The institutional-individual brand continuum
Finding the best of institutional brands and individual
The creator economy as a term – like web3 and most board terms – is so vague to get tagged as mere jargon, as if the media business doesn’t have enough of that. But there is truth underlying these types of terms, and it’s important to my mind not to dismiss things before truly understanding them. Anything new is taken to the extreme before settling into somewhere along a continuum of how things were and how things will be. What’s important is connecting the dots and understanding what is a long-term shift and what’s a flavor of the month.
I believe the publishing industry is in the midst of a reset, part of a broader shift to primary-engagement media that’s more meaningful and dependent on a tight tie with specific communities. Narrowing the gap between the creator and the audience is critical.
It’s why I called this newsletter The Rebooting. One of the key long-term shifts that happening across many industries is a shift from institutions to individuals. That, to me, is at the heart of the creator economy. Institutions have had a very bad last couple of decades, and the loss of trust in them is inevitable. I’m often struck by how much of the “crypto narrative” – and the more I dig into crypto, the more I recognize how narrative driven it is since there aren’t many actual examples of useful examples of it in action beyond financial machinations – is driven by the lack of faith adherents have in institutions. Yet people like to support other people. That’s why Patreon has continued to grow – and why subscription dynamics are often driven as much by supporting a mission as they are about a quid pro quo for access to content.
Publishing brands have always been a collection of individuals (talent, if you must) who depended on a shared apparatus for a variety of functions, from packaging and positioning to distribution and monetization, not to mention technology, marketing, design, legal, finance, administration. That bundle put the institutional brand at the center. The constituent parts were more often than not interchangeable. That is what gives these brands enterprise value, after all. This made all the sense in the world when most publishing businesses were ad-driven. The shift from advertising and indirect business models to subscriptions and direct business models puts pressure on this approach.
The unbundling of publishing, like crypto, started on the edges. Substack is important because it serves as the opposite end of the publishing brand continuum. Substack inverted the talent model by putting the individual at the center. By shifting to a subscriptions model, many of the necessary functions of the publisher were obviated. There is no need for ad ops when there are no ads. Other critical functions like distribution were outsourced to the individual, often through their own followings on Twitter and elsewhere. Being able to set up a small publishing business in an afternoon is not dissimilar to the revolution in e-commerce that Shopify’s platform provided small retailer players.
Substack’s model has its limitations. It goes without saying that many talented individuals have little interest in running their own businesses. Charlie Warzel, for instance, has the exact profile of someone who would thrive as a solo operator, coming from a prominent perch as a New York Times writer and a large social footprint. Yet he called it quits after just seven months. More recently, Substack’s most popular climate newsletter, Heated, decided to put the publication on hiatus after feeling overwhelmed. As Rishad Tobaccowala told me many years ago, “Companies help cover up for our inefficiencies. We can have a bad day.” That’s not an option as a solo operator.
That’s why I believe the biggest impact will come from finding the best of the world of institutional brands and the best of individual brands. An emerging crop of publishers is finding their way on this continuum with models that, in the words of my recent podcast guest Howard Mittman, give “dental insurance with upside.” Or in the world of web3 prophet and former Washington Post executive Jarrod Dicker, the publisher of the future will act more like a record label that exists to support individual artists.
“Media companies have always been talent companies but their business models don’t necessarily reflect that. That’s because while talent was a driving force behind their business, the financial focus was tied closer to content ownership and distribution; two things media companies once had complete control over.”
The media brands of the future, I have no doubt, will more frequently than not put individuals at the core of their models, more often than not to connect with specific communities. It’s what is powering emerging publishing brands like Puck (I distribute some of The Rebooting through it), Defector, Every and Workweek. Institutional brands will move closer to the middle by emphasizing individuals while many individual brands will become collectives and, like it or not, mimic the model of Barstool more than legacy institutional brands. Newsletter programs from The Atlantic and The New York Times are evidence of this shift. Project Coda from the Smiths, as a new brand, will likely be further to the right side of the continuum. Publishers will be hollowed out of top talent if they don’t adapt, as seen in these grumbles inside the Times, as reported by Steven Perlberg.
The key to making these models work is getting the incentives right. Maybe decentralized autonomous organizations will truly take off as the infrastructure of media companies, but I think that’s the extreme outcome. More likely is regular business structures in which a greater share of ownership is held by the individuals at the heart of creating the value. I’m excited to see the different permutations of this trend, with some collectives operating as more of loose confederations and others brought together by tech platforms or legacy publishing brands.
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3 things to check out
Speaking of children’s soccer games, subscriptions are becoming the default growth plan for news publishers. Over half of publishers served by the UK’s Association of Online Publishers said subscriptions provided the biggest opportunity for growth in the years ahead. The good news: Evidence that there is still room for growth in many markets, even if they don’t get to the astounding levels of news subscriptions seen in Scandinavia.
Solo creators need help. Smooth Ops is bridging the gap between what individual creators do best and all the necessary expertise in growth and revenue. This is a good model that will allow many solo media businesses to retain their independence while not getting bogged down in many of the aspects of running a media business.
Support Ukraine by supporting its independent press. Jakub Parusinski has set up a fundraiser to help Ukrainian media organizations continue their operations as the invasion of their country continues. So far, it has raised nearly $550,000.
Thanks for reading this week. I want to thank Audigent, which has sponsored the past six weeks of The Rebooting, in particular Dave Rosner and Jake Abraham. I appreciate the support. On that note, if you’re interested in sponsoring The Rebooting – the sales kit is here – please get in touch by replying to this email or sending me a note at email@example.com.