The days of owning the waterfront are over

Today, I wrote about the importance of sequencing, and on the People vs Algorithms podcast we discussed whether we’re truly in an age of assholes. First up, a message from BlueConic about a webinar we’re doing next week. Hope you can join. I can promise it won’t be boring.

AI-powered search is set to transform the way content is discovered and consumed. This will have serious implications for publishers who are already under pressure to transform their businesses in the wake of cookie deprecation and platform infighting.

I’m joining Jacob Donnelly from A Media Operator and Patrick Crane from BlueConic, on Sept 12 at 1pmET to explore:

  • How AI-driven search will change the way publishers create and monetize content
  • The intersection between AI-driven search and cookie deprecation preparedness efforts
  • What publishers can do to future-proof their businesses

Register now.


The end of the easy-money era will usher in an era of more-with-less. The “year of efficiency” Mark Zuckerberg heralded will stretch into the status quo. Combine that with the reality that many paths to growth in digital media are constrained. After all, Instacart is now a $740 million ad business. The tech duopoly of  Google and Facebook will morph into a tech oligarchy of all manner of tech companies with a consumer interface (and valuable first-party data).

That’s going to change how new publishing brands are built. I don’t consider myself a pessimist but a realist. Just because the future of digital media is smaller doesn’t mean it can’t be sustainable. Models will just need to change.

One area is in sequencing. In our talk on The Rebooting Show, Puck co-founder Jon Kelly mentioned how important it was for Puck to sequence its efforts, since it launched with $7 million in backing. Jon’s conception that the old model, accelerated at a time of rock bottom interest rates, was to attempt to “own the waterfront.” That’s when we saw Mashable and Refinery29 covering the war in Ukraine in 2014. BuzzFeed News wanted to compete out of the gate with The New York Times, and built up a strong newsroom relatively quickly, one that was unsustainable.

The new playbook is to sequence. Semafor CEO Justin Smith made this point to me this summer. Even with a big goal – a global news brand– Semafor has launched with a modest footprint, and focused heavily on the U.S. market because it’s the biggest news market by far in the world. “You can’t on day one open bureaus across the world, you have to sequence it,” he told me.

You see similar approaches in newcomers like Punchbowl News, The Dispatch and The Free Press. The advantage of starting small and sequencing is not just a matter of capital efficiency, it forces discipline that was all too often lacking in the previous go-big-or-go-home  era. One of the reasons I’m not very optimistic about models that spend a lot of money to get big fast – aka The Messenger – is they’re locking themselves into approaches without understanding if they’re on the right path. The market tends to tell you what it wants over time. Better to adapt your way to product-market fit and then build off what’s working and send what’s not to the abattoir.

Each business needs to sequence their revenue portfolio. The best way to make money in media is several ways, only you can’t start there. Starting with subscriptions means a likely longer path to revenue sustainability; subscriptions take a long time to build up. It’s why publications launched as subscriptions models usually find advertising their biggest source of revenue in the early stages. Even better is events in business categories, since they can produce a bunch of high-margin revenue very early. Better bet than starting in an area like video, where the costs are far higher, and the runway far longer and uncertain.

The same goes for sequencing the product to the minimum needed to find product-market fit. Newsletters and podcasts are ideal for this. Pouring money into a custom CMS, particularly when the webpage is in terminal decline, is fighting the last war. But in truth, many are drawn to splashy launches and the PR and hoopla that surrounds them.

The sequencing approach is why niches, or what Jon calls affinity media, are where most publications start, although I don’t think they necessarily need to stay small. (I might revise my curtailed-ambition post; we’re all consistently inconsistent.) Industry Dive showed how a collection of high-value niches, and a playbook to operate them profitably, can build tremendous value.

There’s no one way to do anything. I’m constitutionally partial to an incrementalist approach, probably because it’s safer. Sean Griffey, Industry Dive’s CEO, doesn’t buy into the idea that you perfect one niche before expanding into others. Instead, Industry Dive launched with a few niches. The rationale: If you wait until you have a niche “right,” you’ll end up waiting forever.

Heroes, villains and assholes

I’m on a Sam Harris kick because I find him reasonable and nuanced. His interview with Marc Andreessen exposed Andreessen as incredibly smart but not very thoughtful. He tried to harrumph his way past the difficult and thorny questions raised by AI. He didn’t strike me as a serious person.

Sam has a nice essay out on how we are in a golden age of assholes. He used the inevitable examples of Elon Musk and Donald Trump. Reading the Wall Street Journal excerpt of Walter Isaacson’s new Musk biography, it’s easy to see how Musk can be an asshole. I was struck by how he quickly determined that Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal was a nice guy, and that was a problem. “Twitter needs a fire-breathing dragon,” Musk said.

On this week’s episode of People vs Algorithms, we discussed the topic of assholes, and how to unpack someone who has unrelentingly high standards and dogged persistence to push through obstacles with someone who is simply an asshole. I suspect we’ll see more people model the behavior of Musk. It is inevitable, the same way as we were subjected to a generation of mid CEOs thinking they were Steve Jobs when they were closer to Michael Scott.

For Harris, an asshole is intentionally cruel. The cruelty is the point, as they say, rather than someone having a bad day.

I’m a firm believer that pendulums always swing, and they tend to go too far. The zero-interest rate era giving way to the more-with-less era will increase the pressure within companies. Pendulums always swing, and the overcorrection will inevitably mean the return of “extremely hardcore” behavior under the guise of efficiency and performance. Luckily, structurally tight labor markets should serve as a useful check on the mini Elons.

Check out the episode on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave us a rating and review.

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