It’s no secret the Internet has brought disruption to the news media and publishing industry. Unfortunately, I think a lot more disruption is still to come.
If you pay much attention to what is happening you are aware of some of the challenges many publishers are facing. I am not going to hit them all, but I want to highlight BuzzFeed. First is BuzzFeed having its first round of layoffs. These were targeted cuts, the largest being its national new room. Shortly after the layoff news, a blog post emerged from Matthew Perpetua who was also laid off and was the director of Quizzes. Quizzes were an interesting and much talked about BuzzFeed feature and one that Matthew went onto explain drove a significant amount of traffic to BuzzFeed. One of the intriguing parts of BuzzFeed’s quiz strategy was the community element where a broad community of fans contributed quizzes. This essentially created a community platform for quiz making but the downside was the community was so successful, and good, at making quizzes that Matthew was no longer needed. One of the stories about this community focused on a teenager from Michigan who, as a side hobby, created dozens of quizzes every week. The disruptive nature of the Internet strikes again.
Back in 2010, I helped some friends who ran one of the top five tech blogs, in terms of monthly traffic, work to grow their business. I did an exhaustive analysis of the publishing industry at that time, and one of my conclusions was relying solely on ads was not going to be a sustainable model forever. My conclusion from my analysis of the industry was how little original or quality writing existed on many websites. We jokingly call this the news echo chamber where sites simply regurgitate the same news stories with little to no original content that is compelling or even interesting to read. My conclusion was news a commodity and ads around that commodity are not sustainable.
This conclusion was the sole factor in my desire to start Tech.pinions and offer a subscription model. If you pay close attention, every article we publish on Tech.pinions is unique and while a news item may be covered we wrap unique and original analysis around the topic. Our focus is on why the topic matters and what readers can take away or learn and not just the news itself. This model has worked great for us since 2012, and while we had periods of growth spikes and lulls, it has been an interesting learning experience.
In light of that learning, I came across this fascinating article in Wired. The title sets the stage–Journalism isn’t Dying It’s Returning To Its Roots. The author is ANTONIO GARCÍA MARTÍNEZ who is an interesting, and somewhat controversial, follow on Twitter. His article is thought-provoking, and something I had heard before from professors of journalism I’ve interacted with before.
The article points out, how historically, and even more common in parts of Europe, objectivity or neutral ground wasn’t a journalistic focus. In fact, it was the bias (often a strong and snarky bias) which drove the success of journalists and articles. There was much more alignment with a particular narrative bias, and people gravitated toward reading things that didn’t just support their bias but often made a poignant mockery of the alternate viewpoints. Perhaps this is why things like Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, and even the Donald Trump phenomena make sense. All things which focus only on a demographic base and have little to no care of being neutral.
Interestingly, we have had some of our own experiences with this reality with Tech.pinions. One of our most popular writers, who was unparalleled with wit, quotes, or snark (in my opinion). John Kirk was one of our favorite contributors, and I still get emails asking when he may come back and for good reason. He was not shy in his mocking of Android and to a big percentage of our readers who are more aligned with Apple than Google, this was fuel for the fire. John regularly had some of the most read article on our site, most linked to, and after myself, most Fireballed by John Gruber. His most popular post, Android’s Market Share is Literally a Joke, is the best example of his style and evidence to why he was well liked by the Apple fans. John was critical of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and even Apple at times but his style pulled no punches, and his content did extremely well. In case you never read much of John’s stuff, here is a link to all his articles.
John’s style is probably one of the more stated examples of what Antonio talks about with regards to journalism’s roots. And when we take a step back and look at some of the articles that get record traffic and those that don’t, it would be obvious those niche articles that worry less about bias and more about catering to the bias of a base group of readers, even if controversial, will get more reads.
Yellow or sensational journalism is sometimes the name such articles are called. Click-bait is also a common term, but in an age where publishers will keep trying to monetize via ads, this type of content seems inevitable to be the norm. Outlets who try to hold the common line or be less bias will likely struggle deeply, or have to shift to a different model, more like subscriptions to succeed.
Lastly, I want to mention subscriptions. We loosely talk about how subscriptions are the better business model, but what we don’t mention is the difficulty associated with growing and maintaining a subscription business. The core of success for subscriptions will be the talent or the authors. Any outlet that can secure the best writers has the best chance of success. The only problem is Twitter.
Once any author acquires a large enough audience, they will be less incentivized to stay at their publisher and more incentivized to start their own thing. In the age of Twitter, which gives anyone a voice, a publishing platform, and an audience, the need for a big publisher or publishing brand lessons as the brand is really the author. This is why many individuals currently run successful, individual, publishing blogs/newsletters that are subscription based. Again, something the Internet makes possible, but really without Twitter, many would not be able to run their own publishing business at all. Twitter has essentially given the edge to the individual and not the publisher/publishing brand.
All of this at a time when the NY Times has a goal of 10 million subscribers. To accomplish this, they will need to invest heavily and be creative and innovative in the total experience they bring to customers. It will be a challenge, but if I had to bet on any publishing brand, it would be the NY Times.
Apple may also have a role in shifting media. With their rumored news subscription service seemingly almost complete, it will be interesting to see how Apple, like Twitter, can help shift the news/media landscape in a more sustainable and creative direction. There is more disruption to come, for sure, but also innovative times ahead for publishing.