$10 trillion of corporate debt propping up the economy? What could go wrong?

Let me get this straight …

We’re in an era in which corporations are given every conceivable break to do whatever the hell they want and barely pay for it. And they’re still borrowing so much that they’re getting BBB ratings?

So when the next recession hits, the government and corporations will have already gone so deep into the red that no rational person will lend them another dime?

Yeah, this’ll end well.

This news comes to you from The Washington Post, and whatever you think of Amazon’s business practices, at least Jeff Bezos is keeping such reporting alive. Similar stories are at NPR and the Financial Times.

The state of paid media and Medium

Gotta love coincidental timing. Just after my post on the state of paid media, in which I listed oodles of things for which people are willing to pay and lamented that they’re apparently not willing to pay for newspapers and magazines (even in new media form), I was sent this link …

https://praxis.fortelabs.co/why-im-leaving-medium/amp/

The upshot of it is that someone decided Medium’s sort-of paywall wasn’t going to work, so he’s going to do his Niche Blog That Has 10,000,000 Paying Readers Who Also Buy His Ebooks. Invariably, such niche blogs fall into two categories:

  1. Technology
  2. How to make money on niche blogs about technology

But this piece got more interesting than the typical “I make $200,000 a year writing about JavaScript” piece:

Traditional newspapers had to maximize their potential audience by including “something for everyone” in each issue. Thus their pages include a wild diversity of content — crossword puzzles, editorials, comics, recipes, news stories — but most of it of mediocre or standard quality. This makes no sense in a digital world where the very best content in each category is just a click away.

Online media, despite being so different from traditional printed media, is still trying to maximize its potential audience, and in order to do that, going for quantity over quality. Look at any popular media website, and you’ll see a constant stream of mediocre, click-bait updates. This is because, until recently, the only viable way to monetize online was advertising, and making any meaningful revenue from advertising required millions of readers. Only the biggest operations could afford to play this game, so we mistakenly concluded that online media only worked for large corporations.

I said it was more interesting. I didn’t say it was right. He’s half-right.

The traditional newspaper business model is dead, but he’s too dismissive of it. Even today, I wouldn’t exactly call the New York Times crossword puzzle “mediocre,” and the Washington Post still carries the best comic strip today (Pearls Before Swine). In older times, much of what was in a typical newspaper was actually the best — admittedly, sometimes by default. It had the best local news except in the rare market in which the newspaper sucked and a TV station managed to delve into the issues. (Still true.) It had the best comics aside from Mad magazine — which, alas, is also disappearing. It had the best classified advertising by default, and local newspapers’ inability to cover the shortfall for losing that revenue is the biggest reason local newspapers are going under. I’m not sure how he determined that the recipes weren’t that great. In any case, in the 19th and 20th centuries, newspapers were a pretty good deal.

He’s absolutely right about clickbait and the difficulties of making money through advertising. I’ve always thought it’s a little silly that an advertiser will pay big money to have a logo on the right front fender of a race car but only hands over money to a local newspaper if they can come up with some “metric,” but I can understand why such money simply isn’t going to pay the bills. I once got $100 from Google Ads when tons of people clicked on the Olympic medal projections that took maybe 200 hours of labor, which may explain why I consider myself my own worst boss.

So, yes, it makes sense for any news organization that can’t bring in money on subscriptions (NYT, WaPo, WSJ) or donations (Guardian, ProPublica) to focus on a niche. Even ESPN is “niche,” though “sports” is rather broad, and their coverage includes live events and plenty of video highlights.

Then you can sell ebooks and other merchandise, depending on your topic, and you’re freed from having to game the system with SEO so you can get a million page views and make ends meet.

Here’s where he’s wrong …

People are going to tire of having a multitude of subscriptions.

If you’ve researched cord-cutting, you know how tricky this is. OK, so you’ve kicked Verizon to the curb. Now you have to pay for Internet access, and you’ll probably have to pay more than you were in your old bundle because you need faster speeds for everything you’ll be watching. Then you pay for Netflix. And Hulu. And HBO. And SiriusXM. And Spotify. And Pandora. And NBC Sports Gold (freelance client-shilling here). And so on.

And that’s just for video, which he notes has more pull for subscribers than the written word.

So how should we expect readers who already subscribe to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and/or the Economist to pay to subscribe to every blog we read on occasion?

The error here is a misreading of “freemium,” which he describes as “the practice of publishing free content to give readers a taste of what you offer, and then up-selling them to other products and services over time.” In some cases, that’s true. But it’s also the practice of opening your door to people who just want one story.

In another bit of coincidental timing, I was referred today to a Dutch news organization for an important soccer story. That news organization asked me for a subscription. Yeah, no.

A handful of services — Trim, Truebill and others — actually advertise their capacity to find all the things to which you’re subscribing and help you get rid of them. You’d think anyone who can read a credit-card statement could do such things for free, but go figure. The point is there’s a market for getting rid of the very thing this writer is trying to sell.

Here’s a little experience. Check your browser history for one day. Exclude the things you read for work, and exclude anything to which you subscribe. Here’s what I had today:

  1. PC Magazine (for one of the links above)
  2. A curling news site
  3. A local parents’ message board
  4. StackExchange
  5. The Nation
  6. A blog on a video game (ironically, a freemium game)
  7. A soccer satire site
  8. The BBC
  9. A soccer refereeing site
  10. Another soccer refereeing site
  11. A TV review site
  12. A Reston news site
  13. A Tysons Corner news site
  14. MacWorld

Now imagine that I pay $5/month to all 14 of those sites.

Now imagine that I pay $5/month to 10 more sites that I visit tomorrow.

And so on.

The “five free views” model has some utility. Most of a local newspaper’s content is going to be of interest only to locals, and that’s who the newspaper should target for subscriptions. But every once in a while, something will attract a wider audience. Maybe it’s something on a local sports team. Maybe it’s a weird crime story. Either way, there’s a benefit to letting everyone in on the fun.

If you’re counting on advertising to support all of your content, you’re probably not going to survive. If you’re reaping the advertising benefit of that one story that gets 200,000 page views, great. And if 10 of them decide to subscribe, so much the better.

I can’t really speak to Medium’s pay system, having not yet earned any money from it. (Haven’t really tried. You probably don’t even know I’ve posted on Medium.) And I can’t speak to this specific blog.

But in general — we have to find a way to accommodate people who “graze” for news from many different sites. It’s a valuable thing to do. One of the wonders of the Internet is that we can get different perspectives and chase different pursuits.

And frankly, those of us in mass media (which still exist) can’t afford to leave anyone out.

The state of paid media, 2019

Here are the things that can be supported by advertising …

Traditional TV networks, which continue to produce high-budget shows even as ratings are a small fraction of what they were.

Cable/other TV channels, which produce high-budget shows even as ratings were never that great in the first place.

PlutoTV, which must be watched by at least 10s of people. (Seriously — it’s utterly impossible to get schedules, so who watches unless they’ve simply exhausted every other possibility?)

Some YouTube channels

Terrestrial radio

Here are the things that can be supported by a mix of advertising and subscriptions …

Satellite radio

ESPN

The Wall Street Journal

The Washington Post

The New York Times

Here are the things that can be supported by subscriptions only …

Consumer Reports (phew!)

Netflix and its gazillions of original shows

Hulu’s original shows

HBO

Here are the things that no one has figured out how to support …

Newspapers

Magazines

Would you recognize satire or fake news if it bit you in the backside?

There’s a great moment in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix special in which he asks people about a story in which the pepperoni on a pizza may have looked like swastika. What did you think of the story? Was it a swastika?

A few people answer with applause for the options he throws out. Did you read it in the Post or the Times? Someone answers.

Can you guess the punchline?

I thought of that when reading an obvious but necessary bit of research showing people a mix of real, fake and satirical news and asking what they believed. The numbers who got it wrong were a little alarming. I’m sure you guessed that, too.

https://theconversation.com/too-many-people-think-satirical-news-is-real-121666

Rebuilding Springfield

I’ve been playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out for a while. It throws a lot of buildings and characters at its players, and I’ve grown tired of trying to cram them in.

I went through and “stored” many of the buildings in town. I left in place a couple of areas that I liked:

  • The park complex: Krustyland, Itchy & Scratchy Land and a nearby zoo
  • The sportsplex
  • The Vegas strip
  • Religion Island: Churches, a Buddhist temple, etc.
  • Prison Island, not including the minimum-security jail by the beach
  • The boardwalk

Everything else is being remade, and I’ve started with transportation. My roads and monorail lines took a lot of awkward turns, and I’m straightening things out a bit.

I’ve staked out a couple of new areas — the rural area and the North Pole/Canada, which has some but nowhere near all of the Christmas properties.

Here’s what I had …

And here’s where the rebuild stands …

Sept. 24 update:

  • Springfield Heights is full of houses and a couple of essential conveniences (Kwik-E-Mart, etc.)
  • Springfield Park faces an exclusive neighborhood, a bit like Central Park or some parks in Chicago. The country club is just southwest of it, and then a few vineyards are nicely placed between that and the shore. The amphitheater is tucked away next to the mountains and the shore.
  • The Governmental Plaza (northeast of Springfield Park) exists but needs some work.
  • The Vegas Strip remains intact with some minor tweaks.
  • The Technology Park and North Pole/Canada (following northeast) are more or less complete.
  • Religion Island and Prison Island remain in place southeast of the Governmental Plaza. Follow the river to the sea, and you get a strip of restaurants and eventually the old mill, with another historic building next to it.
  • The Sportsplex (concrete area southeast of Prison Island) hasn’t changed.
  • The Shopplex is adjacent to the Sportsplex, anchored by Springfield Mall. This area needs work.
  • Between the Sportsplex/Shopplex and the shore, I have a couple of strips of businesses and restaurants. The last strip before the boardwalk is a dumping ground for now — I’m placing things I want to see before I move them to a permanent home.
  • The theme parks — Itchy & Scratchy Land, Krustyland, Efcot’s World Showcase and the zoo — take up most of the southeast-northeast diagonal. Northeast of that is Shelbyville.
  • Next to Shelbyville and the zoo, I have a hodgepodge of entertainment (drive-in, demolition derby) and schools for people who’ve messed up (Rommelwood). This needs work.
  • Capital City is northeast of the DURE block.
  • The dirt area is farmland, which will eventually have many more wheat and corn fields, with Kamp Krusty all the way north. The airport is south of that. The schools are sitting awkwardly next to the airport and Efcot — I’ll move that to the strips between Krustyland and the country club.
  • Finally, Medieval Land is still a happy anachronism between the Technology Park and farmland.