Naked Truth

02.22.15 11:45 AM ET

Porn Can Save the News Industry, and Not in the Way That You Think

The news industry can learn a lot from porn—just like the online video industry already has. The problem? Finding people gutsy enough to bring up an innovation they saw on a porn site in a board meeting.

Have you masturbated today? According to the Kinsey Institute, you probably have. Over 50 percent of adults between 18 and 50 years old masturbate daily.

Whether it’s in a magazine, on your computer, mobile phone, tablet or television, porn might be becoming easier to find than clean water. Last year alone, Covenant Eyes, an Internet research firm, reported that the adult film industry created 13,000 videos that brought in over $13 billion in revenue. Compare that to the 504 movies and $8 billion that Hollywood made in that same period. That’s easy to quantify.

But here’s the underrated, unquantifiable part of porn: It’s been almost completely ignored for its role in leading the way for technological advancements.

The innovations happen because porn is “an ecosystem in which participants are willing — indeed forced — to experiment,” says Bruce Arnold, principal of Caslon Analytics, a research and analysis firm, in an interview with Network World. “And [it’s] where experimentation isn’t hobbled by common sense, good taste, or bureaucracy.”

The industry made advancements where its mainstream competitors lagged. In the early-1990s, Richard Gordon founded Electronic Card Systems, an online credit card processor that was used by websites such as ClubLove, the publisher of the Pamela Anderson sex tape. It wasn’t until 1994 that Amazon came online with a similar payment system and years later that the system Gordon pioneered was widely copied online.

Then there’s the even more important stuff: Cat videos wouldn’t exist without the porn industry. Years before video sites became popular, or even possible, X-rated sites were pushing existing technologies to make it possible for a pimple-faced teen on a dial-up modem to have his heart’s (or other organ’s) desire of skin flicks without having to spend hours downloading them. Before Netflix, Hulu and CNN, websites like Danni’s Hard Drive were streaming videos to consumers directly in the browser without any plugins. “Without these sites, it is unlikely that CNN would be effectively delivering news clips of global breaking issues,” wrote Lewis Perdue in Eroticabiz.

Learning from the adult entertainment industry may not be the easiest thing to do. Who wants to be the employee that tells the entire conference room they had a brilliant idea for a new product while exercising their forearm? A C-Level executive publicly discussing the strengths of an X-rated website would make any public relations manager cringe. And yet, the industry has heavily influenced mainstream companies in an indirect way.

“We respond to our users’ habits,” says Andrew Pile, the chief technical officer of Vimeo, in reference to how the company thinks of new features. [Full disclosure: Vimeo is owned by the same company as The Daily Beast, IAC.] Many of these habits, such as recommended videos, infinite playlists, high-speed scrubbing, and live chats are things that users learned to expect while watching porn.

The success of the adult entertainment industry can be related to how quick it is to adapt to new platforms. The very same day Apple announced it would be coming out with the iPad in January of 2010, Ilan Bunimovitz, the CEO of Private Media Group, announced that his company would be releasing a pornography app on the platform. When the iPad was finally available for purchase four months later, so was Bunimovitz’s app.

Many of the most successful media companies have developed strategies that mirror those of the porn industry, too.

“We have started to focus more on promoting our creators, rather than the videos,” says Matt McLernon, a manager for YouTube. “This way users can follow a channel and be notified whenever a new video is released.”

Independent content creators can promote their videos on YouTube and share advertising revenues with the company—a business model similar to what PornHub has been doing for nearly seven years.

While companies like PornHub, YouTube, and Vimeo adapt and thrive, an entire industry is choking. Old media companies, those with their roots in print journalism, are struggling to figure out the new environment created by the Internet. “After the invention of that great disruptive technology, the printing press, it took half a century for the book to take its own form,” writes Jeff Jarvis in his essay on the modern media industry, “Geeks Bearing Gifts.”

Just like the book took half a century to evolve, the news industry will need time to adapt to this innovative technology.

The Internet is an endless playground for a news junkie. Readers can get their fix of information through articles or videos, listicles or tweets—from professional writers or teenage bloggers—all within a few clicks. Although this environment is great for consumers, it has led old media giants to near extinction. As Les Hinton, the former CEO of the Dow Jones, explained to the World Newspaper Congress in 2009, “Because news costs. Because quality costs. Because free sets the price too low. Because free isn’t sustainable. Because free it too expensive.”

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That is the issue the Internet created for the newspapers: The issue of free.

Newspapers can no longer rely on their traditional monetization strategies. As customers flock from print to digital consumption, it is becoming nearly impossible to provide paid content. Spoiled readers expect free content wherever they go. Pay walls protecting general content have proven useless; the content is either ignored or stolen by the countless internet crusaders who believe in the free distribution of information online. And the bombardment of pop-up ads and banners has led readers to develop a tunnel vision that leaves them blissfully ignorant to any message an advertiser attempts to shout.  

This situation may seem frightening and possibly even fatal for many news outlets, but it is not unique. Porn faced a nearly identical evolution years earlier.

Decades ago, like the media industry, adult entertainment was primarily distributed through printed materials. As the internet matured, it democratized the industry, allowing newer and smaller competitors to flood the market. These players came with new toys to entertain their viewers: niche content, more risqué material and creative distribution strategies, most of which were free.

Playboy was the pre-eminent men’s magazine in the mid-20th century. Today, there may be an entire generation that worships Hugh Hefner yet has never touched a physical Playboy magazine. Similar to its news industry counterparts, Playboy saw its print circulation decline from over 7 million copies in 1972 to just around 1 and a half million today—a nearly 80 percent decline. Even in the face of declining circulation, censorship, employee scandals and unrelenting competition from more salacious publications, Playboy was able to navigate through seemingly bizarre experiments in order to re-establish itself as a leader in its industry.

The Playboy Company has drastically changed from what it was at its conception. As print circulation was declining, Hefner strove to turn Playboy into a lifestyle company. Playboy experimented in other media platforms. Initially, the company tried its hand at film production, and although this was an enormous cash drain, it was a vital stepping-stone for its future.

It later expanded to online content, a Playboy TV channel, a radio station on Sirius XM and a reality show on the E! Network. Meanwhile, the company created a more intimate relationship with its audience by opening Playboy nightclubs, hotels, casinos and events at The Mansion.

This evolution has been mirrored in the news industry. Similar to Playboy’s events, The Atlantic, an online magazine, began hosting conferences such as its recent City Makers Summit. Bloomberg has expanded its media presence by integrating its website articles and videos, creating documentaries that can be seen on Netflix and operating its own events and radio station. As Vimeo is making “mobile web a top priority,” according to Andrew Pile, news companies are following its lead. Yahoo!, CNN and The Daily Mail have pioneered Snapchat’s new Discovery news platform—a far cry from the content and users the company typically targets.

The Internet will continue to evolve at, well, jerking speeds. Media companies will need to continue to advance with the ever-changing world that the Internet creates. The pornography industry, while it may not be able to give the perfect solution for the woes of the news industry, can teach important lessons. The industry can foreshadow users’ habits and technological advances. By continuously learning from the pornography industry, there should be a happy ending for all of us.