Writing & Publishing Online Content: Evergreen vs Churn vs Viral

As an extension of my previous post about online business models I have been thinking a great deal about different kinds of online content in the context of how journalism students are taught to write. This post is a continuation of my work developing some rough notes for a book on writing for the enthusiast media based on my professional experience and my PhD research. I hope to finish a complete draft by the end of the year.

Journalism students are taught to write in two primary modes ‘news’ writing and ‘feature’ writing. There are different ways to define the two modes of writing, but the most relevant way to define them in an online publishing context is temporal. ‘News’ writing is timely and is normally concerned with covering events as they are happening. Feature writing takes a longer or more in depth perspective.

When it comes to writing for an online publishing environment for enthusiast publications the question of timeliness becomes even more important. In the markets pertaining to the car enthusiast magazines I work for there are a couple of good examples of what I regard as the three main forms of content: evergreen, churn and viral. These three forms of content are not entirely distinct and the terms I’ve used are somewhat arbitrary. There are two main ways to define the types of content in terms of their structural relation to the media ecology within which they appear. The first way is in relation to the scene and enthusiasm, i.e. a consumer side definition. The second way to define the three main forms of content is in relation to different revenue streams that can be combined in different ways depending on the business model.

Evergreen Content

Evergreen content does not have an expiration date. In the context of enthusiast media, evergreen content is always about critically representing how to engage with challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm. These are more often than not ‘how to’ articles. Within modified-car culture, the challenges are mostly technical and pertain to automotive mechanical design, repair and modification. Other enthusiasms organised around other challenges will have slightly different kinds of evergreen content. A recipe is a classic example, while a how to article on setting up port forwarding on your home router for correct torrent connection is a contemporary example.

Evergreen content is written not so much for the immediate number of readers that are interested in it. Rather evergreen content is written for the searchable database. Challenges that pertain to a given enthusiasm very rarely expire, they simply transform depending on the cultural shifts that are occuring more broadly in the scene. A good example in modified-car culture is the centrality of the Ford flathead V8. Powering the iconic 1932 ‘Deuce’ coupe, the flathead was the engine of choice for the generation of young hot rodders during hot rodding’s initial wave of popularity in the immediate post World War 2 period. The ‘hot rod’ as a particular configuration of automotive technologies has coalesced into a coherent cultural form that now mostly transcends short term trends within the scene, which means that a flathead V8 is often used as the motor of choice even though there are more advanced engines easily and more cheaply available. The flathead is a culturally appropriate engine choice. Due to the shifting cultural significance of the flathead V8 it will be written about in different ways now compared to the way it was written about in the 1950s, but because the basic technical design of the engine has not changed in almost 80 years there will be some commonality across all articles.

A good example of evergreen content is the now near-defunct site, Autospeed. Autospeed was started in 1998 by Julian Edgar and went live in 1999. The site has gone through a cycle of free, paid and free content and advertisement, subscription and then advertisement-based business models. There was a great deal of critical discussion when the site shifted from a free content and advertisement based model to a paid content subscription model. In some ways it is similar to the US-based Ford Muscle online magazine. Co-founder of the site, Jon Mikelonis, commented on my previous post about content to say:

I believe you’ve touched on something critical by making the distinction between “evergreen” content and “news”. With respect to the automotive enthusiast niche, where a technical barrier exists in most cases, I do agree you are best to focus on tech content for online publishing.
We shut down feature stories and do very little news for the sake of allocating more time to creating and incentivizing technical and investigative content, “evergreen” content as you said. Yes, there is more mileage there. We still monetize from content produced more than 7 years ago.

Ford Muscle seems to have an advertising-based model, but another way to produce content that is relevant for a given scene is to produce sponsored content. Sponsored content is not the same as advertorial in the traditional journalistic publishing model, particularly when it comes to enthusiast publishing, if it is produced in a relatively sophisticated way. Advertorial is basically PR content dressed up as editorial and often appears in print and online as buyers guides or similar. Sponsored content if produced correctly taps into the expertise of an advertiser and represents the advertiser’s ‘know how’ in producing a ‘how to’ article. The advertiser will offer their ‘know how’ as a commercial service, which is why they will pay for the content, but the sponsored content represents technical information for the audience from someone with professional expertise in a given endeavour. The skill in producing sponsored content from the editorial side is in isolating what exactly is worthy of representing and valorising in the advertiser’s practice or ‘know how’ by having a very good understanding of your audience’s interests.

There are other ways to produce sponsored content based around a hybrid business model that incorporates event management, where seminars or courses are run to connect the professional expertise of journalists or advertisers with one’s audience. If such events are filmed or reported on then they can be tapped for more than one revenue stream. In fact there are some online publishers that use their online reporting simply to bolster their image so they can run profit making events.

There are other forms of evergreen content not directly tied to editorial for an online publishing environment, such as branded wallpapers.

Churn
Churn content has an expiration date and includes event coverage (before, after and during an event), ‘soft news’ based on media releases and ‘hard news’ based on investigative reporting. Churn is best defined in terms of who has the best coverage quickest will get the most readers. Within modified-car culture, blog-based sites are almost entirely driven by churn editorial content. A good example is the Speedhunters site created by EA Games for the Need for Speed game franchise and launched May 2008. Speedhunters delivers ‘up to the minute’ coverage of global car culture relevant to the audience of their video game franchise. Car culture here is not based around an active enthusiasm full of challenges, but something more ephemeral. The site serves as a space for fans to voice their opinions about cars, styles, drivers or events.

It is possible to produce content for more active enthusiasts that is churn-based. Rather than drawing on fans’ taste cultures, churn-based content for active enthusiasts is mostly a narrative organised around the challenges faced by other enthusiasts. For example, race coverage is not a superficial account of an event with nice looking images, but a blow by blow of the problems overcome by certain race teams. Churn-based content for fans, rather than enthusiasts, can be produced by interested amateurs, but to get an insider’s point of view of an event requires access to insiders which is normally only afforded to professionals actually working in the media.

There is a bigger issue here to do with one of the primary functions of the enthusiast media to select and valorise certain elements of the scene. Within a fragmented media ecology where a given scene is not serviced by a single dominant enthusiast media brand (an example of dominating single media brand is Street Commodores), and is fragmented across a number of forums, blogs, websites and traditional print magazines, the question of valorisation becomes a tricky one. I may write more about this in the future.

Traditional journalistic skills are required for producing churn content. The who, what, where, when, why and how, and the rest that journalism students are taught at university. There is a real problem that I have encountered when teaching new writers in on the job training. Part of what I need to teach is the ability to search beyond Google and Facebook for answers and the slightly more complicated problem of new writers being able to ask questions that do not have answers that are Googlable. This is a real problem, particularly when working in an industry that traditionally hires from enthusiast ranks and not the university-educated. Teaching writers about the different values of newsworthiness and more often than not all a story needs is to ring up a few key figures in an event to get a quote or two. This is less of a problem for those new hires that have gone through a traditional journalism course. If an answer can be Googled then whatever churn content is being written is already out of date. If a story has broke through another outlet and even on an enthusiast forum somewhere, then follow up with further research for fresh content.

Churn is an exhausting way to produce content. New content has to be published at least two or three times a day. If a day is missed then numbers will drop immediately. If on the other hand, evergreen content is also produced then the numbers for a site will be driven by the ‘long tail’ of enthusiasts trying to figure out ways to engage with a challenge.
Churn content is excellent for branding purposes as it demonstrates that a media outlet is contemporaneous with the happening (or broader inclusive event) of a given scene, i.e. the media outlet has its collective finger on the pulse.

Churn-based content is good for informing an audience about developments in the market from advertisers in the form of new products, new services, changes of address and achievements. It is a way to keep advertisers happy, by being mentioned, even though evergreen content may be a far better investment in the long term. Churn helps exposure, but evergreen content helps reputation. In an era of online forums and user-generated content or user-led discussion reputation management is an absolute priority for advertisers.

Viral
Viral content is designed to be shared through various social media platforms. Online media professionals will talk about ‘a viral’ as if it is a specific genre of media content. I am not convinced it is. Every form of media content is potentially viral if it is written for an appropriate audience. What is transmitted by a viral is not so much the actual media content, although it may be if it is a single image or a video, but the excitement about the piece of media. Viral media is primarily affective in character. The question then that needs to be asked is: What will make my target audience excited enough to share their excitement with others?

It gets a bit tricky when social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are used as media channels for the dissemination of content. Speedhunters uses Twitter relatively effectively and Twitter suits the churn-based model of media content. Evergreen content almost by definition will not be viral, that is unless it ‘solves’ some long standing problem or another within a given community of a scene.

Online Niche/Enthusiast Media: Business Models

Online business models. I hadn’t thought about ‘business’ at all except in a critical (but not always negative) sense until about a year ago. Here is an abstract to a paper I have in the works. However, I’ve been thinking about business models for the magazines since I’ve been involved in developing a new online presence for some of them. This post is the result of some of the thinking I have been doing on the subject and has been in the works for a while now (several weeks). I’ve been thinking about it constantly but have little time to actually work on it.

I work at Express Media Group, which publishes a number of niche-market enthusiast titles. EMG is currently developing its online presence and is working on ways to successfully integrate print and online publishing. As well as working as a Production Editor, I’ve been involved in developing some of the websites for the motoring titles. The first new website up is that for Zoom magazine.

We have a massive advertising campaign starting tomorrow that requires the other websites to be up and I am waiting on our overworked web team to finish them. I look forward to seeing the results.

I’ve been carrying out research in my own time to think about new business models that integrate print and online publishing. I have no official role in this at EMG (yet), rather I have been treating it as an extension of my PhD research on enthusiasm in modified-car culture where I looked at the relation between the enthusiast media and the scene over a 30 year period.

I used philosophical concepts to examine the composition of power relations in the organisation of the scene (dispositif) and how this has changed a number of times over the time period (an event-based conception of history). Now it seems my research is going to be the most relevant if it is developed in a simple set of critical tools for understanding legacy business models.

The general character of these legacy business models is mostly well understood. The current public workshops being hosted by the FTC are working on the issues and problems of “how the Internet has affected journalism”. The FTC has posted a Staff Discussion Draft paper that explores some of the points raised over the course of several months worth of hearings. In the first few pages of the paper (2-3) the FTC outlines the general problem with legacy business models faced by all print-based publishers. I have extracted the three main points below:

1. Newspapers’ revenues from advertising have fallen approximately 45% since 2000. For example, classified advertising accounted for $19.6 billion in revenue for newspapers in 2000, $10.2 billion in 2008, and is estimated to be only $6.0 billion in 2009.
2. With the advent of the Internet, advertisers have many more ways in which to reach consumers, including, for example, through a marketer’s own website or through topical websites that relate to the products that an advertiser wants to sell (e.g., a soccer blog for soccer equipment). Search engines also provide sites for advertising related to particular search queries.
3. Although some types of online advertising (e.g., advertising targeted to a consumer’s known interests) can generate greater revenue than other types (e.g., banner ads), the vast supply of online sites for advertising reduces the amount that an online news site can charge for advertising at its site. This means that online advertising typically generates much less revenue than print advertising (often described as “digital dimes” as compared to the dollars generated by print ads). It appears unlikely that online advertising revenues will ever be sufficient to replace the print advertising revenues that newspapers previously received.

First year journalism students are taught about the ‘news hole’ well in the actual publishing business there is often an ‘advertising hole’ as well. As more advertisers have moved online to directly target the niche market enthusiast communities that the advertiser services, there are less advertisers looking at print-based advertising. Of course, this is a generalisation as there are many enthusiast communities, of mostly older enthusiasts, that have not gone online.

All is not lost, however. There are other ways to sell advertising beyond simple ‘display’-type advertising. Dan Blank has a good post up from over a year ago on different sources of revenue for online media publishers.

The main goal here is for editorial teams to be pursuing fewer standalone articles that rely solely on CPM ads, and look to more integrated packages that build many products from a single effort.

For the last six years or so I have long looked at this from the flip side. Media events assembled from a series of inter-related texts. Often these texts are assembled around a non-media product, so a product is doubled as its media-based simulacra. It was the basis of my work I carried out on exchange to Sweden during my PhD looking at media events not as the media coverage of an event, but the event produced through the media.

In social media circles posting the same material across a number of channels is called ‘content leverage’. So a Facebook post about a blog post describing a Youtube video is Tweeted. At EMG I have been working on producing media content from single opportunities that can be distributed across a number of media channels. So far the best example of this was an ECU guide in Zoom issue 147 that is currently on the stands. I have several hours of video that I shot and I am currently editing to be posted to our Youtube channel and posted to our blog. Here is an example:

The real problem with thinking about new business models for niche/enthusiast media that integrate online and print elements is that most of the current discussion about the state of print media has been about ‘hard news’. Niche/enthusiast media and ‘hard news’ work following different journalistic models of content production. For example, Blank writes:

An underlying theme in many of these is to create evergreen content whose shelf life is longer than a news article – with multiple segments that extend the ways you can market it and sell it. Focusing on business needs beyond the cycle of “breaking news” may diminish the reliance on the single revenue model of advertising.

We already do this to a certain extent, but we are going to be doing much more of this style of content production and it is going to be a real challenge for editorial teams working under increasingly tight deadlines (we make a magazine per week on average!). To make this possible Blank has two suggestions:

1) Editorial teams mapping out a product roadmap, not just an editorial calendar.
2) Editorial teams working more closely with their sales teams to come up with these ideas, and ensure that the sales dept has this information with enough time to test the market, and ideally, sell these products.

Working closer to advertising sales teams is not a problem, the other challenge, beyond deadlines, is getting a sense of what is happening in the scene. There is so much activity nowadays that to track it all, even just all the online activity, for the scene in Australia is a full-time role.

So where to go from here? I am currently rewriting some of my PhD research for a draft paper about legacy media business models for niche/enthusiast media.

Discourse and Discourse

Most of my readers who have stuck with me during the extended post-PhD neglect of my blog will know I am working at a magazine publisher. I started as a writer in 2008 and the past year and a half has been something of an apprenticeship. I have been learning how to translate the concepts developed in my PhD into another discourse.

As an intellectual problem I have found this process fascinating. There is a certain media-based commercial discourse that dominates the company, as I imagine a version of it would be dominant at other magazine publishers. I have found it very tricky figuring out how to express what I consider to be the ‘truth’ of a given matter when that ‘truth’ is discounted by the very discourse (ie language, mode of address, authority implicit in the localised rituals of listening and speaking) it is expected to be expressed through. It has allowed me to return to some of Foucault’s work and use it as a resource to think about what is happening.

There are two power struggles in effect and each struggle involves a different set of power relations. The first is relatively simple and could be observed by anyone. This is the struggle over new ideas or a new way to think existing ideas, which rightly or wrongly is interpreted as a challenge to the existing power relations in the organisation. The second is less obvious and gets muddled by being combined with the first. The holders of the current ideas are reluctant to relinquish what they perceive and feel to be the dominant poistion in the power relations in the company by being forced to think ideas that are relatively foreign to them. These foreign ideas serve as the battleground for the second power struggle because they require a new discourse that is perceived to conflict with the existing discourse that enables the existing power relations.

fraughtness

It is past one in the morning and for the last few hours I have been madly trying to put the finishing touches on a job application for an academic position. Over the past several weeks I have been feeling pressure from a number of people I know to get a job in academia. From aquaintences and colleagues at the State of Industry conference to the most intimate of relationships that are very dear to me. I have felt savaged by their explicit bewilderment and brash questions about why I am not working in academia, their well-intentioned assertions that I should be an academic, and the implication that I am basically wasting my time in my current job.

All of this is probably true. Yet I realised tonight as I have been writing my responses to the Key Selection Criteria that I am basically not yet ready. My biggest problem is that I have not demonstrated my expertise. To do this I need to publish. My greatest error has been to treat academia as an intellectual pursuit. It is not. I have over-invested in my capacity to intellectualise anything, to critically engage with it, to use highly esoteric, but powerful social and philosophical theories and to develop my own conceptual tools to genuinely understand social and cultural phenomena. None of this really matters when it comes time to get a job. I need to play the game. This shall involve me going to war, to mobilise and redirect my energies in a slightly different way.

I need to publish from my PhD, rather than simply having a list of interesting but non-expertise-based scholarly and quasi-scholarly (ie blog) publications. Most of my journal articles published have little or nothing to do with the core focus of my Phd. I am beginning to understand that the ruthlessness I have been cultivating in my current capitalist workplace needs to be redirected towards myself and my intellectual pursuits. I can feel an encroaching sadness born of the fact I need to relinquish my naive appreciation of scholarly work and recognise that it must be framed in terms of the current discourse of outcomes. I need to be ruthless with my own thinking, harness it, exploit it and produce outcomes.

What are my outcomes? I need to demonstrate them. I need to go to war against myself.

Maybe I am becoming an adult.