Revisiting the Digiday plan

We got a lot right, although we should have kept the "Top Tech Minds Under 21" franchise

Welcome to The Rebooting, a newsletter devoted to the reinvention of media (and other industries) in a time of great change. This first issue will cover what to expect, a look back at my original memo when joining Digiday, why newsletters and podcasts are having a moment, where Quartz went wrong, and why travel will come back.

What to expect

This is a personal newsletter. Until last week, I was the president and editor-in-chief at Digiday Media, home to vertical publications focused on media and marketing (Digiday), fashion and beauty (Glossy), and retail (Modern Retail). My plan is to use this newsletter as I figure out what’s next, both in media and related industries as well as for myself. Each week I’ll write about a big topic in the media industry that’s on my mind, along with points of view on other topics. I hope for this to be experimental, so I hope you’ll send me feedback on what you like and what you don’t -- and what you’d like to see. My biases:

  • I prefer vertical media built around communities vs mass media built for large audiences.
  • Subscriptions are a better basis for a media model in 2020 than advertising, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch that I’m against advertising.
  • The most interesting trend in media now is a flight to focus and quality after a period of insanity of feeding algorithms and optimizing into weird places.

Revisiting “Digidaily”

At the end of 2010, I got an email from Nick Friese about meeting up for lunch. Nick founded what was then DM2Media, home to a bunch of conferences and a newsletter. I didn’t know Nick and truth be told had never been to a DM2 event or read the newsletter. But on a lark, I met up with Nick and found we agreed on many aspects of building a great vertical media company: quality, focus, differentiation, diversification. In early 2011, I sent him the following memo, embarrassingly confusing both the name of the company and the newsletter. The original memo is in italics with commentary following each paragraph.

In the past six years at Adweek, I’ve established myself as a leader in the industry. I want to use that position, and what I’ve learned, to elevate Digimedia to a point where it’s above all others in the space, from Mediapost to Ad Age to Adweek and everywhere in between. At the same time, we have an opportunity to do the same in parallel in Asia. This is a great step to make the brand global and develop the blueprint for what a successful vertical digital media property looks like. I’d want to develop benchmarks for each period, including email subscribers, unique visits, Twitter followers and Facebook fans, etc.

One of the things we got right at Digiday was to have a lofty ambition to be the leader in the industry -- and tie it to an even loftier goal of proving out the case for an independent sustainable media business.

Digimedia should be the leading voice of the digital media industry. We need to build a new type of vertical media property from the ground up. Its overall mission is setting the agenda for the marketing industry that’s in the midst of a historic transformation from analog delivery vehicles and business models to the digital era. The publishing and events sides of the business will work together closely. The key is we’re connectors. We connect people with content, with analysis and opinion, with each other.

The idea of connectivity was always key. Digiday was an events company at the time, deriving all of its revenue from events with email newsletter as connective tissue and an excuse to market the events. The benefits of having the events, in my view, was they would provide a butter to establishing a differentiated media brand through our journalism. The events were always a means to an ends.

Digidaily needs to improve the quality of its content. That means a greater attention to detail, less fluff, fewer regurgitated press releases, more hard news and analysis. Let’s aim to have Digidaily break several stories.

This was a delicate paragraph. Digiday never focused much on its journalism. Too much of what happened in second-tier trade publications was either fluffery or the same. To build a brand, the daily editorial product simply needed to be the best, not good enough to keep hitting people’s in-boxes with reminders of events.

Digidaily needs to stand for something. Our voice is smart, insidery, critical but generous. Reading an article in Digidaily should be similar to reading one in The Economist. Every post needs to be sharp and say clearly why it matters. It needs to be the playbook for the industry. I’ll obviously play a big role here in writing for the site. I aim to have one high-impact big picture piece each week that aims to set the tone.

I was inspired by the Gawker ethos. There was at the time, and continues to be, arguably too much coverage of the media industry. But point of view can be a tremendous differentiator. We eventually settled on “honesty” as what we’d hang our hats on: the idea that there was simply far too much bullshit that was overlooked or propagated because of either neglect or for business interests.

Digidaily needs to focus on core areas to own. We’ll figure out those areas on an ongoing basis. The ideal areas will be pockets of innovation in digital marketing, marked by high rates of outside investment, a fragmented landscape and high forecast growth rates. Example: audience-based ad buying systems. We would work to identify four core areas to put our focus -- and our stamp as the ones setting the agenda.

The “editorial team” at the time was basically a couple freelancers and me. Even with a small outside investment, we would not be hiring a dozen people. The constraint of this was a blessing in that it forced us to avoid what I’d call “the burden of comprehensiveness.” At Adweek, I saw reporters spending an inordinate amount of time trying to “match” a story Ad Age had about the four finalists for the Pep Boys review. We’d skip that in favor of owning areas like programmatic advertising, native ads, platforms and the underbelly of media.

Digidaily needs to try lots of things and see what works. The “Top Tech Minds Under 21” is an interesting series. I also like the idea of featuring an “App of the Week.” Let’s try more of these approaches. Let’s think about video. Is there a way to start a digital marketing leadership series of video interviews?

I am sad to report that we didn’t continue the “Top Tech Minds Under 21” series. Big miss. But we did try lots of things, even doing a video where Hitler reacted to the mess of ad tech. Some of what we tried makes me cringe today, but these experiments served an important role both in figuring out the brand and, more importantly, recruiting talented people who wouldn’t otherwise consider Digiday.

After getting the basics down, Digidaily needs to move into a position of leadership in the industry, particularly in those core areas of emphasis. We need to develop (or bring in) people that will become leading voices for areas like audience based buying, mobile, social media platforms, Web video. The model here, more or less, is akin to All Things D. It has an umbrella brand, but it has verticals like Media Memo (Peter Kafka), NetworkEffect (Liz Gannes), and NewEnterprise (Arik Hessendahl).

I admired the All Things D approach -- and I still do. We didn’t follow through on this because it was too expensive, and I recognized that we couldn’t recruit enough leading voices. Instead we’d need to grow people. At the same time, I believe this type of model would work better today with subscriptions as the basis of a business vs events.

Appearances (and functionality) matter. We should aim to overhaul the look, feel and capability of Digidaily. That means working to modernize the site. The current site is very static and rudimentary. It has some nice social media and video integration but it lacks a modern feel. This doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking -- it shouldn’t be -- but we need to bring in outside help to make sure our lock and feel matches our ambitions. It could be that the best answer is to simply switch over to Wordpress and design on top of that. The bar is higher because our audience is the leaders of digital media and marketing. Some specific items to consider: 1) database for all articles, companies and people. This could easily become a subscription product, particularly if we execute on owning vertical in the digital media world. 2) bigger photos, more video, more interactivity.

I wouldn’t wish a custom CMS on my worst enemy. We needed to rip it out completely and start again with Wordpress. The original CMS was so janky we hired a guy from Craigslist to copy and paste old articles over to the new Wordpress installation. Some didn’t make it. More importantly, we focused on design, thanks to an early wedding present from a friend who gifted me the services of an extremely talented designer, Claudia Chow. One of the reasons “trade” publications were looked down upon was because they looked so terrible. Great design communicates to the audience that you give a shit.

Digidaily needs to use metrics to make editorial decisions. It’s long been an Achilles heel of publishing operations that they don’t look at metrics. We need to use tools like Chartbeat and Google Analytics to decide what stories to promote, what areas to pursue further and more. This data needs to be embedded in editorial operations. Freelancers will be compensated, in part, based on how traffic their stories get.

Bring in Chartbeat! We did, didn’t last. I looked at numbers and didn’t find they helped a lot of decisions. We threw this idea away in favor of being “under-optimized media” at at time when everyone was looking at the same Newswhip dashboards to regurgitate a version of a viral story doing well on Facebook. There is a place for data, but it’s just a tool and doesn’t replace sensibility and experience.

With four core verticals established, we need to have experts running those sections. They should be leaders in the industry, with large followings who respect their opinions. We can do some of this in-house, but will probably need to recruit perhaps two hungry reporters who want to own an area.

We got lucky with a couple early hires: Mike Shields and Jack Marshall. Mike and I worked together for many years, and he brought with him credibility and expertise. Jack was a young reporter who wanted to get better. As we grew, recruiting became easier, but just getting started meant you needed to sell an idea vs a current reality. I’ll always appreciate Mike and Jack taking a chance on a very scruffy operation in a WeWork.

Digimedia has the advantage of establishing a thriving, focused events business before the same on the publishing side. As our publishing operations catch up, we need to link the two together seamlessly. The content we publish needs to inform the content in events. The events are a source of content. The long videos on the site don’t work. People don’t want to watch 31 minutes of video from a conference. What might work is doing five-questions interviews with key participants.

Events are a tricky beast. They are drains on an editorial operation, but then too often they are treated separately. It was important to us that each reporter and editor lend their expertise to our event programming without feeling like that was most of their job. We didn’t always get in right, particularly in the early days.

We need to have a constant pipeline of new verticals to turn our focus, particularly as our existing ones begin to thrive. There will be different approaches. One area I’m keenly interested in is creative. There hasn’t been a way to make this work well from a publishing perspective. But with an events focus, I can see developing the Sammy franchise into an editorial product that works as a “Campaign of the day.” The model here could become like the FWA (Favorite Website Awards). It awards sites; we could do the same for social campaigns.

Yikes. Grading on a curve, we did branch out based on the market, focusing on new areas like video and the future of TV. And eventually we branched out into new industries with Glossy and MR.

Quick thought on Quartz for sale

Quartz was always the publications journalists loved to love. I had to tell reporters to ease up on the Quartz stories. There was a lot about Quartz to like. It was an example of a big publishing company (Atlantic Media) trying something bold. Kevin Delaney, the founding editor, is a great journalist. And it was backed by a business model that emphasized quality over quantity. Now, Quartz is for sale again just two years after being bought by Uzabase.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sad to see Quartz changing hands again. Not a sign of anything other than slow business model / product evolution. Japan’s Uzabase expects to sell the business news site Quartz for far less than the $110 million it paid to acquire it in 2018 <a href="

Quartz was, well, too quartzy, the cloying term it gave to its ethos. Differentiation is great. A dash of eclecticism is wonderful. But a brand needs to be focused, and Quartz spread itself far and wide, becoming a (free) version of The Economist but without reaching the same quality. Quartz’s bet on native ads was right for the time, but it quickly became a liability. Its pivot to subscriptions came too late — and was awkward in that Quartz is neither something you need for work (like the WSJ, FT and industry publications) or something you want as a regular person (NYT, etc).

Quick thought on DTC media

At this point, it is cliche to wreck on “scale for scale’s sake.” But an issue I want to explore more in depth in the coming weeks is how we are seeing a shift to more craft media. There is a reason why newsletters and podcasts are areas of growth. Both of these are more curated and personal. In many ways, thanks to better business models, this shift to “DTC media” is an opportunity to have a do-over of the original premise of web publishing: creators finding niche audiences, backed by sustainable business models. More to come on this.

Rebooting travel

I flew to Mexico City on Friday, my second flight since the onset of coronavirus. (Mexico is one of the few countries to accept U.S. citizens.) The reality of vaccine deployment is this virus will be with us well into next year. I expect more countries will start to open up to visitors out of necessity and as people start to recalculate their risk scenarios. Rapid testing, even with false positives and negatives, will be the excuse used to reboot travel.

Next week: 10 lessons learned from 10 years at Digiday. If you like this issue, please forward it to a colleague or friend. Email me your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @bmorrissey.