Running plays isn’t having a playbook
Getting from strategy to execution
Welcome to this week’s edition of The Rebooting. I’m excited to have progress on a few fronts. Next week’s edition should have The Rebooting’s new brand identity, and with that in hand, I’m ready to finally launch The Rebooting Show, a podcast and video series in which I go through the ins and outs of building sustainable media businesses with operators of those businesses. If you’re enjoying The Rebooting, please share it with others. If you’ve been forwarded this, please sign up to get The Rebooting every Wednesday morning.
Watching my beloved Philadelphia Eagles this season, other than when they play the Lions, has been a dispiriting experience. I didn’t expect the team to be good -- they lack talent at key positions and don’t have a franchise quarterback on the roster -- but the performance of the team has made clear the team’s inexperienced head coach, and his inexperienced staff, is in over his head. In the words of NFL analyst Mike Lombardi, they’re playing “battleship football,” running a series of plays unmoored from a philosophy and a system.
Teams need a philosophy and an identity. Some teams prioritize speed and putting up as many points as possible. Some teams want to be tougher than the other team, grind them down and overwhelm them with their physicality.
Publishing is no different. The best publishing brands operate a system that goes from program to playbook to plays. It’s moving from strategy to consistent execution.
Know who you are.
Looking at many publications, you realize that many are just running plays. There doesn’t seem to be a coherence to what they’re doing, who is doing it, or any underlying philosophy guiding what they’re doing. Reading these publications, I’m left to wonder: What exactly do they stand for? Just because you use a set of words to describe yourself doesn’t mean that’s who you are. Who you are is what you do, not your marketing copy.
Point of view, and the ability to execute on that, is the closest thing there is to a moat in the media business. Copying Huffington Post’s SEO strategy didn’t cut it. Neither did the depressing period of mimicking BuzzFeed’s 19 Things All Middle Children Know Well social bait. Digital media’s obsession with optimization aided this banality of blandness. If you have no point of view, it’s easy to turn to a dashboard for guidance. I remember Newswhip showing me their dashboard that would tell me what Facebook topics were trending so I could assign stories to capitalize. My question: Don’t lots of people have this dashboard and therefore will do the same thing? No thanks. That’s a good way to optimize to nowhere.
Fit your scheme to your identity and philosophy.
When I arrived at Digiday in 2011, the opening was to build a brand around a philosophy of honesty about how the media business really works, shining light on the misaligned incentives that have caused the promise of digital media to flounder. We wanted to optimize to impact and differentiation, quality over quantity and, above all else, not be full of shit. We wanted to develop an authoritative point of view. Stylistically, we wanted to be as brief as possible, insightful and understand people working in media and marketing have aren’t so self-serious to not recognize the absurd nature of their work.
The playbook we developed was to connect that philosophy to execution. In fact, we developed a 70-odd page “user manual” that looked a lot like a football team playbook in documenting everything from overall point of view to responsibilities to processes to how to succeed. We published once a day, like a newspaper, in order to force differentiation at a time when everyone was racing to write the same story for algorithms. Instead of 20 stories a day, we were OK with five. With a small team, we didn’t have what I’d call “the burden of comprehensiveness” because we didn’t want to cover every development.
Over the years, we came up with a couple dozen formats, or plays, in order to make that philosophy of honesty a reality each day. Formats are critical to enable consistency, but they need to match the point of view. Our explainer series was WTF programmatic because we wanted to boil down the complex into the simple. That match is critical. Take Confessions, a simple play that, in truth, I borrowed from a feature I saw in ESPN the Magazine, which did anonymous Q&As with pro athletes to get the real story. In media and advertising, companies control who talks on the record to the press, which is why what you read is often nonsense. This was a way around that.
Find players who fit your scheme.
Playbooks themselves are not enough. You need the right personnel. You can come up with a grand philosophy and even a great playbook, but if you don’t build a program that has the people able to execute on that, you’re doomed. The reality of publishing is many leaders coast on being able to recruit the people already at the top of their field, then plug them in, along with many layers of support. The test of a good publication is to enable people to do their best work and grow far faster than they would elsewhere. That’s why the success of alumni is something to be celebrated.
The way to build a program is to look for specific types of players for positions. We wanted specific types of players:
Proven willingness and ability to dig deep into complicated areas. Stuff like ad tech is complicated, and many people run from the complicated in favor of hot takes.
Willingness to operate within the system. Some people want to do their own thing, or have a different philosophy. Those weren’t people for us.
Reliability. We put a premium on habits, whether that was showing up on time or filing when you said you would. We didn’t need “stars” who wanted Jordan Rules, or who would turn around a great story once a quarter and disappear. We didn’t have the slack for that. Not a judgment, just a reality.
Hunger. The best reporters we hired often came from obscure publications, not direct competitors or certainly big name places. They were at a point in their career where they were committed to being great at what they do. They were willing to put in the work, take coaching and apply it.
Collegiality. The strongest motivations people can have is from within, not from the person at the next desk. We had no tolerance for not helping teammates with sources or threads. By the same token, nobody was pitted against each other in some kind of Hunger Games that exists at some places.
For new publishers, whether one person or a few people, they can feel at an impossible disadvantage competing with larger publications, with infinitely more resources, established distribution and trust, support systems and all that. All that is true. And yet there is a simple advantage: It is much easier to run a coherent playbook when you are a smaller team. Getting bigger tends to dilute consistency of execution.
5 things to check out
The Atlantic has rolled out its newsletter program -- where is the one Forbes touted, by the way? -- and it will end up leading to another round of debates about whether this marks the beginning of the end of the solo newsletter era. Charlie Warzel, writer of Galaxy Brain, is one of the Substack operators to shift to The Atlantic. He has good thoughts about the nuanced reasons he’s making the move. Andrew Rosen, a former Viacom exec who writes Parquor, is making a similar move, bringing his newsletter about the streaming business to The Information. Seems like The Rebundling has begun.
Some interesting qualitative feedback from news subcription cancelations by Nieman. (Beware of sample bias.) One thing that stands out: How much the bait-and-switch approach taken by the growth marketer types rubs people the wrong way. If your business model requires you to pull one over on people, get a new business model.
Yem is taking on new newsletters for the growth platform it is building. Early Yem customers, which include The Pomp Letter and Not Boring, have seen 5-10% lift in converting free subscribers to paid with Yem lifecycle marketing. Get in touch with founder Reid DeRamus if you’re interested.
Former Hearst president Troy Young is writing a great newsletter with his from-the-inside views of where the media business is going. His latest delves into how the humble affiliate link is a sign of major changes to publisher business models.
Eliud Kipchoge is the best marathoner ever. How he approaches his training is eye-opening. Great results are dependent on consistent preparation. But wow.
Let me know what you think, what I’m missing and why I should trust Howie Roseman with those three first-round picks the Eagles will likely have. My email is email@example.com. In keeping with this theme, I’m going to articulate the philosophy of The Rebooting and what it stands for next week.