Those of us that live in the culturally rich and diverse inner northern suburbs of Melbourne are spoiled for choice with retro and vintage clothing, independent music shops, vegetarian and vegan cafes, quirky art galleries and live music venues.
A number of businesses publish guides to draw attention to the latest, the best and the most interesting places to eat, drink, dress, party and play. In this post I will be reviewing the reviewers. It’s not my aim to criticise these sites but to investigate their missions and business models, and to hypothesise about their viability. The four sites reviewed below at Breakfast Out, Norfguide, Lost magazine and Three Thousand.
Disclaimers: I have no financial interests in any of these sites. I have corresponded with some of their owners by email, but have not met any if them face to face. I also publish local news sites that could be considered competitors to these guides. These local news site aggregate and syndicate posts about local cafes, businesses, arts, events and experiences.
Mission: to publish reviews of breakfasts at Melbourne cafes.
Design: the site features a basic graphic design.
Content: the site divides Melbourne into five main areas (CBD, north, south, east and west) and contains reviews of cafes in those areas.
Platform: the site is static with little metadata. Articles feature ‘search tags’ that cross reference articles to each other, but the tags are not included in the index and are of little use in browsing the site. The five geographical areas form the main navigation of the site but do not feature in the metadata structure.
Feeds: no RSS feed link is offered on the page but if you read the source code for the home page, they do have one courtesy of whatever site builder or content management system they use, so you can subscribe to their RSS feed. Tag feeds are not available.
Print version: no.
Business model: banner advertising.
Strength: the site covers a diverse range of venues and reviews places that are not getting a lot of attention from local bloggers.
Weakness: the site does not publish very often, less often in fact than many blogs.
Mission: to publish reviews of shops, business, cafes etc in the inner north of Melbourne in print and online.
Design: features a sophisticated graphic design.
Content: the site features some well designed and integrated mapping of the places it reviews. It divides the inner north of Melbourne into five areas: North Melbourne and Carlton; Fitzroy, Collingwood and Abbotsford; North Fitzroy and Clifton Hill; North Carlton and Brunswick; and Northcote and Westgarth. Many parts of the site, such as events, remain empty.
Frequency: occasional (based on the print guides).
Platform: the site is static with no obvious metadata.
Feeds: there are no RSS feeds.
Print version: the site mirrors the content of print guides distributed in cafes and shops in the target area.
Business model: businesses pay for listings in the print guide and get placed on the website as part of the deal, so it’s basically display advertising. The site itself contains no banner ads.
Strength: the quality of the graphic design. The integration of online maps.
Weakness: will never be comprehensive because businesses must pay to be included. Website is incomplete.
Mission: to publish a print guide to Fitzroy, focusing primarily on Brunswick St.
Design: fairly simple print graphic design.
Content: a mix of original research based content about Brunswick St, with cafe listings and display advertising.
Frequency: vol 1 of a print guide to Brunswick St and surrounds in Fitzroy launched at the beginning of the year. I have not seen any further editions.
Platform: a badly designed frames based static site allows you to flick through .jpg images of the pages of the print edition. You can also download the whole edition as a .pdf. The articles are not published in text form, so there’s little content for Google to index.
Print version: the print version came first, and the online version is simply a copy of the print version.
Business model: display advertising in the print version and banner advertising online.
Strength: original research has created unique content.
Mission: to publish a guide to Melbourne’s youth subculture, with features on art, music, food and events.
Design: a sophisticated graphic design.
Content: a combination of event listings, such as the opening of a new bar or gig details for a band, to fashion shows and reviews of books and DVDs.
Frequency: the site is updated regularly, with content grouped into weekly issues. Each issue contains six posts so the site is updated nearly every day.
Platform: static site, probably CMS based. Good metadata structure, with posts tagged by suburb, genre (music, film, etc), and abstract concepts like ‘ambience’. This is good for browsing and random discovery.
Feeds: RSS feed for all content only; feeds for individual tags are not available.
Print version: No. There is also an email newsletter version.
Business model: banner advertising in the site and the email newsletter and promoting products and events.
Strength: consistency, longevity and diversity of content.
Weakness: does not publish enough. It could and should add multiple posts per day.
The delivery of information is a service that commercial media companies succeeded in developing into a business by managing a scarcity of information and by exercising a substantial or monopoly control over its dissemination. Information used to be expensive to produce, and was mainly done by people with access to the means of distribution (journalists, writers and photographers who worked for publishers).
Before the digital revolution, there was no point going to the effort and expense of creating something that would not be published. Now, information costs almost nothing to produce (apart from time and effort) and almost nothing to publish. The commercial media no longer controls dissemination of content. Anyone can publish anything and this provides a huge incentive to create content.
The result is an abundance of content, which has destroyed the commercial value of information. The commercial value of many forms of content, such as restaurant reviews, has crashed to almost nothing, while the intrinsic value of that content remains high for its consumers.
The commercial media no longer controls a scarcity of content, and is being overwhelmed with competition for audience attention from citizen journalists and user generated, social media content. Consumption of commercial print media products is crashing and print advertising is crashing along with it.
Audiences are fragmenting and obtaining information relevant to them in new ways and from new (and existing) providers. Online advertising is despised and ignored by audiences, and has little chance to generate significant revenue. The advertising supported publishing business model is effectively dead in the online world.
I don’t want to simply dismiss all these sites, but I have serious doubts about their financial viability and potential for success. It may depend how this success is measured. If success is earning enough advertising income to support paid staff, I doubt any site will succeed. As print advertising continues to collapse and online advertising fails to replace it in revenue terms, I believe that all publishers relying on advertising based business models will fail.
There’s lots of naive enthusiam for building something that is pleasurable to consume and useful to the community. However, it is by no means obvious that a for profit business is the most appropriate or efficient structure to use to achieve this goal. In fact, analysis of the economics of content and the viability of the advertising business model reveals that commercial businesses will most likely fail to make these ideas work.
I’d advise the publishers of these sites not to invest too much money into their production; to automate what they can and to move towards being inclusive and cooperative rather than exclusive and separate. This means providing content in ways that audiences want it: thoroughly sorted, tagged and indexed for easy scanning, with email newsletter and feed subscription options. Content should be localised and mapped.
Information wants to be free. The means to achieve this objective have now been created. The industrial conditions that enabled corporations to convert the service of information dissemination into a business have disappeared. Game over. End of story. It really is that simple.
I have demonstrated through the local news sites I have published that a team of local bloggers can work together to publish sites that far exceed the content on these commercial guide sites. Business cannot compete with equally skilled and experienced people who give their product away for free.
The suits need to realise that their era is over: commercial media is dead. There is no business model. There is no need for businesses to act as gatekeepers between content creators and content consumers. We don’t need you, or want you, any more. Go away.
I am now tracking over 200 Melbourne blogs and am publishing six local news sites of their aggregated content. There’s no advertising to spoil the reading experience and no exploitation of the contributors. In fact, by syndicating blog content, the local news sites provide links back to the blogs, which helps build Google relevance and rank and drives traffic to the blogs.
The Central Melbourne site now has over 50 contributors and over 650 posts. The Fitzroy site now has over 50 contributors and over 550 posts. The others are all growing steadily. Over 100 blogs and sites have content that is at least partially tagged by suburb.
This is just the beginning: these sites exist mainly to demonstrate the technical potential of the manually curated and automatically syndicated publishing model and social potential of the cooperative, non-commercial non-business model.
I hypothesis that within five years, most suburbs will have local news sites run by enthusiastic volunteers, and sites like these will be a primary communication strategy used by local governments and other not for profit community organisations.
Goodbye media business, hello media community. We are the media now.