Should advertisers spend more money at local newspapers? The question was up for debate this week after Jim Rutenberg, media columnist for The New York Times, published “Ad Buyers Have Say In Survival Of News,” on Monday.
The loudest counterargument came from futurist Amy Webb, a former Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. The headline speaks for itself: “Let’s Stop Blaming Facebook and Google and Start Fixing the News Business.”
Both make good points, but ultimately, they may be agreeing more than we think.
Rutenberg’s main argument is that advertisers actually want the type of content newspapers offer: “Now it is time for advertisers to do their part to support the people who make the quality content they want to be associated with, and to reconsider their headlong rush away from them.”
On the other side, the crux of Webb’s argument is this: “So why do news organizations keep blaming others? Because they suffer from Stockholm syndrome. They blame Facebook and Google for hijacking audiences and the ad dollars that go with them, yet they trust and believe that both companies are helping them out.”
Somewhere between both points of view is a reality I see firsthand as the managing editor of a small Illinois daily. When I first arrived here in 2010, social media hadn’t yet taken hold and the comments section of our website was still robust.
Fast forward the better part of a decade and that is no longer true. That conversation has shifted largely to social media, particularly Facebook. What hasn’t changed is that our content is the catalyst for much of that conversation.
Yes, residents are always producing, and sharing, content that is at times similar and certainly just as valuable. But the newspaper still reaches the largest percentage of local residents on social media. The most popular Facebook pages in town often aggregate our news feed, without ever really undertaking the more arduous (and expensive) news gathering process.
So while people are still reading our stories, sharing them and discussing them, a lot of that conversation is happening on a platform that we can’t easily monetize. I think Rutenberg and Webb would both agree that Facebook and advertisers are benefitting from that. Therefore, if they want to continue benefitting from the content local newspapers produce, they can share a small portion of their ad revenue to ensure it doesn’t disappear.
Yes, as Rutenberg argues, that is not charity. It’s a sound investment, far cheaper than producing news for millions of Americans scattered across 50 states.