When page views rule

Web sites have to learn that sometimes doing less means more

Of course, you want your Web site to make money. And there are ways to get it right. Yet, as the reports from the field medics come in, it seems like getting it wrong is so much easier.

It happened this spring at Salon.com, a site of generally high editorial quality, but one that has been bleeding red ink for all its existence. Salon.com management was given triage orders.

Sounds just like television.

"In this respect, online content is no different than TV shows, newspaper sections, magazines or any other traditional media. Content creation is usually not a charity effort, so content that doesn't have a business value will eventually get pulled," says Dylan Tweney, an Internet content- and business-strategies consultant whose company, Tweney Media, advises many leading Web sites.

What happened at Salon was an affront to all matters journalistic. Whole editorial departments whose efforts were not pulling down enough "page views" were cashiered. The 20% reduction in staff at Salon has produced a site that, while still capable of thought-provoking pieces, has tended to become more salacious in much of its daily story budget.

Salaciousness drives clicks. Clicks drive page views. Page-view counts are shown to media buyers, who will buy ads to run on the Web pages of editorial sections that get the eyeballs.

And, as Tweney says, it's no different from TV shows with weak cumes that get pulled after 13 weeks. Low numbers don't thrill advertisers.

"Media organizations have been functioning as corporations and not media outlets," says Joshua Fouts, editor of the Online Journalism Review. "So many of these organizations have been driven by this gold rush, pre-IPO mentality, but that's not a realistic way of running a news operation."

Web-site content managers and bean counters aren't from Venus and Mars. No, that's too close. They're from Venus and Pluto. And, when you throw corporate management into the mix, you may get a disconnect that can make your Web site suffer.

Salon.com's woes prove my point. Where once we had old-New Yorker-quality pieces about great bed-and-breakfasts in exotic locales with names that always seemed to begin with "La," "Le" or "El" and usually ended in a vowel, now there's silly stuff like performance artist Eric Bogosian's recent series "31 Ejaculations" that sets new frontiers for a self-indulgent waste of pixels. Compared to this tripe, Jerry Springer is Charlie Rose.

Sometimes Web sites set the bar too high and forget what they're about. They wind up covering too much, including ancillary, irrelevant topics.

Fouts, whose publication regularly covers the financial as well as journalistic foibles of news-related Web sites, has a three-part prescription for sites that don't want to wind up having to apply the tourniquet:

  • Figure out one thing you do well, and then have your Web site's content reflect that.
  • Don't try to do too many things in the name of site-visitor expectations.
  • What he's saying is, it might be a swell notion for a television-station Web site to have restaurant reviews, a wine column, a consumer advice column and a CD-music-review column. But offer too much content and the ones that don't get the page views will be vulnerable when the bean counters come along asking why you're paying Krista to write consumer advice pieces no one's reading.

Cross-train your news and feature staffs to prepare Web content as they edit their pieces or programs.

Fouts feels, as do I, that this approach minimizes the need to hire Web-only content people, who, given the uncertain revenue model for this young medium, would be the first to go if the page views flounder.

"At the moment, the Web is a loss leader. Cross-train your broadcast-news and feature-production people with online skills," Fouts says. "That's the way you can stop the bleeding." Russell Shaw is a veteran Internet and broadcast-industry author/journalist based in Portland, Ore., and can be reached by e-mail at russellshaw@delphi.com. His column will appear regularly.