This is the last newsletter of the year for me. Thanks so much for reading. Rather than recount the most popular posts or my favorite ones, I figured I'd give a business update. 2023 was year three of The Rebooting. Progress is always uneven, but a lot became clearer about the business. Some highlights:
- Subscribers grew 55% percent to 19,500
- Worked with 21 partners on sponsorship programs
- Held two custom events at CES and Cannes
- Started The Rebooting Dinner Series, held six dinners
- Executed two research projects that produced 1,400 leads
- Doubled revenue and profits
There are too many misses to list, but the biggest challenge of this kind of model is focus because trying to do so many different things at once requires a lot of context switching and rewards resilience. A lot of what Packy McCormick wrote about his year resonated. It’s easy and natural to focus on shortcomings and lose sight of progress that’s always incremental. My big lessons on the business front:
- This isn’t a newsletter-only business. Writing and podcasting is the heart of the business, but ultimately you need to solve problems for clients, particularly in lead generation and connecting them to prospects, and that means doing more than selling newsletter ad slots.
- You can’t outsource sales. I see a discomfort of many from the content/editorial side to do sales. Tough luck. You need to understand your clients and nobody other than you will be able to sell as well and, for better or worse, you are the product.
- Marketing is a revenue function. In B2B, you have to understand the motivations and mind of the CRO to succeed. The more-with-less era means producing quantifiable results.
- Discomfort is a feature, not a bug. Any part of media is a hard business, and if you’re not willing to do things that stretch you, you’ll stagnate.
- You get a lot of credit for showing up. I published 116 editions of this newsletter this year and 102 podcast episodes across The Rebooting Show and People vs Algorithms. People won’t read or listen to everything, but consistency will get you farther than you might think.
In 2024, my goal is to build my conception of a publishing business that’s made for a more-with-less era but is also sustainable not just in terms of profits but also in workload. Nobody can do everything. Some priorities for 2024:
- Move to a new platform that better fits how The Rebooting has evolved.
- Add collaborators in areas like client management, events operations, production and growth, and in new content verticals.
- Hold more events, starting with our dinner at CES with Outbrain and Adelaide (get in touch if you’ll be there).
- Start a membership program that’s a mix of exclusive content and in-person gatherings.
- Hold online forums, starting with one in late January focused on subscriptions.
- Focus more on the buy-side of digital media because many of the changes needed to create a sustainable, equitable and resilient media ecosystem need to start there.
We will also do more research. Thanks to BlueConic for underwriting one of our first research reports looking at the state of publisher subscriptions – and to the 200-plus publishers who participated. Get the report here.
The new SERP
Of all the tumultuous changes to digital media this year, the waning power of the search engine results page might loom largest. The direction of generative AI search is clear: It will be used to answer queries directly and largely bring to an end the long, fruitful era of 10 blue links, the name given the familiar Google results page that became the hub of distribution of the open internet.
Over the years, the SERP has changed as Google has prioritized its own services, kneecapping rivals, and taken an, ahem, expansive view of fair use by displaying snippets that obviate the need for people to click. Change happens suddenly, then all at once.
On the final episode of the year of People vs Algorithms, Troy Young and I discussed what the new SERP will look like and how publisher strategies will need to drastically shift. There will be fewer sources cited and less traffic. In many ways, this is already happening. I can’t find the X account I saw this from, so apologies for my own lack of citation:
Outside of The Messenger, The Arena Group and some others, most publishers are not betting their futures on traffic from search and social in order to show people display ads. There’s a reason so many publishers are talking up events and agency services.
Publishing will also have a back-to-the-future moment as they scramble to cut distribution deals of the type Axel Springer negotiated. More content will retreat behind paywalls, which creates leverage in these negotiations – and will shrink the already shrinking open web.
Building lasting subscriptions programs
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke to Matt Cronin, founding partner of House of Kaizen, a consultancy that works with publishers on their subscription and recurring revenue products. Among the topics we covered:
- Fixing misaligned incentives in publishing
- Whether peak subscription exists
- Subscriptions as a force function to be customer centric
- What publishers should and shouldn’t learn from the success of The New York Times
- The struggles of many streaming services
- What publishers can learn from subscription companies outside media
Talking profits I got an email from a reader the other day with a sensible plea: “As a reader, if I'm allowed one annual request, I'd make it that in 2024 you are even more brutal in asking about whether someone is turning profit. Because until they are, they're still an experiment.” Fair enough. I’ve noticed more willingness to talk at least elliptically about such delicate matters. Semafor CEO Justin Smith told my former colleague Kayleigh Barber that the company, at a little over a year old, has had profitable months. That’s not quite full profitability, but it’s a far different story than the money incineration that took place in the previous era. Notable: Justin highlights events as “very profitable” with “seven-figure profits.” The post-scale era means doing things that don’t scale but make money. Or as my correspondent put it: “It seems to me that the original sin of media is imagining somehow we're like tech cos, and the original sin of tech cos is that most of them never make real profits.” (Digiday)
Macro uncertainties. The media business has plenty of structural challenges, but it also has to deal with broader issues in the overall economy. Alex Sherman boils them down to three: interest rates, regulation and growth. (CNBC)
The rise of individual-led brands. Marc Andreessen believes it would be a mistake to dismiss niche celebrity-led brands as a gimmick. After all, institutional brands went hand in hand with mass media, which is in decline. “Maybe we’re at the beginning of what is a monster wave,” he said, “and we’ll be sitting here 20 years from now and it will turn out this was basically the great transition, and in the future the brands will actually all be individually led.” (Fortune)
Essentialism. Not everything fits on a spreadsheet. There’s a tendency to try to boil down media mechanics to neat Excel rows, but some key value drivers – quality, premium, differentiation – are qualitative. Essential is one of those qualities. As former Launcher editor Mikhail Klimentov put it: I struggled a lot with the nagging feeling that we were insufficiently essential to readers (a hard-to-explain but intuitively-felt quality ).” (ReaderGrev)
The Axel Springer model. With the open web model of digital publishing becoming uneconomic, new economic arrangements are needed. There is hope that Axel Springer’s deal with OpenAI offers a model for large publishers to negotiate licensing deals with the large-language models that will offer a way out. It will also incentivize publishers to have more content behind paywalls to be used as bargaining chips. (New York)
Thanks for reading. Send me a note with feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org. See you in 2024.