To survive, publishers must ‘build audiences not traffic’

As newspapers collapse, pure-play digital publishers that rely on ad dollars aren’t far behind.

Josh Marshall, publisher of political news site Talking Points Memo, recently published his ad sales figures since 2016, and they are… shocking.

Although TPM is well regarded by liberal insiders, the site’s ad revenues have plunged from $1.7 million in 2016 to $75k in 2023. The decline is “bleak” and “every bit as bad as it looks,” says Marshall, adding “if your business was ads and remained ads you’re toast.”

Relying on cookies that target readers as they flood and flit across the nearly infinite web, advertisers increasingly forgo advertising on individual sites. As a result, ad space on premium sites is empty or sells at a deep, deep discount. For example, ad space that, if purchased directly by an advertiser, NYTimes.com would quote at $40 per thousand views now can be bought via programmatic ad exchanges like the Trade Desk for less than $5. (The Trade Desk, which was valued at $1.4 billion at IPO in 2016, is today worth nearly $40 billion.)

TPM was saved by subscriptions, which it began selling in 2012 and dialed up in 2017 and 2018. As TPM raced to replace collapsing ad revenues with subscription revenues, Marshall recalls telling a colleague, “We’re going to have to swap out the engine while we’re in flight.”

Taegan Goddard, publisher of PoliticalWire.com, notes that in focusing on programmatic ad sales, many publishers have “prioritized finding traffic over building an audience.” PoliticalWire, which essentially inaugurated political blogging when it launched in 1999, pivoted in 2015 from relying on ad revenues into selling subscriptions or, in PW’s parlance, memberships. Goddard argues that subscriptions require a radically different mindset versus what prevails among most publishers:

“The difference is that traffic is fleeting. Someone visits a web page once and clicks away, never to be seen again. In contrast, an audience visits a web site regularly because it offers valuable information or a useful experience. A media company solely focused on finding traffic is at the mercy of social media platforms or search engines. They alter their articles so that they have a better chance of going viral or being ranked in search results. They’ll do anything to get that next burst of traffic. In fact, their business depends upon it. In contrast, it takes time and patience to build an audience. It’s hard work and requires a daily commitment to putting out a great product. It means listening to feedback from readers.”

The contrast between an audience of loyal and passionate humans versus evanescent inanimate traffic is epitomized by a 2016 PoliticalWire post memorializing a reader’s death. Goddard wrote: “I didn’t personally know Danielle but her husband tells me she really enjoyed Political Wire. She left over 6,000 comments — with more than 18,000 upvotes! — and was one of the first readers to join when I started the membership. She will be missed.”

(Both TalkingPointsMemo and PoliticalWire were early and enthusiastic partners of Blogads, Pressflex’s ad platform for bloggers from 2002-2016.)