The common model in media is that advertising funds journalism. But what if journalism is the advertising?
Take San Francisco startup Priceonomics, which publishes articles on its website on a range of curious topics, from overpriced diamonds to Mission District gentrification. CEO Rohin Dhar says the goal is “to bring new information into the world” – a very media-company response.
Yet his company makes its money building data-crawling software, which it uses to collect information so businesses and hedge funds can make decisions about investments. Readers wouldn’t know it by visiting the Priceonomics website, which looks like a news blog. The only mention of its software is buried at the bottom of the page.
Recent articles touched on how James Bond introduced American society to its own CIA, why hotel room service is so expensive, and the workings of a “hipster music index.” The company, headquartered in the Mission District, has even waded into contentious San Francisco issues like evictions, rising rents and the underground “economy” of Dolores Park.
Priceonomics’ two full-time writers – not company analysts – try to publish a few times weekly. They often use internal research tools to generate story ideas and gather information for their articles, such as a recent market analysis of babysitting prices.
The articles don’t run with any advertisements and there’s no paywall providing revenue for Priceonomics.
Dhar, who can be called the blog’s editor, hopes the articles attract readers, some of whom notice the research that went into creating them. Those readers become prospective clients.
The blog has been an integral part of the company since it left the Y Combinator startup accelerator in 2012, and now leads to almost all Priceonomics sales, Dhar says.
Priceonomics’ foray into reporting fits into the category of “brand journalism,” in which corporations publish studies and opinions to keep their names in front of prospective clients, according to Alex Howard, a fellow at Columbia University School of Journalism. But unlike many in the field, the Priceonomics blog succeeds because it publishes stories that no one else has, he says.
It certainly isn’t the first business to harness its own products for journalism. Bloomberg, for instance, has long provided Wall Street data to clients but also used those tools for reporting through Bloomberg News.
It’s also not the only company that treats articles as a form of advertising. Some publishers sell sponsored posts, in which an advertiser – hopefully marked as such – creates articles, photos or videos for a news outlet.
Companies are increasingly leaning on their blogs to stay relevant online. Google and Twitter use corporate blogs to announce company news, effectively replacing press releases. TripAdvisor engages people on its blog with insights on travel trends from customer data. Analytics firm Renesys, security firm Incapsula and content-delivery network CloudFlare pen well-circulated blog posts on complicated questions about the technical happenings of the Internet. But these posts are within their areas of expertise.
So far, Priceonomics doesn’t appear to have constraints on the topics it covers – as long as they attract eyeballs.
The goal of any media company is to gain credibility so when it says something is true, readers can accept the information as truth. “It all comes back to editorial independence,” says Howard.
Using journalism as a type of marketing is an uncommon arrangement – but it could help keep Priceonomics honest. If the site were to publish a blog post with bad information, its paying customers might lose faith in the company’s tools, according to Dhar.
“If the posts are wrong, clients aren’t interested in doing business,” he said.
Because the company makes money on its analysis services instead of its journalism, its blog is a cost center, not a profit center. Were Priceonomics to move beyond needing a blog to grow business, would Dhar keep publishing articles?
“It’s something I think about,” he acknowledged, but “there’s no way I could conceive of Priceonomics without our blog.”