Within minutes of an Ad Age Digital Conference panel asking “Can the Web Support Quality Content?” at the Metropolitan Pavilion April 7, the conversation got heated between Henry Blodget, chief executive of The Business Insider and an outspoken critic of The New York Times‘ business model, and Denise Warren, senior vice president and chief advertising officer of New York Times Media Group.
Mr. Blodget was charged with moderating the discussion, which included Walker Jacobs, senior vice president of digital ad sales at Turner Sports & Entertainment, David Moore, founder of digital marketing and advertising company 24/7 Real Media, and Vivek Shah, group digital president of news at Time, Inc. Before even introducing the panelists, Mr. Blodget offered a challenge to the definition of “quality content.” He asked whether “Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, MySpace and others produce content that is inherently quality enough that they can build a robust”—
“They’re aggregating!” interrupted Ms. Warren. “And a lot of those people on those sites are aggregating it.”
Before she could finish her sentence, Mr. Blodget talked over her: “This is a very important question, right? Is whether Google is producing search results pages is, is that content? Is that not content? Is it a ‘tapeworm’ as the head of The Wall Street Journal, Robert Thomson said yesterday?”
Mr. Moore, of 24/7 Real Media, was sitting next to Ms. Warren and holding a microphone for her. (The one attached to her suit wasn’t working.) “I think what we are really talking about is, can the Web support the kind of cost structure that The New York Times, that Turner, that CNN and paradigms of traditional media throw on top?”
Mr. Blodget dismissed the question as “a little early,” and went back to questioning Ms. Warren. “So would [Times executive editor] Bill Keller say the Huffington Post is not quality content?” he asked, flashing her a smile.
Ms. Warren pursed her lips. “I’m not going to speak for Bill Keller,” she said. “I think I need to finish my definition” of quality journalism.
“Journalism starts with bearing witness,” she said. “It starts with actually being there, and that is something that some news organizations do but not all. Many of these news organizations are aggregating the first-person reporting of other organizations.”
Earlier, Ms. Warren had said, “journalism is a craft much like medicine and law is a craft. I think it’s important to know that our journalists are trained in some really important things,” For example, distinguishing between whether sources are telling the truth or if they are influenced by personal ideologies.
Mr. Moore looped back to the question at hand: “Has traditional media been vastly overpriced all these years or is the Internet vastly underpriced?”
“I’ll pull the mic away from Denise if any time, you know, she’s getting out of control a bit,” he joked.
At that, Ms. Warren rolled her eyes.
“The Web is getting commoditized by the advertisers,” Mr. Moore said. “Advertisers now can really see what they’re getting for their money and traditional media is still trying to charge the old rates, if you will, in a new environment.”
On this, Mr. Blodget agreed. “The cost of creating the content online, relative to the cost structure that is supported offline is totally out of whack,” he said, citing new media business models like the Huffington Post’s and Gawker’s, which have made their businesses work on up to 20 percent of the staff of a major newspaper.
“Gawker is doing something right,” he said, and these sites show two ways to “get out of this hole.”
“Either you radically cut costs down to the level you have to to get to Web revenue, or you find ways to vastly increase revenues on the Web that we haven’t been able to do it.”
Ms. Warren responded: “We’re not sure we’re really getting enough credit for all the great things we’re doing online,” she said. The Times had recently received a Peabody award, for example. “What we’ve got now is a Web site that what they’re calling is inventing a new form of online journalism. I’m not hearing any of the other sites that you’re mentioning getting that kind of reward.”
“I think The New York Times site is tremendous,” Mr. Blodget responded. “The question is whether is can be supported with the revenue it can generate.”
Earlier in the panel, Ms. Warren had said, “Listen, I think that anything and everything should be on the table… As far as we’re concerned at The Times, all of our options are open. We have not foreclosed anything. We have experimented with both the subscription model and the advertising model, we will continue to do so.”
Mr. Jacobs, of Turner Broadcasting, said the problem is marketers and advertising companies investing in Facebook and MySpace campaigns instead of more quality advertising. “You can’t create this watercooler buzz where everybody is experiencing that ad and asking did you see that ad? Did you see that content?”
By this point, half of the crowd of about 400 advertising executives and marketing flaks had their heads down, fiddling with their iPhones and laptops, and waiting for the following coffee and s’mores bar break.
Mr. Shah, of Time, Inc., also pointed out that people spend more time with a printed product, like 20 hours a month, compared to the 20 minutes a month they spend with a Web site. Referring to sites like Google, he said: “I think that there is a point where you have to create demand… All that Google will never accomplish is navigation, going somewhere that you already decided that you wanted to go to. That demand was created somewhere else.”
“You can harvest all the crop, but if you stop planting the seeds, there will be no crop,” Mr. Shah said.
Mr. Blodget, running out of time, wrapped it up with: “Hey, keep planting seeds.” Backstage, Mr. Blodget shook hands with the panelists, including Ms. Warren, before excusing himself to go back to the office.
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