Looking back on the last few decades of the Media industry we can safely say it has been relatively stable. The major players haven’t changed. They’ve built relationships with financiers, journalists and various content producers. Until recently, the industry structure looked like it would exist forever.
But now, things are changing. Within the industry, the pace of change is so rapid. The future looks uncertain and scaring. When people talk about the industry, they talk about madness, instability and broken careers. The establishment doesn’t control the industry like it used to do. The establishment’s decline is giving rise to a new breed of internet-native companies following a new playbook that the establishment cannot compete against.
The whole structure of the industry was shaped by the information-scarce Old-school Media environment. And then it had all got disrupted by tens of tech startups.
First, tech invaders took away the audience and then they got all the advertisers. They disrupted the essential business model of the media industry, but couldn’t kill the journalism. People still need the quality information and journalistic authorities who do research, follow standards and present information in a consumable way.
While publishing houses may have collapsed as a business model, the need for curated information has not disappeared. Neither did journalists.
What if professional journalists and contributors just don’t need publishers anymore? Could they build personal brands and lead the rise of a new wave of media entrepreneurs?
May or may not. This way is dangerous and shady. We’ve been there and we know what will happen next to those 1-person media startups.
The Old-school Tools
In 2010 I created my first online mag because I was lucky enough to have a friend programmer who agreed to code everything for free.
After getting a bit of financial help we started to build our own CMS, investing our savings to pay developers, way more than we were paying actual journalists creating our main content. Insane!
In 2019 it still runs on a modified version of that first CMS. It is heavy, inflexible and extremely expensive to change anything in there. But we keep it. Why? Because we own it. We’re so attached! We spent a fortune on the development. I always ask myself, what are the alternatives?
There are plenty of “no code” products for almost everything. I’m a big fan of Readymag, which I always use to create presentations and landings. Can it replace our CMS? Absolutely not. What works for landings, doesn’t work for a big flow of everyday news. How about Wordpress? Well, it is old, badly designed, and usually requires extensive customization. Oh, and certainly we can bury the idea of creating your media inside of Facebook because of its unpredictable algorithms. Let’s be honest: when it comes to online media, there’s no cheap, beautiful and fully-functioning alternative to your own CMS. At least, we haven’t found one.
The Old-school Distribution
Eventually we became one of the leading lifestyle mags in the country, with more than 1M monthly readers. How much time did it take? Almost 10 years of organic growth. I must say that we got most of our Facebook audience before they changed their algorithm that radically decreased our engagement.
I understand that it would be almost impossible for new mags to reach the same level of popularity without intense traffic buying. Forget about free attention. Except rare viral cases fostered by some random influencers and distribution platforms like Medium, you always have to pay handsomely for a tiny bit of engagement, and our own followers don’t even get to see what we post.
The Old-school Monetization
After 10 years we got our popularity as a huge competitive advantage. Is it financially rewarding, though? Well, no. If you want to make money now, don’t do media. Indeed, our greatest problem is not CMS or distribution: it’s sales. Your previously loyal clients constantly compare your CPM with Instagram and Facebook, telling you that you are way too expensive for them and they get more clients just by investing in context advertising.
Why do they need you at all?
An additional problem is finding salespersons. You have to be ok with making two times less money for way more efforts than in this newly established tech startup. Impossible!
When I complained about this situation, media managers suggested to transform our journalists into sales people. Journalists protested. First of all, it’s not their job. The quality of journalism and objectivity would suffer. Second, they would overwork until they finally burn out and leave media for good.
We have created a vicious circle: you sell people’s attention, but you still have to pay for the attention, and your advertisers prefer not to pay mediators like you because you can’t attract attention anyway
The only way to break this vicious circle is to raise capital from the few available VCs who still believe in media. I’m talking about a handful of financed media startups in the first English-speaking world, like The Hassle and Axios. The problem is that media VCs and supporting organisations are inefficient as well. The only US accelerator supporting media entrepreneurs, Matter.vc, sadly got closed last year.
We should accept it, once and for all: current old-school media model won’t work as your business anymore. Yes, you heard it right, your media business will not be saved!
Could Platforms Help us Save Media?
Ever since the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the resulting backlash from the media about the negative effects of social media on our lives, users have been flocking from Facebook in droves. In fact, according to Pew Research as much as 40 percent of U.S. users have taken a break — sometimes for weeks on end — from checking their account.
We have various content producers with no job and we have the audience leaving the biggest social network ever built. Isn’t it a good match?
Where could they all go?
Medium is probably the most notable place. It is the first attempt to provide creators with necessary infrastructure. There are just two problems. First, the monetization model is very inflexible. You can’t add native ads or any brand placement. Nothing except subscription and community-based revenue share. Second, Medium owns your content. If it dies, your content gets deleted as well. Still too much centralization.
Apple News revenue share looked like a possible solution at some point. The application is still very limited: there are very few monetization possibilities, and Apple has total control over the distribution. Plus, they work with established publishers only, leaving behind all independent content creators.
Reddit / Twitter as altruistic curation of content by crowd reflects a somewhat early internet culture. Although it is definitely great, Reddit and Twitter remind diamonds in the rough that require lots of time and specific skills to make sense out of and to assemble a consistent story.
The Biggest Opportunity For the Media Industry is to Steal a Platform Business Model
We as publishers and content producers shouldn’t oppose ourselves to platform and protect our territories with paywalls. If we want to win this war we have to unite and build an ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb of attention, an intelligent content production machine. The one that will look and work like a platform: delivering and monetizing content.
Imagine people curating topics sponsored by advertisers on a platform made for the publishers and content creators. First glorious Platform-as-publisher.
To be continued ...
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