Hard News Pays Better Than Fluff — or Does It?

A study released today has drawn a lot of attention in media circles for suggesting that stories on “serious topics” such as the Gulf oil spill and the mortgage crisis draw more revenue for online media outlets than stories about celebrities like Lindsay Lohan. “Traffic Bait Doesn’t Bring Ad Clicks,” says a piece in the New York Times, while the Columbia Journalism Review writes that “Celebs Are Loud, But Hard News Pays.” But is that really what the study by Perfect Market shows? While the message that serious journalism pays is likely to be a welcome one for media companies who would rather dig deep into big issues than chase celebrity scandals, the reality is probably a little more complicated than the study suggests.

The study comes from what Perfect Market calls the Vault Index, a new ranking of the most valuable news topics that the company came up with as a way of publicizing its services, which involve helping media sites and other content publishers aggregate and monetize their content. (The company is a spin-off from Bill Gross’ Idealab). According to a description of the study, Perfect Market looked at over 15 million news articles from 21 U.S. news sites — including The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Chicago Tribune — from June to September of this year, and ranked the most valuable topics on a scale from 1 to 5. It arrived at a definition of value by looking at the RPM or “revenue per thousand” for pages about those topics.

So, for example, articles on mortgage rates had an average RPM of $93, and immigration reform an average of $26, while pages about Lindsay Lohan’s court appearance averaged RPMs of $2.50, according to Perfect Market — and articles on social security pulled in a whopping $129 per thousand in average revenue per page. In a blog post, the company’s chief revenue officer said that even when the larger amounts of traffic to stories about celebrities like Lindsay Lohan were factored into the equation, serious news stories about things like immigration still brought in more revenue for the newspapers it studied.

“Publishers end up chasing trends to increase raw page views, but that is not necessarily the best revenue strategy,” Tim Ruder said in a statement about the launch of the study. “And it’s a disservice to their readers who want credible and important news.”

[inline-pro-content] While it’s nice to hear that writing about serious news issues is more valuable than writing about celebrity court cases, the reality isn’t quite as one-sided as the study makes it appear. All the RPM data from Perfect Market really shows is that advertisers are more interested in having their ads appear on pages that are about social security and immigration reform than on pages about Lindsay Lohan. This isn’t surprising: not only are readers of articles about social security more likely to have incomes that appeal to advertisers, but advertisers almost always want to be on pages that are about “serious” topics.

That said, however, they mostly want to be on pages that are about serious topics at websites that are racking up millions of pageviews and unique visitors — and one of the ways to boost those numbers, unfortunately, is to write about Lindsay Lohan (and other similar topics that almost everyone clicks on, even if they don’t want to admit it). Advertisers aren’t likely to stick around and pay those hefty RPM averages for pages on websites that aren’t getting any traffic. If you try to run a site that is just about social security or immigration reform, you are going to wind up with very few visitors, and pretty soon it won’t matter what your revenue per page is.

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