Before I start, I want you to take a look at this screenshot I took today of an article on Lebanon Files, one of the better online sources of Lebanese news in arabic. Now quick! Try to find the headline of the story from the image below:
The screenshot above makes me feel bad for Lebanon Files, but it also makes me respect it. I feel bad because such an excess of ads is bad for all parties involved. It’s bad for advertisers because readers learn how to ignore the ads and go straight to the content. It’s bad for readers because ads (especially animated ones) strain their eyes and make reading the website a stressful experience. And finally it’s bad for Lebanon Files itself because it makes the website look desperate for income.
Paradoxically though, these ads also make me respect the website. Gathering news around the clock and keeping a popular website up and running costs a lot of money. The fact that they have so many ads imply that the ads are the outlets’ only source of income. This means that they are not beholden to an outside party (except the reader), and are free to report the news without any interference from would-be benefactors. This is very important in a country like Lebanon where every political party has its own news outlet.
The Cost of Free
Whenever a website is both popular and free, you should learn to always look for a catch. The owners are paying a lot of money to keep their websites online, you have to tell yourself: What are they getting in return? Usually it’s money from ads: Facebook, twitter and Gmail (and Lebanon Files) are free, but they get paid by advertisers, hopefully enough to cover their costs and with enough profit for them to want to stay in business. But popular websites that are free and have no advertising or subscription costs should be very worrying to you for two reasons:
- There’s something they’re not telling you: Where are they getting their money from? Who is financing them? What is the agenda? If it’s a news site, its independence and commitment to reporting the objective truth should be put in question
- There’s no guarantee that they’ll stay around: If a website is not generating income for its owners, it can have its plug pulled at any moment. You will love a website and depend on it, but it can disappear in a fortnight because its owners didn’t feel that it was worth their while
Two big news
Last week, two big things happened that are related to this topic: Google Reader, a free product that millions of people used and depended on was put on death row. This should be a reminder to us of the hidden cost of “free” products.
The second thing is that we learned that Paypal, an easy way to pay and get paid online will be coming this year to Lebanon.
Hopefully, with Paypal and other payment gateways, we will have more independent news services that get paid straight from readers, without having to subject themselves to the humiliation of advertising overkill or the humiliation of a political (or commercial) benefactor that would keep a close eye on the editorial line.