Slant, which Mobli cofounders Moshe Hogeg and Ido Sadeh launched this week, wants to reinvent journalism by repackaging the contributions of regular folks
It’s not news to anyone that the news is in trouble. In the U.S., where the best statistics are available, the advertising revenue of all the United States’ newspapers fell from $63.5 billion in 2000 to about $23 billion in 2013 and continues to drop. The number of full-time newsroom journalists dropped from 52,600 in 2007 to about 36,000 today. The situation is similar in Israel, Europe and many other places. Even if you’re not a journalist, this bodes ill for democracy, which requires that the public be informed about the deeds and misdeeds of those in power.
But just as digital disruption has decimated the news industry, perhaps a new wave of digital ingenuity can save it? As Robert J. Kaiser, former managing editor at the Washington Post, has mused, “A group of young people could be working in a Silicon Valley garage right now on an idea that could re-establish a healthy revenue stream for major news organizations. I certainly hope so.”
Aviram Elad, CEO of Slant – a new journalism startup devised by Moshe Hogeg and Ido Sadeh (who are the CEO and COO of photo sharing app Mobli) – would have you believe that he is one of these young people. Or at least if he doesn’t save news journalism, he will “reinvent” it.
This week, the three men launched Slant, “offering a new model of journalism that combines the diversity and authenticity of user-generated content with the professional standards of the traditional newsroom.”
“The journalism industry worldwide is in a crisis. We have to find ways to reinvent it,” Aviram Elad told Geektime.
The opportunity, explained Elad, is that there is something “amazing” happening every day on social networks.
“People who are not journalists are always uploading news content onto social media. It could be a photo of a news event, or a video or an opinion or analysis. People do it all the time.”
But instead of just writing a post or uploading a photo, why not give people the opportunity to post entire articles and get paid to boot?
The company’s editorial offices are in New York, where a team of professional editors who formerly worked at the Huffington Post, MSNBC, the Bleacher Report and the New York Daily News will package submissions with a catchy headline, free proofreading and a scintillating photo. Depending on how each article does, it will receive prominent placement on Slant’s home page. Best of all, citizen journalists will actually have the opportunity to make money off their articles. The content producer will get 70 percent of the advertising revenue while Slant takes 30 percent.
Elad says that Slant meets certain journalistic standards. The news desk will fact check submissions as well as vet them for quality and if something is not deemed worthy of publication, it will be rejected.
“In digital media today, if you’re not part of a news outlet, then the chances of having your stories published are slim to none,” Elad noted in a press release.
“The gatekeepers at publications make it hard for writers to voice their opinions or to share their personal point of view. We created Slant to break this barrier by bringing new voices and perspectives to the forefront, and by infusing crowdsourced content with the professional oversight necessary to uncover a wide range of perspectives, voices and opinions on some of the most pressing issues our society faces today.”
A better deal than YouTube
It’s an interesting idea. After all, publications like the Huffington Post benefit from an army of free “citizen bloggers,” most of whom generate very little traffic but who, en masse, are lucrative for the publication. With Slant, amateur writers, photographers and citizen journalists can at least make money if their post catches on. And according to Elad, there is no long-term commitment to blog on a regular basis. A contributor can post as often or as seldom as they like.
In a way, the business model is similar to YouTube. If you post a video on YouTube and allow advertisements, YouTube takes a 45 percent share of the advertising revenue and leaves you 55 percent. (iTunes, on the other hand, gives app developers and creators 70 percent and takes 30 percent). So if Slant’s platform ever gets big enough, and that’s a huge if, it could potentially attract video creators away from YouTube, because they would get better terms.
“I’ll give you an example,” said Elad. “A few months ago a Taiwanese airline crashed in Taiwan. One of the passers-by filmed the crash. The video was published everywhere. The guy who published it didn’t get credit or any money. In his case, the amount could have been very high.”
The dirty secret of the ad-based revenue model
But here’s the dirty secret of the ad-based revenue model: There are very, very few publications that survive on digital advertising revenue alone. In fact, the top 10 earning companies from ad revenue (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) aren’t primarily in the content creation business and earn their money (some would argue parasitically) by selling advertising against content they didn’t pay to produce. Meanwhile, even the Huffington Post with its massive readership does not appear to be profitable.
Here are the numbers: Every year, digital ad rates go down. But let’s say Slant manages to earn $3 CPM or $3 for 1,000 advertising impressions, which is above average. If you’re a content creator, and 20,000 people looked at your article, then your article generated between $60-$120, depending on how long readers stayed on the page and how many display ads they saw. If you get 70 percent of that, you might earn $40. Not bad, but to generate that kind of traffic, you’d likely have to be a very good writer who spent several hours on the article, or be very lucky. Either way, this isn’t a way to earn a living.
According to Elad, making money isn’t the point.
“The money is not the main thing. The main thing is to do justice for the content creator. We give the creator the proper credit and the most professional editing services. No one is going to get rich here. The purpose is to give back dignity to content creators.”
Part of the solution?
The plan sounds good and it’s certainly more equitable than say, Facebook, where contributors get none of the ad revenue Facebook earns off our content. Perhaps a few bloggers from, say, the Huffington Post will migrate over to Slant where they could conceivably earn enough to pay for the coffee they drank while writing the article.
Instead of asking contributors to contribute for free, Slant is essentially asking them to contribute for chump change, with each content rabbit sustained by the hope that they will win the page view lottery and earn some decent cash.
There are two deeply flawed ideas behind Slant. First, that a website can sustain itself with cheap, citizen-journalist labor (most successful crowdsourced news sites eventually hire professional journalists, because professional writing brings more readers). Second, that advertising alone can sustain a content site that doesn’t have tens of millions of visitors per month. Problem number two can be solved by addressing problem number one, but it’s still an uphill battle.
The truth is that if journalism is to survive, we will have to go beyond ad-based revenue models. Micropayments or subscriptions are one option, and decentralized Blockchain-based social networks are another. Whatever the motivations of Slant’s founders, whether it is actually to save journalism or merely to make money, if they truly want to save the news, they will have to think more creatively.