July 3, 2020
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The Creator/Operator Economy Still Needs More Empowering and Support

For anyone that follows me on Twitter, I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about these fledgling, creator/operator projects that are starting to get built. It’s quite possible that what we see getting built today will morph into the typical media company we are used to seeing.

However, the transition from individual creator that writes about an interesting topic to fully baked out media company is not a seamless one. Additionally, many may decide that they don’t want to make that leap, really enjoying the solo lifestyle.

Irrespective of what path these creator/operators take, there remains a huge gap in the resources and tools available for them to succeed at their business.

Despite what many might say, the reason a media company has merit is specifically because it provides the necessary tools and resources that creators need to succeed. Behind every story published is an editor, graphics work and audience development, not to mention the people who ensure the site stays up, the bills get paid, etc.

The unbundling of the media company is interesting in principle. However, it doesn’t change the fact the jobs that a media company did still need to be done. Whether it’s the individual or the company, the work doesn’t disappear.

That’s why I’ve started to think about all of this not as the creator economy, but as the wordier creator/operator economy. I’m now in charge of writing, editing, graphics work, audience development, tracking subscriptions, engaging with the audience to reduce churn and the list goes on. Where once I might have just written eloquently about building media businesses, now I must do everything.

Although creator/operator economy does not have to mean a newsletter on Substack, over the past six months, it has really blossomed into what many people think about. Now everyone wants to launch a subscription newsletter, believing that it’s the real path to success.

However, I would argue that it’s not the only path to success. I have not hidden my belief that advertising is a viable business model for many of the creator/operators out there. Additionally, I’ve also been very forthcoming with my frustration that advertising is such a taboo word among the Substack-elite.

I put this tweet storm earlier this week to discuss it:

Many people say that Substack is the tool that empowers creators to step up and build individual businesses without having to chase for clicks like major media companies beholden to advertising. Clickbait can die now thanks to the subscription! Vive la subscription!

I recognize the irony that I am criticizing Substack considering I use it, but alas, here we are…

Subscriptions cure the problem of clickbait? Nah…

There are some really bad outlets out there that hold their reporters to irrational pageview expectations, but the reality is, most publications that rely on advertising hold themselves to the same journalistic standards as publications that rely on subscriptions. Clickbait and fake news have quickly become the standard for content that people don’t agree with.

“If we only had a cleaner means of monetization,” people will say, trumping the subscription, “we’d be able to get rid of all that clickbait.”

Let me write that a different way.

“If we got rid of ads and relied on subscriptions, I’d only have to see content that I want to see.”

That’s the definition of an echo chamber. No liberal would pay for news that discusses something good Trump did and no conservative would pay for news that discusses something bad that Trump did. It’s hard enough getting people to take out their credit card; now you want them to do it on content that will test their beliefs?

We can see this playing out in the tech vs. media battles on social media. It’s gotten to the point that certain former-VCs are literally paying bounties for people to harass journalists.

Here’s the irony… The most successful subscription news organization in the world is The New York Times. It is increasingly moving away from advertising as a revenue driver. And yet, the people complaining about clickbait and fake news use The New York Times as the primary example of clickbait. Why, pray tell, would a subscription media company need to rely on low quality, click bait content? I thought the subscription cured that problem?

Yeah… I’ll let people noodle on that one.

Whether it’s advertising or subscriptions, the quality of reporting doesn’t change if the organization follows strict journalistic standards.

Why do I bring this up?

The creator/operator economy needs empowering

In the Digiday piece about Substack published a few days ago, Substack’s Chris Best seemed to contradict himself a little:

Best said Substack’s main focus is the connection between an individual and that person’s audience. Its pitch to writers is that they have complete control over everything — from their content to their distribution lists (there are some limits, like a minimum fee structure of $5 per month if you want to switch to a paid model).

With the wider industry in a period of crisis, Substack has entered into a new phase. The first phase, Best said, was to attract writers with existing audiences to move to Substack. Now Substack wants to bring on new voices. As for products like bundles, Best said it should be driven by writers, not the company itself. 

One thing that Substack does promise: no ads, ever. “Any time you’re doing ads, it’s all about the lowest common denominator of engagement: clicks,” Best said.

I’ve bolded three parts for emphasis.

On one hand, Substack is telling creators that they are in complete control and that all decisions are driven by the writers, not the company. But then, at the same time, the company is very much deciding that the creators must follow the business model that the company says is the right one.

How is that empowerment?

Fortunately, creator/operators have figured out wonderful workarounds like they always will so that those that want to provide advertising are able to do it.

Substack provides the tools necessary for us to build subscription newsletters, but the future of the creator/operator economy is a lot more than that. For these new businesses to thrive, we’re going to need additional tools and resources.

Supporting the creator/operator business model stack

As I think about what the future of the creator/operator business looks like (at least when grounded with a newsletter), it’s something like this:

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The point is that the creator/operator should be identifying multiple streams of revenue. It starts at the top by building an audience on the platforms, but then immediately, you’re driving users down deeper into your funnel where you are generating an ever increasing amount of money from your most loyal audiences.

I’ve done this at A Media Operator. People come from social to this newsletter where I am starting to selectively take advertising. You all pay for a subscription. I’ve done some consulting work. At some point in the future, I will introduce a more exclusive community, but we’re not there yet.

The creator/operator has to be in a place to diversify revenue streams and right now, there are no easy tools that allow that.

For example… I created an account with SuperPeer, where people can request 30 minutes of my time to discuss whatever they want. However, no one actually knows about it because there are no easy ways for me to promote that to my audience.

Which brings me to the first thing that I would love for Substack to change. Right now, my homepage is my newsletter. But truthfully, my homepage should be about me and what A Media Operator is. A Media Operator will become so much more than just my blog and newsletter subscription. In the future, if I decide to do even more consulting and introduce that exclusive community for operators only, I’d want ways to promote that right here on the site.

But let’s say Substack doesn’t want to change the homepage. Giving us the ability to create evergreen pages that we can include in the navigation would go a long way.

Not everyone should have that setup, but then again, not everyone is building a business the way I am. The point of empowering creator/operators is that each might have their own path. My friend Packy over at Not Boring has decided that he doesn’t want to launch a subscription newsletter even though he has 5,000+ people on his list because he believes there are other ways he can monetize. He’s choosing the path that’s right for him.

Supporting a creator/operator cooperative

Bringing this back to where I started this essay, the unbundling of the media company means that I have to edit, design, promote and so much more. Creating is just one part of it.

Additionally, there are things that many people might not think about when deciding to venture out on their own. Here in the United States, we have to buy our own health insurance if we are independent creators. That can get unbearably expensive.

Secondly, for those that are attempting to hold power to account, there is this pesky thing called libel. According to Cornell law, libel is:

A method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.

The interesting thing about libel suits is that they can very well be a weapon to silence independent reporters. If you’re reporting on a wealthy person and he doesn’t like what you’ve said, he can sue you for libel—even if you did nothing wrong. The idea isn’t to win the case, but to make you back down out of fear of running out of money.

How do you protect yourself? You get libel insurance. It covers the legal fees, which protects you in the event that you have to go to court over a specific issue.

Both health and libel insurance are policies that are cheaper to purchase when multiple people are doing it. That’s why small companies use professional employer organizations like TriNet. With tens of thousands of employees in the PEO, the cost for insurance drops per person.

This is the second thing Substack could do. If there was a way for people to buy this insurance as a group, the costs would drop and creator/operators could get better protection.

There is opportunity in supporting creator/operators

Let me sum this up real quick…

The creator/operator economy today is too one dimensional around getting people to pay for content. The subscription is all that matters. And if we can get the subscription, people say, then the quality will increase.

I don’t agree with this. While I believe subscriptions are incredible and I am clearly building one, quality is just as important with a direct-sold advertising business. Otherwise, audiences won’t trust us and no one will read us. Quality is also important if the creator wants to build a consulting business or get paid speaking engagements.

Quality exists because a publication has decided to serve its audience.

Empowering creator/operators is helping them to build their brands and business models with diversified streams of revenue. That’s what I am doing here.

One way to take that empowerment to the extreme is to offer additional benefits and services. By bundling costs together, creators can get better health & libel insurance.

Whether it’s Substack or another platform, solving this will supercharge the creator/operator economy.

The unbundling of media companies is fine, but the real innovation is the fact that the creator is now the operator. Providing the necessary infrastructure that media companies offered while still having the creator front and center is how this economy grows.

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