Everyone wants to be a publisher

Content is more valued than ever

Greetings from Paris. I arrived this morning to the steamy French capital for the Viva Technology conference. I’m interested to see what the future of in-person events is like. For this week, I’m looking at signs of optimism for publishing as a business, even if the forms it takes will be less centralized. If you’re not already a subscriber, please consider signing up.

Earlier this week, I had a panel prep call that discussed the situation for publishers in the aftermath of the many changes to how digital ads are targeted, and optimism was hard to find. Perhaps it’s life in Miami, but I have found myself more optimistic about publishing coming out of the pandemic than heading into it. Yes, there are still many challenges to overcome, but I can’t recall a time when content creation was seen so broadly as very valuable. For all the fights over unionization, the fate of digital identifiers, and a Trump slump in news, many hopeful signs abound that publishing, if not yet the publishing business, is having something of a moment.

VCs try again with media. You’d think the venture capital class would throw in the towel on media after its dalliance with investing in big digital publishing players that have yet to prove, after a decade plus, they can build big, profitable businesses. But when you have billions, hope springs eternal. Andreessen Horowitz took the wraps off its new tech publication, Future. Lots of twitchy journalists rushed to their Twitter battle stations to snark on the site. No, you won’t find deep investigations of squabbles inside sprawling tech companies at Future. But A16Z has proven already that it can bring expertise to critical areas. The lens Future takes -- an optimistic view of how tech is changing the economy and society -- is a clear differentiator. Will it be “just PR”? Unclear. I think there are many ways to approach content. Experts with “skin in the game” can bring new perspectives, as is evident in crypto media. With A16Z preaching the gospel of “go direct,” we’ll see more of these efforts, along the lines of Coinbase. The risk: These efforts over-emphasize going around journalists, even as Andreessen made sure to time an episode of Peter Kafka’s Recode Media podcast to coincide with Future’s launch. Pumping out gauzy paeans to tech saving the world isn’t adding much value, not to mention to it’s beyond silly to have powerful billionaires whining about not being appreciated for how great they are. Publishing brands hinge on sensibility, and this particular woe-is-me sensibility is a liability. The VCs who feel picked on should remember Brad Horowitz’s advice: Nobody cares.

Attention is more highly valued than ever. A few years ago, the idea that Spotify would fork out $60 million for three. years of exclusive rights to a podcast called “Call Her Daddy” would be farcical. But the extremely popular Barstool podcast has a loyal following, and Spotify is on a mission to keep customers around through exclusive podcast content. This is a story being repeated far and wide as businesses commit, in varying degrees, to building their publishing chops — for PR and brand building, but also as an essential part of their customer acquisition and retention strategies.

Media business models are diversifying. The default assumption for digital publishing was advertising. Then subscriptions were added. (For B2B, events.) Then most publishers looked to a grab bag of incremental revenue, from licensing to affiliate links to content services. Now, we’re seeing traction in many forms of monetization, with a resurgent ad market as the U.S. economy fully reopens, subscriptions to newsletters, and new efforts at crowdfunding. Media is proving in many areas an efficient form of customer acquisition. Angel investing is becoming a publishing business, as those who command attention give a boost to early-stage companies. Other content creators are starting rolling investment funds. In short, there has never been more ways available to make money -- if you’re producing high-quality, differentiated content.

Platforms and tools are better. For a very long time, most of the investment in media went into technology platforms and tools that, to simplify matters, were dedicated to scraping off a few pennies in ad tech transactions. Billions was invested in building up a programmatic ad architecture that further concentrated the ad market in a few hands and left publishers with scraps. Not great. Ad tech isn’t going anywhere, but more investment is going into infrastructure companies for the loose notion of the creator economy. Everyone from Facebook to Twitter to TCG is focused on this area, betting on far better businesses built around individuals than abstract publishing brands. Taken together, these platforms and tools should provide new opportunities to build micro-media businesses without the bloat that’s long made media a very frustratingly expensive and inefficient business. I can’t say from my time starting in journalism in 2000 to now that overall productivity has exploded. That will change.

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The rise of retail media

The demise of the third-party cookie is now an accepted reality. This is happening. The cookie had a good run. What’s unclear is what will replace the cookie and how advertisers, publishers and ad tech will adapt. As far as winners and losers, we can be assured that Google and other tech companies will come out ahead. Beyond that, not much is clear as the actual details of how data will be used for ad targeting and measurement remain in flux, much to the frustration of many in advertising and publishing.

One winner that’s coming into focus: retailers. I’m reading Brad Stone’s The Everything Store about the rise of Amazon. One surprising part: Many at Amazon objected to offering advertising. Advertising is now a $7 billion a quarter business at Amazon. This isn’t an outlier. Instacart has a $1 billion advertising business. GoPuff, a delivery service for everyday needs, is branching into advertising. Big retailers like Walmart, Kroger, CVS and many others see advertising as a growth area. For all the uncertainties surrounding life after the cookie, what can be said is that useful data for ad targeting will be more valuable, none more so than purchase and shopping data. Look at up-and-coming Chinese social shopping platform Pinduoduo. In China, payment fees are far lower than in the U.S., making advertising an attractive business model. Pinduoduo relies on advertising for 90% of its revenue.

Other things to check out

VivaTech is allowing a limited number of free passes to watch sessions, which will include Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. I’m doing a pair of discussions around digital privacy and advertising after the demise of the third-party cookie.

Here comes another Substack killer -- and one that I suspect will be a credible alternative. Tyler Denk, a key builder of the Morning Brew infrastructure, has crafted a new newsletter platform called Beehiiv that promises more flexibility -- not every newsletter wants to look like every other one, for example -- and better economics.

Mashable made a fun documentary about the bad old days of adware, focusing a new episode of its Kernel Panic show on the curious case of Bonzi Buddy, the cute virtual assistant who also infiltrated people’s computers and infested them with ads. I shared some thoughts about that weird time in digital ad history.

Skift added another niche publication with an acquisition of the Daily Lodging Report newsletter. Integrating acquisitions is hard, and with media you’re not buying more than an email list and people (assuming they stay). This follows Skift buys of publications focused on airlines and food. DLR offers annual subscriptions costing from $450 to $695.

Final thought: On writing

I see Twitter threads, even courses, trying to break down writing into a formula. I suppose there is use for these tips, although I don’t believe they’ll get most people very far. Want to write better? Write more. Write every day. Everyone wants shortcuts. I like to run. I’ve done a handful of ultramarathons and 30-odd marathons. People have asked me how to train for an ultramarathon. My response is always the same. “Run a lot.” Cross training? Planks? Swimming? Great, then run more. Many things are simple but hard.