February 27, 2024

There Is No Casual Consumer News Path Forward

I will be down in New Orleans this week at the BIMS event. If you’ll be there, let me know because it’d be great to meet up. Also, for AMO Pro members, there’s a chance I will be sending Friday’s newsletter on Saturday.

We’ve had a lot of great submissions to Omeda’s State of Audience Survey, but we’re still looking to get a little bit more data. The goal is to better understand where things are headed for audience development teams and how different publications prioritize their audience development energy. 

If you work in audience at your media business, take a little time to fill out this completely anonymous survey. It’ll take ten minutes and Omeda will donate $50 to the Chicago Food Bank for every complete survey. Plus, you’ll receive the full research report and findings later this spring. 

Fill out the survey here.

Maybe this time, we’ll learn

It feels like we’re in the final innings of consumer media’s washout. The last few months have been full of these stories:

And I am sure I’ve missed many other headlines. Vox had a touch of good news with a Digiday story on New York Magazine’s the Cut adding editorial staff due to growing demand for advertising.

This attempt at blitzscaling (“the specific set of practices for igniting and managing dizzying growth”) consumer media is over. The era of leading with growth models rather than differentiated, audience-first content is over. Publishers realize that smaller, more engaged audiences are where their livelihoods will last.

And yet, there appears to still be some subtle pining. Over at Semafor, the media newsletter team wrote about this pivot to niche:

You see that everywhere now: The collapse of mass brands like BuzzFeed and Vice, the rise of a generation of much more narrowly focused ones, including this one, and a scramble to rescue beloved outlets like Pitchfork by returning them to a smaller, dedicated audience. The trend is embodied by the spectacular growth and $525 million exit of Industry Dive, an unglamorous set of trade publications covering everything from education to waste management.

And yet: I have a lingering feeling that there’s still space outside this new conventional wisdom, and that someone will find a way to make money reaching the casual news consumer. See that happening? Let us know.

While I find the trade publications comment irritating for a whole host of reasons, I want to focus on the last paragraph. “I have a lingering feeling that there’s still space outside this new conventional wisdom…”

Let’s be 100% clear: that lingering feeling is nothing more than a longing for a different time. And it is not a time that has any chance of working in the future because the internet allowed for profitable fragmentation. Before the internet, the only publications that could win were those that could get big enough to acquire expensive printing presses. Even with TV, the cost of studios and everything else made it impossible.

But now, anyone and their mother can launch a publication. Heck, I launched A Media Operator on a random Friday in August 2019 and turned it into a side hustle, and there’s a slight chance I could, with my fingertips, touch $1 million in revenue (long shot, but still). And because the costs of launching are so low, the revenue we need to generate to serve an audience is also much lower.

The business models also make it harder to support true consumer news. While advertising gets much of the blame for the state of content online, perhaps subscriptions are the real problem. Take The New York Times, which is the pinnacle of success. I only just yesterday read the very long essay by former New York Times opinion editor Jame Bennet, who resigned for publishing the Senator Cotton op-ed.

It became one of Dean Baquet’s frequent mordant jokes that he missed the old advertising-based business model, because, compared with subscribers, advertisers felt so much less sense of ownership over the journalism. I recall his astonishment, fairly early in the Trump administration, after Times reporters conducted an interview with Trump. Subscribers were angry about the questions the Times had asked. It was as if they’d only be satisfied, Baquet said, if the reporters leaped across the desk and tried to wring the president’s neck. The Times was slow to break it to its readers that there was less to Trump’s ties to Russia than they were hoping, and more to Hunter Biden’s laptop, that Trump might be right that covid came from a Chinese lab, that masks were not always effective against the virus, that shutting down schools for many months was a bad idea.

Your customers are going to expect their biases to be confirmed. And so, even an organization like The New York Times struggles under the weight of a changed era. Maybe this is why Skift’s Rafat Ali has been saying that The Times is going to be culturally obsolete. I have difficulty accepting that as a long-time Times reader, but the world is changing.

On the other hand, The Times didn’t have much choice but to pivot to a subscription model. Advertising had become much smarter, and these mass-scale pubs were getting a smaller percentage. Before the internet, you could run ads in a newspaper or on TV, which was basically your only option. Now, you can plaster ads everywhere. There’s even programmatic OOH. There’s so much available inventory that is it any wonder mass consumer media has failed? We can blame the platforms, but the reality is, this is better for the advertisers too.

Every surviving mass-scale news media company is managing a slowly declining business. The world has changed. I don’t know what the future looks like for general consumer media, but I can tell you it’s not all the stuff launched over the last 10-15 years. The reality is that the future of media is smaller.

It’s women going to Rescripted for women’s health (disclosure: I’m an advisor). It’s hobbyists reading one of the many publications at Active Interest Media. It’s people in Arkansas reading Arkansas Bride or Greenhead for duck hunters. It’s flyers and boaters reading the multitude of publications by Firecrown. And the list goes on and on and on. This is the future of consumer media.

And yes, general consumer news has an obvious and glaring hole. But none of the business models we know today will work at scale for news. Even with consumer news, it will have to be hyper-focused players. And there is an inherent disadvantage to this because scale should, theoretically, provide the necessary resources to hold power to account. But here we are… the world has changed. Looking back fondly does nothing to change the future.

PRO: gal-dem, Defector, and Being Transparent With Your Audience

As financial realities begin to bite, subscription-based publications must experiment with other reader revenue models. While the hard paywall isn’t going anywhere, some publishers are experimenting with complimentary membership models to buoy that reader revenue. However, launching a membership is easier said than done.

As membership and Insider-based publications tell AMO, people who choose to join membership schemes have different priorities than simply getting exclusive access to content. Some, for example, prioritize transparency around how their support is used, which impacts how those publishers need to speak to them.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s audience editor, Jessica Best, says: “We want to be in a grown-up conversation with our readers so that they understand why their support is important and what the money is used for.”

And some subscription-based outlets have adopted that transparency-based approach to bring new audiences into the fold. Defector Media’s co-owner and vice president of revenue and operations Jasper Wang explains: “We’re still always reminding people of how their dollars directly support our work.”

By: Chris Sutcliffe

Become an AMO Pro member to read the full piece.

PRO: Does Brand Awareness Advertising Even Matter Anymore?

With affiliate marketing and lead generation proliferating across consumer and B2B media, respectively, the question that is starting to come up is whether there will even be a need for brand awareness advertising. Why pay for promotion versus paying for actual results?

And that argument does carry some merit with it. The problem is that people decide on products long before they click on a performance advertisement. In the b2b world, 62% of software purchases are from a brand the buyer already knows. In other words, no amount of lead generation will overcome the fact that the buyer already has a bias toward a specific solution. Consumers are the same way, which is why we see billions of dollars spent on driving awareness.

That said, not all brand awareness advertising is created equal. And so, it’s important for publishers to ensure that they are delivering the right value to their advertisers. In this piece, I go through the four steps publishers must take to accomplish this.

Become an AMO Pro member to read the full piece.

Best Buy Should Buy CNET

In this guest piece by Mike Mallazzo, the argument is presented that what Best Buy needs to overcome its malaise is CNET. At the same time, what CNET needs to break free from its slow SEO-led death finally is to be owned by a brand that doesn’t need it to generate direct cash flow.

I find the argument compelling for several reasons, which Mallazzo breaks down. First, CNET’s editorial strategy and Best Buy’s retail strategy align. Second, Best Buy could use CNET as the additional scale for its retail media business. Third, Best Buy could use CNET to help train a generative AI experience. And finally, it gives Best Buy what it needs to avoid becoming an obscure retailer.

Check out the entire piece here what Mallazzo breaks it all down.

Thanks for reading today’s newsletter. If you have thoughts, hit reply or become an AMO Pro member to never miss another piece of content and for an invitation to the AMO Slack. Have a great week!