Commercial publishers with unique, must-read material and a well-heeled audience can charge readers. They sell subscriptions and build paywalls.
Everyone else either has to rely on advertising revenue.
That’s where the problems start: online advertising doesn’t work well for most publishers.
No money in online ads
The money earned each time a reader sees an ad is tiny. So tiny that, in the normal run, only publishers with huge reader numbers or those offering reliable, lucrative specialist audiences are profitable.
You could have millions of readers each month yet struggle to earn enough to pay for editorial staff.
Online advertising is often ineffective. Readers are either blind to online ads or they make a conscious choice to ignore them. I
t doesn’t matter which, the net effect is the same.
To get around reader blindness publishers resort to ever shriller, in-your-face techniques. Ads with loud blaring sound tracks, ideas borrowed from commercial radio. TV-style ads.
The evils of pop-up advertising
And then there are the hated pop-up ads. The worst are borderline malware where you can’t read a story until you’ve clicked the rubbish away.
We’ve all seen those more disreputable ads that look like system messages telling us there is a security problem on our computer.
Publishers argue they have no choice about using pop-ups.
Remember, their customers are not their readers but their advertisers.
If shrill ads are what the market demands, then given the choice between annoying or abusing readers or bankruptcy, you know which way they are going to jump.
Modern browsers can block pop-ups. If they don't do it themselves, users can install extensions to make blocking more effective.
Which came push publishers and advertisers to try other annoying practices.
Another kind of big data
A media company web page with ads might download as much as 10 MB of data to deliver, perhaps, 500 kB of editorial content.
That’s not a problem if you’re reading the page using an unmetered Internet account.
If you’re paying per gigabyte for data or have a data cap, then the data cost of receiving the page will be much higher than the revenue the publisher earns from serving you the advertising.
That’s economic madness.
A lot of these large downloads are not advertising content as such, but code scripts to spy on readers. Again, it’s often not far removed from malware.
Online advertising at a tipping point
Pop-ups and other nasty obtrusive forms of advertising have brought us to a tipping point.
Ad-blocking hurts, written years ago, argues against ad-blockers on the grounds that it was taking money out of the pockets of publishers and writers.
That’s still true.
If publishers can't earn money, they won't or can't publish.
You are the product
Yet online advertising can be abusive. Advertisers track your activity, they can know far more about you than you may be aware. They swap or sell data about you to other advertisers, they use this to feed analytics projects. They snoop and pry. They are often worse than the most abusive government agencies.
They do all this without much reader consent. It’s just about cold, hard data using inhuman algorithms. Moreover it’s about money. You can’t negotiate, explain or mitigate any inadvertent damage to your reputation.
Online publishing: not mission impossible
It’s tough being a publisher in 2015. Tough but not impossible.
Sadly we don’t have the take-the-band-on-the-road option that musicians have to bypass unhelpful online economics.
Yet there are proven, ethical ways of making online publications pay without resorting to evil practices.
Native advertising is when publishers run clearly-marked advertiser sponsored comment in a news feed.
It can be doubly profitable if the publisher originates the copy as well as distributes it. They charge for the creative process and the access to an audience.
Paywall publishing works for those with something marketable. Micro-payment is worth exploring. It is a way to get small, per-story payments.
Although only a tiny fraction of visitors will pay even a pittance because many just expect material to be free and object in principle to paying.
Ad-blocking: coming if you’re ready or not
Where does this leave ad-blocking? Like it or not. It’s now inevitable and unavoidable.
While ethical publishers will pay the price of the abusive behaviour of unethical publishers, widespread ad-blocking will give the industry a chance to reboot. To find a new business model.
It may mean still fewer opportunities for paid journalism, but it could lead to better paid work writing native advertising – something that needs journalism skills to do well.