March 3, 2020

Ben Smith is Half Right, But There’s a Hole in His Analysis

There must be something special about joining The New York Times and then writing a piece titled Why the Success of The New York Times May Be Bad for Journalism. That’s exactly what new columnist Ben Smith did this weekend.

In the article, he wrote:

I’m stepping into the space opened a decade ago by David Carr, the late columnist who chronicled an explosion of new online outlets. My focus will probably be the opposite: The consolidation of everything from movies to news, as the media industry gets hollowed out by the same rich-get-richer, winner-take-all forces that have reshaped businesses from airlines to pharmaceuticals.

And the story of consolidation in media is a story about The Times itself.

The gulf between The Times and the rest of the industry is vast and keeps growing: The company now has more digital subscribers than The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and the 250 local Gannett papers combined, according to the most recent data. And The Times employs 1,700 journalists — a huge number in an industry where total employment nationally has fallen to somewhere between 20,000 and 38,000.

He went on to explain that the Times had basically hired many of the reporters who ever competed with it. Forget wealth inequality. Let’s talk about the 1% of media!

Smith is at least partially right, in case anyone is curious. But he’s also partially wrong and I think it’s important to recognize that.

First where he is right…

As The New York Times grows, it is able to cover additional topics with the same quality that readers can expect. That’s why it has been expanding into Parenting. It believes it has solved the formula for providing content to people.

To take it a step farther, The New York Times is no longer just a publisher with a paywall. It is a publisher that understands the acquisition, engagement and retention of paying subscribers. It has modeled out exactly how someone is going to unsubscribe and put reenagement campaigns in place to minimize churn.

None of this is surprising to anyone. And if we look across other sites, we can see operators attempting to replicate what The Times does, albeit on a smaller scale.

This becomes an issue when a user has to decide what she wants to subscribe to. For many, they’re going to opt for The New York Times because it is the best.

My philosophy is that everyone will likely sign up for approximately four publications:

  1. A national pub: NY Times, WSJ, Washington Post, etc.
  2. A local pub: What’s the pub where you live?
  3. A work pub: I subscribe to Digiday
  4. An interest pub: The Athletic

Although some might disagree, if we look at this from just a content offering perspective, what’s the real difference between what The New York Times and The Washington Post produce? Both have access to major politicians and have the resources to do deep, investigative journalism. Why would the vast majority of people sign up for both?

[As a quick aside, there is a reason people might sign up for both. I wrote about this on Friday for a paid-only post.]

The real question is whether there are secondary national publications that are getting people to subscribe. Using Ben Smith’s former employer as an example, can we really expect BuzzFeed News to compete with The New York Times? Although BuzzFeed News refers to their subscription as contributions, the reality is that BuzzFeed is hoping people will pay for news. If a user has to choose one national news publication, which will they choose?

What we will find is that The New York Times is going to suck all the air out of these secondary national publications when fighting for subscribers. Rather than pivot their subscription products, many of these publications will run into a wall trying to compete on the merits of the content.

Where Smith is wrong is that he assumes the future of media is the BuzzFeeds of the world—large, digital-first publications that try to cover everything. Honestly, the future of media is anything but that. More specifically, the future of media is niche IP.

The smartest publications will realize that its the underlying IP that is worth subscribing to—or developing an entire business model around—and will figure out ways to build that out further.

Before I dive deeper, I want to touch on my thoughts regarding niche. According to, niche, adjective, is:

denoting or relating to products, services, or interests that appeal to a small, specialized section of the population.

I would like to file a claim to change the definition of niche (which, by the way, is said nich, not neesh/, don’t @ me). In my opinion, the definition of niche when it comes to media should be defined as:

denoting or relating to a topic or section of the population, irrespective of size, where the publisher dives incredibly deep on that topic.

Nowhere does it say a niche needs to be small. Look at AgingMedia. That’s an $8 trillion industry that the team covers. Look at Skift, which covers travel. That’s worth over $7 trillion.

Let’s change gears because I’m only talking about B2B brands. What about Barstool? That’s a niche publication that sold for $450 million. How about Food52? That’s a niche publication that’s valued at well over $100 million.

Again, nowhere does niche in media mean that it needs to be small. It needs to be specific and it needs to be deep. By focusing on this, a publisher is able to serve its particular audience.

This is where The New York Times will never really be able to compete. True, it’ll expand into a few—parenting being the first—but it won’t be able to expand into every niche that exists. That means there remains strong opportunity for publications large and small to operate. These are b2b, b2c and local niches. They can all succeed.

This is where Smith is fundamentally wrong with his headline. The success of The New York Times is not bad for journalism. It’s bad for undifferentiated, generalist media that has no targeted audience. Honestly? I’m okay with that. The rest of us niche people can learn a lot from how The New York Times is built.

Moving right along…

Visa rules and trial subscriptions

I happened upon this tweet and, for anyone that is looking at building out trial subscriptions, it’s worth paying attention to because it will fundamentally change how subscriptions work.

A few things jump out that many legacy media brands are going to have to contend with.

  1. The publisher needs to be incredibly clear on what the user is subscribing to and when it actually goes into effect.
  2. The publisher needs to remind the user that they have subscribed to something 7 days before the renewal.
  3. The publisher has to make it incredibly easy for the user to unsubscribe from the service.

If there are any people reading from The Wall Street Journal, this goes out to you. Making people call to cancel their subscription in 2020 is awful. Trying to increase friction hoping people will just shrug their shoulders and stay subscribed is poor practice.

This goes into effect on April 18th and Visa will do what it calls “proactive monitoring,” which I suppose means that it’ll start looking at the largest number of subscriptions that it processes and test out what the unsubscribe process is like.

The thing is, if publishers do a good job engaging with their paid audience, it’s less likely that there’s any need to participate in these duplicitous tactics. The content and IP should be good enough.

My guess is if you’re using a newer payment processor like Stripe, these sorts of rules will be automatically put into place. However, for those that have built their own or use old ones, you’re going to want to spend some time understanding exactly what your process is. It wouldn’t be good if Visa concluded your service was not compliant.