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Looking only at numbers to chart progress is a mistake
Congrats to my longtime former colleagues Shareen Pathak and Jack Marshall for the launch of Toolkits, a much needed hybrid of an information service and consultancy for those building sustainable media businesses. They work with publishers, brands, VCs and more who are using content to solve business problems, whether that’s starting a subscription program (Jack ran the membership program at Digiday) to how brands and DTC brands use content (Shareen was executive editor and managing director of editorial products). Check out what they’re doing.
This week, I wrote about how we need to reframe our thinking on what “growth” means. Too often it’s about numbers and leads us astray. I’m in a bit of a reflective mood since I’m coming up on my one-year anniversary of leaving my job. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to lay out my thoughts on what’s next for The Rebooting. On the subject of growth, while I try not to spend too much time staring at the scoreboard, I do want The Rebooting to reach people who will find it helpful. Please consider sharing with colleagues, friends, loved ones, enemies, you name it. If this was forwarded to you, please sign up.
Now, I want to tell you about The Rebooting’s sponsor, One Day University.
Smart publishers know that they need to pull many levers to convert and retain subscribers. It’s not enough to just create content worth paying for (although that is, of course, a prerequisite). Some publishers offer subscribers tote bags as a sign of affinity for their brands. But publishers can also provide added value to their subscribers. In addition to in-person lectures, One Day University has a library with over 400 lectures given by 200 leading professors from top universities like Yale and Harvard. Curious people turn to One Day University to learn about everything from the story behind Pompeii’s excavation to how to think like a genius. One Day University partners with publishers so they can offer their subscribers a free trial subscription to One Day University as added value. One publishing company with over 30 newspapers and magazines worked with One Day University and achieved a churn rate drop of over 25% in just a few weeks. Not bad! To learn more about how One Day University helps publishers attract and keep high-quality subscribers, contact One Day University’s founder Steven Schragis at Steven@onedayu.com. Thank you for the support, One Day University.
Several years ago, I was in a drab conference room at one of those corporate retreat centers in suburban Connecticut. We were there to revisit the company’s mission statement and values. The end result of those exercises is like most writing by committee: tortured and anodyne.
At some point, our corporate coach suggested we consider a mantra. The suggestion that was embraced was: Grow. It wasn’t growth, but the transitive verb, meant to be an imperative. Grow has two meanings that are slightly different in emphasis. One is to increase numerically, but the other is to “undergo natural development” and “progress to maturity.”
Like most companies, we spoke a lot about growth in terms of the former. I mean, a lot. We love to chart progress by numbers because they’re easily discernible. Capitalism’s foundational principle has long been economic growth as expressed numerically. GDP growth. Job growth. Income growth. The stock market is premised not so much on a company’s current state but bets on a company’s prospects for income growth. The fuel of the entire global economy has been growth. The assumption is there is a binary choice: grow or die. Having recently read both “No Filter” and “An Ugly Truth,” it seems clear the overriding philosophy of Mark Zuckerberg is growth at all costs. That hasn’t worked out great for the world. Perhaps Zuckerberg should have stayed at Harvard and taken some humanities courses to better understand the potential downsides of all this growth. Facebook’s not too big to fail; it’s too big to exist. “Is a better Facebook a realistic option, or is the solution a smaller Facebook?” asks Shira Ovide, the On Tech columnist at The New York Times.
I’ve been thinking of growth and its downsides a lot as I plot out my own ambitions for The Rebooting. I’ve written before about “the growth challenge.” Like many in the newsletter game, I spent a lot of time revisiting my subscriber numbers because that’s a number that marks growth. I started a spreadsheet and did compound growth calculations. I’d read posts of successful Substack writers in the hopes of gleaning optimization tactics to drive numerical growth -- guest posts? Tweet threads? Merch? A referral program?
But I can’t help but think there’s a need to rethink our obsession with numerical growth. I’m halfway through “Shutdown,” Adam Tooze’s account of the fiscal and economic response to the unprecedented “polycrisis” of the pandemic. (We had not just a health crisis, but also an economic and social one concurrently.) I called this newsletter The Rebooting because early on in the pandemic, I came down on the side of believing it would, over time, result in a lasting recalibration across society. Too many people were trying to will into reality a V-shaped recovery that would reset the clock to where it was. This was an attractive sentiment: “It was all a dream.”
That would be a further waste, coming on top of unprecedented loss. What “Shutdown” makes clear is this pandemic has shown a light on how our conception of growth was off. By most economic growth measures, the United States is the “richest country in the world.” We hear this often. But how rich is a country that needs to ration oxygen because hospitals are overflowing with Covid patients who chose not to get vaccinated? How rich is a country so misinformed about basic science? How rich is a country that has recorded more Covid deaths per capita than most developing countries? How rich is a country where in New York City over 100,000 children are considered to have inadequate shelter? How rich is a country that has chosen to warehouse its elderly and ended up condemning them through neglect? How rich is a country with such vast disparities in income and health outcomes based on race?
Growth has costs. We are so far behind the needed work to decarbonize the global economy in order to arrest the devastating effects of climate change largely because of our myopic view of growth. One of the greatest failures of modern capitalism is the failure to put a cost on carbon. And of course, the West trashed the environment when it was the main driver of economic growth. Now that China is, we have come around to the belief that economic growth needs to be balanced with environmental protection. Nice timing.
The fight against Covid was always a fight not to eradicate the disease -- that would prove impossible quite early on -- but to buy time for health care systems to hold up. Ours have frayed, and much of the reason comes back to our backward belief that growth is a result of efficiency gains, usually acquired at the expense of resilience. “Organized irresponsibility ruled,” Tooze writes.
The coming chaos due to overstretched supply chains was probably avoidable, but the MBAs have peddled Six Sigma bullshit for a couple generations. I can remember post-Financial Crisis when Nielsen owned Adweek. The new private equity owners brought in a GE guy who was all about finding “efficiencies.” I believe his masterstroke was deploying creepy “space engineers” who came up with the novel idea of shrinking our tiny cubicles even further to wring cost savings. I would joke they’d eventually tell us to use both sides of the toilet paper because across 167 offices it would save $16 million a year. Nobody gets a promotion for suggesting spending money on extra supplies to be kept in storage just in case. Or to have added staff on hand to handle possible catastrophes. The idea that Covid was a “black swan” is ludicrous. Shit, even George W. Bush warned this was coming. “Surplus capacity was viewed not as a responsible precaution but a regrettable drag on efficiency,” Tooze writes. We chose willful ignorance over cutting into margins.
Publishing is no stranger to this impulse. The waves of discontent sweeping newsrooms, leading to 15 million articles about burnout, are the inevitable result of flawed business models. Cry me a river for the publishers complaining about the Great Resignation after years of remorseless layoffs, often done incredibly callously, idiotic and counterproductive pageview and subscription quotas, and the endless pivots to whatever Facebook dangled. The typical model of sending tons of low-paid young people into the content mines turned out to not be so sustainable. Go figure.
There’s long been objections to how we measure wealth; after all, GDP measures income. A more holistic measure would take into account true quality-of-life factors like income equality, education, health, climate and much more. We saw during the pandemic, when the world stood still, nature rebounded. People abandoned commutes and, guess what, it turns out the need to trudge to the office every day was always a fiction, one I believe was wittingly or unwittingly perpetuated by a Boss Class who clung to their positions of power on very nebulous grounds. Everyone has encountered managers who seem to have few discernible skills beyond “playing the game.” The office is where the game is played. It’s a perfect set for cosplaying The Executive. Set up meetings, stand at a whiteboard, pace the room. I’m reminded that nearly everything that’s taken as an assumption of “how it should be” was, at some point, made up by someone, usually to suit their purposes in pursuit of power and privilege.
At Digiday, I was asked once why we should aspire to grow as it was being defined numerically, which is revenue and profits. After all, the overall benefits of that growth weren’t widely shared by those who were actually doing the work to enable it. My unsatisfying answer was it allowed us to then invest in more journalists and have greater impact. But there was only a loose correlation there. With an indirect model, a lot of the growth in resources comes in roles that are tangential to your stated mission. I tried to redefine growth as more than a sales goal but to include the growth of impact and of people. There’s little more rewarding than seeing alumni go off to do great things elsewhere. I never understood the impulse to see this as a “betrayal,” particularly if you peddle that “we’re-like-a-family” nonsense.
As more people follow the unbundling of publishing and set out on their own or in new collectives, I hope they question the growth assumptions that have been inherent in publishing. Capitalism makes us all mice on a treadmill, or at times wandering a maze to hit a button that will give us more food. The pandemic stopping us still should cause us to rethink those assumptions. Growth does not have to be a hockey stick; in fact, it rarely is. Growth doesn’t have to be $1 million in subscription revenue. Considering the risks of going solo, most people would be well served to keep a full-time job than try to go solo. The risks are high. There are few signs of a true middle class emerging in the Substack world. Doing anything solo is nerve-racking and at times lonely. And so on and so on. But if you redefine growth to include personal freedom, the ability to have an impact on something important to you and operate truly independently, we’ll probably all be better off than trading one hamster wheel for another, only without a 401(k). Instead, as The Platformer’s Casey Newton notes, subscriber growth is a means to an ends:
The result is a job that feels more durable, and sustainable, than any other employment I’ve had. In the past, to lose my job might require only a bad quarter in the ad market, the loss of an ally in upper management, or the takeover of my company by some indifferent telecom company. Today, I can really only lose my job if thousands of people decide independently to “fire” me. As a result, I’ve never felt more empowered to cover the issues I find most meaningful: the fraught, unpredictable collisions between big tech platforms and the world around them.
More people should reject the old models and strive to build something different, more personal and even sometimes weird. Prioritize long-term sustainability over hype-and VC-fueled synthetic growth. Pioneer new ownership models to the benefits of building a lasting business are spread far wider than one or a handful of people. Make the business model serve the editorial mission, not the other way around. Use data as a guide, not an instruction manual. Have principles beyond revenue and profits. And, finally, add “personal enrichment” as priority on par with work. The best part: If you do it right and beat the odds, you won’t need to check Slack.
Thanks for reading this week. Next week, I’m going to do my version of Casey’s lessons learned from a year of going solo. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I deleted the Slack app from my phone. As always, shoot me a note with thoughts, complaints, inquiries about when I’ll finally launch the podcast I’ve mentioned for the past nine months, ideas, lucrative sponsorship deals, etc: email@example.com.