Couple podcast notes:
- Check out this week’s episode of People vs Algorithms, where we discuss the second-order impacts of privacy changes and, of course, the rise of AI tools and search.
- For The Rebooting Show, I spoke to Informed’s Axel Bard Bringéus about the news apps plan to bundle publisher subscription content. The future of subscriptions is going to be in new ways of bundling. This is an area I want to explore more. Subscribe on Apple or Spotify.
This week, I wrote about the need to change lanes. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, probably because I’m in the midst of a lane change myself. But first, a quick message from The Rebooting supporters at Omeda, the first-party data marketing technology platform.
Each year, Omeda holds a three-day industry summit in mid-May that brings together media industry professionals in downtown Chicago. The Omeda Idea Exchange is all about bringing people together to share ideas and discuss the hottest topics impacting the media industry. Join top publishers to discuss the most critical issues facing the publishing business, from the growth of artificial intelligence to establishing direct relationships with your audience. Omeda is offering an exclusive price to Rebooting readers. Email: email@example.com
Growing up in the American suburbs, getting a driver’s license was a developmental milestone, a sign of approaching adulthood and leaving behind the dependence of childhood. It symbolized freedom. You got your license as soon as you could. Now, things are different. Teenagers are forgoing driving altogether. Only 60% of 18-year-olds have licenses now vs 80% in the early 1980s.
At the risk of being a grumpy old person, I think skipping learning to drive is a mistake, even if self-driving cars are coming… eventually. Learning to drive is a scary experience for all involved, not the least the poor instructor. As a teenager, I still remember the first time I drove on the insanely dangerous 309 expressway that runs in the northwest suburbs of Philadelphia. Driving involves making many decisions that weigh risk vs reward. One of the most frequent of these decisions is whether to change lanes and when to do it.
Changing lanes is a necessity of driving, but it also involves stress. Cars have fewer blind spots now, but there used to be entire swathes of unknown you had to crane your neck to see and hope the car in front of you didn’t come to a sudden stop. You have to judge the speed of the cars in that lane and be decisive. It helps to plan ahead if you’re going across several lanes. It helps to use a signal.
In the media business, changing lanes is also a rite of passage. It’s safest to stay in your lane, but to get where you’re going as fast as possible requires shifting lanes. Changing lanes also comes with risk. I got to thinking of some key lane changes in the publishing business.
Troy has written about having a major and a minor as a media business. That feels right, although I think the challenge for publishers is when they get out of their original product lane. It’s uncomfortable to master a new skill – you should see me in QuickBooks – and the initial impulse from the audience (or at a minimum, people on Twitter ) is to tell you to stay in your lane. The market also wants you in your lane.
Finding the right lane is critical. And that’s usually the lane right next to you. I grew up on the East Coast, so experiencing the six-lane highways of California was a stressful discovery for me as a driver. Getting across four lanes is not my idea of a good time. I never feared terrorism or flying or random crime as a cause for an unfortunate end because I knew statistically I’d more likely die from a traffic mishap.
One of the lessons from the scale era is too many publishing businesses, flush with borrowed money, tried to switch too many lanes. Or worse, they were one of those drivers who bounce from lane to lane even without passing anyone. They’re gaining no advantage and just causing problems for themselves and everyone else.
For publishers good at newsletters, podcasts are an obvious lane change. They have similar dynamics and, when done well, can serve a different purpose. Staying as a newsletter-only publisher is a mistake. The growth ceiling is rather low. You can only send so many emails, and those emails have “limited surface area” for ads – and subscriptions always have a cap since only a small fraction of the audience will convert. Some lane changes that make sense to me:
- Morning Brew’s new daily podcast is a new expression of what it’s good at already: doing concise, engaging news summaries. The show is replacing Business Casual, which always struck me two lanes over. There’s room for both, of course, but the approach of the new podcast feels like a natural companion to Morning Brew’s core product.
- Eric Newcomer announced his first foray into the conference business, with an AI-focused event Newcomer is putting on in late March. Solo newsletters focused on business will inevitably end up in the events business. (John Yedniak has written of opportunities to rethink the events themselves.) In-person gatherings are a reasonable lane change. They’re more reasonable than, say, starting a VC fund off a newsletter. That feels four or five lanes over and could involve some hair raising moments.
- The Information is rolling out a high-priced data business. Everyone wants to be the Bloomberg of X. I would very much like The Rebooting to be the Bloomberg of the media business. Seems like it’s worked out well for Mike. Data and research are tricky lane changes to make. The Information is now a mature business – it’s nearly a decade old – and this kind of product lane change requires preparation and resources that are beyond many independent publishers. I can remember putting together a plan for a research business that required $250,000 in upfront investment. That was too much. We ended up going the ultra-cheap route and produced an ultra-cheap product. Timing is important in any lane change.
The hardest lane change to pull off is the brand lane change. Once you’re well established in a brand lane, it’s hard to get out of that. If you’re a retailer known for perpetual 50% off sales, good luck convincing people that you’re now “masstige” or anything other than somewhere to get cheap chinos. Many times publishers want it all. They want to do all the scrappy SEO and social work needed to suck up big audiences, but they also want to be seen as premium publishers on account of a former version of themselves. There’s an incoherence in these strategies.
Some of it is just the traffic conditions. We spoke this week on the People vs Algorithms podcast about how publishing became a perpetual hackathon. The constant lane changes caused these brands to lose any semblance of coherence. I remembered the other day that strange period when Business Insider was pumping out all of those weird product videos on social platforms.
The final important lane change is the personal lane change. I’ve always thought focus is an asset. Going narrow and deep in an area will give you a leg up over others. Yet many of the changes happening now, particularly with the growth of AI tools and automation, will likely emphasize adaptability.
The idea that it’s a black mark for someone to not stay at a job for two years if it isn’t already in the bin needs to be. Particularly early in a career, people should have a period of wandering where they have a variety of experiences. There comes a time to pick a lane, but the reality of the modern work experience is that you’ll end up switching lanes several times, even if people want to tell you to stay in your lane.
That’s not realistic now. Look at the career of someone like Pharrell, who is now men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton. This is not someone who agrees with the idea of sticking to a lane. Obviously, most of us are not Pharrell. Trends are moving to people having multiple careers. People already have on average a dozen different jobs in their lifetime. My dad worked for three companies his entire career, and one for the first 40 years. The next transition will be how common it will be for people to have multiple careers.
Being newer to the workforce, I’d prepare for that by acquiring transferable skills in multiple areas. Just think of how the “learn to code” crowd is feeling as AI tools make basic coding a commodity. (I do think coding as a skill still has tremendous value and informs a way of thinking through problems.)
The publishing business will be smaller and leaner, it will require more people who have skills across a few areas vs those who narrowly define their roles. This sort of fluidity is why I’m unsurprised the forced return to office isn’t yielding the productivity gains the Boss Class expected. The world is going to require far more changing of lanes.
Hashtag Labs is a full-service digital ad operations company, offering software and services that help publishers achieve their advertising-related revenue goals. I asked Hashtag Labs CEO John Shankman how ad ops become a strategic advantage for a publisher.
“I actually really love this interview with Jeff Green of The Trade Desk. Jeff talks about price discovery and aligning with one side of a marketplace as a strong strategic advantage. Additionally, the host talks about inventory legibility as one of the driving forces behind TTD's success. I view our products as really enabling all of that from the publisher side. I think it's an exciting time if you're thinking about simplifying the digital ad supply chain on behalf of advertisers and media owners and publishers."
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The Ankler seems to be getting more attention, including a Vanity Fair photo shoot. One of the standout parts of this piece is that The Ankler raised $1.5 million at a $20 million valuation. That’s impressive for a newsletter that has an email list of 38,000. Note to fellow newsletterers: This is the comp we need to use.
Simon Owens has a good podcast episode up with Stacked Marketer’s Emanuel Cina, with lots of in-the-weeds tactical insights about running a newsletter business.
The fate of all of humans is to become their parents, and the fate of all companies is to become IBM. I’m not kept up at night worrying on behalf of Google, but having covered the company for over 20 years, I’m struck by how this is the most vulnerable it has seemed, with threats from regulators and now to its core search business from Microsoft’s aggressive moves to remake search with AI. This has caused some soul searching, and naturally Google’s slow-footed response is a symptom of a cultural issues laid out by a pandemic era aquihire. The slavish devotion to the user has given way to a slavish devotion to process.
Much of the early reviews of AI have focused on its potential to be evil, but past experience teaches us that the use cases of this type of technology ends up being more prosaic when in the hands of large number of users. Just look at how the craze for smart speakers didn’t remake search or much else, but instead became a basic home appliance for checking weather and playing music.
If we had multiple podcasts and documentaries about HQ Trivia, maybe we can get one about the weird sage of Ozy Media. Just a couple weeks after pitching Ozy’s comeback to advertisers at an IPG event, Ozy CEO Carlos Watson is under arrest for fraud after his former COO Samir Rao pleaded guilty to charges, presumably to testify against Watson. Why in the world was IPG hosting him?
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