I was riding in a cart with one of my all-time favorite golf writers last summer. We were driving up to the green in a friendly round. Ever the inquisitive journalist, he asked me what I thought would need to be the skill set of the golf writers of the future.
“Everything,” I said. “They need to do everything.”
And I meant that. The modern writer should be able to report and dig, write and analyze, star in and produce video, record a podcast, code, sell ads and maintain their books. Do it all.
That’s because the fundamental insulating infrastructure of the business of journalism — the very thing that used to let talent flex their gifts — is collapsing. The casualties are the disappearing bylines of excellent writers and reporters from the places they used to appear, which was primarily in print but in a manner now increasingly non-discriminatory of medium. Print is dying on the operating table, yes, but there are few who have truly cracked the profitability puzzle in digital media.
Golf World asked in a recent piece where all the golf writers have gone. The answer, as always, is found when you follow the money.
Here’s the problem with print: You can’t track it.
When you come to this website or any website or app, you’re being watched. I can’t tell you what your name is, but I know your ZIP code, how long you stay, where you go, the device you’re using, where you came from and a bunch of other stuff. I can build a demographic profile of you and every visitor to the site, packaging hundreds of thousands of people together into a profile of the prototypical GNN visitor. By and large, you’re middle-aged (but younger than other golf sites), pretty well off, have advanced degrees and like politics, movies and traveling. You largely come from the biggest American cities, though we have a nice following in London, Toronto, Dublin and in South Africa.
If you’re running a print publication, you can know a fair amount of that stuff. Census data and ZIP codes can give you a general economic profile of a reader. But, really, that’s about it. Without costly, unreliable surveying, you can’t know if a print subscriber even cracks the cover. You don’t know how much time they spend with it, what they like, if they bought something because they saw it in your rag — none of that.
It’s that last part which is particularly critical to advertisers. They don’t want to spend money marketing to an audience that isn’t receptive to their product. They won’t commit ad dollars to a site that can barely hold the attention of people who come there. And, they can track those things in real time, which means they can divert resources in real time, away from things that don’t work to things that do.
That reality means a few things, and it starts with this: More advertisers I talk to these days refuse — REFUSE — to spend money on print. Why bother? They could offer a promo code that might illuminate where customers found out about them, but that’s not reliable in print, on TV or the radio. They also have to commit substantially more up front in opportunity costs they can’t recoup to design ads for print. Those ads could be obsolete by the time they run, and the commitment to run them is months in advance at a price tag that has to help the publisher pay for a whole lot of overhead: printing, designers, admin people, writers, their website hosting bill, everything.
With Google and Facebook, which combined get an estimated 99 percent of digital ad spend, they can simply login to a simple interface, design the ad themselves, target the exact people they want, set a budget by the hour and fire away. They can perform multivariate testing to know which messages and pictures are working, ditching the stuff that doesn’t for the stuff that does and have changes pervade through the world in minutes. There’s no middleman.
So, publishers decided to respond in a few different ways. One was to start practically giving away the publication, through alliances with other related businesses and associations — so, in golf’s case, state golf associations, golf trade shows and other things like that. This juices up the number of people who get the publication, meaning they can charge more because or a larger circulation. However, advertisers quickly were hip to that game, realizing comped subscribers are less likely to engage with a publication because they have no investment in it. It’s as likely to be a coaster as it is to be in your hands.
The other thing publishers did, and this is where the writer went, was to reduce staff. They let go of writers, producers, designers and more. They killed once healthy travel budgets, limiting the number of times they could cover events, if at all. They figured it was more efficient to write about something they didn’t see in person, missing out on the details you get only from being up close, and hoped the dip in insight isn’t something the average reader would notice.
Turns out, the readers did. So, they went looking other places. Or they started digital publications — often just all lumped into the word blog, a term which hardly any educated person uses anymore — to try to fill the gap themselves. Up sprung niche publications in golf, about fantasy golf, equipment, travel, putters, equipment testing, humor-slanted insight, podcasts, all kinds of stuff. And, it turns out, there are a lot of really great content options for golf fans.
That breadth (though sometimes missing depth) of content created two problems: one for legacy publishers and one for aspiring entrepreneurs on the digital side.
On the print side, they didn’t know how to cope. For 20 years they’ve been fighting to reality that content will eventually be almost entirely digital (there might be room for a vinyl-like renaissance for great visual print publications like National Geographic). So, they gave the stuff away for free online, stabbing themselves in the heart with a safety pin, bleeding out slowly over time in an irreparable way. Print set itself up for failure in this regard — or at least expedited the decline — by not attaching value to the content itself, regardless of where and how it was consumed. Pandora’s Box is open; there’s a rough road to close it, though there are some successful legacy publications making modest money with a paywall to protect some or all of their work.
That problem led to the rise of myriad forms of digital advertising, again, which are all trackable. When those results started to normalize over time, that was bad for publishers. As it turned out, someone clicks on a display ad on a website about 0.4 percent of the time. The conversion to a desired outcome is even lower. So, for every 1,000 impressions, you might get 1 good lead. One. That sucks. Why bother. Naturally, advertisers valued display advertising less because of its measurable inefficiency, so they paid less, which meant publishers had to put up more ads to make up for the lost money. That also meant they had to rely on aggregation.
When the concept of a blog started, so did the idea of aggregation — the notion of building a piece of content off another person’s work. At its most blatant, aggregation is cutting and pasting the key components of a story, tweet or whatever and adding a few lines of context around it. With meaningful context and new information, aggregation can be valuable to the reader. However, it was easy content for publishers with bigger staffs to produce, so they did it to chase traffic and create bigger advertising inventory, which is really just a function of number of ads per page times the number of pages viewed.
Turns out, aggregation kills in terms of efficiency. It’s easy to produce, can be done from anywhere, has little overhead associated with it and other benefits. It also performs just as well, if not better, than the detailed reporting from on-site. Why spend thousands hoping your reporter will unearth an incredible nugget or deliver a “Herbert Warren Wind inventing Amen Corner gamer” when you’re 99 percent certain (and can easily test) that offering context to the odd things people see on TV will do so much better? Why not provide people with answers to questions you know they’ll ask instead of trying to guess and offer what you think — not know — the reader wants?
Then, with the rise of social came click-bait, designed to either obfuscate a real story or just elicit some kind of emotional reaction (people typically share more when they’re angry than happy) so that they pass it along to their networks. And they tell two friends, and so on. Suddenly, a garbage piece about some alligator on the golf course is in front of millions of eyeballs. Again, those kinds of useless stories — at least on the journalism scale — pay for all of the great, detailed reporting that’s left out there.
It’s easy and addicting to chase those kinds of clicks, which don’t really breed loyalty with a reader but rather make them as transactional as advertisers can be on the digital side. Now, legacy publishers struggle to find a clear, genuine voice (brand if you have a MBA), which is precisely what advertisers pay a premium for these days, while chasing the easy hits with WAG galleries and clickbait and other stuff. I struggle with it (more on that later).
All the while, there’s less money coming in from the print cow, which still has to be maintained, and there are fewer people to do the work that twice as many people used to do. Easy content is essential to maintaining some sense of sanity.
For the digital entrepreneur, it’s difficult to turn a hobby into a job. After all, print’s self-bludgeoning, modern ad technology and the increasing niche-ing of our small business-driven economy make it hard to make easy ad money.
Many media sources rise up now through social media, developing a following until they choose (or someone not-so-subtly suggests) they take it to the next level. In making that choice, everything changes because there are mouths to feed.
If they’ve developed a following by being genuinely original, it’s difficult not to feel like a sellout in trying to appeal to a large enough audience to make a living.
If they’ve developed a following as a pure aggregator — in some cases, like many golf Instagram accounts, building cache entirely by stealing other people’s work — potential advertisers make it clear there needs to be some originality for them to cut a check. That can be a struggle, to put it mildly.
Short of that kind of fundamental upheaval that rarely works, an up-and-coming outlet has three choices:
- Take on investors that will likely want a substantial say in their direction, perhaps in a way they won’t like
- Sell something other than ads, like merchandise, that is the real cash cow
- Create a slew of content that is search engine-friendly and build an audience base over time that allows them to concurrently maintain and refine a voice (this is what we do)
There’s also a fourth option, which isn’t something I would recommend, which is buying tons of followers on social media and playing an arbitrage game with advertising, hoping to make portion of a penny per page view as the difference between what was paid to get the person to the site compared to the advertising money earned once they’re on the site.
None of those economic choices require sending a staffer to a golf tournament, or really anywhere.
Being there is great, particularly for the big moments and events in golf, but not all the time. It’s not efficient and can hurt the razor-thin bottom line. That’s why there are fewer beat writers. That’s why newspapers don’t have regular golf writers. That’s why magazines send half the people they once did to majors. That’s why it’s a big deal for a digital site like GNN to travel to a tournament.
For GNN, there’s no guarantee that actually going to a major will be profitable. And it doesn’t have to be, but it sure helps. As a largely one-man shop for day-to-day business, time I don’t spend doing all that stuff I said a modern golf writer has to do costs money. However, I’m not going to show up at a major, sit in the media center to watch the tournament on a projector and write SEO-friendly stuff that I can do at home. That’s not why I do this. So that means I write 20 pieces a day during majors, trying to do an impossible balancing act between what I know will make money and what I know I love doing. They’re often mutually exclusive.
However, this is all part of a broader, long-term plan. In almost two-and-a-half years, GNN has gone from basically zero audience to about 300,000 people on our website each month. It should be 400K per month by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I’m even close to where I want to be economically. We currently make about $10 per 1,000 page views thanks to ad networks that don’t pay nearly enough for our ad impressions despite golf’s wealthier demographic. With a larger audience and a better ability to sell the site directly at a modest premium to advertisers (who are cautious because they have a bottom line too), I can more quickly further my long-term plans for the company.
We’re building out video capability, with a Roku app and an Apple TV app coming, trying to be on the cutting edge of modern video consumption. GNN Radio hums on, uniquely delivering a 24/7 digital stream of golf talk. More eyeballs means more money, yes, but it also means more money that can be paid to more modern writers: men and women who want to take on the very real challenges of being relevant in this environment and doing it in a way that isn’t soul-sucking, that is rewarding.
So, where have all the golf writers gone? Many good-but-out-of-work ones are waiting for someone to set up a modern, profitable sandbox where they can play and do their best stuff. The new ones, who are or will be good by an entirely different standard, are figuring out how to do it on their own — either by choice or, in the future, by force.