Less is more

The state of publishing is surprisingly good

Welcome to Hashtag Labs, The Rebooting’s second-ever sponsor. Over the next month, HTL will introduce its ad management platform and what it can do for publishers looking to run their ad businesses more efficiently and effectively. Big thanks to John Shankman for the support. (If you’re interested in talking about sponsorship, here’s a sales kit.) First, a quick intro…

In case you haven’t heard, software is eating the world. Publishing is no different. There’s a problem: the complexity of ad tech is a barrier to entry and a growing cost center for publishers to build sustainable (and growing) ad businesses.

HTL BID by Hashtag Labs is a cloud-based, highly-configurable ad management platform that provides a push-button interface to manage the complexity of publisher ad tech. What makes HTL BID different is that the system is easily customizable to a publisher's business needs. Think of it like Zendesk or Data Dog but for publishers to streamline their advertising stack for efficiency and effectiveness according to their exact specification.

Get to know HTL BID better by requesting a free demo of the platform today.

In this week’s issue, I’m digging into the reason I feel optimistic publishing is entering a less-is-more era that could right many of the wrongs of the bigger-is-better ethos of the Scale Era. If you aren’t yet a subscriber, please consider signing up to get The Rebooting for free every Wednesday morning.

Less is more

What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the U.S. and world economy faced blow after blow. The human toll of the spread of Covid was boggling the mind, set to get far worse. The economy, at best, could expect a K-shaped recovery of a few winners and many losers. The idea of a return to normal was a far-off dream. Publishers often found their businesses in triage mode.

A year later, the picture in the U.S. has brightened. Over 148 million Americans have protection from vaccines, and many more from prior infection. The predicted fourth wave isn’t materializing. Travel levels are the highest since the start of the pandemic. Unemployment continues to drop. The U.S. economy is back at its pre-pandemic level. Publishers have seen their ad businesses sharply rebound. For the doom and gloom that often hangs over digital publishing, bright spots aren’t hard to find:

  • The SPAC boom offers a reset button for big VC-backed digital publishers to get the realities of their businesses match better with the expectations of a prior era. The venture capital-fueled scale era is truly coming to a close. The news of Verizon selling off its Yahoo and AOL assets to a private equity firm for $5 billion would confirm that.
  • Big exits are happening: A Danish sports betting service bought Action Network for $240 million, proving there’s a booming market in digital media as the front end for transaction businesses like legalized gambling.
  • Platforms are again interested in publishing. Publishers need to build their own future without relying on the whims of platforms. Twitter has long been the platform that is most aligned with news publishers yet hasn’t done much to support original content creation. That is changing, as it acquired newsletter tech in Revue, rolls out direct payments for live audio and now has control of Scroll. As Scroll founder Tony Haile puts it, “For every other platform, journalism is dispensable. If journalism were to disappear tomorrow their business would carry on much as before. Twitter is the only large platform whose success is deeply intertwined with a sustainable journalism ecosystem.”
  • New areas are flourishing. Crypto is producing several strong new media brands. Substack is proving out a new, leaner publishing model that’s based around personalities. New brands like The Platformer are breaking big stories -- and drawing big names like Mark Zuckerberg to their Discord discussion group.

Taken together, it’s not hard to see a new boom happening, ideally different from previous booms in that it will be built on far sturdier business models. The new mantra of publishing is less is more.

Less content. The hallmark of the scale era was the content treadmill. The pageview beast always needed to be fed. The best way to succeed, even marginally, was to most efficiently produce the most good-enough content that could attract enough attention to fire a bunch of viewable ads. The rise of subscriptions will force business models to focus on quality at the expense of quantity.

Less overhead. Scale publishing was a brute attempt to solve an age-old dilemma for publishing: The business has too many overhead costs. Building ever bigger publishing companies was the way to control the relative costs of the infrastructure needed to run a publishing company. Now, platforms are replacing much of that infrastructure. A single person can run a Substack with the only fees associated a 10 percent cut on subs going to Substack and .5 percent to Stripe. We’ll see more micro-media that uses platforms and services to come up with leaner models.

Less outrage. Perhaps this is is too hopeful, but I believe a lot of the anger that exists in news publishing in particular stems from broken business models. The anger early-career workers feel at a system that churns through them is well placed. And inciting rage, and affirming already held viewpoints, remains the playbook, even with idiotic Substack feuds. But economic structures are emerging that should align business incentives and quality. I admire what The Dispatch is trying to do in politics by establishing a political publication from a conservative point of view that isn’t just another vehicle for made-up grievances and culture war nonsense like a the Great War on Cheeseburgers. David French has a good diagnosis of the “deeply diseased” media culture.

I’m optimistic about the future of publishing. There is an inflection point that will allow the creation of new brands with sturdier foundations than the fly-by-night scale plays of the last generation. Publishing will remain as it ever was: a very difficult business that isn’t for the faint of heart. But then, that’s what makes the challenge rewarding.

Other things to check out

On the subject of less, The Hustle’s Kolby Hatch has a good primer on how not to screw up an email newsletter design. The most important thing: simple is better.

Job alert: Morning Consult is hiring a senior editor for brands, sports and entertainment. The position is based in NYC but will be remote for the next several months. This is a good position to use unique data sets as jumping off points for differentiated business coverage. More questions, contact Sei Chong, Morning Consult’s editor-in-chief.

The Generalist now has 33,000 email subscribers, 600 paying members and a $130K annual run rate. We will see several new micro media companies launch.

New solo publication alert: Morning Brew alums Kinsey Grant and Josh Kaplan are launching a new brand, Thinking is Cool. I like the way they’re thinking of the business model with tying sponsorships to speaking/moderating gigs.

Dave Nemetz has a good, simple analysis of why newsletters are having a moment: They’re personal, predictable and scarce.