March 12, 2021
Members Only

Should We Consider Slowing Down Our Publishing?

Two weeks ago, I opened my mailbox and pulled out a magazine. I had recently subscribed to MIT Technology Review (after interviewing their CEO) and was receiving my first issue. I sat down on my couch, opened it up, and started reading.

Over the years, I have subscribed to magazines. I used to receive the thick, baby-blue Foreign Affairs. I’ve also read and then watched dust collect on The Economist. I like magazines. I never finish them, but I like them.

But as with most things, it got me thinking about the difference between digital and print media beyond the obvious form factor.

If something newsworthy were to happen the second this issue hits your inbox (probably around 10am ET), the order of distribution is pretty straight forward to imagine:

  • Immediate: Social media
  • 1-15 minutes: Digital news story with a headline
  • 15-60 minutes: Cable news story
  • Next day: Print newspaper
  • One week: Print magazine (if it’s a weekly)

The timing might not be exact, but directionally, that feels right to me. We tend to hear about things on social almost immediately after they happen. We start to get context in the first hour with the quick hits published digitally or on cable TV. And then over the next days and through the rest of the week, we start to get deeper detail about everything.

The news addict in me loves the immediate. I am on Twitter far more than is healthy. I read The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Axios even though they basically tell me the same thing in three different voices. And that’s about it.

I don’t ever read the one-week reaction to the news because I am already on the next news cycle since I’m a digital-first junkie. That said, I know that I am missing out on better reporting by being addicted to the fast reaction news.

The question, though, is do I actually need information at that speed? Are publishers sending me information in a way that supports their business model rather than my individual consumer needs?

For a couple of years now, there has been a debate about whether the amount of content media companies publish is actually the right approach. For the longest time, especially for ad-driven media companies, the model had been to publish as much as possible.

That makes sense. After all, if we think about it, there are two broad ways to grow your revenue with an ad business. The first is to increase the number of people that are seeing your content. The second is to increase the number of times that people come back to the site to read additional content. You can achieve the latter by either recirculating your current content really efficiently or executing the common strategy of creating more content.

Prior to programmatic advertising, more content didn’t immediately mean more ad revenue because you still needed to sign insertion orders and make sure there was actually supply. But once programmatic was introduced, every pageview could be monetized. That changed the equation quite a bit.

The business model pushed us to start creating far more content than we might have otherwise needed. When the push is quantity, the quality is negatively affected.

I am reminded of a Digiday story from February 2020 where some publishers were actually seeing the opposite.

Over the last year, the Guardian cut its weekly output by one-third after it detected, by using its real-time analytics tool Ophan, that no one was reading a huge chunk of the journalism produced by the publisher, according to Chris Moran, the Guardian’s editor of strategic projects. The subsequent change in volume led to traffic growth, tweeted Guardian editor-in-chief Kathrine Viner. In December 2019, the Guardian had 25 million monthly unique users in the U.K., a rise from 23.4 million the previous year, according to Comscore.

From 2017 to 2019, French subscription publisher Le Monde reduced its total number of articles 25% while growing its newsroom staff to 500 journalists. Its online audience rose 11% and its print and digital circulation rose 11%, according to a tweet from Luc Bronner, Le Monde’s managing editor. Comscore reported that during December 2019, Le Monde had 9.1 million unique monthly users in France; that’s a rise from 8.4 million in December 2018.

The story has a variety of other examples. But one thing stood out for all of them: publishers decided to decrease the number of stories they publish and that resulted in an increase in traffic and engagement.

The reason for the increase in traffic was that the focus shifted from creating a specific quantity of articles to delivering quality information to readers. Irrespective of the business model, people were more interested in reading quality content than a quantity of content.

This brings me back to the issue of MIT Technology Review that I received. Because this is a product people automatically pay for and because there is a limit to the number of pieces that can be included, the quality of content has to be high. Otherwise, why would people pay for it?

In an interview back in May 2019, The Information’s Jessica Lessin said:

As journalists, we think our story is so much better than this other story, but in the eyes of a reader who is maybe not paying a ton of attention, it may seem similar. I always say, you really need to go for the 10x and focus on the things that are 10 times better or different than what other people are doing.

One of the mistakes many publishers that were quick to try subscriptions made is that their editorial strategy didn’t change at all. They simply assumed that the same mediocre content would be good enough to justify the money.

So, I ask the question again… why do I need this much information at this speed?

For those of us pursuing subscription businesses, I wonder if we should consider taking our foot off the pedal. Rather than publishing five pieces on a single story, why not only do two? When it’s incremental changes to the story, is it helping the reader?

I think about the growing newsletter business. These tend to be sent on a specific schedule every day. Some are sent a few times a week and, even still, some are sent weekly. If something were to happen the minute after a newsletter was released, it would take 24 hours for the next issue—with that news—to hit your inboxes.

In that 24-hour period, we’d have more answers about what had occurred and be in a better place to inform the reader. Is that not a better product to give to readers than real-time information? Do they need it?

A good example of this is Digiday. They publish all of their stories at the exact same time. Then they go silent for the day. The next day, more stories. For us operating in media, we get what we need even if it isn’t instant.

I recognize there are exceptions. If you are dealing with things related to finance, seconds are what separate the major hedge funds from subscribing to you and ignoring you. However, with the vast majority of us operating in a world where news that happens today won’t impact a decision today, I wonder if the quality of our product would improve with us slowing down.

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