Could Transparency Bolster Publishers Efforts to Adopt New Revenue Models?

It's One Way to Frame the Debate On Your Terms

By Published on .

Everyone knows that news-media companies are financially challenged, right? Not so.

According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, only 39% of Americans have heard "a lot" or "some" about the news media's formidable economic issues.

This disconnect is something news companies must take seriously as they tweak business models in an attempt to reverse long-standing declines. Consumers might not know what things like sponsored content and affiliate links are, but if publishers aren't careful, advocacy groups opposed to such tactics will frame the debate.

What can publishers do to stay a step ahead? Embrace transparency.

Publishers need to regularly detail how they make money; how these sources of revenue are being disrupted; and what the business model is going forward.

Here are several ideas to consider.

Carefully outline the economics of quality.

Quality goods and services always carry a premium, and the same is true in journalism. News brands need to continually invest in talent in order to provide a quality product. However, these costs are escalating given the kind of content that consumers have come to expect. Besides writers and editors, publishers must now hire programmers, data analysts, social-media managers and more. And they don't come cheap. This should be explained to audiences.

Invest in a public editor.

The Organization of News Ombudsman estimates there are about 20 such journalists in internal watchdog roles in the U.S. This is down 50% from a decade ago. While most news organizations can no longer justify the investment, the role of ombudsman might be recast as a reader advocate who can help a publisher explain why new revenue models benefit the reader.

Disclose e-commerce affiliate links.

Several years ago, many news sites started to integrate direct links in articles to Amazon, iTunes and other shopping sites. Some news sites, like tech blogs, clearly disclose that they earn commission revenue from these links, but the practice is uneven and needs to go further. Apple, Amazon and others that benefit should encourage even greater transparency.

Communicate the value of related-news links.

Much like with e-commerce affiliate links, a growing number of news sites use article footers to point readers to related content from advertisers and other news organizations. These links sometimes look so much like edit that readers are unlikely aware that such a market for traffic sharing even exists. Publishers should disclose what these links are, how clicks compensate them and how it benefits readers.

Disclose who is funding and creating sponsored content.

Last but by no means least, as the practice of sponsored content and native advertising becomes more pervasive, the press should not only delineate who paid for it but how it was created. This is critical as familiar names from the masthead move over into new roles in "content studios."

It's fair to say that these recommendations may seem extreme, even unnecessary.

But if publishers don't shine a light on their attempts to forge new ground—and, in some cases, break with tradition—then someone else will. And that's rarely a good thing.

Steve Rubel is chief content strategist at Edelman.