Races to the Bottom in Doomed Digital Media and University Research

“Clicks don’t pay the bills.”


That’s the brutal assessment of New Republic features director Theodore Ross about doomed digital media in 2016. Amongst the downsizing and casualties: The Guardian, Univision, the Huffington Post, Mashable, the International Business Times, Al Jazeera America, Medium, and Gawker. The disturbing trend for Ross? Google and Facebook capture of 85% of the digital advertising market. Pivoting to viral video seemed promising. “Companies have already begun to question whether video clicks really are the best clicks,” Ross notes. In a tweet on 14th December 2016 announcing his New Republic article, Ross mourned, “I will never be able to retire.”


I learned this the hard way in April 2000.


Five months earlier, I had joined The Disinformation Company Ltd (TDC) to edit and write for their Disinformation website. Publisher Gary Baddeley and Creative Director Richard Metzger agreed to sponsor me to work in the United States. I had to finish my overdue Bachelor of Arts degree first. We had great contributors. TDC’s parent company Razorfish was worth $US1 billion. The future looked very bright.


Then in late March 2000 the dotcom crash began to happen. On 14th April 2000, I wrote about the unfolding crash for Disinformation in real-time. “The new e-poor,” I commented. Razorfish’s stock price soon imploded. The US move fell through. I continued to work for TDC as an overseas independent contractor. They later pivoted to television, book, DVD, and Video on Demand production. I finished my Bachelors degree, started a Masters, and then worked in university research for the Smart Internet Technology CRC based at Swinburne University.


In 2006, I met a Fairfax Media online editor at a telecommunications conference. He talked passionately about the algorithms that ranked stories for readers. Age and Sydney Morning Herald readers preferred celebrity and sports coverage. The algorithms drove Fairfax Media’s publishing platform. I privately reflected that watered down op-ed columns had replaced a strong editorial vision.


You have to follow Jim Collins’ advice and confront the brutal facts. The Disinformation experience taught me that web content is a loss leader that builds you an audience. You then offer other content and services such as ebooks, documentaries, or web-based training to earn revenues. You cut costs. You have something to offer more than digital advertising. You cross-promote other sites and authors. You use Facebook, Twitter, Google Scholar and other free tools as outreach. Your authors need to be accessible to their audience (whilst also still protecting sources if needed).


Fairfax Media and the rest of Ross’s doomed digital media did not follow these lessons. They initially funded journalism with high overhead costs like traditional print media. They focused on digital advertising and not other revenue sources. They published content that was noise: it was not distinctive and did not have a unique, compelling voice. They let marketing algorithms take-over editorial policy. They diversified into too many other areas.


I discovered similar mistakes in the university research world. In the past, universities invested in early career researchers to fund conference travel, projects, publishing, and skills development. University research institutes built a large infrastructure to promote their programs and teams. This all involved a lot of money, a lot of administration time, and a lot of negotiation. In other words, high transaction costs. Universities did this in part because they used to take a long-term view of career and talent development.


But in today’s austerity world these high transaction costs are no longer feasible. They are regarded as inefficiencies or overheads. Universities have cut funding for early career researchers (known as ECRs) who compete for precariat, short-term contracts. An ECR’s average career path is between three to eight years before burnout if there is no ‘up or out’ promotion to the professoriate. University research institutes have had to embrace contracts, donor philanthropy, and strategic partnerships. They have had to diversify their funding sources as grants become more competitive.


A race to the bottom drives both digital media and university research. The average academic journal article has between 800 and 1100 unique views. The average book by a university publisher has a 300 copy print run. Authors often assign their copyright and other intellectual property rights to publishers — and so don’t earn licensing or residual fees. These facts and norms are little known outside academia and they highlight the high cost and waste of much research. The Conversation website illustrates some of these trends: it curates academic research to a broader audience but it also doesn’t pay its academic contributors.


I told the Fairfax Media online editor in 2006 that he needed to take a more proactive approach to publishing content. The model I was grasping towards is an event-driven, stream-based approach like the Bloomberg financial news network or complex event processing. The publishing platform helps you to anticipate, respond to, and shape coverage. What is also needed is to build a portfolio of branded intellectual property that discovers and engages with a passionate audience. It’s less like traditional news or university research, and more like Creative Artists Agency (James Andrew Miller’s Powerhouse), perpetual deal-making (Robert Teitelman’s Bloodsport), or even life-hacking (Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans).


You will probably still need another job. And, multiple income sources.