The end of nostalgia

NYC is getting trash cans

I've returned to NYC in time to learn that the greatest city on earth has discovered trash cans. Another W for McKinsey.

A few other things to know about:


The taking of US embassy hostages in 1979 was a national trauma. It was also stretched on for so long that ABC turned its running night coverage into Nightline, a franchise that’s run for 38 seasons. 

The future of Joe Biden’s candidacy will come to a conclusion in a shorter time frame. Biden’s disastrous debate has set off a reporting frenzy to deliver the kill shot, an inevitable blame game about whether the mainstream news media was carrying water for Biden, and the tantalizing prospect of a sleepy election becoming a new drama that delivers a Biden Bump. Some initial winners:

Balanced media diets. As someone who has mostly failed to kick my X habit, I can’t say I woke up to the reports of the debate with much shock. I’d seen all the mumbling and fumbling video clips. I’d read the takes and simply observed. As Derek Thompson pointed out, a die hard MSNBC viewer would have less of a grasp on reality than a Fox News viewer in this case. Partisan news feeds a different impulse than the desire to be informed.

The player coach. Since the debate, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei has joined co-founder Mike Allen to publish 11 pieces on the fallout. The New Yorker’s David Remnick weighed in with a call for Biden to drop out. I’ve always thought editorial leaders who do not themselves still publish are making a strategic mistake. My bet is the more-with-less era means publishers will be run by makers rather than managers. 

Independent voices. Trumpists blame The Media, but several reporters have acquitted themselves well. The WSJ’s piece detailing Biden’s inconsistencies was panned by partisans, and delivered only last month, but proved prescient. Mark Leibovich at The Atlantic believed his eyes (and sources not trying to spin). Alex Thompson at Axios is showing the brand can replace stars, as Jonathan Swan emerged as a leader on the Trump chaos beat. And the NYT’s Ezra Klein was ahead among prominent columnists. That said, conservative voices were correct on this issue. Some will quibble with their motivations, but the truth is this is an issue that deserved far more scrutiny, particularly over the past year.

Mass media. Paradoxically, the entire affair has highlighted the continued need for mass media. Sure, politicians will go to friendly outlets and get fluffed by fawning podcasters. That’s safe. There’s an irony is those decrying mass media pointing to Biden ducking the traditional Super Bowl interview. This experience will actually highlight the importance of presidents subjecting themselves to adversarial press conferences and tough interviews. We love either-or narratives, but there is room in the Information Space for narrow and niche and broad and mass.

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The end of nostalgia

It’s hard not to fall prey to the pull of nostalgia, especially as the world appears to be getting crazier by the day. But the thing about the past is it is passed and not coming back. The media business understandably feels the pull of nostalgia, when it was a bit more swaggering. I saw this when I covered advertising earlier in my career. The Mad Men days were long passed. When the show debuted, ad people lapped it up since it portrayed a golden era of the ad world when mass consumerism was just taking off in America. Of course, it bore little resemblance to the margin squeeze the business had become. Better to remember the days of getting bombed at lunch than deal with net-180 payment terms.

Culture Study’s Anne Helen Peterson wrote a paean to People magazine’s faded glory. After all, it was once a cultural touchstone where . Now, the brand has moved on to a new phase of life. Peterson wants the old People back, free of SEO-friendly evergreen content to find the best air purifier and less “substantive” celebrity news. 

This is simply unrealistic. There is no current market for packaged celebrity content. Celebrities have their own media outlets. The Hawk Tuah girl didn’t need to give her debut interview to People. She built her own brand overnight, and has a “circulation” of 1 million on Instagram within 10 days. The market wants real, not packaged fluff. Celebrities don’t need to go to People to tell their stories, and people don’t need to wait for People for celebrity and human interest stories, any more than those wanting to be informed about the world wait for Time and Newsweek to arrive. 

Every publishing brand needs to find its economic value within the current marketplace. It sounds idiotic to even say it since these are businesses, and any business needs to adapt to changing customer needs and marketplace realities. The Dotdash Meredith approach is successful. The company is growing, in terms of traffic and financial results, at its core properties, which include People. Its first quarter earnings showed digital earnings up 13% and sessions to its core properties up 8%. There are no style points in building profitable media companies in the current moment.

Legacy brands like People still have a role to play in the Information Space, even if it's different from what people recall from their heydays. Better to accept that reality.

For more on this role, check out the July 4th episode of People vs Algorithms. Troy, Alex and I also discuss why the chaos of X is preferable to Threads, the importance of owning IP even if Silicon Valley makes a rampant plagiarism/copyright theft machine with AI, the rapid growth of retail media and what it says about the ad market, and adaption as a core skill in volatile conditions.


High-end journalism as a luxury product: “I care about having a sustainable business so I can carry out this mission that I care about so much. It’s not about clicks. It’s about subscribers: they are 80% of our income. When I arrived it was only 25% compared to 75% advertising. One collapsed and the others rose: now we have 1.2 million. And they pay a significant fee. We’re not giving the magazine away.” David Remnick, editor of Condé Nast-owned The New Yorker

Nostalgia is a losing strategy: “Provenance deserves prominence. Having a role in fashioning the future is definitely preferable to being a prisoner of the past. [Generative] AI is a threat, a real threat to journalism. Its ability to mimic and manipulate is endless. We are at a particularly early stage of its evolution, and it is an exponentially expedited evolution.” Robert Thomson, CEO of News Corp

Tell me you’re talking about Google without saying Google: “We’re pleased to see OpenAI leading the AI landscape and making clear its commitment to building a trustworthy and reliable Internet for the future. Some of the large incumbent technology companies may fight this reality for a bit, empowered in the near-term by dominant market share in other categories, but I expect most will eventually follow OpenAI’s lead, driven by either reason, reputation, litigation, or regulation.” Joey Levin, CEO of Dotdash Meredith parent company IAC

Pump the brakes: “Given the focus and architecture of generative AI technology today, these truly transformative changes won’t happen quickly and few — if any — will occur in the next 10 years.” Daron Acemoglu, MIT professor and AI skeptic

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