Last week, The Rebooting held its first online forum, where I interviewed Bloomberg Media’s Julia Beizer and Puck’s Max Tcheyan about the year ahead in subscriptions, followed by a view from the top segment by BlueConic’s Will Barker. Some highlights:
- Julia discussed the dangers of training the marketplace to expect deep discounts to show big subscriber numbers and the need instead to focus on driving more revenue per subscriber through optimization.
- Max went over Puck’s launch strategy to allow for a month of sampling before requiring subscriptions and how that is now being adapted for new verticals, like Puck’s expansion into fashion and sports.
- Will highlighted the need to not just build audience habits, but to rethink the tactics and go beyond tried-and-true methods like newsletters and push notifications to include subscriber exclusives, puzzles and gift articles.
In today’s issue:
- A growth agenda is badly needed in media
- Feedback on the media blame game
- A conversation with Scott Messer about life after the pageview
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Soon after hitting send on last Thursday’s newsletter about the blame game for media's travails, I got a speedy response from a media company CEO: “jesus you are a negative dude. not all of us are dead or dying!”
I could see their point. There is a need for a growth agenda for the media business. There is often instead a tendency to point fingers at outside forces (platforms, ad tech, PE firms, algorithms, 25-year-old media planners, etc) and look for a new hack to get around the structural weaknesses the business faces (lack of control over distribution, far superior ad systems from tech, etc). Triage isn’t much of a strategy for achieving sustainable models.
Growth is the only way forward. You cannot degrowth your way to a healthy media business. A growth mindset is marked by qualities like self-awareness, embracing challenge, persistence, hard work to achieve expertise, and an openness to criticism and new ideas from outsiders. The media industry has been stuck in a scarcity mindset, threats everywhere, with the main task not being growing the pie but fighting over a shrinking pie. This is a recipe for disaster, and it’s impossible for me to see a path to sustainable models without a belief they are possible.
The embrace of deep expertise. The way to differentiate is have deep experience in a specific subject matter, built up over years. The latest All-In podcast had a point that rang true: people with specific expertise are in competition with professional media. This is the information space. The media company of the future will not collaborate with sector experts and fill their slimmer staffs with people obsessed with their topic areas. The days of the generalist are mostly over.
Humility. The swaggering days are over. Media is just one part of a broader information space, without special privileges or unearned advantages. The sunglasses thing will never happen again. Best to move on. In the news industry, the urge to eradicate “both sidesism” has created something possibly worse: a scourge of explainerism and activism. It’s easy to blame the many powerful characters who now paint the profession as enemies, or to dismiss declining trust numbers as same as it ever was. There’s a product issue here on a fundamental level. Large groups of the target market for news products do not rate it very highly.
The focus on product. The media product itself is clearly wanting. Wading through endless pop-up videos and pleas has created a user experience nightmare. This was clearly untenable, and I don’t see how anyone involved in these atrocities expected to builld long-term value with the approach. The news product often needs to be rethought. Give Semafor credit for at least tinkering with the article format. Text continues to lose to video, so it’s hard to see how a future news strategy can rely on webpages and email.
The power of no. As Puck’s Jon Kelly said on The Powers That Be podcast, there’s a pivot to specificity. That means organizations will need to make hard choices about where they operate. There has been a tendency to fall back on hacks to find a way to make ends meet in a digital media landscape with fast-changing dynamics.
The return of experimentation. At the same time as not going too far afield, the media industry needs to embrace an ethos of invention. I have often felt over the years that there is a learned helplessness due to a generation of being buffeted by external forces over which publishers had little control. We are all prone to fear and sensing danger around us. This can lead to rejecting new approaches altogether because that’s “not how it works.” The upside of the AI era we’re slipping into is that more opportunities will pop up to take new approaches to distribution, creation and monetization. New Washington Post CEO Will Lewis hit on this in a Q&A with Ben Smith:
“My hunch is that the industry is changing so rapidly that actually probably social, AI, and personalization are the next opportunities. So the newsletter stuff — we have great newsletters, and they’re going to get better. But the next phase is probably not trying to copy what was done five years ago, but to move forward.”
Send me your points for inclusion in a growth agenda for the new business: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I got several emails in response to last week’s newsletter about the media blame game. Some highlights:
- “How many times have we seen the thinking error that just because we think our brand stands for something, our readers agree?”
- “Ad fraud and bad players are missing and part of the blame game.Seems to me this was not something big publishers ever had to deal with before the www era, especially with the scale we are at today. It is very costly for publishers to ensure advertisers are legit.”
- Fat organizations with way too much overhead, fancy big city offices, and excessive amounts of hardware. Venture, private equity and other investors looking for 10X or at least substantial returns from media investments that without similarly irrational exits would never come to pass.”
Life after the pageview
This has been an objectively terrible start to the year for the media industry, leaving aside my media CEO correspondent.
I wanted to get at the root causes of what’s happening. Because this tumult is coming during what’s been, by all measures, a fairly resilient economy. There’s a disconnect right now between what’s happening in the broader advertising market and the media sector. That’s unusual and telling. It tells me there are structural shifts happening rather than cyclical challenges that are a reality of the boom and bust nature of markets.
I asked Scott Messer to come on the show to discuss these changes with me. Scott is a longtime digital media exec who understands the mechanics of the digital ad industry as well as anyone I know. A few highlights:
- On indirect traffic evaporating: “I would always say in monetization, if you give me a page view, I will give you revenue. The single hardest thing to do in all of digital media is making an organic pageview.”
- On ad spending patterns: “When you start parsing out where [rising marketing spending] goes, it's not going into the digital web. That's because walled gardens are getting better. And they are good places for marketers to spend money. More is going into Google, Meta and Instagram. More is going into TikTok and clean rooms. So the cookie hasn't been a good idea.”
- Google has skin in the game: “When the cookie goes away, it's not going down to zero like Safari did, or to 60% down. It's gonna come back in some ways because Google actually cares about trying to make an internet that works for everybody, unlike Apple.”
Thanks for reading. Send me a note with feedback: email@example.com