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The pivot to subs is really a pivot to content
Some new things this week. I’m experimenting with different formats. To kick things off, I have a quick comment piece on the pivot (back) to content. The Rebooting has its first guest writer, too. Digiday’s former head of memberships, Jack Marshall, writes about the role of product at publishers. Also: editorial frameworks and coaching people to make decisions. Shoot me a note with feedback. I’m planning new features for 2021, including finally getting my act together on the long-promised podcast.
The pivot back to content
“Content is king” became a cliche because it was the hallmark of the media business. Without great content, not much else matters. But the platform and scale era scrambled that. Distribution became the gamechanger. Publications had BuzzFeed envy. By the same token, media’s indirect business models -- content is some publishing organizations can be seen as a marketing cost -- gave more heft to the monetization parts of the business. Sales solves everything, I was told by my first boss as he laid off editorial people.
The shift to audience-first media models, in particular with subscriptions as a cornerstone, is an opportunity to return to the primacy of content as the main business driver. (Yes, revolutionary, I know.) An audience-first approach means that your content is a business driver. It is not simply a way to collect data for targeting and an audience to show tons of ads. Content is the product when your audience, not advertisers, are your customers. Without a great product, you’re not going to sell much.
This is why Jason Kilar is risking Hollywood’s wrath by moving Warner’s movie slate onto HBO Max. This is why Quibi failed. This is why Nicholas Thompson, a journalist with product chops, is a fitting choice to be The Atlantic’s new CEO. This is why The New York Times has lapped the field in the news business to the point where it is a threat to all news publishers by poaching top talent and taking disproportionate market share. On the B2B side, Industry Dive’s Sean Griffey has pointed out how screwed big events companies are because they mostly got rid of their publishing assets. And yes, it is why we are seeing star creators continue to leave legacy publications.
The crisis has exposed the strong from the weak while forcing tough choices. Those that found a way to focus even more on their content will emerge on the other side even stronger. Those that didn’t will whither.
Over the last couple months, I’ve been able to talk to several people about building editorial groups. There’s no one way, of course, but I found the first step is to have an editorial framework, then build a team around executing within that framework. I’ll focus on the second part (hiring) next week. Here are the basics of an editorial framework.
Figure out a simple editorial vision you will repeat 100x. This isn’t the time for originality. In early Digiday, I landed on this: “We cover the transition of media from analog to digital models of distribution and monetization. Every company is at Point A and needs to move to Point B. We do that by being honest about the winners and losers, the challenges and the bullshit -- and we get into the details that make all the difference.”
Find your lens. I’ve always admired The Economist for having a lens. It is a global briefing from the liberal (in the European sense) point of view. At Digiday, the lens we had was the deck is often stacked against sustainable media, but figuring out ways around problems is the only option.
Run to the complicated. Niche is popular again. But “business” or “sports,” for me, is usually not focused enough. I compare it to “Into the Void.” At some point, you gotta just decide to go deeper. The mechanics of media -- digital identifiers, weird Euro regulations, ad tech plumbing, business models -- were under-covered. Explain the complicated in a clear, engaging way.
Run a playbook. Developing formats that can be broadly executed is critical. No chef comes up with a dish only they can make. Publications like Axios and Morning Brew clearly spend a lot of time training people on their unique formats. For me, formats are more important than “voice.” We had mechanics stories, deep dives, autopsies, explainers. Every publication is different, and the plays can be adapted. But you need a playbook.
Product at publishers
I asked Jack Marshall, who built Digiday’s membership strategy and team, to write about the role of product at publishers. Hopefully, this will be an ongoing series from Jack and other media practitioners. If you’re figuring out subscriptions or memberships, get in touch with Jack.
An engineer friend recently quit his job at a small software startup along with two of his coworkers to launch a competing company. They’d become increasingly frustrated with their CEO -- a salesman by trade -- and felt their progress was being derailed by his lack of technical background and capabilities.
“We’re the ones who talked to users and made this thing. These days we think we stand a better chance of figuring out how to sell it than he does figuring out how to build it,” he said.
The same school of thought is now rapidly permeating digital publishing. As business models evolve and a growing number of publishers reorient their businesses around subscriptions, memberships and other direct reader revenue streams, questions quickly arise around where value is being created, how it can most effectively be extracted, and -- ultimately -- what types of people are best-equipped to operate them.
As reliance on advertising revenue diminishes for many publishers, legacy divisions between editorial, sales and even product make little sense. Successful subscription or membership models should strive to bring editorial departments closer to their audiences, not keep them at arm's length. As digital publishing business models, products and reader expectations continue to evolve, my money’s on editors and journalists figuring out how to monetize great content over sales people, marketers, strategists and product managers figuring out how to create it.
For many subscription-based publishers, there are clear advantages to integrating product functions more closely with editorial teams, and in some cases embedding product directly within editorial itself. Smart publishers are increasingly ensuring product teams are set up to better support the needs of editorial departments and, by extension, their audiences and customers.
First-time managers often struggle with an essential part of the job: making decisions. One of the challenges of a small organization that grows to a somewhat bigger one is that much of decisionmaking needs to be “federalized”: pushed down to the lowest level possible since that’s where the most understanding is of the problem. Top management should focus on overarching strategy and big calls. For the first six years at Digiday, every person in the company reported to me or the CEO. That led to lots and lots of decisions, of all sizes, landing on my plate. That becomes untenable, and actively harmful, once an organization breaks into departments. What’s more, the nature of many media organizations is you will end up having inexperienced managers, if not people who have never managed previously. I would tell those working for me that they need to make decisions.
Having some data is better than no data, but you’ll never have enough data. I’ve mentioned this before, but data, and more to the point its tendency to be muddy and incomplete, can be used as an excuse. You’ll never have perfect data, so no use waiting for it.
Focus on the process, not the results. Not everything works. That’s OK. The important part is to focus on whether the reasoning was solid and executed correctly versus focusing on the result. The decision can be right even when the outcome is bad.
Find a diplomatic way to tell people higher on the org chart to get out of the way. Leaders need to trust the people put in charge of different functions. “You know more about it than I do” is something I said frequently. Too many exec types have God complexes or drew the wrong lessons from the Steve Jobs biographies. Trust the people you put in management positions or get new people.
Things to check out
I gave a presentation about DTC media as a bright spot for publishing at the Touch 2020 conference.
My friend and former longtime colleague Brian Braiker has taken the wraps off his new project, the rebooting of Brooklyn Magazine. This is a perfect time to rethink the city magazine, and Brooklyn is a truly global brand that’s also very local, if that makes sense. Check it out.
Substack is building what sounds like a Google Reader clone. I’m going to write my feedback for Substack after I hit the three-month mark, but if it truly wants to become the Shopify for independent content creators and micro media, Substack will need to solve for distribution and discovery.
Another topic on my to-do list is tackling how publishers can create marketplaces. Julia Morrongiello has a good overview of the components of a successful B2B marketplace.
I’ve spent the week texting 200 people with Subtext, an interesting service that is a mix of broadcasting and one-on-one engagement. I’m still figuring it out, but sign up to check it out.