From print to pixels: Internet news sites grapple with revenue realities

Every week Techvibes republishes an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1050 – Dec. 8 – 14, 2009.

Clarity Digital Group LLC’s acquisition last month of Vancouver-based NowPublic was a major development in Vancouver’s online journalism community, but two other local websites that have similar offerings to NowPublic have also recently evolved.

The developments are part of the larger evolution of online news and illustrate that developers are slowly getting a grip on how consumers absorb online news and how to unlock online revenue streams.

After launching a German site in February 2008 and French and Spanish sites last September, now operates four versions of its online magazine.

Last May, overhauled its website and began recruiting professional and trained writers instead of using only amateur writers, as had been the company’s policy since it was founded three years ago.

Depending on who you talk to and depending on the nuances of the product, online journalism has different names.

Online content provided by traditional newspapers that are switching from print to pixel can still offer a traditional news product.

For example, the New York Times delivers traditional news through its hugely popular online site, although the site blends elements of social media with its news content.

At the other end of the journalistic spectrum is “citizen journalism.”

These websites rely, for the most part, on amateurs and the public for content.

While that suggests that citizen journalism is inferior to traditional news, its proponents claim that increased access to the Internet, a larger audience and tools of the journalism trade allow anyone to produce newsworthy content.

Leonard Brody, co-founder of NowPublic, which has roughly five million unique visitors monthly, doesn’t describe the site as journalism.

“Simply because you have a camera phone and a recorder … doesn’t make you a journalist,” said Brody, who became president of Denver-based Clarity Digital following its acquisition of NowPublic.

Rather, he describes NowPublic’s contributors as an army of eyes and ears that help journalists navigate the world and breaking news.

Brody said NowPublic also provides a human and ground-level perspective of events.

“In my view, what NowPublic does is free up journalists to focus their energy on the analytics side, on the high-value side, instead of focusing on the news gathering.”

NowPublic has more than 200,000 contributors worldwide.

The company has also developed a software tool for scanning and collecting real-time conversations and content from all over the Internet, including social-media sites like Flickr and Twitter.

But online news sites are still grappling with how to monetize their content, even as consumers increasingly turn to the web for information.

Consumers are already growing accustomed to getting online news free, and websites don’t provide the same advertising opportunities as print.

NowPublic has two revenue streams:

•banner and display advertising; and

•the licences it provides to other companies to use its software.

Brody acknowledged that NowPublic probably wouldn’t be sustainable if it only generated revenue from advertising. He said that’s partly because NowPublic’s content is global and tends to cover breaking news.

“Historically, breaking news has been a loss leader for newspapers. You don’t sell ads against a bomb going off in Iraq.”

Clarity Digital has launched another of its online products,, in five cities in Canada, including Vancouver., which has more than 20,000 “examiners” writing for its 160 U.S. markets, provides more localized content and will, according to Brody, complement NowPublic’s global coverage.

Orato’s recent revamp of its business model and site was an acknowledgement that its initial strategy wasn’t generating enough revenue for the company or its contributors.

It’s now trying to build better relationships with its writers and improve the quality of its user-generated content.

While NowPublic and Orato similarly cover breaking global news, has spun online journalism differently.

The website, which has posted 230,000 articles, tries to generate content that drives its audience to explore a topic further by clicking on ads that appear beside and are related to an article’s topic.

For example, an article titled “What’s the best insurance policy for you?” might appear beside ads for insurance companies.

That said, the company is not just creating ad-spun content. Its content isn’t necessarily news-breaking, but the site places an emphasis on thoroughness and quality.

“We’re really only interested in working with people who can demonstrate to us that they know their stuff and that they can write,” said Peter Berger, Suite101’s president and CEO.

Contributors at have made up to $5,000 a month on commissions from ad-clicks, although only a few of the site’s 8,000 contributors consistently break $2,000 a month.

“If you write something that’s just of news interest, people aren’t likely to engage with advertising,” said Berger.

“But if you’re writing an article about something like the best insurance policy, readers are already in a mode closer to buying something.” is profitable, generates 24 million unique visitors a month, and has doubled its annual traffic.

Unlike and Orato, NowPublic doesn’t compensate its contributors.

So why do people post content on sites like NowPublic?

The same factors that have contributed to the rise of other forms of social media like Facebook.

“They’re interested in sharing and in vanity,” said Brody. “They like to see their content being read.”