Stratechery's Common Sense Thoughts about the Media

created May 15, 2020

May 14, 2020 - - Media, Regulators, and Big Tech; Indulgences and Injunctions; Better Approaches

Related Mediagazer link and headline:

Forcing Facebook and Google to pay for news could lead to uncritical reporting on tech; better approaches would tackle roots of media woes, including ad markets

That was Ben Thompson's response to the absurd opinion/article/wish-list, published a few days ago by NY Times media critic Ben Smith.

May 10, 2020 - - Big Tech Has Crushed the News Business. That’s About to Change.

News organizations have long hoped that tech platforms would pay them for news. Now regulators abroad are moving to make that happen.

How would that ensure a free press? That sounds disturbing and problematic.

I discussed Smith's opinion in my May 11, 2020 post.

This smells like desperation by the media.

That Mediagazer link contained a "discussion" area of related tweets and articles. I don't always agree with Jeff Jarivs, but this is a great comment.

Jeff Jarvis / @jeffjarvis: Oh FFS, no, the news business crushed itself by relying on protectionism over innovation. @benyt goes all Murdoch & endorses Australia's digital Stamp Act. This isn't media criticism. It's lobbying. “Big Tech Has Crushed the News Business”

The next to the last paragraph in the NY Times opinion by Ben Smith contained the only nugget of intelligence.

Mr. Sims and Ms. de Silva can’t, alone, save a news industry that is still struggling to meet consumers where they are on the internet. Some publications have an enduring reliance on print, and others have styles of telling and thinking about news and revenue alike that hark back to the newspaper era. At worst, forced payments from platforms could merely prop up fading newspapers at the expense of new ways of telling stories and doing business.

It's not big tech's fault that newspapers have failed to make their digital offerings attractive and useful to consumers.

It's not big tech's fault that newspapers still produce and rely upon print products.

It's not big tech's fault that newspapers still use strategies from past centuries.

It's not big tech's responsibility to help newspapers overcome the failures, mentioned in the three previous points.

This is the Mediagazer discussion attached to Thompson's May 14, 2020 post.

@jarroddicker: The future of creator monetization is Faceless Infrastructure. Creators focus on creating. The rest is a (shared) service. Phase 1: CMS scaled & offered as a service Phase 2: Monetization tech scaled & offered as a service Seeing this w/ @zeus, @tryscroll, @SubstackInc etc.
Ben Thompson / @benthompson: Dropped the paywall on this one
Australian Financial Review: Tech giants should pay media $600m: Costello
Jack Shafer / @jackshafer: “[L]ike nearly all startups, Google and Facebook were ignored, dismissed, mocked, and only then hailed as irrepressible monsters by publications like the New York Times.”
Jacob Donnelly / @jaycodon: @jarroddicker This part really jumps out. Pubs are mad at Google for the wrong reasons.
Jeff Jarvis / @jeffjarvis: @dkiesow @benthompson My thread here: I've long argued that instead of handouts (which disappear like dandelions in the wind) the platforms would better help us with strategic understanding of the net and how we should work in it.
Mike Dudas / @mdudas: “It is in the interest of multiple sides of the media market — publishers, readers, developers, curators & regulators — to create mechanisms that let publishers of all types + sizes build new kinds of monetization opps that don't depend on FB and GOOG”
Damon Kiesow / @dkiesow: The majority of tech platform “fixes” for journalism are products and features the platforms themselves build and profit from. Which is like polluting the rivers and then selling co-branded bottled water.
@kerrymflynn: .@benthompson's new rebuttal to @benyt's column on big tech paying media companies, published outside Stratechery's paywall: “...any sort of rational evaluation would suggest that money should flow in the opposite direction”
@jarroddicker: Amen. “Media [orgs] have to be honest with themselves about why they are struggling, and in that accounting Facebook and Google are beneficiaries of inevitable Internet trends, not creators. Only then can the search for sustainable business models begin.”
Damon Kiesow / @dkiesow: What would be better is for big tech to spend its time and money cleaning up and supporting a healthy information ecosystem in which legitimate publishers could flourish without handouts.
Kristian Stout / @kristianstout: Great post from @benthompson - the news media need the platforms more than vice versa. The real question to me is why not enough people care to visit the newspapers sites directly. Answering that question is the real key to fixing the news biz imo
Jessica Lessin / @jessicalessin: I'm loving the back and forth between columnists @benyt and @stratechery on the topic of the news media and the platforms.
Modest Proposal / @modestproposal1: .@benthompson writes: “media organizations have to be honest with themselves about why they are struggling, and in that accounting Facebook and Google are beneficiaries of inevitable Internet trends, not creators.”
Jeff Jarvis / @jeffjarvis: Yes, bless @benthompson's rebuttal to @benyt's regurgitation of the Murdoch company line and willful ignorance of net history. Excerpt below. My thread here: Thompson's piece (pay wall) here:
David Tvrdon / FWIW newsletter: What if your Google searches come back to haunt you?

I'll highlight a few of the above "comments" that unfortunately occur mainly as tweets. The open web weeps some more.

Great comment:

Kristian Stout / @kristianstout: Great post from @benthompson - the news media need the platforms more than vice versa. The real question to me is why not enough people care to visit the newspapers sites directly. Answering that question is the real key to fixing the news biz imo

Well, one reason might be due to the newspapers' horrendously designed, bloated, slow-loading, reader-hostile websites. This kind of failure at text by the newspaper industry is hard earned. The industry chose to fail at text. But it is a great question. Focusing on that question is a good start for local media, although it might be about 15 to 20 years too late.

This is a bad comment from that tweet-filled Mediagazer discussion area.

Damon Kiesow / @dkiesow: What would be better is for big tech to spend its time and money cleaning up and supporting a healthy information ecosystem in which legitimate publishers could flourish without handouts.

I have no idea what that person said. Clean and support a healthy information ecosystem. ??? What does that mean? That comment is a great example of vagueness. The person who made that statement used Twitter, the cesspool of the internet. If journalists stopped using Twitter and embraced the open web, then that would get Twitter's attention about cleaning up its service.

Back to disagreeing with Jarvis.

Jeff Jarvis / @jeffjarvis: @dkiesow @benthompson My thread here: I've long argued that instead of handouts (which disappear like dandelions in the wind) the platforms would better help us with strategic understanding of the net and how we should work in it.

That is as vague as the previous comment that I highlighted. It's not 1998. If a media org in 2020 needs help from big tech on how to use the internet, then it's too late for that media org.

Strategic understanding of the net? Holy crap. A couple of my past posts:

It seems that the media is engaged in a lot of war, at least against humane web design.

This is an excellent post by Thompson from a few years ago that is related to this discussion.

May 9, 2017 - - The Local News Business Model

I excerpted heavily from that 2017 Stratechery post in my August 2017 post, titled The Future of Local Newspapers.

Excerpts from Thompson's May 14, 2020 post: [edit later]


Some stories appearing at on Friday afternoon, May 15, 2020.

Sources: NYT is getting under the skin of BuzzFeed staff by raiding BuzzFeed talent and sometimes re-reporting BuzzFeed stories with little credit

A tweet attached to the discussion area with my emphasis added:

@bikehugger: @mat @VanityFair Relatable because Buzzfeed has been trying to murder outlets like mine since they launched. The ad revenue alone, stolen right out of blogger's pockets.

That's interesting but possibly valid point that I have never considered. Media orgs want to tax big tech, but maybe small, independent publishers, like bloggers, should receive money from media orgs for the same reasons.

Vice to lay off 55 in the US and ~100 globally, citing the fact that digital organization accounts for 50% of headcount costs but brings in about 21% of revenue

The Economist Group is laying off 90 employees, about 7% of its workforce, none of whom are editorial staff, and ending the print edition of the 1843 magazine

FT gains 50K new digital subscribers in the past two months, but institutes 10% salary cuts for non-editorial staff making over £50K from 1 July

Tribune Publishing and the Chicago Tribune Guild agree to a three-week furlough taken in one week increments for all unionized employees making $40K+

European Journalism Centre and Facebook Journalism Project announce 57 outlets receiving grants of €10K or €25K to address business needs caused by COVID-19

Quartz CEO says even with 17K paid subscribers, the company is laying off 80 staff, closing physical offices in four locations as it seeks profitability by 2022

Excerpts from a May 15, 2020 Poynter roundup:

The latest on The Athletic

Washington Post sports media columnist Ben Strauss sent out a noteworthy tweet on Thursday. He tweeted: “Per person on an Athletic staff-wide call just now, executives said the rate of new subscribers is down 25 percent since March and the company hasn’t hit 1 million subscribers yet. Also, when asked about future furloughs/layoffs execs were noncommittal.”

What was noteworthy about the tweet? Are other media people happy that subscriptions to The Athletic have declined since March? Are other journalists rooting for The Athletic's demise? Obviously, I have my Jump-to-Conclusions mat out.

More from the Poynter post:

For those unfamiliar, The Athletic is an ad-free, subscriber-based sports news site that has collected some of the top sportswriters in the country and has made a significant impact on the sports media landscape. Unlike many news outlets, The Athletic doesn’t rely on advertising, so it hasn’t taken a hit there. And those currently subscribed likely are keeping their subscriptions.

But the worry must have been about the drop in new subscribers when no sports are being played. Strauss’ reporting seems to prove that to be true.

Oh man. They act like it's news that subscriptions to an ad-free sports site have dropped, during a time when NO SPORTS HAVE BEEN PLAYED, minus a couple exceptions.

No NCAA hoops tourneys. No NBA playoffs. No start to MLB. No NASCAR. No NHL playoffs. No college spring sports, including spring football games.

The Athletic's decline in subscriptions is not due to its business model, unless The Athletic, a sports site, should be blamed for choosing to cover sports, and it should have had a backup plan in case a pandemic shuts down sports.

Most media orgs that have suffered financially during this pandemic is due to their main funding model, advertising, vanishing.

Here are REAL noteworthy items.

I have been a subscriber to The Athletic for three or four years. When I joined, The Athletic only had writers covering a few cities, including Detroit and Cleveland. Now The Athletic covers sports all over the U.S. and in other countries.

But The Athletic's rapid expansion has worried me. It feels more like a tech company that will either fizzle out quickly or get acquired. I would have preferred a slow, steady approach that seemed to be how they started.

Regardless, I PAY for access to the writing, produced by The Athletic. I'm only interested in the Cleveland Browns coverage.

In the mid-teens last decade, many major media orgs fired their writers because of the great pivot to video. This inspired the creation and expansion of The Athletic as it hired many of those fired writers.

Some of us like to read, and we will pay for the content that we desire.

From yesterday, May 14, 2020:

Civil, which began with the intent to launch dozens of sites supported by a blockchain-based platform and the CVL token, fell short of fixing media funding woes

Here are some ankle-biting comments, attached to the Mediagazer discussion area:

Jason Pontin / @jason_pontin: Civil was the stupidest idea in journalism during its desperate period - and I saw a few. The only thing that will “work” are publications delivering quality, relevancy, utility - and readers paying for those things. There will be far, far fewer pubs and journalists.

Jay Cassano / @jcassano: This is a great @studyhallxyz post-mortem write up on what went wrong with @Civil, the blockchain platform that was supposed to save journalism:

Daniel Tunkelang / @dtunkelang: I'm shocked, shocked, that blockchain couldn't save journalism.

In the past three years, Civil has done more and tried harder to help local media find a sustainable funding model than the local newspaper industry has done in the past 25 years.

Civil's idea may ultimately fail, or it's way ahead of its time, but at least this was another group who tried. What has the local newspaper industry done besides bitch about Craigslist, Google, and Facebook?

The stupidest idea in journalism in 2020 is media orgs that rely heavily on advertising for most of their revenue. Relying on ad revenue was dumb in 2005.

Approximately three years ago, I donated to the crowdfunding campaign for Block Club Chicago to help the new media org launch. BCC still operates on the Civil platform, but I think that it can operate independently.

I admired BCC not because it was using Civil but because I liked its mission, and I wanted it to do well because maybe their concept could be adapted to covering Toledo or at least part of the city.

A local, digital, media startup does not need to cover the entire city of Toledo. It could be hyperlocal, focusing on a region of the city or county.

It seems like Block Club Chicago covers a lot more neighborhoods today.

Block Club Chicago is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods.

Block Club Chicago was created by former DNAinfo Chicago editors following the shutdown of DNAinfo and Gothamist in November of 2017. After hearing from people all over the city about how much they missed our truly local coverage, we knew we had to get back to work.

Thanks to more than 3,000 Kickstarter backers and generous support from Civil, we were able to recruit a dedicated team of reporters ready to hit the streets. Our focus remains on telling stories that matter in the neighborhoods, and growing our coverage sustainably through reader and donor support.

We decided to call ourselves the Block Club because we felt it reflected our mission: to build community through truly ground-level reporting of the city’s neighborhoods.

Back to the one tweet above:

The only thing that will “work” are publications delivering quality, relevancy, utility - and readers paying for those things. There will be far, far fewer pubs and journalists.

Less but better. Maybe a lot of small, focused media orgs will exist to cover locales.

Does a local media org need to cover everything? I don't think so. Why report on all of these local topics: sports, entertainment, politics, business, arts, food, outdoors, parenting, health, education, senior living, home improvement, technology, etc.?

A local digital media startup that covered all of those subjects and more could be stretched too thin, unless the startup employed a lot of people. New startups, covering the local area will probably be small and lean, and they should focus on only a few topics. Let another local media startup cover other topics.

If a local media startup succeeds with a sustainable funding model, then maybe it can hire more people to cover more topics.

But if local residents do not want to pay for or donate to local media, then that needs to be studied. Why don't residents fund local journalism? Maybe residents have little to no interest in what local media orgs produce. Maybe residents believe that they can be "informed" on local matters by following friends, strangers, businesses, and non-profits on social media. I don't know. It seems that a local media org, like the Blade, would have studied this a long time ago.

Disinterested local residents won't fund media orgs that produce content that local residents don't want.

Maybe a local media digital startup needs to launch by covering soft topics, such as sports, outdoors, entertainment, and other non-hard, non-controversial topics. Gain traction and funding support first. Then slowly mix in reporting of harder news topics, which could alienate some funders though, but hopefully, it encourages more people to fund the org.

If a local media digital startup comes out of the gate covering hard news subjects and social issues that NEED covering, that might turn off some people. To be funded, the media org needs to convince local residents that the org is worthy of being funded. The local media org needs to give local residents reasons to give money to the media org.

Interesting 404 error page at Civil's website.


Like the hearts of the vulture capitalists pillaging newsrooms around the world, this page is not found. Go to our homepage — or visit our help section if you’ve got any questions.

From that long Patreon post about Civil:

In a particularly dire time for local news, two newsrooms — Block Club Chicago and The Colorado Sun — joined Civil, rebooted from previously folded regional publications.

BCC joined Civil in 2017, three years ago. That was a particularly dire time for local news. ??? What does that mean? It has been a dire time for local news for 40 years. The demise in local media, especially at local newspapers, started at least 10 years before the TBL invented the web around 1990.

In the aught years, Toledo Blade ownership admitted that it had not made a profit, since the early 1980s. I doubt that things have turned profitable for the Blade over the past 15 years.

The web and the current pandemic exposed the newspaper industry's flawed choice of relying on advertising for most of its funding. By 2000, local newspapers should have realized that its ad-based funding model was not going to work online.

But 20 years later, media orgs are still building around ads, and it's worse on the web because of the potentially nefarious ad tracking technology that might be used. That makes the Toledo Blade an advertising network that publishes content too.

I don't want to see ads the content pages. I won't fund a media org that is polluted with ads and ad trackers on the content pages. The local digital media startup could place ads in its own section, and I can choose whether to view the ads.

May 16, 2020

Back to the Vice story mentioned above, here's the Mediagazer link and headline again:

Vice to lay off 55 in the US and ~100 globally, citing the fact that digital organization accounts for 50% of headcount costs but brings in about 21% of revenue

The attached discussion is long. I'll mention some of comments.

Clio / @cliomiso: just got laid off! love my team so much at vice, some of the best people i've ever worked with. solidarity to those getting cut & those still working in unsustainable conditions. ownership doesn't care about journalism, but we do and we're going to build the industry we deserve

Christina Warren / @film_girl: This from @jscros is really good. There is no good way to do layoffs. It doesn't exist. But there is a way to do it with respect and humility and that's something I wish companies of all sizes would consider.

Brianna Provenzano / @bri_provenzano: Not sure how we're supposed to do “mass media layoffs” without being able to get drunk in dive bars together. God is really pushing it with this one!

Victor Pickard / @vwpickard: This is so terrible. We have to start seeing these cuts as a tragedy for all of us. It's not about the failure of specific business models. Rather it's systemic and it's a blow to any hope we might have for achieving a democratic society.

I think that it's due to a failed business model of relying too much on advertising.

Sally Hayden / @sallyhayd: Thoughts with former colleagues at Vice, as well as everyone at Buzzfeed, Quartz, the Economist, etc. where layoffs are ongoing. This is a terrible time for journalism.

Here are a couple good comments, made by the same person. This kind of common sense, however, will be lost on most media people who prefer to blame big tech.

Judd Legum / @juddlegum: In the long run, journalism needs to be completely decoupled from corporate advertising

Judd Legum / @juddlegum: The shrinking of legacy and “new” media ventures is a tragedy but also an opportunity for journalists There are thousands of stories that should be told that are not being told And people are willing to pay for those stories

People at Vice were willing to work at reduced pay to preserve jobs, but for some deranged reason, management chose differently.

Stuart Andrew Thompson / @stuartathompson: for instance job-sharing during a downturn makes a lot of sense if you're a company that values talent and you're thinking long-term. LA Times did that. but VICE didn't bite. because a smaller staff is more attractive to buyers?

It's easier for management to blame forces outside of their company than for management to take responsibility for screw-ups.

Stuart Andrew Thompson / @stuartathompson: it's worth looking at her own job performance. she decided to “go big” and invest in VICE Live, a two-hour TV show (teens love scheduled cable TV right!). it was canceled in 2 months. one VICE insider called it “the worst two hours of TV ever made.”

This person got it right with the broken business model, assuming that the model was based around advertising, but I wonder what the person meant by "external forces."

Lainna Fader / @lainnafader: This has been such a terrible week for the media industry. Heartbroken for friends and colleagues at Conde, Quartz, Vice, and maybe even more. The worst part is it's not an issue of quality of work, but of a broken business model and other external forces

If "external forces" means startups building services that people enjoy using more than media, then that's not the fault of the startups.

Amanda Kolson Hurley / @amandakhurley: Co-sign. Also, I'm sure traffic is way up at most or all of these outlets (+ Buzzfeed)—people have been consuming so much news during the pandemic. That doesn't even matter without a workable business model.

Heather Alexandra / @transgamerthink: Been a bad week for the industry and the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of executives who lack the imagination to actually collaborate with workers.

Carolina A. Miranda / @cmonstah: Seeing how many companies don't want to deal with workshare makes me happy I work @latimes. Because not trying to preserve your newsroom is a hot crock of bull

Eric Nusbaum / @ericnus: The one constant theme of my time working at VICE was corporate management finding creative new ways disregard and disrespect the incredible work done by its journalists while also selling that journalism to potential investors & financiers. I'm sad that nothing has changed.

Matt Pearce / @mattdpearce: “For more than a month, VICE repeatedly refused to discuss workshare programs.”

How is Vice management's refusal to discuss workshare programs the fault of big tech?

Jessica Lessin / @jessicalessin: Fascinating. Vice cutting digital team because revenue lags traditional. Blames Big Tech.

I assume that "traditional" means print. What else would "traditional" mean? Regardless, if "traditional" performs better than digital, then why not focus 100 percent on traditional and end digital?

@kerrymflynn: Vice union said they were pushing for a workshare program but management refused. Union also says management refused to make further cuts to exec compensation:

I don't understand. This sounds like insider speak.

Ryan Osborn / @rozzy: Sad truth: “Digital” doesn't work as more heads with same cost structure. “Digital production” has to be applied to the core.

Maybe digital fails if the business model is based around advertising.

Here's a wild thought. If digital is mostly a failure, regardless of the business model, then maybe future local media startups will focus only on print and never get involved with digital. Now that would be different, especially in 2020.

Ashkan Karbasfrooshan / @ashkan: Every time u read about layoffs, it's fear from @sequoia deck driving it. @Vice built an organization that rivaled traditional in size but without the commensurate revenue so digital's 50% costs vs 21% revenues forces it to cut where future growth is.

This next comment contains the delusional and failed thinking of Vice management, which, unfortunately for democracy, is too prevalent in the media industry.

@kerrymflynn: In the second half of the email, Vice CEO Nancy Dubuc seems to blame the company's financial situation on “Big Tech.” “Platforms are not just taking a larger slice of the pie, but almost the whole pie.” Wonder if she read Stratchery's post yesterday:

In the olden times, words mattered to the profession of journalism. I'm unsure if that's the case today. Notice the claim by Vice management:

"Platforms are not just taking a larger slice ..."

Taking? This malformed rhetoric is used too often by the failed thinkers in media. They assign words like "stealing" and "destroying" to Craigslist, Facebook, Google, and other digital orgs that started during the web era, post 1990.

It's all wrong. The web startups that became biggies never stole nor took nor destroyed anything that supposedly "belonged" to the media.

The web startups that became big companies built services that attracted users, and advertisers followed the users.

If media orgs have built their business models around advertising, then they have simply been Darwined away over the past 20 years by a technologically evolving society. Maybe nothing can be done by the media to stop this evolution.

The most poignant comment was made by Om who founded Gigaom, which was eventually shutdown, years later. Om knows something about trying to sustain a digital businesses.

@om: It is amazing to see after blowing through nearly $1.7 billion (including debt) @VICE CEO blames Google & Facebook for its troubles. Maybe just maybe people didn't want their product, and maybe there were some bad choices made.

It's not the fault of big tech. 100 percent of the blame belongs to the media companies for any financial problems. Until media orgs admit that fact, then the industry will continue to tank.

The media industry needs to admit that its the reason for its failings, and that advertising is a failed business model. Once the media industry or a single media org realizes those truths, then it might have a chance to save itself.

The media industry has been playing the blame game for 20 years, and how has that worked out?

In that memo, CEO Nancy Dubuc blamed Big Tech companies for sucking up the lion's share of growth in digital advertising.

And what about this comment mentioned above that was attached to another Mediagazer story:

@bikehugger: @mat @VanityFair Relatable because Buzzfeed has been trying to murder outlets like mine since they launched. The ad revenue alone, stolen right out of blogger's pockets.

Independent bloggers and blogging networks formed in the early to mid aughts. Many of these bloggers offered humane ads on their blog sites to earn some money. The more popular bloggers earned enough from these simple display ads that they didn't have to work anywhere else.

As more "traditional" media orgs transitioned to the web, and new media startups launched as web-only services, then the web got a lot more crowded. The ad pie shifted. Allegedly.

Maybe the media industry destroyed the ad-supported blogosphere of the aught years. I have no idea if that is even remotely true, but if the media can blame others for its problems, then why not bloggers?

May 11, 2020 Mediagazer link and headline:

Politico EIC says it is “cautiously optimistic” as more than half its business is premium subscription contracts and it doesn't have a lot of retail advertising