Quick reminder to let me know if you’ll be at CES next month. The Rebooting is hosting a private dinner for publishing, brand and agency executives in collaboration with Outbrain and Adelaide. It will be on Thursday, Jan 11. Space is limited. Let me know if you’ll be at CES.
Today, I’m continuing to look at the storylines of 2024. We discussed some of these, in addition to others, on this week’s episode of People vs Algorithms. Get PvA on Apple, Spotify or other podcasting platforms.
First, a reminder if you haven’t already to check out The State of Publisher Subscriptions, a research report The Rebooting did based off of a survey of over 200 publishers. One key finding was that while getting new subscribers ranked as a top priority, churn was tabbed as the top looming trend in subscriptions. Inevitably, the maturation of these businesses mean that the focus will shift from top line growth to driving higher revenue per subscriber, as the Times is doing with its bundle strategy.
Storylines of 2024
I’ve never been a fan of predictions – they’re usually exercises in throwing darts in the dark – and instead favor storylines because changes are usually gradual and come in the form of accelerations rather than sharp breaks that are nearly impossible to see ahead of time. Here are five storylines that I think will emerge in the media business in 2024, with five more to come on Monday.
Platforms and publishers strike new deals
This is an addendum to last week’s piece about platforms and publishers breaking up. The announcement that Axel Springer cut a deal with OpenAI will become the norm in 2024, as AI models realize they are in a mostly untenable situation with their use of publisher content in their large-language models. Sure, they’ll find lawyers to argue the other side – amazingly, if you have tons of money, you will find a ready supply of lawyers to forcefully and effectively advocate for your position – but the mood is anti-tech in many ways. This isn’t the social media era. So new deals will be struck, and they’ll be in some ways a return to publisher platform dependence. The difference will be this will be more akin to alimony payments in the form of content licensing. The overall picture will remain that publishers cannot pin their futures on the good graces of giant tech companies who have shown time and again that their interests usually don’t align with publishers’.
Mass media continues its decline
The decline of mass media is like most massive changes: it is happening gradually and then all at once. Look at TV. The streaming wars are over. Netflix won. Cable TV is a wasteland. And linear TV overall has become a delivery device for live sports and, in the case of cable news, of pharmaceutical advertising. That isn’t coming back. In news publishing, in a fairly resilient U.S. economy in 2023, publishers have shed 20,000 jobs. Unfortunately that “rightsizing” will continue in 2024, as publishers adjust to a more-with-less era. This will be eased somewhat by the inevitable economic rebound that’s bound to come with interest rates easing and cyclical events like the U.S. presidential election. The return of the Trump Show should help to a degree, but the novelty has worn off, so I wouldn’t bet on any Trump bumps, even if he keeps musing about dictatorship. Like ad creative, there’s a wear-out point.
Individuals step into the void
Call them creators, influencers, Substackers or, God forbid, B2B influencers, but the replacement of mass media will be individuals. The most promising brands will continue to be those that put individuals front and center, as the Tsunami of Crap from AI comes ashore and trust continues to erode as legacy publishers in their death throes keep doing dumb stuff because they’re operating outdated playbooks. This shift is exacerbating the old internet boogeyman of fragmentation, which always, always, always benefits centralized tech platforms. The biggest unsolved conundrum of digital media will continue to be how to embrace the good of fragmentation – who exactly is pro-gatekeeper? – without the side effects of it leading to the need for centralized platforms to control distribution. The idea of being truly independent of platforms as any kind of content creator is a myth. But publishers, big and small, can mitigate that dependence through “controllable audiences’ via newsletters, podcasts and even the homepage.
Advertising loses its luster
Let’s be clear: advertising isn’t going away, it works and it will be with us for as long as capitalism persists. That aside, the digital advertising economy is changing. The shift away from a generation of cookie-based ad targeting techniques will inevitably shake up the industry. What’s more, reliable distribution channels like search will continue to get less reliable. Publishers will continue to rebalance their businesses away from a dependence on attracting users to webpages to show them ads. That will soon sound incredibly outdated. That doesn’t mean publishers and brands will stop working together, only publishers will focus more on events and activations, as well as unique ad categories that don’t pit them up against tech and retail media platforms that are going to win any fight on who has better first-party data for driving a transaction.
Web3 makes a comeback
Now that my crypto holdings are in positive territory, I can forgive Troy for convincing me to explore crypto in the first place. After the crypto winter and SBF and CZ and the monkey JPEGs, many sensibly moved on from crypto entirely. But the industry hasn’t gone anywhere. Like the dot com bust, the industry shed some of its silliest elements – ok, many remain – and has continued to evolve. For better or worse, crypto is driven by sentiment that’s tied to prices, and as the prices go up, attention will return. Web3 will make a comeback, likely with more sober and workable solutions than the first time around. I’ll be interested in how the blockchain and tokenization can be applied to media business models. Many of the shifts listed above add up to the need for new paradigms, and I suspect crypto will emerge as a possible path.
We discuss 2024 storylines and more on this week’s episode of People vs Algorithms, available on Apple, Spotify and other podcasting platforms.
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