The Rebooting ShowMay 31, 2022
Big Cabal's Tomiwa Aladekomo on building mobile-first media in Nigeria
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke to Tomiwa Aladekomo, CEO of Big Cabal, a Nigerian digital media company that’s home to a pair of properties: Tech Cabal, which I describe as similar to TechCrunch but with more memes and Zikoko, a BuzzFeed-like culture publication.
Big Cabal has raised $2.3 million in venture capital as it builds an independent digital media company in Africa’s largest economy that's geared to shifting consumption patterns. Tomiwa and I discuss how Big Cabal looks to find white spaces in the market, making hard calls when to pull back on efforts like it recently did with a citizen journalism project, when brands can be pan-African vs market specific, and an on-the ground assessment of the impact of Semafor in its Africa push.
Subscriptions in the age of ARPU
The Rebooting recently wrapped up its second research project in collaboration with BlueConic. Patrick Crane, vp of sales at BlueConic, joined me on The Rebooting Show to discuss the state of subscriptions at publishers and the maturation of the market.
“One of the reasons I call it a forever business is to call out the fact that there is going to be ongoing work,” Patrick told me, “but also that it sets you up to play a very sustainable game.”
Among the topics covered:
- The shifting role of steep discounts in subscription programs
- Why ad avoidance is really more bad UX avoidance
- The wisdom of making subscription products for specific slices of your audience
Hearst's Bridget Williams on a 'thoughtful mercenary' approach to the local news business
Bridget Williams is a veteran of the industry. I first got to know Bridget when she was at Business Insider prior to heading to Food52 before landing at Hearst Newspapers in tk, where she is chief commercial officer. On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, we spoke about the progress toward a sustainable business model for Hearst news outlets like The Houston Chronicle, The San Francisco Chronicle and others around the country. All told, Hearst newspaper properties have 400,000 digital subscribers.
Bridget and I discuss how a "thoughtful mercenary" approach to local news means looking to non-news products to provide utility to communities to subsidize the critical impact journalism that is disappearing from many places.
The Guardian's Steve Sachs on voluntary contributions as a reader revenue model
The Guardian has used voluntary reader contributions as a bulwark of its unique model that blends philanthropy, advertising and voluntary contributions. In the U.S., The Guardian now generates 57%, or $33 million, of its revenue from voluntary contributions, either one-off or recurring.
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke with Steve Sachs, The Guardian’s U.S. managing director and veteran of non-profit news models, about this approach and how extensible it is for news publishers.
Jeff Selingo on the independent path
Jeff Selingo spent eight years at the Chronicle of Higher Education, serving as editor in chief and editorial director, before setting off on his own path. Jeff and I have traded notes on the independent path over the years, and I wanted to have him on The Rebooting Show to discuss what we’ve both learned on the independent path. We discuss the transition from editorial to sales, why treating “lifestyle business” as a pejorative is strange, and fighting the pull to rebuild what you left behind.
How Blockworks survived the crypto winter
Blockworks, founded as a crypto events company in 2018, has rode these ups and downs. It began in the face of a crypto pullback with the thesis that crypto would become a major asset class and as it grew, institutional investors would need a credible source of information, analysis and research beyond an anonymous Twitter account with a monkey avatar shooting lasers from its eyes.
As crypto recovered and headed into a bull run that accelerated during the pandemic into what I’d consider a bubble, Blockworks expanded from events into podcasts and news. With $12 million in VC raised in possibly the hardest time to raise for a crypto media company, Blockworks is building out a research arm.
Jason Yanowitz, CEO of Blockworks, discusses the evolution of the company and the benefits of staying focused and being a "mile deep" vs an inch deep.
Defector's Jasper Wang on worker-owned media
Defector is a worker-owned media company that was born out of disillusionment with the tradeoffs the digital media ecosystem often requires (or at least incentivizes). Instead of chasing traffic, Defector relies on a subscription model for a small but sturdy business.
Who or what is Advertising Week?
My former colleague Mike Shields of Next in Media joins me to discuss what to make of Advertising Week, which is mostly a PR vehicle but a useful gauge of the prevailing winds of the media and advertising worlds.
Moving past ZIRP
On a crossover episode of The Rebooting Show and People vs Algorithms, Alex Schleifer and I discuss the end of the zero-interest rate policy era and how it will lead to cascading changes in tech and media.
The cost-benefit analysis of video
Video is viewed paradoxically by publishers. They see budgets shifting to sight, sound and motion. Video ads, formerly known as TV spots, were always valued by advertisers far more than a standard display ad, no matter what efforts were made to gussy them up. Yet for many publishers, the costs associated with video creation are certainly high but the revenue while potentially big is uncertain. Tom Pachys, CEO of online video platform Ex.co, joined to discuss the challenge
“The publishers that we work with say that this is their biggest line item when looking at the advertising part of their P&L. That definitely works, but the cost of opening studios, recording videos, taking the risk, And also having that expertise – that's where the challenge is.”
Thanks to Ex.co for sponsoring The Rebooting. Check out its recent guide to selecting an online video platform.
Madison and Wall's Brian Wieser on the Mary Meeker slide
Before the Lumascape, there was another go-to conference and pitch deck slide for anyone betting on what was then called web advertising. The slide, updated annually by the financial analyst Mary Meeker, showed twin bar charts of time spent and budget spent by medium.
The message was clear: the internet would win, it was just a matter of timing. The time spent gap did close, although a disproportionate amount of gains went to tech platforms rather than web publishers. The chart was always wrong, argues media analyst Brian Wieser. Time is simply one variable in assessing the value of a media impression:
“It speaks to an incorrect framework. You look at the historical data, you ask why this happened, and you try to make sure the model mirrors why decisions are made. The common narrative was always that it's time. That's what drives the money. If that were true, radio would be a much bigger business.”
1440's Tim Huelskamp on newsletter moneyball
Five cents. That’s how much general-news newsletter 1440 makes each time one of its 3 million subscribers opens one of its daily emails. Say what you want about scale, but nickels can add up when the multiplier is in the millions. After paying for the expenses of its 14-person team, the profits are then invested back into growing 1440’s subscriber base with paid marketing campaigns through Facebook and Instagram, newsletter ads and other channels. That “flywheel” has enabled 1440 to enter an exclusive club: It generates over $1 million in revenue per employee.
1440 CEO Tim Huelskamp joins the show to discuss taking a unit-economics approach to publishing.
Team Whistle's Joe Caporoso on the publisher/agency model
Founded a decade ago, Team Whistle is a survivor. It sprang to life as a wave of multichannel networks that filled the need of aggregating YouTube properties to make buying easier. The biggest problem of the MCN model is that it takes a difficult business model (advertising) and makes it even more difficult because you’re taking a cut of a cut, after YouTube gets its taste. Most MCNs fizzled.
Whistle shifted its focus to building its own properties, producing franchises like “No Days Off,” a series following incredibly focused child athletes. It still reps other properties, like Dude Perfect. It complemented that with an agency business that relies on the distribution and cachet of the original programming. Whistle is part publisher, part agency.
Permutive's Joe Root on ad targeting in transition
The digital advertising system is in the midst of a shift, from an over-reliance on collecting vast amounts of data to crunch to do one-to-one targeting – dog owners getting dog food ads, cat owners get cat food ads – to a new landscape that gives people more say on data collection and pushes advertisers and ad tech companies to operate differently.
In this episode, I had a conversation with Joe Root, CEO of Permutive, an audience platform that's used to deliver privacy-safe digital advertising. Among the topic covered:
The shift in publisher incentives to build trust vs build traffic
Why direct sold advertising is back in vogue
Whether GDPR’s implementation gives real consumer choice or just the illusion of it
The surprisingly large carbon footprint of digital ads
Why the loss of ad targeting signals has become an advertiser problem
The demise of the long tail in favor of top-tier publishers
Why the so-called ad tech tax will come down
Media's uncanny valley
This is a bonus episode of The Rebooting Show, featuring a conversation I had on the People vs Algorithms podcast. We discuss why the conventions of media are giving way to new formats that dispense with the artifice in favor of something approximating real conversations.
Rich Routman on The Sporting News' embrace of affiliate
Rich Routman is a veteran of the sports media industry. He recalls how if an advertiser discussed a cost-per-action deal with a major sports media company as recently as five years ago, the media executives would "run out of the room." That all changed with the legalization of sports gambling in 33 states and the District of Columbia. A giant industry would need customers, and sports media was there to help. That's led the Sporting News, which Rich joined as CEO last year, to raise a $15 million Series A a mere 137 years after its founding. Rich and I discuss how TSN is generating 40% of its revenue from affiliate and revenue-sharing deals from sportsbooks and other subscription services.
Bustle's Jason Wagenheim on the end of traffic
Bustle was founded a decade ago in a far different media environment, as big digital media companies, flush with VC cash, scrambled to acquire the biggest audiences possible. The supposition that those with the biggest uniques would be handsomely rewarded didn't turn out to be a durable model. Now, Bustle is looking like a different entity, as its CRO says typical ad campaigns are now just 15% of the company's revenue Instead, it is focused on using its stable of brands for bigger efforts more akin to what ad agencies provide. In this formula, traffic is far less important than brand affinity, client relationships and the ability to execute.
Puck’s Jon Kelly on why ads are still a good business
Puck launched two years ago, heralded as Vanity Fair for the Substack era. A big part of the pitch was a subscription model. But like others, such as Punchbowl, Puck has found that its subscription business, with its direct connections, and vertical focus lends itself well to a strong direct-sold ad business.
Other topics we cover:
- What ails legacy publishing models
- Raising $10 million in a rough funding climate
- The pendulum shift from institutions to individuals
- The enduring value of scarcity
- The benefits of starting small
How CJ Gustafson is building the playbook for CFOs
CJ Gustafson is one of the rare people who is both immersed in his field but does not suffer from the tyranny of knowledge. CJ uses memes and a conversational style with Mostly Metrics to address what those outside corporate finance would consider dry topics. But most importantly, he completely understands the challenges of being a CFO because he’s a CFO. In this episode, we discuss how he built Mostly Metrics, as well as getting into the weeds of why media is often a terrible business and what are the drivers of a sustainable media business.
Literally Media's approach to creator partnerships
Literally Media -- home to Cracked, I Know Your Meme and Cheezburger -- isn't going to fight creators. Instead, it's partnering with them to do everything from launch channels on new platforms, get access to brand partnerships and be part of live events. Literally Media CEO Oren Katzeff explains the approach, along with Literally's emphasis on IP-based video franchises and more.
Hollywood's doom loop
This week, I spoke to Parquor’s Andrew Rosen, a former Vicom exec turned media analyst, to unpack Hollywood’s weird summer of transition. The challenge for media companies is moving from a wholesale model to a retail model. Andrew sees a group of leaders without a clear understanding of how to make that leap.
Bloombeg Media CEO Scott Havens on AI's impact
Bloomberg Media CEO Scott Havens sees AI as both challenge and opportunity for publishers, who at this point are used to rapid changes to how their content is distributed. The challenge is how AI is poised to have the biggest impact on search since Google's rise to be the dominant distributor of internet traffic. The opportunity is to use the AI tools to create better experiences and more resilient business models. "There's no use in crying over spilled milk," Scott advises.
Hearst's David Carey on media's chaotic future
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I was joined by Hearst’s David Carey to discuss the resilience of so-called legacy media businesses. David returned to Hearst in 2019 as svp of public affairs and communications after a stint at Harvard, picking up on an eight-year run as president of Hearst Magazines from 2010 to 2018. He was group president at Condé Nast for many years, as well as the founding publisher of Smart Money.
Some highlights from our discussion:
The broad view of content: Hearst used its media assets to diversify into information services. Fitch Ratings is its largest business, and in 2016 it spent $2 billion on Camp Systems, a software provider for the airline maintenance business. “The company's had a very broad view of what content is, and, boy, is that to the benefit of everyone who works here.”
The end of the shiny object era: “There was a lot of chasing whatever the latest thing was, but those businesses turned out not to be sustainable, or they turned out to be gimmicks, or they turned out to be easily replicated by others. It’s chaos in all directions for all media forms. It very much favors companies with real strategies, deep roots.”
Media’s always been hard: “Media is much harder to operate than it looks from the outside. That's always been true. It's easy to make a splash and make some noise, but even the latest upstarts are finding it's really hard to build a sustainable business that engages people on a regular basis.”
Media businesses need a bigger price curve: “Whenever I meet a [Wall Street] Journal executive, I tell them, you should come up with a $1,000 a year subscription, because I would pay that. It's that important. to how I operate in the world as an executive. Every brand has these concentric circles of diehard fans and next diehard fans and so on. The problem is there hasn't been effective price discrimination.”
Print is like a couture fashion show: “What they send down the runway is important but not their biggest business. What happens at Chanel at a couture show, that business is relatively small, but it sets the stage for everything below that. It's the eyewear, the handbags, the accessories. Ultimately they make their money from selling beauty products at Bloomingdale's and in Saks Fifth Avenue. You're starting to see that happen with magazines. They have an opportunity to become multi-tiered businesses. The print piece becomes the standard bearer [to more lucrative businesses like events and data].”
Neil Vogel on why the Dotdash-Meredith deal still makes sense
At Dotdash Meredith, CEO Neil Vogel remembers sitting around with his management team, after $2 million in “incremental” ad revenue appeared, and wondering, “Have we hit peak Dotdash?”
“We had a really great formula: make incredible content, make really great sites and experiences, and have fewer ads that work better,” Neil said.
Which brings me back to late 2021, because that’s when IAC plunked down $2.7 billion to buy the storied Meredith brands: People, Entertainment Weekly, Better Homes & Gardens, InStyle. It was something of a minnow swallowing the whale, and indicative of the prevailing winds of publishing that were moving against glossy brands and toward performance workhorses.
“We had this incredible ability to serve users and to make advertisers happy because we had lots of intent,” Neil said. “What we were lacking was brands.”
Of course, soon after the deal took place, Jerome Powell decided he’d seen enough with the normalization of $7 coffee and started hiking interest rates. The repricing of markets isn’t fun. And the now re-re-re-rechristened Dotdash Meredith has been no different. As it has integrated the Meredith properties, it has also dealt with a soft ad market it can do little to mitigate. You are not going to sell as many mortgages when interest rates are high. In the first quarter, Dotdash Meredith revenue declined 23% year over year, including 15% in digital advertising.
“We bought at the frothiest point in the market,” Neil allowed. “The market is going to go up, the market is going to go down. If you look out at a long time horizon, it doesn’t matter.”
Neil and I discussed the deal (“I would do it again in a heartbeat”), the demise of the third-party cookie (“We don’t need cookies to deliver scale and performance”), and WTF AI (the whole market is going to change).
The 'influencer" journalist model
Last week, at The New Attention Economy in Cannes, I discussed the notion of “influencer journalism” with Semafor co-founder and editor-in-chief Ben Smith and Puck co-founder and COO Liz Gough. Some highlights from the session:
The creator economy is a long term shift: “Every other media industry, starting with Hollywood 80 years ago, made this transition to a connection with individuals. Journalism, because it is the worst of the media businesses, is the last one to get there.” – Ben
The legacy brand challenge: “Any new brand coming into existence, with Puck, Semafor or The Ankler, the balance to the individual needs to be more present. The legacy brands are struggling to figure this out.” – Liz
No influencers, please, we’re journalists: “When you’re recruiting a star reporter at The Wall Street Journal, the last thing you want to tell her is you want her to be an influencer.” – Ben
The journalist entrepreneur: “We are actively recruiting entrepreneurial journalists. They want to be commercial partners to my team. We spend a lot of time sitting down with our writers talking about commercial strategy, how we grow their subscriber base, how we do events, and how we do more advertising, who we’re going to call on. Our journalists are business partners.” - Liz
The Riviera is filled with Dylan Byers doppelgangers: “One in three men here look like Dylan.” – Ben
Bloomberg Media's Christine Cook on navigating change
Christine Cook joined Bloomberg Media in March as global chief revenue officer. We spoke about reasons for media optimism, how AI is an opportunity (and a threat), and how Bloomberg is approaching programmatic as the data landscape changes.
Creativity in an AI age
At The New Attention Economy’s final day in Cannes, we turned the spotlight on AI with a closing session featuring Rei Inamoto, CEO of I&Co, and Myra Nussbaum, chief creative officer and president of Havas, assessed the impact AI will have on creativity. Both aren’t quite ready to proclaim a revolution just yet.
Hearst’s Lisa Howard on why media can’t quit ads
For Hearst global chief revenue officer Lisa Howard, the shift to focus mostly on subscriptions at many publishers obscures the reality that advertising will continue to be the dominant monetization form for most media, including Hearst. Lisa discussed the power of ads and the resilience of legacy media during a live podcast recording at The New Attention Economy on Tuesday.
GroupM's Kirk McDonald on the outlook for digital advertising
In a live recording of The Rebooting Show from Cannes, Kirk McDonald, CEO of GroupM North America, seemed to wonder whether we’ve all talked ourselves into a downturn that wasn’t, "For the first half of this year, we saw behavior that anticipated a crash,” he said, even if we’ve had a “pretty smooth landing.”
“The thing we were worried about didn’t happen,” he added. “But I don’t think we’re seeing the kind of fulsome growth [we’ve seen in the past]”
Punchbowl's Anna Palmer on building a new media brand
Anna Palmer is a journalist turned startup CEO. Along with Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan, she founded Punchbowl News in January 2021, just in time for the assault on the Capitol. Punchbowl’s obsessive focus on the Capitol, and business model that combines subscriptions with high-value issue advocacy ads led it to sprint out of the gates with a $10 million first year. Anna is more reticent about its current pace – I tried – but by all measures what Punchbowl is doing is working in a media environment that's shifted to favor narrower brands focused on high-value audience segments, backed by direct connections and diversified business models.
“I've been in Washington journalism for almost 20 years, and I always laugh when everyone talks about Substack and the rise of newsletters,” Anna said. “It's the new hot thing. I mean, I've literally been doing newsletters for that entire time.”Some things that stand out to me about Punchbowl:
It is reporter focused. I believe journalists who start media businesses create different products. Punchbowl is journalism-driven, relying on the daily grind of uncovering new information vs playing SEO or social traffic games.
It has a rich niche. Issues advocacy ads are a lucrative ad category, and one where you not only mostly don’t compete with Google and Facebook, but they’re also your biggest clients. If only more media was like this.
It has stayed lean. Punchbowl started with funding from Liontree, and it has grown quickly, but it has also resisted the temptation to expand quickly by, say, springing up operations in state capitols around the country or joining the fray at the White House. Instead it has focused on high-value areas like its expansion in financial services vertical with The Vault.
It has managed to be a publication about politics without being a political publication. Many aspire to non-partisan news. Easier said than done. See the Chris Licht experiment at CNN for evidence. Punchbowl has managed to thread the needle for the most part with not being pulled into the inevitable political Rorschach test, mostly because they’re obsessed with the legislative process vs the posturing of politics.
How AI will change advertising
This episode is sponsored by Kerv, which uses artificial intelligence to identify objects within video and match them to databases, enabling for, among other uses, the creation of interactive “shoppable video” that embeds commerce in entertainment
Kerv CEO Gary Mittman sees AI leading a sea change to the creative process, allowing for a movie franchise, for instance, to create sequels to the original without starting from scratch. For advertising, the changes are poised to be broader, with AI detecting ads that are not performing and automatically "fixing" them without much in the way of human involvement. “This is another revolution, and we're at a precipice of the creation of something new,” he said. Other highlights:
- Subscription fatigue. The land rush phase of the streaming wars is over. The pendulum is shifting from subscriptions to advertising. “People are not going to pay for 100 different channels at $5-$10 a month,” Gary said. “ It's just not going to happen.”
- The “Jennifer Aniston’s sweater” moment. In ancient days – think 2005 – a staple of what were then called internet conferences was the idea that you’d be able to watch “Friends” and tap to buy a Jennifer Anniston sweater set. Much of the tech wasn’t ready, much less the consumer behavior, but that’s changing. “There's a long road of dead bodies to get here,” Gary said.
- QR codes are changing behaviors. Of all the changes of the pandemic, the comeback of QR codes was among the least likely. Now, it’s the norm to see QR on TV ads, shifting consumer behavior. “The capability of having a one-click transaction off of television with your remote is where we're heading,” Gary said.
The China Project’s pivot to B2B and subscriptions
The Rebooting show is sponsored by Kerv Interactive, an AI-powered video creative technology that creates shoppable and immersive experiences within any video content. Learn more.
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, Bob Guterma, CEO of The China Project, to discuss how to maintain credibility while catching flack from many sides, The China Project’s decision to leave Substack, adopting a subscription-first model and its crowdfunding efforts to raise capital from its audience.
- For seven years, The China Project – called SupChina until July 2022 – has aimed to act as a bridge for the outside world to understand China. “It's literally 5x the number of people in America. In some ways, you could say [China] is more dynamic. Their historical trajectory is so fast that there are simultaneously people living the same as they did 150 years ago, and there are people living in the Jetsons – all in the same country.
- That task that’s grown more complicated in recent years as tensions have risen between the US and China. That’s ensnared The China Project in political hot water, with a group of hawkish senators saying it is a tool of Chinese influence and the Chinese government banning it. Guterma has described The China Project as “neither pro-China or anti-China” and its mission as “helping the world understand China better, more contextually, and with greater care, so that better decisions can be made.”
- The China Project moved off Substack, which is oriented more to single writer projects than full-fledged media properties. “There are ways to customize Substack as you go along, but it's really built around this one experience of a paid newsletter. We were already, and just only became more and more as time went on, not just a newsletter.”
- The China Project has multiple revenue streams, including ads, events and consulting, but it aims to be a subscription-first publisher. The China Project sells subscriptions from $120 for an individual up to $5,000 per year for database products. It made this shift with a changed focus on a B2B audience, which is more likely to pay for subscriptions than regular people simply curious about China. “As much as I think China is the biggest story of our times, most people aren't sitting at home thinking about how to cultivate better knowledge of China, and they're certainly not sitting at home ready to spend money on that.”
- The era of venture-funded publishing is mostly over, but new avenues are emerging, such as RegCF, which allows companies to use crowdfunding to raise up to $5 million over the course of 12 months. The China Project raised $1.6 million two years ago and is near $1 million in a second round. The China Project has raised nearly $10 million over the years. That incremental approach is preferable to big upfront funding, in Bob’s view: “Raising $50 million before you've done anything almost guarantees your irrelevance.”
Semafor did a deep a piece on The China Project that highlights the criticisms leveled at it in a whistleblower complaint that alleges it slants coverage to favor Chinese interests. (Bob dismisses this coverage as innuendo and cover for Semafor’s own indirect ties to the Chinese government through a partnership with a Chinese think tank.)
The China Project published a lengthy rebuttal, claiming it is “a target of racist, populist, anti-China sentiment.”
Unlike most small publishers, The China Project has published an annual report as part of its earlier crowdfunding capital raise.
Industry Dive's Sean Griffey's guide to sustainable media businesses
If you’ll be on the Cote d’Azur next month. The New Attention Economy, presented by Kerv, will have speakers from the Financial Times, Uber, Paramount, Havas and more. Let’s talk ‘Active Attention’ Economy at Cannes Join us for three days of exclusive thoughtful conversations and cocktails with the industry’s best to discuss the Attention Economy and the future of publishing, streaming, AI & creativity. Register here.
Last week, I traveled to Washington DC to record a podcast with Sean Griffey, CEO of Industry Dive. I’ve known Sean and Industry Dive a while, mostly because two of its 33 publications – Marketing Dive and Retail Dive – were in areas in which my previous companies had publications. Sean was also the rare media CEO who would come onto my podcast and not rattle off a bunch of talking points. The big numbers he talked about weren’t Facebook video views of ComScore uniques ginned up through traffic assignment schemes. He spoke about revenue and, imagine, EBITDA.
Industry Dive went on to be bought not once but twice. First in a transaction to growth equity firm Falfurrias Capital in 2019 and then last year in a deal to events giant Informa last year that Axios reported put an enterprise value on Industry Dive of $525 million. That would make Industry Dive’s value at over two Vices and five BuzzFeeds.
What Industry Dive got right is something I covered after the Informa deal. I was long impressed by Sean and Industry Dive’s management ability to stay focused and disciplined in their business model. It helped that Industry Dive didn’t raise venture capital. Constraints can be good. It meant focusing on what was working, notably newsletters and being good at putting first-party data to use for B2B marketers.
In B2B, the pull to do events – have you signed up for The Rebooting’s Cannes events yet? – is strong. That’s because B2B doesn’t have advertisers per se, but marketers. And B2B marketers serve to get their sales teams prospects. That leads many B2B publications to go heavily to events. Industry Dive skipped events because it was very good at building publications in high value industries with tons of regulation and tech-driven change and acting as a critical marketing partner. That isn’t revolutionary. But it’s hard to execute.
Another aspect that impressed me about what Industry Dive did was it executed its playbook not once but across multiple industries. It didn’t wait until it perfected its playbook in one industry, because as Sean told me, you will perpetually put it off because you’ll never feel like you’ve gotten there. Building a leading publication in a single industry is hard but also has a fairly low ceiling, if you’re trying to build a big company. (I tend to think more people should be OK building a great company that’s smaller and skip the lure of massive exits.) Industry Dive was able to pull that off.
And finally, I think there’s something to be said about how Sean and his team went about building their work without all the PR nonsense. I hope of the many things that are left behind from the previous era, it’s the out of whack ratio between sizzle and steak. Fake it till you make it always struck me as a terrible strategy. Ask Ozy.
Time CEO Jessica Sibley on taking down Time's paywall
Last week, I was in Chicago to attend the Omeda OX6 conference, where I recorded a live version of The Rebooting Show podcast. Jessica Sibley, CEO of Time, joined me to discuss her first six months at the 100-year-old publishing brand. Among the issues we discussed:
The benefits of being a “legacy” brand
The importance of a brand clearly standing for something
Why taking down a paywall was right for Time’s strategy
How Time is building a diversified business strategy
Why commerce content needs to sit alongside the newsroom, not in it
Why she believes in an in-office culture
Private Media's Will Hayward on battling Murdoch
Will Hayward, the CEO of Private Media, an independent publishing company in Australia that publishes several titles, including politics-focused Crikey, recently faced the intriguing and likely slightly terrifying experience of being the subject of a defamation lawsuit filed by Lachlan Murdoch over a Crikey opinion column that held the Murdochs were “unindicted co-conspirators” of the Jan 6 attack on the US Capitol. Murdoch withdrew the lawsuit in the aftermath of Fox settling its case with Dominion, much to Will’s relief.
We discussed the case, the decision to stand firm against a powerful and angry individual, and how Crikey made lemonade out of lemons by using the case to rally support for the politics publication through subscriptions. We also touch on the impact of Australia’s news bargaining code that has wrung payments from platforms and is the model for similar laws worldwide, including in the US, as well as lessons learned from the social publishing era, since Will was in the thick of it.
Axios' Sara Fischer and Vox's Peter Kafka on where the. media business goes next
When I sent over topics for the latest episode of The Rebooting show to Axios’s Sara Fischer and Vox’s Peter Kafka, Peter replied with an editorial note: “maybe something deliberately upbeat to counteract a very gloomy pod.” Listeners, we tried, but journalists don’t naturally do upbeat. Some highlights:
This is a good time to be niche: “Niche media is thriving in an era where generalist media seems to be declining,” Sara said. “Companies that launch with a little bit of money, but in a targeted way, focusing on one specific thing with authority, tend to build incrementally and more sustainably than companies that try to do it all at once upfront.”
The Messenger is coming next week and… counterintuitive: “I don't believe that there is an audience that's salivating out there for straight-down-the-middle news,” Peter said. “Anyone who says that is lying to themselves or to the public.”
After the streaming wars comes the winnowing: “You’re going to have fewer of these big subscription services, more of these free ad-supported services, and streaming will continue to dominate more of the time that people spend in terms of consuming television,” Sara said. “No longer is it plausible that everyone can just launch a subscription service and think that they're going to take meaningful market share.”
The AI “tsunami of bullshit” is coming: “We're still relying on Google for referral traffic and the idea that people might find our articles there,” Peter said. “Whether or not you use AI, you are going to be swamped by the tsunami of bullshit, whether it's good or not, content made by robots. And even if every publisher and every trade group in America agrees to not do it, it doesn't matter because it'll come from all over the world.”
Kyle Tibbs Jones on The Bitter Southerner's independent path
The Bitter Southerner began as a passion project for a group of natives to the South who were, well, a bit bitter about how it was often caricatured or reduced to its historical legacy as the birthplace of American slavery. That’s a past that is unfortunately still alive and is an indelible part of the American story. The Bitter Southerner confronts such issues head on but while telling a more nuanced and expansive story of this unique and yes complicated part of the world.
Kyle Tibbs Jones, a co-founder of The Bitter Southerner, joined me to discuss the decade-long effort to build a sustainable, independent publication.
NYU's Jay Rosen on why news needs subsidies
News on its own is often not a great business. Advertisers want to avoid it, and the humans required to recreate the product every day drive up costs, and subscriptions can only go so far. New York University journalism professor and media analyst Jay Rosen sees the need to discover new sources of subsidies to maintain a healthy news ecosystem. In this discussion, we cover that issue as well as the end of BuzzFeed News, the prospects for The Messenger and Semafor, why Trump hacked conventional political news coverage, promising efforts at building sustainable local journalism models, and Jay’s belief that Fox News is not a legitimate news organization.
Bullish's Brian Hanly on building media businesses from memes
Brian Hanly, CEO of Bullish Studio, is creating media brands from memes, working with a stable of finance meme accounts in particular to build media properties. I got to know Brian over the pandemic, and quickly became fascinated by Bullish’s business. No doubt much of the fintech media segment was helped along by ZIRP and crypto craziness, but the use of memes as the starting point for lightweight media businesses is a good template as we enter into what’s sure to be another crazy cycle for the media business.
Substack’s CEO on ads, bundling and what’s next
Last Thursday, I spoke to Substack CEO Chris Best to get a better understanding of where the company is going. We recorded the interview before Elon Musk threw a temper tantrum over Substack's coming Twitter competitor. Chris and I spoke about a couple of important issues to me: ads and bundling. On ads, Chris explains that Substack is trying to occupy a part of the market on an opposite pole from the attention grabbing part of digital media defined by platforms like Facebook and TikTok. But he allowed that ads could be done in a way that makes sense for the space Substack wants to occupy. On bundling, Substack is opposed to a "subscribe to Substack" option that obviates the direct relationship with individual publishers. Instead, he's more interested in "writer federations" and reader-directed bundles that get the upside of bundle economics but don't tradeoff the direct relationship between the audience and publishers.
Nexstar's Joe Ruffalo on "non-partisan" news
Joe Ruffalo was recently named senior vice president and general manager of Nexstar's NewsNation digital operations and The Hill. At both, Nexstar is looking to occupy a lane of "non-partisan" news outlets, betting on a middle ground that seems to have disappeared from the news landscape, as personality-driven opinion has proven far more lucrative and scalable.
What's the future of Vice?
Claire Atkinson, chief media correspondent at Insider, has long experience covering the ins and outs of the media industry. In this episode, we discuss the state of affairs as different parts of the media business are between eras.
What’s next for Vice and the other ailing big digital publishers? The usual answer would be more consolidation, but this time might call an bundling of assets to realize more value.
Streaming’s next phase. Disney’s shifts after Bob Iger’s return indicate a new era of sustainability after the free-spending ways of the streaming wars.
CNN and Fox News’ identity crises. As what is sure to be a bonkers presidential election campaign nears, the twin poles of the cable news universe are in their own forms of disarray.
The sports rights question. Sports programming continues to fetch higher rates as it basically props up many cable broadcasters. Tech platforms continue to tiptoe into this arena, but Claire explains why rights holders are unlikely to cast their lots entirely with subscription streaming platforms.
The Cool Down's Dave Finocchio on building a mainstream climate brand
Dave Finocchio was CEO of Bleacher Report, one of the success stories of the last era of digital publishing. Dave is back in publishing with The Cool Down, which aims to be a mainstream publishing brand for climate conscious consumers. We discuss the lessons from Bleacher, how to strike the right tone to avoid both alarmism and lecturing, and how publishing business models have shifted.
The Daily Upside’s growth playbook
Patrick Trousdale started The Daily Upside in 2019 after working in investment banking at Guggenheim. Patrick saw the success Morning Brew and The Hustle had with newsletters that produced business, finance and entrepreneurial news for younger audiences. He started The Daily Upside with the idea there was space for a newsletter that catered more to investors as a lens instead of general business and finance.
The Daily Upside is now at the point where it can incrementally expand. It started that in January with the acquisition of a specialist newsletter called Patent Drop that trawls patent registries for updates on what tech companies are filing patents that will expand into a publication focused on “technologies like blockchain and AI, how policy is impacting tech innovation, and conversations with the thought leaders and entrepreneurs building the future.” The Daily Upside will also launch Power Corridor, a publication at the intersection of Wall Street and Washington with longtime Institutional Investor journalist Leah Goodman.
The opportunity Patrick sees is applying The Daily Upside growth playbook to these new properties – and using them to move beyond aggregation. Making the shift from aggregation to original content is a time-honored and tricky path in digital publishing. I can remember when Business Insider was mostly aggregating the reporting of others.
Informed's twist on a subscription news bundle
Axel Bard Bringéus is co-founder of Informed, a Berlin-based company with $5.3 million in backing that’s building a service for subscribers to pay for access to paywalled content from top tier publishers like Bloomberg, The Economist, The Financial Times and more. Informed is focused on people in non-English speaking countries who graze on English-language news content yet not enough to consider a subscription. This is a smart approach. Publishers always struggle to make money from international audiences. Most advertisers do not sell globally. And international visitors, in my experience, are far less likely to convert to paid. Axel and I discuss the Informed approach, and how his experience as a Spotify exec informs how he sees the news market.
Darren Samuelsohn on taking the solo path as a journalist
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke to Darren Samuelsohn, a longtime politician reporter who was most recently head of Insider’s ill-fated DC bureau. Darren and I spoke about his new newsletter devoted to journalism, the decision to take an independent path, and the topsy-turvy career that’s journalism.
Sinocism's Bill Bishop on building a solo publishing business
Bill Bishop likes to make clear he’s not a journalist. Instead, he’s a China analyst who brings his deep understanding of the country to an English-speaking language through his newsletter, Sinocism. In 2017, Bill became the “original Substacker” after teaming up with Substack’s co-founders to be the first newsletter on the platform.
On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, Bill and I discuss his independent path, and how a subscription model has created different dynamics as opposed to his experiences in the dot-com era as a co-founder of Marketwatch. What’s telling to me is that Bill is also now considering advertising. The Substack model of “only ads” doesn’t make much sense long term for most writers. Even if they convert 10% of their audience, they’re making no money from 90%. Most businesses don’t operate that way.
The Dispatch nears 40k paid subscribers
The Dispatch is a three-year-old publication focused on bringing fact-based politics news and analysis from a center-right perspective. Steve Hayes, CEO of The Dispatch, joined the podcast to discuss how it's managed to climb to near 40,000 paying subscribers with a healthy 17 percent conversion rate from its free email list. Steve discusses the importance of aligning the editorial mission and business model, occupying the middle ground between the institutional media brands and the so-called creator economy, and its approach to introducing ads to The Dispatch.
GroupM's Krystal Olivieri on advertiser support for journalism
I had a conversation with Krystal Olivieri, global chief innovation officer at GroupM, about whether advertisers would conveniently forget all those promises they made during flush times to support local news. The takeaway: Advertisers will cut here and there, and that’s outside of the control of publishers, but news publishers can help themselves by having better ways of showing the value they’re creating for advertisers. Check out the full conversation on this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, followed by a discussion of the year ahead with Outbrain co-CEO David Kostman. Thanks again to Oubrain for the support. Appreciate it.
Substack's Reid DeRamus on newsletter growth mechanics
Substack’s Reid DeRamus talks about growing newsletter audiences. Reid and I have spoken for the past two years on this topic, going back to before Substack bought his company Yem, which was focused on building a growth engine for newsletter writers. The thing about growth, at least I’ve found, is it takes a long time for most people. It’s taken me over two years to get 12,700 subscribers. I always tell people to take with a grain of salt the overnight success stories of newsletters that amass 250,000 subscribers in less than a year. They are remarkable because they are unusual, and the people running them are likely experts in marketing while most of us writing are not.
Recommendations is Substack’s No. 1 feature it has rolled out. It needed to provide that distribution function to publishers. Otherwise it would just be a newsletter CMS with Stripe integration. Recommendations are now responsible for 40% of new free subscriptions to Substack-hosted publications. Reid and I discussed that dynamic and other features Substack is rolling out to increase the number of people who covert to paid subscribers.