Seattle Post-Intelligencer Imperiled: Could It Use The Autosurf Model To Save Itself?

Yesterday we wrote about the U.S. unemployment rate surging to 7.2 percent, the highest since 1993. Today we’ll start with the news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of America’s great newspapers, has been put up for sale by Hearst.

Our purpose for this post is twofold: To send our respect to staff members who may be confronting job losses in a poor economy, and to show the situation in Seattle demonstrates that there are no miracle cures in the publishing/advertising business.

If no buyer for the Post-Intelligencer is found within 60 days, the property may become a Web-only publication “with a greatly reduced staff,” Hearst said.

“A complete shutdown of all operations” even is possible, Hearst said. “In no case will Hearst continue to publish the P-I in printed form following the conclusion of this process.”

High Print Truths

The bitter truth about print publishing is that many publishers can’t sell enough advertising to sustain traditional operations. Print circulation, meanwhile, is falling across the board because readers prefer to get their news from the Web. The two major newspapers in Detroit — the Free Press and the Detroit News, for instance, have slashed home delivery to just three days a week.

Elsewhere, The Albuquerque Journal will stop home deliveries to 30 communities around the state and take the paper off newsstands in those communities.

And did you know The Christian Science Monitor  is becoming a Web-only publication?

On the magazine front, U.S. News & World Report is dialing down print operations and transitioning toward a Web-focused model.

Name a U.S. city, and you’ll find a struggling print publisher. In some cases, tourniquets applied earlier in bids to stop profuse bleeding are failing. Layoffs are common. The next sad call could be to the coroner to make the pronouncement.

Both major Chicago papers are bleeding, and even the New York Times is not immune from the disease that is killing mass-produced print. The Times is not exactly flush with cash.

No Miracle Cures

Our heart goes out to the P-I employees. The print world finds itself in a battle to remain relevant, the same sort of battle blacksmiths confronted when cars replaced horses. We are well-acquainted with this battle.

Now, let’s switch gears a bit to make a point that may seem off-topic in the context of this post.

You’ve read some very famous names above. Indeed, some of the finest journalists in the world work for these publications. Some of the best salespeople — people who know advertising inside and out and through and through — work for these publications. Some of the best known companies in the United States advertise in these publications.

If there were any merit at all to the autosurf advertising model, these publishing companies would be employing it to raise badly need cash or even to save themselves. Beyond that, though, they’d be doing it even if times were good as a means of  generating Rainy Day cash.

Take U.S. News & World Report, for example. Its website gets 7 million unique hits monthly, and the number is on the rise. Readers are there for the editorial because they value it. Imagine a publishing/advertising company with a tremendous number of existing visitors installing an autosurf script.

Such a company wouldn’t even have to fret over creating traffic from scratch because the volume already would be there. At the same time, the company wouldn’t have to start from scratch to build a brand because its existing brand already is well-known.

Imagine Matt Drudge installing an autosurf script with his incredible traffic volume.

So, why isn’t Drudge doing it? Why isn’t U.S. News & World Report doing it? Why isn’t the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, at death’s door, doing it? All of the companies have an existing product that readers love. All of them have enviable website traffic volume.

Could it be they’re not doing it because the autosurf model — which often is pitched as the “new” way and the product of visionary thinking — is contemptible on its face, perhaps even criminal?

The plain answer is yes. If the model had any merit at all, existing companies with well-known brands, loyal website viewers and loyal advertisers already would be employing it — using their economies of scale and the talents of in-house editors, writers, designers, webmasters and salespeople to crush amateur autosurf competitors like a bug.

Stacking Myths

A recent development in the autosurf world is to position paid-to-surf sites as social-networking outlets, the ushers of the Web 3.0 Age.

Why, then, haven’t MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks installed their own autosurf scripts? After all, these leading-edge companies and their tens of millions of members could be swimming in cash –  if the autosurf operators using the “rebate” model can be believed, that is.

Every time I see an autosurf claim it’s a professional advertising business I want to gag. I’ve spent the lion’s share of my career working for print publications — publications that employ top sales people, people who belong to professional trade associations and live to read Advertising Age and the vital publications of their occupation.

Did federal agents seize even one copy of Advertising Age inside the offices of AdSurfDaily Inc., the Quincy, Fla., company accused of selling unregistered securities by calling them “advertisements” and operating a $100 million Ponzi scheme? Did ASD belong to a single local, statewide or national advertising trade association? Did Andy Bowdoin, its owner, understand advertising metrics or have a career-honed sense of what major national brands require before they’ll plunk down even a single dollar to make an ad purchase?

ASD’s lack of a glossy Media Kit, audited circulation and polished PR skills would be deal-breakers for mainstream national brands. So would its inability to control its own message. Promoters’ ads for the company didn’t sell the value of the advertising; they sold the value of the income opportunity, often with outrageous excess.

And when a lawyer appears in a video alongside the company owner to assure participants that everything is perfectly legal — well, not only would it raise eyebrows in the legitimate advertising world, it would cause media buyers to cling to their wallets.

In all your years on this planet, did the local newspaper or media outlet ever have a need to reassure you that your purchases were legal? Did they ever promise you you’d get back all the money for your ad purchase and a profit of 25 percent — even if your product didn’t sell — by simply spending six minutes a day viewing ads they publish?

I’ve worked side by side with editors and reporters and photographers who work their tails off to give readers the best possible publication. One of my former publishers was famous for saying, “You serve your advertisers best by serving your readers first” — in other words, the editorial team creates a product that educates, enlightens and informs readers, which in turn equips the sales staff with a powerful tool and creates the value for advertisers.

Did you know that print consumers are like sports fans? They believe they own their hometown publications, just as sports fans believe they own their hometown teams. You should be in the newsroom when readers start calling because a production error resulted in “Cathy” being left out of the Comics section in the morning paper.

Point is, the vessel through which ads are delivered must have value to readers and advertisers. It’s the publishing world’s raison d’être. A newspaper exists to make money. The publication is the vessel through which readers find information they value — a story about a tax hike and how residents are fighting it, or the ad from Staples.

One of the great myths about autosurfs is that they somehow can entice major advertisers to spend big dollars running banner/display/text ads in the members’ area because of the value of the autosurf’s “captive” audience.

Built into this theory is the assumption that big advertisers wouldn’t want to be actual participants in the autosurfs and qualify for big rebates: They’d only want people to see their ads as they signed into their autosurf accounts — or, if the advertiser did choose to advertise in the actual rotator, it wouldn’t want a rebate check; it would just want people to see their ads.

In other words, this theoretical upperclass of advertisers would forgo their rebate profits so profits could be equitably distributed to the underclass of advertisers, a new form of Socialistic advertising.

The people selling the system, by the way, all claim to be capitalists.

It is complete bunk — the “captive” audience isn’t there because it’s drawn by an enthralling editorial product that readers or viewers crave; it’s there because it’s being paid a fee to be there. Main Street, big-dollar advertisers want legitimate prospects, not prospects who are being paid to assume the role of prospects.

Besides, no major advertiser wants to damage its brand by participating in something unseemly — a Ponzi scheme, for instance. Media buyers also need verifiable, audited evidence of viewership — the sort that Nielsen and Audit Bureau of Circulations provide to ensure ad dollars are being spent wisely. Autosurfs aren’t keen on disclosure, particulary audited disclosure.

The lack of an editorial product — or, in the TV sense, programming — is an autosurf deal-breaker for major advertisers. People surfing for a fee are not an attractive audience. People don’t watch “American Idol” for a fee; they watch it because they love it and it has meaning to them, which is what creates the value for advertisers.

Moreover, people don’t read the newspaper or magazine for a fee or perform Google, Yahoo and MSN searches for a fee. They do it because the outlets have meaning to them. They need information. Advertisements are packaged with the information, whether the publication is print or digital.

In all the discussion about autosurfs, I have never — not one single time — seen an operator brag about the quality of the editorial product. They can’t: There is no editorial product. Participants are there to view ads for a fee. The more you put into the autosurf, the more you “earn” by clicking on ads.

Major advertisers wouldn’t know if a viewer paid $10 to view ads or $10,000. They wouldn’t know if you’re 13 years old or 73. Owing to unaudited viewership, major advertisers wouldn’t know if the autosurf had 100 members or 100,000. They wouldn’t know if bots were making the clicks to make the autosurf appear to have more members than it actually did.

About the only thing major advertisers would know about you if they decided to sit through a surfing session is that you’re willing to view ads for a 1 percent (or higher) daily kickback — and apparently are extraordinarily interested in MLMs, cash-gifting programs, miracle potions and overnight-cash systems.

$100 (Or Less) The Only ‘Credential’ Needed

Anyone can acquire an autosurf script. They’re even available for free. No one has to have a single credential beyond a script — hardly a credential — to open an autosurf. What you need is a domain name and hosting account, $100 or less, someone who can throw up a few graphics, and access to a payment processor and a bank account. Set the script to the rebate percentage you choose, and start shouting from the rooftops.

A few significant MLM promoters and side-dealers later, you’re sitting on a pile of money and in possession of your very own Ponzi scheme.

So, the next time someone asks you to join an autosurf — the next time someone tells you that you’ll get back 100 percent of the total of your ad spend and emerge with a profit whether or not you make a single sale — ask yourself why the Seattle Post-Intelligencer isn’t starting an autosurf as a means of neutralizing the grim reaper and saving itself.

Could it be that business ethics actually exist in this world and that reponsible companies actually take them seriously?

If the paper started an autosurf tomorrow and followed the ASD model, it could generate tens of millions of dollars in a matter of weeks. By including a disclaimer that rebates weren’t guaranteed — only ad views were guaranteed — it could pocket huge sums of money and use it to save the print publication and all those jobs.

Such things are possible in the fantasy world of the autosurf, which considers only the revenue side of the ledger and kites itself the authority to induce people to join by plying them with rebates — and then erasing accrued rebate liabilities by invoking disclaimers when the Ponzi math becomes unbearable.

Next ask yourself why prominent, healthy companies — companies you know and love — aren’t running autosurfs. Ask yourself why Google, one of the biggest ad companies on earth and one with an enviable balance sheet, unrivaled traffic and a magical brand name — isn’t doing it.

Could it be because these legitimate companies actually care about you — and what you think about them?

To better times, P-I staff. We’ll be thinking about you.

About the Author

11 Responses to “Seattle Post-Intelligencer Imperiled: Could It Use The Autosurf Model To Save Itself?”

  1. Congratulations on writing one the most coherent editorials on the relationship of advertising to the autosurf world that I have read in a long time.

    This should be compulsory reading for anyone who is thinking of joining an autosurf and is listening to the persuasive discussions about the advertising aspects of these programmes.

    Ethics AND common sense still seem to be somewhat lacking in the world of internet marketing, to put it mildly. .

  2. Thanks, alasycia.

    It’s my understanding that some folks believe this column is filled with hyperbole, false assumptions, misleading facts, manipulative rhetoric — all sorts of bad stuff.

    So, I extend an invitation to readers who believe the column is all wet to explain why.

    It would be nice to know why websites that already have tremendous numbers of visitors and majestic brand names aren’t leveraging these assets and their economies of scale to enter the autosurf business.

    Why are they leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table? Why, for example, did they not position themselves against MegaLido, which reportedly raced to 27,000 members in only a few weeks?

    And why wouldn’t they want the reported 100,000 members of ASD happily surfing for profits on their sites?

    These companies have huge, built-in advantages. And yet none of them is exercising these advantages.

    Why not? Why would they say no to a potential revenue stream of tens of millions of dollars monthly — and billions of dollars over the course of a year?


  3. It’s my understanding that some folks believe this column is filled with hyperbole, false assumptions, misleading facts, manipulative rhetoric — all sorts of bad stuff.

    Test of new ‘Quote’ Comment.


  4. OK. The new “Quote Comment” feature appears to be working.

    If you highlight something you’d like to quote and then hit the word “Quote” next to the date, it will copy the passage you want to quote into your comment box.

    One of our readers suggested we add this feature.



  5. […] reader advises our column on whether the Seattle Post-Intelligencer can save itself by employing the autosurf model is just a bunch of hot air to ardent ASD supporters. We weren’t given specifics as to how we […]

  6. It’s my understanding that some folks believe this column is filled with hyperbole, false assumptions, misleading facts, manipulative rhetoric — all sorts of bad stuff.


    I like the quote feature. The naysayers are generally the moderators of the ASD support site. Their history it seems is to offer commentary without data. They are “great” at criticism, but can never back up what they say with facts. They’ve never challenged the Black Box either. Instead, they rely on the genius of Andy Bowdoin and the fact that God believes in, and supports, the ASD members. They also know that all government employees, especially the law enforcement branch, are minions of Satan.

  7. Hi Entertained,

    Glad you like the quote feature. The idea for it was submitted by a viewer like you. :-)

    I haven’t had any takers for the guest column on why prominent companies with built-in web traffic and other advantages haven’t turned to the autosurf model to boost their bottom lines.

    Imagine the strengths some of these companies have — and how those strengths could be leveraged. Virtually any big publishing/ad company could mow under existing autosurfs, reducing them to yard clippings.

    The new autosurf companies wouldn’t necessarily even have to come from the ad and publishing worlds. Any site with heavy traffic could port visitors into their new, branded autosurf programs. We could have Wikipedia Surf, for instance. It naturally would follow that Wikipedia would become less reliant on donations.


    And what about Google, which gives away lots of cool free stuff? Gmail and Blogger and Talk and Video and Docs and Maps and Feedburner, to name a few.

    By posting a link in its free areas, Google could sign up perhaps hundreds of thousands of people for an in-house autosurf. And because Google has top engineers and expertise on how to distribute massive traffic loads, users would have a high-quality surfing experience.

    There’d be no mystery outages that lasted days or weeks. Hey, Google already owns Google Checkout. There’d be no need to line up a credit-card processor in, say, Antigua, and place a $500,000 deposit to ensure seamless processing!

    Heck, Google could put its own Search Engine box in the back office in case people needed to look something up. And it could have a top engineer port over its Adwords technology, do a few tweaks, and get members sites approved for the autosurf rotator quickly. Ad viewers wouldn’t be staring at blank pages and ads that celebrate the family pet — and Google wouldn’t be paying rebates for blank pages and ads that celebrate the family pet.

    I’m thinking that, if a brand-new company with an unknown brand name, no budget, registration in Panama or Uruguay, a small mailing list, no staff advertising experts or professional webmasters can make enormous sums in the autosurf business, then certainly Google and others could take all that business away.

    And yet Google and others don’t seem remotely interested in entering the autosurf fray and appear to be perfectly content letting the MegaLidos of the world suck in all that cash.

    Perhaps Google understands the Black Box? Perhaps it has read all the headlines about the inherent Ponzi nature of autosurfs? Perhaps it’s proud of its brand and doesn’t want to sully it? Perhaps it thinks its shareholders wouldn’t be proud of a company that entered this arena?

    Or does Google just plain lack vision?


  8. Probably the vision thing…..those gazillionaires (Sergey and Larry) have never really shown that they possess vision…..

  9. […] last week (and later on Google News, which picked up the P-I column) in response to our column on whether the paper could save itself by employing the autosurf business […]

  10. […] wrote about this in January, with our reports about the pending death of the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of America’s great […]

  11. […] are providing a launching ground for hucksters who would have you believe that Newsweek, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and many other cherished publications could have saved themselves a lot of heartache by turning to […]