Welcome to the final week of 2023 working for most of us. On Thursday, I’m going to have the 3rd annual Rebooting Awards and a navel-gazing update on my own progress this year and plans for 2023. This week, I had a podcast conversation with Max Kabat, who is building an independent local news business in the west Texas town of Marfa, and some trendlines I’ll be watching for 2023 (no predictions, I suck at those).
If you’re kicking off the year with a trip to Las Vegas for CES, come by the Aria’s Catch restaurant on Thursday, Jan. 6, for a discussion about the advertiser role in supporting independent local news. The lunch and discussion run from 11:30am to 1:3pm. Sign up here. Thanks to Outbrain for supporting this conversation – and underwriting the series of podcasts I’ve been doing with those building independent local news businesses.
The most sustainable publishing businesses share a few common characteristics:
- They’re focused and not trying to be all things to all people
- They have a community that finds them essential
- They make money several ways
At its best, local news accomplishes all these things. The downfall of local news is well-chronicled and without an easy villain, although rapacious private equity firms often do their best at auditions. Many once storied local newspaper brands are shells of their former selves, subjected to endless cost cutting, atrocious user experience and uninspiring business strategies.
I love the approach taken by Max Kabat with The Big Bend Sentinel, a local newspaper he and his wife bought in 2019. Max’s background is in brand strategy, and his wife, Maise Crow, is a documentary filmmaker. I think not being steeped in the news business can be a benefit when thinking through new paths. They paired the local weekly paper with the Sentinel, a cafe and events space where they hold community events and distribute the paper, as well as a budding community news ad network.
Max and I discuss the model, the challenges of operating entwined but separate businesses, and whether this could be a blueprint that could work in towns with similar characteristics as Marfa, a tourist town that attracts a flood of visitors every year. After all, most towns in America aren’t featured in Vogue.
Trendlines of 2023
In lieu of predictions, I like to think instead of how pendulums swing. Most times, we don’t have dramatic changes but gradual shifts. If there’s a theme I see developing for the year ahead, it’s probably corrections. The economy and society is still in the throes of one of the biggest seismic change most of us will experience in our lifetime. Covid is still with us, of course, but its scarring and the impact to the economy of the emergency treatment will stretch into 2023. That will be an impetus for change. Some areas in publishing I’m watching with more to come on Thursday:
The creator economy returns to earth. When I started The Rebooting in October 2020, I saw the shift taking place from institutions to individuals. That was one reason why I wanted to start on Substack. That shift will continue, only I believe much of the creator economy will face a reality check. The connection audiences feel to individuals is powerful, without a doubt, but the fallout from endorsements of crypto show how that can work against individual creators. I expect we’ll see a correction as more individuals begin to build out micro-media companies. Running a solo media business is hard and not for most people. I’m watching what Bari Weiss is doing with The Free Press, as well as how individual writers are incrementally expanding.
The revenge of efficiency. The pandemic marked the most pronounced shift in power from capital to labor in my (working) lifetime. The demise of unions had left labor mostly supplicant in the U.S. for a generation, but that’s changed with tight labor markets. That vibe is shifting. Elon Musk is being quietly cheered on by many bosses. I still regularly have Zoom calls with executives sitting in empty offices who aren’t happy about it. The era of zero-interest rates and the flood of pandemic stimulus created mini bubbles everywhere. The laser focus on growth is giving way to emphasis on durability and efficiency.
The end of the mass social media era. Connecting the world in one massive room – or town square – seemed like such a good idea. After all, social media helped elect Barack Obama and played a critical role in popular rebellions against bad rulers. The picture has changed, and I don’t see mass social media having as much lure anymore, as we discussed on last week’s People vs Algorithms podcast. (Listen on Apple and Spotify.) Already people are dispersing to private texting groups and more niche gathering places. I’ve never been one for big parties and crowds, so I’m excited for this move to smaller and more meaningful. That’s why I think publishing will mimic this as it sheds the all-things-to-all-people approach that’s been proven to not work.
Recession watch Two-thirds of Americans expect the economy to get worse in 2023. Vibes aren’t great going into 2023.
In the realism of rough jobs, running CNN is absolutely one and running Washington Post is likely another. Both companies face their own challenges on top of an economic picture due to get messier. CNBC has a juicy prediction: Jeff Bezos tires of The Washington Post and sells it.
Another tough job is running Meta’s virtual reality operations. The former CTO of Oculus, the VR headset Facebook bought in 2014, is leaving his role with the company and making clear he doesn’t think Meta’s taking the right approach. His criticism of a bloated and ineffective organization rings familiar.
Punchbowl is one of the most interesting publishing brand launches of recent years. Two years in, the brand is growing and relevant in a very competitive Washington media space, thanks in large part of its focus on Congress. Anna Palmer, one of Punchbowl’s founders, gives an update to Press-Gazette on its The Future of Media Explained podcast, although sadly no update on the $10 million in revenue figure for 2021.
Crypto newsletter The Milk Road sold to owners of a group of crypto-related sites for checking coin prices. Financial details weren’t disclosed. The Milk Road followed an aggressive growth playbook, growing over 200,000 subscribers in a year.
Email newsletters require grinding the details. Dan Oshinsky is an expert at all things email, having led email newsletter operations at BuzzFeed and The New Yorker. His monthly Not a Newsletter Google Doc is regularly helpful. Check out this month’s issue.
Adam Tooze is an economic historian who can easily transition from discussing the state of the Ukrainian economy to the political economy of snow. His Chartbook newsletter is great and Ones and Tooze podcast better.
Martech Record focuses on the increasingly important role of affiliate marketing. Commerce remains a good opportunity for publishers to move beyond ad impression to capture more value from influencing audience buying decisions. Check it out.