The rise of news products

They look like journalism, but they're not

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Welcome to this week’s edition of The Rebooting, written from a chilly New York City instead of a warm Miami. This week, I’m writing about the proliferation of “news products,” the importance of brand DNA and discontent in the ranks of media workers. Thanks to Mediaocean for its support -- and please share this with colleagues you think would find it valuable.

The rise of news products

I grew up in the 1980s, the zenith of “food products,” a fancy term for processed food that resembled real food -- fruits, vegetables, etc -- but were invented in a lab somewhere specifically to appeal to our senses while being presented as just like actual food, never mind they weren’t.

We’re entering into an age of journalism products. These are newsletters and websites that certainly look a lot like the news we are accustomed to but they’re not real news. That includes many Substacks that are mostly opinion and analysis -- that includes TRB, which I don’t consider a news product -- corporate media like what Andreesen Horowitz is trying to do and media built as the front end for commerce businesses on the hunt for cheaper ways to acquire customers than dumping all their money into Google and Facebook. 

Just like food products, few of these substitutes have the same nutritional value. Yet processed food has typically been cheaper to produce than actual food and is marketed in ways that enables people to forget they’re not consuming the real thing. Personally, I don’t think this has to be a bad development. Nobody would see an interminable Clubhouse room hosted by VCs to hype their investments as an actual substitute for a news program. I find it hard to get too upset that opinion writers are leaving places like Vox and The New York Times to make a lot of money in the newsletter craze. After all, opinion pages and cable news programs are the original news products that reporters are forced to constantly remind people aren’t actual news, although they sure are formatted to look like it. 

In the end, people will need to be willing to pay more for actual news, just the same as we pay more for real cheese vs Velveeta.


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Brand DNA

A hard truth about companies is they can’t change their DNA. It will always be present, no matter how many other things change about them. This is one reason I’m fascinated by more editorial people founding brands. Edit people think differently from those who come from the sales side.

I had a conversation with one editorial founder last week who started a publication because a family member was diagnosed with a life-altering disease. She recognized there was a dearth of high quality information and support for those in her situation. Similarly, I had a conversation on Clubhouse last week with Kevin Delaney, founder or Reset Work. He started it because he was a self-taught manager, like many of us, who wanted to do it better. 

As an editorial person, I’m more inclined to this approach as opposed to starting a publication based on the commercial opportunities and then matching the editorial. That isn’t, to me, a recipe for a lasting brand. Better to find the business model to fit the mission than start with the business model and try to graft on a mission. 

I can remember many years ago meeting with the founder of Glam Media who told me he researched different opportunities in publishing and found that the ad market for reaching women was an ideal opportunity. So that’s what they built. Needless to say, Glam didn’t work out, despite the dozens of stories it was preparing for an IPO over the years. The same thing happened in the bizarre days of Facebook feed publications. Little Things used its expertise at mastering the Facebook algo to build a huge audience. Again, didn’t last. We’ll see more of this as newsletters explode with audience development and bought audiences as their DNA.

Media and its discontents

Earlier this week, I had a coffee with a media executive and discussed the current state of the business, including the discontent roiling newsrooms. There is pressure at the top with the defection of “superstar” writers to platforms like Substack and a wave of unionization as rank-and-file workers want more job security, better pay, clearer career paths and a real commitment to diversity. This exec’s summary: It all stems from shitty business models.

Publishing remains one of the worst possible ways to make money. The ad market is rebounding, but let’s face it, the industry is fighting for scraps left over from Google, Facebook and Apple. Subscriptions are a bright spot for an elite group of publishers like The New York Times and some speciality and business publications. But the truth is, there’s not a large pie to be divided. The discontent can be traced in many ways to this unavoidable reality. The publishing model depends on waves of low-paid, young people, some of whom are supported by their parents. Very few get through to the other side of the business where a normal middle-class living is attainable. 

Perhaps it’s a week in gray New York vs sunny Miami, but I don’t have a lot of optimism for that changing. Publishers will benefit from a rising ad market and buoyant economy. They’ll also be under more pressure as labor costs inevitably rise, driven by both demand for workers in all sectors of the economy and successful unionization efforts. The end result: Publishing will remain a very difficult business.

Other things to check out

For better or worse, we live in a world of “personal brands,” where people want to be influencers. Ed Zitron has a nice lament of the downsides of this confusion of personality with personal brands

Based the excerpts I’ve seen, I can see why WSJ’s top brass wasn’t crazy about the recommendations of its version of The Innovation Report. The WSJ is a business publication that’s a tool for people to make more money. Pivoting to imitate the New York Times strikes me as a bad strategy. Better: Cover a broader array of social and environmental issues, but do it through the lens of business. Trying to be everything to everybody is a recipe for disaster.

Edelman’s Jim Prosser offers thoughts on the implications of companies building their own news products under the “going-direct” mantra. I have my doubts corporate media products will engender must trust. But I do agree with Jim that journalists and publications need to find better ways to earn the trust of their audiences — and to bake them into the product itself. The 700-word story, with cherry picked quotes and an angle often arrived at before the reporting, hit its past-due date long ago.