There was a time when it seemed that the issues that ought to exercise Web publishers the most were technological. Given fundamental elements of the Web like hypertext, it seemed reasonable to suppose that the opening decades of the 21st century would be dedicated to determining the future of prose. What would we do with these technologies, which opened the door on modes of writing, reading and publishing that hitherto had been impractical or impossible?

Take “Snow Fall,” a recent feature series on The New York Times‘ website. The story’s multimedia approach to traditional Times reporting drew much attention, particularly over social media where links to the project spread like wildfire. The excitement was understandable: this, surely, was closer to the promise of Web-based journalism than much of what we’d been delivered over the past 20 years.

At the same time, “Snow Fall” demonstrates a fact that often goes misunderstood. One way to approach it is to ask how many publishers other than the Times could have produced something like it. That’s not simply a matter of talent and vision, but also one of investment. The Times is one of a few news outlets that haven’t floundered under the weight of competition from the Web. Even among journos wowed by the project’s aesthetic triumphs could swallow their admiration long enough to ask what the Times had sacrificed to make “Snow Fall” possible. Put simply: how much did the design cost? And how many more traditionally presented stories could have been paid for with those costs?

Which is to say that the more basic, enduring problem of the Web is not technological but rather financial. While it is widely acknowledged that the economics of the Web destabilized traditional publishing, what’s less frequently recognized is that the Web itself has yet to settle on a reliable economic model. It it’s place we’ve seen a wobbly succession of jury-rigged solutions, many of them blurring the line between innovation and abuse. (For a thumbnail history, see the series “Press Publish.”)

That is perhaps nowhere more troublesome than in the realm of publishing, where some degree of stability is needed in order to foster a high standard of writing. Research takes time; investigation often requires resources that most writers are hard-pressed to afford on their own. Proof-reading and fact-checking add to those investments. Technological advance has brought us to the point where anyone with a computer and a few spare hours each evening can set up a blog and broadcast reports to the general public, but has yet to solve the problem of how they can afford to do more than merely keep up.

For that, we still need publishers capable of paying competitive rates for journalism and editorial content. By now, the premise that the Web has undermined print’s ability to keep up is well-rehearsed, but the collateral damage has largely gone ignored by partisans of the Web’s potential to revolutionize publishing. It isn’t just that the Web destabilized publishing’s ability to pay for print; rather, it has destabilized our ability to pay for publishing at all. In a number of ways (see, e.g. “Balkanizing Print” and “Sock Puppet Journalism“), the damage the Web has done to print is virtually inseparable from the difficulties it has created for Web publishers looking to support top tier journalism.

Most professional sites continue to favor the advertising model, but as Ryan McCarthy of Reuters’ MediaFile blog pointed out earlier this month, advertising rates continue to fall as the supply of available pages continues to climb. Some argue that what we’re seeing is simply the collapse of the advertising model. That would be all fine and well—the advertising model has quite obvious drawbacks if not handled conscientiously—except that they have yet to proffer up a viable replacement. A favorite among Web natives is the distributed patronage model, in which grateful readers voluntarily contribute revenue to their favorite publishers. There’s an appealing ideological purity to the system, but it seems to work best with writers and editors like Andrew Sullivan, whose internet celebrity makes such fund-raising relatively easy. As I noted in “Believer in the Corner” even some highly visible Web-based writers seem to have difficulty making the patronage model work without financial supplements every bit as dubious as paid advertising.

Meanwhile, the established publishers are toying with models that eat away at the traditional wall between editorial and advertising. When those publishers specialize in pop culture detritus, so-called sponsored content gives us little cause for concern. When, however, a cultural and journalistic establishment like The Atlantic falls back on sponsored content to pay its bills, the entire industry takes notice. That was the warning of “Back at the Altar,” and the underlying concern was about how we build culture.

By giving voice to some of greatest concerns facing our society, the magazines and newspapers of the 20th century contributed to the construction of culture worth having. Even at its best, advertising was a flawed model for supporting those institutions, but it had, at least, the virtue of working. If patronage and hybrid innovations like sponsored content are to take its place, they must prove their viability while at the same time giving credible assurance that they will not erode the cultural contributions we value in our periodicals.

For much of the past decade, this has been seen as an industry concern—the Web would give us the sort of writing to which we’re accustomed, and if print publishers couldn’t find a way to stay relevant, that was their problem. The truth, though, is that publishing is one of the columns on which we build our culture, and that, therefore, the question of how we as a society pay for that publishing is of consequence to all of us. Paid writing is not just a nice thing to have; it’s essential for giving many writers the time and resources to build work of real social and cultural value.

If we cannot do that on the strength of patronage, then we must either satisfy ourselves with the work of writers who often cannot afford to pursue their stories beyond what can be verified from their own desks, or find another way. If the best alternative we can find is by charging vested interests for the right to provide editorial content, then we must also be willing to cede virtues like journalistic integrity and transparency, which are, after all, what the authors of sponsored content are paying for.

For the most conscientious culture-builders, then, sponsored content should be out of the question. It’s a reasonable financial tool for the enthusiast press, since they’re already defined by their enthusiasm for commercial product, but for everyone else the sacrifice is too great. The patronage model may still be viable, but it needs regularization and demonstration—unless you’re a bona fide celebrity or National Public Radio, it simply does not provide for the same sort of self-sufficiency as a well-handled advertising department. And there is, finally, a third option: the rehabilitation of the advertising model.

That task will require, first of all, recognizing that the Web is actually a number of distinct types of commercial venue. The clear success story for achieving profitability on the basis of advertising is Google, but Google’s approach won’t work for sites that concentrate on publishing. That’s because publishing presents on kind of advertising venue, search presents another, and what works for search will not (and probably cannot) work for publishing. If nothing else, there’s the fact that Google’s users are often searching for exactly the sort of results that Google serves up in its contextual advertising. When readers visit a Web publication, they are, presumably, looking for what the site has published, not for the products that pay for that writing.

Another such venue is social, and if anyone needs a demonstration of the incommensurability of different venues, they need only look at the difficulty social platforms have had monetizing their products (see, e.g., “Social and the Social Bubble” and “Through a Filter Darkly“). In large part, the difference between search and social as advertising venues boils down to the relationship between the services they provide and the products they advertise. Google’s users are often looking for product recommendations; for Facebook users, the products are as often peripheral to the goal of connecting with other people. Even when they are interested in commercial products, they’re Liking or Sharing things they’ve already paid for, which inherently undermines Facebook’s appeal to advertisers. Why pay for ads when the exposure you’re likeliest to get comes from interactions you need not pay for at all?

Even though social provides a different kind of advertising venue, there’s a lesson there for publishers. As I argued in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” publishing on the Web is often driven by enthusiasm for commercial products—movies, technology, books, etc. The industry can tolerate enthusiasm up to a point, but when nearly every publisher on the Web participates, it’s really no surprise that the value of advertising continues to drop. Why would advertisers pay for what they can get for free?

And that cycle is self-reinforcing. Part of what drives the enthusiasm machine on the Web is the rate at which Web publications feel compelled to publish. The Atlantic Wire, for example, publishes dozens of updates a day, with each writer providing multiple posts. Most of that, naturally, will be editorialized aggregation of content originally reported by someone else, and the sheer demand for a high-volume cadence will mean occasional lapses into enthusiasm that undercuts the advertising potential of the site. Which, in turn, lends greater weight to the arguments for tearing down the wall between editorial and ad sales. If your own writers are already saving advertisers the cost of advertising, it makes a certain amount of sense to charge those advertisers for the privilege. The real cost accrues to the culture The Atlantic Wire helps build.

Adapt a more reasonable cadence; eschew enthusiasm as an editorial model; dissociate yourself from the sort of algorithmically-targeted advertising that serves the search market. Those are three basic steps toward rehabilitating advertising for the online publishing market. Nor is there any particular reason to focus on a single model. Print paid for itself with a mixture of advertising and subscription sales; why shouldn’t digital made up the cost with a mixture of advertising and patronage? That, in the end, may be the best way for patronage to contribute—as an adjunct to more reliable ways of securing revenue.


is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.