Reality checks

My preferred New York City coffee shop for writing had someone break into it last night and rip the safe out of the wall. NYC still has it. This week:

  • Media’s reality check
  • For members: The paths for solo “creators” (need a new term)

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Reality checks

Troy has a fun saying: Everyone lies in media. It’s an acknowledgement that much of the industry was a reality distortion field built on artifice, posturing, packaging and growth hacks. On a deeper level, I have long sensed a willful ignorance and cynicism in many strategies. Something that’s emerged in recent conversations is that if there’s a shift in the wake of the media industry’s latest so-called extinction event to a new grounding in reality in the more-with-less era. I see this unfolding across several areas.

Audience. The new reality is the impossibility of truly “owning” an audience. Publishers have long told themselves, and others in the marketplace, this fib. Audience was the currency of mass media, and it’s being deprecated quicker than the third-party cookie. 

In the ComScore era, the lies grew to absurdity. There were games to be played. This week, I was reminded of this the other day by a publisher who was once one of many sources of Vice’s supposed audience. That audience was… augmented with the traffic-assignment scheme that saw publishers loan their audiences (for a nice fee) to a big publisher’s rollup. Good bet the 25-year-old media planner isn’t going to dig too deep.

Instead, as one publishing exec advised at one of The Rebooting’s private dinners, better to think instead of many different audiences with different needs — and build products that address them.  AI is poised to be the ultimate decentralized, breaking media into tiny fragments. Just about any one-size-fits all brand is in retreat. 

Brand. As competitive advantages erode, many publishers retreated to the brand ice floe. Declining trust numbers, and the influx of synthetic content courtesy of AI, meant people would navigate to the tried and true as signposts of trust. 

I believe the opposite could be true. The intense fragmentation of media and culture has left no shared understanding that girded mass media. The “view from nowhere” was replaced by clapback journalism that eliminated large swathes of potential audience. 

I met yesterday with a successful newsletter writer who worried their brand wasn’t far enough along. I don’t think that matters as much anymore. I suspect brands themselves will change post-mass media to become more like humans: focused but idiosyncratic. I need to write more on this specifically, but the pat answer about “riches in niches” misses that focus isn’t enough. The most successful brands will cross categories. 

Jessica Reed Krause’s HouseInHabit is a sign of brands to come. It is hard to pin down, careening from celebrity gossip to conspiracy theories to politics (the last two might be redundant).

The webpage. First they came for the homepage, now it’s the webpage itself. I was struck at The Rebooting private dinner last week how little of the conversation revolved around putting ads on webpages. I know that sounds simplistic, but a large sector of digital publishing was built off of the proposition of ads on pages. That’s a more difficult proposition, and it’s hard to see this improving.

In our People vs Algorithms text group, Alex shared this interview of The Verge Nilay Patel who is taking on the brave task of defending the primacy of websites amid platforms eating the media business. I’m sure there will be niche versions of this. It’s akin to people making magazines from nostalgia. Websites aren’t going anywhere, only they’re unlikely to ever play the same role as they did before.

Consider how new brands like Punchbowl, Puck, Semafor have launched. I’m wrangling with Josh Topolsky to talk about Sherwood’s upcoming launch, and I want to know how he’s thinking about this role of the site now since he’s known for building innovative sites at The Verge, Bloomberg and The Outline. 

Walking around Manhattan the last week I’m struck by how many video screens are now deployed on streets, in buildings, on the subway. Many are vertical. These will all need programming. It made me think: What if Cheddar was simply too early? Not everyone will have a DTC business; a bigger portion of the market will follow Vice’s exit to become content production studios for those owning distribution. 

The economic value of news. In a free market economy, over a long enough period of time, the market tends to tell you the truth. (It sometimes lies in the short term, admittedly.) The market is saying something unfortunate: A big whack of the news industry’s  output is uneconomic. It is not valued enough by people to draw subscriptions, and it is not effective enough for advertisers.

There are exceptions, of course. Financial and business news is far more protected – the one area that talks about selling out display ad inventory – as are niche areas around power nexuses. The rich and powerful will never suffer for a lack of options in news, don’t worry. 

But these publishers and outliers like The New York Times are not indicative of the overall market. As Jay Rosen told me, news needs new subsidies. I empathize with complaints about keyword blocklists, but  publishers aren’t the only ones in the media ecosystem telling fibs. Leave aside the purpose talk at events. Marketers are under pressure to produce results from leadership who still appear unsure of how exactly marketing is performing. I have been hearing about the shaky position of CMOs for a couple decades now. Even with the decisive shift to performance marketing and new channels like retail media coming online and CMOs less likely to be all about storytelling, companies are eliminating the CMO position entirely.  

Paths for the successful solo creator

The mass cuts at news organizations to start the year will have one salutary effect: More journalists will set off on their own. More will decamp to other, related industries and, I’m betting, do quite well. The skills of journalism are more transferable than many in the profession believe. 

There’s an emerging group of the first crop of newsletter writers that are reaching something akin to product-market fit. I used to think of this as a fork in the road. That’s changing.

The most current popular paths:

The Scaled Individual. This is closest to the Creator Economy path of building around yourself. Substack pushes people down this path, in my view, as it completes its transition from a newsletter publisher to a platform like the others. The simple business model of subscription lends itself to people focusing on an independent path that maximizes what they’re best at and skips the rest. Pros: Simplicity and focus. Cons: Lower ceiling and not much enterprise value.

The Pivot to Publisher. Newsletters are ideal minimally viable publishing products. The opportunity for some is to use the momentum gained from the independent path to build a more traditional publishing organization along the lines of The Ankler and The Free Press. Pros: Higher ceiling, higher enterprise value. Cons: Risk of dilution, higher overhead costs.

We’ll see the emergence of other options that take the best of both those approaches. 

The Cinematic Universe. Puck’s Jon Kelly has used this term to describe the independent individual who constructs interlocking business lines and projects that serve different purposes but allow for a greater diversity of work. This isn’t so much a new path – Kara Swisher has pursued this post-Recode – but it is open to more people than previously. I think Casey Newton is a good example of this, using Platformer as his base and collaborating with established media companies like The New York Times (he co-hosts the Hard Fork podcast) and Vox Media (he hosted the Code Conference last year). Pros: Independence with benefits of working with others, flexibility. Cons: Being stretched too thin and not focusing on the Main Thing

The Collective. More like-minded publications will join up as confederations. Getting the economics right is difficult, but the success of models like Defector and 404 Media point to a different path where the workers own the means of production. After a generation of downsizing, there’s a lack of faith in “the business side” having the answers. The torrent of thumbs down emojis during Vice's recent management call is indicative of the current mood among the rank and file. Pros: Camaraderie, risk mitigation, mostly skipping the more odious parts of personal branding like X threads and selfie LinkedIn videos. Cons: Worse economics, loss of autonomy.

Thanks for reading. Send me a note with ideas, feedback, etc: