danielle Coffey, chief executive of the News/Media Alliance, told Darcy. The alliance represents some 2,000 news publishers.

I also took a look at the internal metrics of the only news site I have access to: this one. According to Google Analytics, over the past month Media Nation received 40% of its traffic from “organic search” — that’s traffic from search engines, nearly all Google, that I didn’t boost by paying for ads on Google. And yes, that’s a lot. Next up was direct traffic (25.6%), organic social (21.2%) and referrals (12.1%), which are links from other websites.

Now, I happen to think that some of the lamentations we’re hearing from publishers are overblown. It’s fine to complain that Google is taking steps that will result in fewer clicks on your website. But how much money does that really bring in? These days, you’re likely to hit a paywall when you try to click through from a search. Programmatic ads on news sites are terrible and bring in very little money.

In the end, there is no substitute for building a relationship with your audience. For-profit publishers need to persuade their readers to become digital subscribers and local businesses to advertise. Nonprofits must convince their audience to become voluntary supporters and to raise money from underwriters, foundations, events and whatever else they can think of.

To use Media Nation as an example again: I currently have more than 2,300 subscribers who receive new posts by email. I consider those to be my most engaged readers. I don’t do much to monetize this site, although I have a modest paid supporter program, which, needless to say, you are invited to join. The future of news, though, is being built right now by serving our communities — not through Google search.

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