RIP Recode

It had the right formula

Thanks so much for reading. This week I wrote about the demise of Recode, a publishing brand I’ve long admired going back to its previous iteration as All Things D. Also, a new People vs Algorithms podcast about Substack’s future as a bundler, the blurry lines between ad business and protection racket, Airmail’s dubious subscription stats and the vindication of Jeeves. Big thanks to today’s sponsors, Omeda and Pressboard by Impact. On that note, get in touch if you’re interested in sponsorships partnerships:

Struggling with your tech stack? You’re not alone

Sprawling tech stacks are a liability for publishers at a time when efficiency is a must. Overstuffed tech stacks also result in siloed data, unclear attribution and even employee attrition – standing in the way of the progress they claim to deliver. The solution is simplification. Omeda, the all-in-one audience relationship management platform for building advanced audience profiles, has put together a playbook for how publishers should streamline their tech stacks in 2023. Issues covered include:

  • Assessing tech stack health
  • Matching tools to goals
  • Data quality
  • Process adoption

Recode’s missed opportunity

For all the implosions of publishing brands, the demise of most is a mundane affair in the bowels of corporate restructuring. Brands are milked for all their worth, cut to the point of plausibility and eventually disappeared quietly.

Such was the unfortunate fate of Recode, the tech media brand founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg in 2015, an early example of journalists striking out on their own. Recode itself was a successor to All Things D, the Wall Street Journal sub-brand that found the formula of influential journalists with personality, married to a lucrative conference franchise that attracted A-list CEOs who would willingly subject themselves to sometimes withering interviews. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg’s disastrously sweaty performance – Swisher had to urge him maternally to remove his hoodie –  apparently led him to take public speaking more seriously.

All Things D was pioneering at the time. It was an editorial franchise that sprang out of an event, and adopted the snarky tone of the blogging era, married it with original journalism. The tone was conversational, particularly for the Journal, even if I could have done without so many of the shaky Flip camera interviews.

Swisher and Mossberg were early examples of restive star talent, quarreling with News Corp over the spoils of the All Things D franchise and splitting off in 2013, taking most of the staff with them, to start Recode in 2015. Dow Jones bargained it could continue the All Things D brand without the star talent and found otherwise.

Recode raised $10 million in venture funding only to sell to Vox Media after just 18 months, saying it could not compete in a scale era. That was only partially true, since Recode had the makings of a successful boutique business media brand, only the tenor of the times was all about scaling. Recode’s ultimate demise was an inevitability once  Mossberg retired in 2017 and Swisher went to The New York Times in 2018. It’s a hard sell that you’re committed to building a brand when you’re writing instead for the Times. Soon enough Recode was subsumed as a confusing, awkward sub-brand of

Recode probably had the formula correct. It was a lean model that relied on an A roster of talented writers with personality and expertise. All Things D and Recode alums include Peter Kafka, Ina Fried, Arik Hesseldahl, Liz Gannes, Ken Li, Mike Isaac, Nellie Bowles, Jason Delrey, Edmund Lee and many more. And it didn’t need to churn a ton of pageviews with a business model reliant on influence vs reach.

Why Recode never did subscriptions baffled me. There’s no reason it shouldn’t have been The Information. The main difference is a recurring revenue model of subscriptions beats relying on a conference model, which is difficult to scale. Recode as part of Vox never made much sense to me. Vox was a collection of ad-driven lifestyle assets, while Recode is an influence play more suited for B2B business models that lean on events and subscriptions.

The tech blog era didn’t pan out for most, from GigaOm to Mashable to Pando Daily. You could argue that the lure of scale (and dominance of ad models) are to blame. TechCrunch ended up the most enduring brand, improbably surviving and even growing after an acquisition by AOL, executing a fairly standard industry publication model. Business Insider, of course, takes the crown, particularly in regards to lucrative exits to Germans.

More publishers will look like Recode in the future. The mini-newsletter boom is reminiscent of the time that All Things D sprang from, and many of the opportunities of that time exist now.

Substack as bundler

This week on People vs Algorithms, I discussed with Troy and Alex why Substack matters – and where it goes next as a bundler as it strives to be an “economic engine for culture” more like YouTube than Mailchimp.

I view Substack’s move into bundling as inevitable, but perhaps I’m thinking too narrowly of how Substack will do the bundling. Richard Riccelli wrote in with an intriguing suggestion of a reader-driven bundling approach.

“Substack shouldn't do the bundling, readers should do the bundling. Substack should do the recommending and reviewing and promoting of its titles. Think old-school Publisher's Clearing House. A sheet of colorful magazine cover stamps. Discount prices. A sweepstakes! Subscribers tearing out their choices and sticking three or four or more on an order form to get low-rate introductory subscriptions and the chance to win $1 million. Substack needs an imaginative, digital equivalent. They need to reinvest their 10% vig back into some real marketing of their titles.”

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Amazon’s ad business is booming, but is it an ad business? The best business models in digital media are somewhere between toll booths and protection rackets. The downside is history shows that landlords are always despised. Benedict Evans probes.

Everything becomes an ad network over a long enough time horizon. Airbnb is mulling an ad product that it will likely claim is not advertising but “boosts” or some other preferred euphemism. Rent’s due. Skift has details.

Digital advertising isn’t in recession. Excluding China, global digital advertising revenue is estimated to have grown 6% in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to Madison and Wall. Ad tech has continue to grow. Brian Wieser breaks it down.

Airmail claims 300,000 paying subscribers, including people on intro offers, as it plots expansion. That number sounds… implausible to me. There’s some fudging going on here, as Air Mail is clearly looking to raise a new round and show momentum. Scott Lamb’s back-of -the-envelope math feels more accurate with the true number of paying subscribers at closer to 75,000.  Sara Fischer has the back story on Air Mail’s reported $15 million in revenue.

Morning Brew had a second round of layoffs, adding another 40 job cuts to the approximate 60 eliminated in a round in November. Taken together, this is a substantial retrenchment. The rapid expansions many publishers undertook in 2021 are ill-suited for 2023.

Good to see Ask Jeeves getting its due. OK, the artificial intelligence tech wasn’t there, but Jeeves was on the right path with its natural language approach to search back in the day. (It also had a fun mascot. Maybe tech companies need fun mascots.) Charlie Warzel spoke with the creator of Jeeves.

You know a tech boom is on when there are conferences springing up around it. Picks, shovels and conferences are always reliable ways to make money in booms. Noah Brier at BrXnd is out of the gates with an event in May that examines the impact AI is having and will continue to have on the marketing industry. Noah has more about the event here.

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