Breaking news — hard sells!

For all the excitement over a new study, there's still little proof that serious sells.

There is a glimmer of hope for an industry that has seen nothing but bad news recently, thanks to a study suggesting that hard news generates more ad revenue online than “traffic bait” stories laden with sex and celebrities. “Celebs are loud, but hard news pays” reported the Columbia Journalism Review, but some industry experts question the report’s reasoning.

The three-month study was conducted by Perfect Market, a company that helps publishers monetize online content. It tracked 15 million news articles from 21 U.S. news sites, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, and found the top-earning stories based on advertising revenue per thousand page views were news topics rather than traffic bait.

CEO of Perfect Market, Julie Schoenfeld, concluded in a press release “that serious journalism does pay” because there is more opportunity for endemic advertising. That’s industry lingo for ads sold in context — the idea being if someone is reading an article about mortgages, they are more likely to click on the ad for a mortgage broker. That is a concept that is generally harder to execute with traffic-bait stories because of their fluffy content (unless, in the case of Lindsay Lohan, you sell prison garb). The study found that ads beside stories about social security raked in the most at $129 for every 1,000 page views, followed by mortgage rates at $93.

Jeff Jarvis, social-media guru and author of What Would Google Do?, says while hard news stories may make websites more money, chalking it up to endemic advertising is faulty because many stories don’t have content that can be contextualized. For example, a story on Proposition 8 (California’s attempt to ban same-sex marriage) brought in only $10 per 1,000 views, though it still did better than stories about Lindsay Lohan, which brought in a mere $2.50 per 100 views.

Jarvis says the real distinction is between readers who come to a site as “drive-by” users, and those who have an enduring relationship to the site. Most link-bait stories attract the former, and this hurts the ability to serve effective ads because the site has no behavioural data on them.

“It’s not the topicality of the news content that’s important,” Jarvis says. “It’s the relationship the news gives you to those readers.” Jarvis explains that most readers are loyal to a news site because of the hard news content, so by continuing to give them the articles they value, the more data a publication can acquire about their clicking and spending habits and the more relevant ads they can serve.

Rand Fish, CEO of SEOmoz, a company that provides search optimization software, says on his blog the study’s conclusion is misleading because the purpose of traffic bait is not to create ad revenue. Its real value is to increase the overall branding of a site by encouraging people to post links, subscribe to RSS feeds, and return to the site. He points out many consultants on viral content creation even recommend removing ads to drive up sharing and linking activities.

“If I were the Toronto Star, I wouldn’t abandon all celebrity stories and decide to go good-for-ya broccoli news,” says Jarvis. Instead, he says news sites could work together to monetize stories that bring in drive-by viewers by sharing data. If a link is posted on the Montreal Gazette about a story out of Vancouver that’s sending traffic to the The Vancouver Sun, the Gazette should share information about their users so the Sun can post more relevant ads. “That way we know what this person is interested in,” says Jarvis. “We can give them an ad of higher value than a dancing monkey or Viagra.”