Don't kill the website (again)

Newsletters are great, but websites still makes the most sense as a publishing hub

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Welcome to the 26th edition of The Rebooting. This week, I’m taking a look back at six months of doing this newsletter along with why I think the vogue for newsletters will fade as websites make yet another comeback. Couple quick notes: As I detail below, audience development is the hardest part of newsletters and all media, so if you can share this email with people you think would find it valuable, I’d appreciate it. Also, please join me on Clubhouse tomorrow at 4pmET. I’m having a discussion with Kevin Delaney, co-founder of Quartz who is now building a new media brand for the changing nature of work and management, Reset Work.

The case for websites

We are in a period of digital media where people are, again, back to wondering if publishers still need websites. The rule of thumb these days is to create an email newsletter. After all, have you heard many people wanting to be the Quartz of X? No, they want to be the Morning Brew of X.

I recognize that this is a newsletter, which makes writing about newsletters as absurd as podcasts about podcasts and Clubhouse rooms to discuss Clubhouse. And I like email newsletters, a format that lends itself to being more magazine-like and personal (more on that below in my progress report for this newsletter at six months old.) There’s no one future of media, but there are bright spots in going narrow and deep in niches, having direct connections as opposed to undifferentiated scale, and in more personalized media. Newsletters do those jobs well.

But ultimately, I still believe the hub of most publishers will remain websites. Publishing goes through phases, and this newsletter phase will join the “distributed media” phase in dissipating. Sites will serve different roles but, for most publishers, remain the focus of their audience. That’s not to say its role won’t change.

Newsletters are great as minimally viable products. Substack does some simple but hard things well. In 30 seconds, you can set up a publication that looks fine and will look fine in most email clients. This is, as the tech people say, non-trivial. That’s why starting a media brand with a newsletter makes sense. But stopping there, at least for ambitious media brands, doesn’t make sense.

Even the most successful “newsletter companies” aren’t just newsletters. The Hustle has a popular podcast and vibrant membership community. Morning Brew has expanded into podcasting and will soon start in video. You can be assured that a website is coming. Soon it won’t look very different from any other digital publisher.

Newsletters don’t do some jobs well. For one, search optimization is better with a regular old website than only using a newsletter provider. Search fills the top of the funnel for most publishers -- and the traffic is usually higher quality than random clicks from Facebook. What’s more, websites serve a role beyond publishing, serving as a hubs for events, podcasts, community and other facets of a publisher. The publishing function is just one part of what a publisher does.

Expressing a brand in a newsletter is limiting. I appreciate Substack wanting its newsletters to look simple, but design is an important part of differentiation. The restrictions on expressing a brand -- all Substacks look alike -- is a hindrance. It would be as if Wordpress required every site look alike. I’m still a believer in design as a key differentiator, and while email can be designed nicely -- I like Monocle’s approach -- a site remains a better holistic expression of a brand’s sensibility.

TRB progress report

Six months ago, I sent the first issue of The Rebooting -- a revisiting of the original editorial plan for Digiday -- to about 1,500 recipients. Since then, I’ve published 26 more issues of the newsletter. Some top takeaways:

  1. Practical information for building media businesses is a sweet spot. I didn’t start The Rebooting with a set plan other than to use it as a way to figure out what comes next for me in my career. That led me to focus more on the ways of building media businesses from my point of view both covering the industry but also operating within a media business. So far, so good. TRB has top execs from most top publishers among its readers. Thanks to all -- and please share with others. Which brings me to...
  2. Audience growth is the hardest part. TRB has 3,700 subscribers and posts average 7,000 views. It’s a start, but building from scratch is hard. As Axios Tampa Bay showed, having even a modest base helps immeasurably. For newsletters, Twitter plays a large role. The catch is you need to engage in endless and shameless self-promotion -- time for a thread -- and I haven’t yet settled into a comfort zone there. One of my key Q2 goals is to focus on growth.
  3. Newsletters are high-engagement media. I hear from a lot of subscribers, which is great. I’ve written previously that newsletters and podcasts feel more personal, since there’s a person associated with them rather than a faceless brand. (Always feel free to email me with feedback, ideas, critiques, etc.) The TRB open rate remains above 50%.
  4. Substack is very limited. I don’t have my Speedo in a twist over Glenn Greenwald using the same email platform or someone from Vox getting an advance and sometimes writing boneheaded things in a newsletter I don’t read. What I do find lacking in Substack’s model is around audience growth. It simply needs to offer tools other than “blast your Twitter followers.”
  5. Business models are in flux. I had an opportunity to work with Mediaocean as TRB’s first sponsor. The big takeaway I’ve had is the importance of doing sponsorships that offer something beyond ad space. I hosted a Mediaocean event, helped craft the messaging so it would fit the newsletter and more. I think that’s a better model at a small scale. (More info on sponsorships here, if you’re interested.) What’s more, the newsletter has attracted a few consulting jobs. I’ll continue to experiment with various business models, although I don’t plan on doing subscriptions since I think growth is more important than immediate monetization.

How to train for omnichannel success

When it comes to omnichannel advertising, Cadillac CMO Melissa Grady takes a distance runner’s training approach. Rather than adopt the Crawl, Walk, Run framework across the board, Grady likens her marketing organization’s approach to new channels to fartlek training, the method of jogging with short bursts of sprinting, followed by more jogging.

“We try to sprint ahead and be at forefront, then we jog a bit, then sprint again,” she said at Mediaocean’s Omnichannel Imperative event. The jogging time allows Cadillac to learn from new initiatives tried in the sprints. Some highlights:

Cadillac’s overall approach to omnichannel: “It’s about understanding where people are and when and how they want to hear from you as a brand.”

Embracing addressable TV to enable customer-first marketing: “We’ve flipped the funnel and how we’re doing targeting.”

The coming measurement challenge:  “As we look in cookie deprecation [measurement] is going to become more difficult.”

Join me and Reset Work’s Kevin Delaney on Clubhouse on Thursday

I have long been a big fan of Reset Work’s Kevin Delaney. When I started covering online advertising in the early 2000s, I set a personal goal to be the best at reporting on the sector, and Kevin was, to my mind, that person when he was at The Wall Street Journal. I can’t say I ever met my goal, but it’s good to have big goals to chase. Kevin went on to found Quartz and run a playbook full of contrarian approaches that optimized to quality. Now, he’s building a new publication in one of my favorite areas: the future of work. We’re going to do a conversation on Clubhouse on Thursday, April 8, at 4pm. Some topics for Kevin:

  • Lessons from Quartz he’ll apply to Reset Work

  • How he’s thinking of business models

  • The audience development challenge

  • Starting as a newsletter vs a full-fledged site

  • What pandemic changes  to how we work will stick and which will fall away

Other things to check out

Packy McCormick has a great post up about his remarkable year of growth with Not Boring. All of his lessons are spot-on, and this one resonates: “Lean into the intersection of what you’re passionate about and what’s different about you.”

Henry Mance is a great features writer at the Financial Times who is out with a new book about our lives with our furry friends, the animals. He’s doing a newsletter about the writing of the book, opening with this sage piece of advice that applies to creating more than just books: “Write the book you think your friends want to read, not the book that resembles other books you’ve read.

If you’re trying to figure out the future of events, consider checking out the Event Leadership Institute’s The Road Ahead Q2 Forum. I’m speaking about my ideas around the unbundling of events. The forum runs from 1-2:30pmET.

Josh Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo, is a throwback to a different era of web publishing. While others went big, TPM stayed small and has somehow, someway managed to thread the needle as an independent digital publisher. Josh has a good rundown in The Atlantic of all the ways publishing went wrong in the scale era.

Expect lots of sky-is-falling predictions about the impact of the loss of third-party cookie targeting. And most are guesses. Nobody knows how the changes being wrought by regulations and tech companies will shake out. My experience tells me to ignore all predictions of collapse. Life will go on; capitalism will resume.

Max Tani got his paws on Insider’s memo about how reporters earn “impact points” with links, media appearances, retweets from popular people. Publishers will continue to scramble for objective ways to measure the impact of journalists’ work. And it’s messy. I’ll say this for impact points: They beat blunt measures like pageviews and immediate subscriptions -- and at least directionally can be used to build clear measures for advancement (and accountability).