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Jezebel died for web publishing's sins
Last week, The Rebooting released its second research project, in collaboration with BlueConic, in which we surveyed 200 publishers to understand the state of their subscriptions businesses. Check it out.
Today, I wrote about the demise of Jezebel, the end of the blogging era and the futility in nostalgia for a past that’s rarely as great as remembered. First up, a message from Omeda.
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Jezebel died for the web publishing’s sins
Whenever a digital media brand goes under, or even is “paused,” there’s a tendency of journalists in particular to go into deep mourning, only for most people to forget the brand ever existed in the first place. With Jezebel, it is different. This was a brand that was differentiated and ambitious, with a loyal audience. It was one of the remaining “legacy brands” of a now-bygone era of blogging before the algorithmic content mills.
I had a conversation last week on the blogging era, and why many who were in junior high during it still pine for it. The nostalgia for blogging is mostly nostalgia. It’s like how a party was always better earlier in the night. Blogging has gone from a thing, or an era, to a symbol of a web that was full of diverse writing and thought, with publishing brands that were confident to the point of cocky, and just plain more interesting.
That didn’t come to pass. The most interesting brands of that era either collapsed or became simulacra of themselves, destined to become “verticals” in a drab portfolio. Newsletters could follow a similar trajectory.
Naturally, fingers get pointed when a brand like Jezebel goes out feet first. The obvious enemies are trotted out. Jim Spanfeller is a handy foil, and private equity is out of central casting for a villain, not to mention an entire generation of business-side publishing executives who have proven completely inadequate to the task, never mind that even Jeff Bezos is slated to lose $100 million with The Washington Post this year after owning it for a decade. (He’ll probably save that in taxes by relocating to the Billionaire’s Bunker in Miami.)
The most interesting new villain trotted out is timorous marketers who hide behind the fig leaf of brand safety. Brand safety is perfect for the often vacuous world of brands. It is an airy notion that is nearly impossible to not support. Think of it as the marketer version of optimism. Do you really want to be a pessimist?
The problem with brand safety is it is yet another example of a “problem” being addressed by creating an entire class of middlemen who levy more taxes. Like most middlemen, these vendors work for the demand side, not the supply side. Even with ad spending in flux, brand safety companies are putting up good results. After all, they have a good pitch. Since the first time I started covering advertising, I’ve heard of the screenshot industrial complex. Marketers and agencies live in fear of some screenshot of their ads appearing next to “bad” content. Enter brand safety, the ultimate CYA solution. Is there collateral damage? You bet.
The truth is Jezebel’s modern twist on feminism has no place in what remains of the open web today, which is at risk of bleeding out and being replaced by the information space. The economic value of text content is in decline, particularly in service of an ad model. Having a sharp edge isn’t great in the best of times for attracting advertisers, who often reward what I call an “eggplant premium” on bland, plausible brands that take on whatever flavors ladle on top. They want to connect with younger audiences and “the culture,” but only brand safe. It’s like clean corporate comedy, an utter contradiction only the deluded Boss Class could believe.
I had another conversation last week with a reporter working on a story about the All-In podcast’s potential as a media business. I found it perfect for the moment: Media as the exhaust of investors looking for deal flow. Low cost and filled with hyper-connected characters that give the semblance of bringing you “in the room” where power is dispensed. It doesn’t even matter if this is accurate, it’s aspirational. Something that won’t change: Creating rooms people want to be in. Honestly, that sounds like a better model than hiring journalists to create stories about serious issues and selling ads on webpages.
That’s because direct marketing has swallowed the ad industry whole. It’s now normal to hear of a big brand CMO who came up through data. This does not favor content publishers, no matter who runs them. I spoke to one CEO who kicked the tires of Jezebel. This was after the perpetually optimistic executive let out a long sigh after I asked how the year ended up. “Glad it’s nearly over” is the response I typically get. This exec’s reaction to the notion of taking on the site was akin to the current meme of Vince McMahon crying. Another hard truth: Unionization has made salvaging these brands more difficult because it reduces flexibility for any new owner. The coming. year will see lots of consolidation and capitulation in publishing, and these protections in many cases will end up working against survival.
The hopes for Q4 making a terrible year less terrible aren’t panning out. The rolling cuts at places like Vice, CNBC, Condé, G/O Media, The Washington Post and on and on are all you need to know. Nobody had a good year, even by the grubby standards of digital media. The old playbooks aren’t working, and they’re failing in a variety of ways by a variety of people. That speaks to a structural weakness vs cyclical “headwinds.”
The hard truth is we live at a time of ephemeral brands. This is a hallmark of the digital media industry, and it appears a feature rather than a bug. There is simply too much available now to expect many 100-year brands to emerge. I used to say that was the goal at my last job. Now I don’t know if that’s possible. Instead, brands will be more fleeting, more like bands that burst on the scene for a period of time before breaking up over fights about money and power or shuffling off to play nostalgic shows. The publishing version of this is heading off to the SEO glue factory. Give G/O credit for not turning Jezebel into a “commerce play” to be harvested for its SEO authority in service of endless gift guides for the modern woman in your life. Sometimes a dignified death is the preferable option.
My hope is Jezebel will inevitably live on in a new form, more suited for today than yesterday. I don’t care about AI and all the rest, talented and creative people will continue to make stuff and find a way. At a time of great change, better to focus on things that won’t change, and that’s one. The good thing about old playbooks no longer working is the door is open to newcomers with new models. Gawker alums at Defector have proven that a different path exists, and maybe the instincts of those making the product are better than “the business side.” Maybe the Five-Hour-Energy guy has a plan that will work. Might as well give it a shot. Pining for what could have been is wasted energy. Better to start fresh.
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Also, be sure to check out our subscriptions research, done in collaboration with BlueConic.