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 …

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.

Bloggers 1, British tabloids 1

Good look here at how a blogger doing a deep dive into research helped sway the British election to be a lot closer than The Sun and the Daily Mail would’ve wanted: How Newspapers Lost Their Monopoly On Influencing Voters In The 2017 General Election

Sure, I’m a little wary — I don’t want people taking Joe Schmoe blogger at the same weight as The New York Times. But if they’re doing the research, they can have the same impact as, say, John Oliver. Which is good.

Copyright vs. viral fun

Tough question here. In some cases, people are taking images and giving them new life in new contexts, and everyone wins. In other cases, people are ripping off photographers and artists who deserve to be paid for their work.

Not sure where to draw the line. Not sure we want to let lawyers decide.

Personally, I’m very shy on using photos. That’s why I have a lot of bookmarks for sites at which I can look up images and figure out whether they’re in the public domain or otherwise explicitly available for use. That distinguishes me from about 99% of Internet users.

Source: How copyright is killing your favorite memes – The Washington Post

The Oatmeal, unfair critics and ink by the barrel

“Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

That’s the old saying, which MediaBistro tried to update for the digital age. And it applies to people today who have popular sites — or worse, a lot of enablers. Hope Solo can just mention “haters” without being specific, and thousands of Twitter followers will mobilize against … someone.

That’s fine, as long as that power isn’t abused. With any form of power comes a line between proper use and abuse.

Now walking gingerly up to that fine line: The Oatmeal (Matt Inman), who has produced some of the funniest and most insightful comics on the web. Or before the web. Some hit me on a personal level — “Some thoughts and musings about making things for the web” is every web content creator’s life in a comic, and I’m walking proof that he nailed it with “Why working from home is both awesome and terrible.”

And you have to admire someone who not only writes and draws so well about cats and dogs but also produces a “Grammar Pack,” wonderfully illustrating the ways we literally misuse the English language.

When he faced a nuisance suit, he cleverly turned the tables on the lawyer pursuing him, seeking tens of thousands of dollars for charity but ending up with hundreds of thousands. of dollars for charity

The Oatmeal has stumbled into another controversy, this time over gratuitous use of the word “rape.” That led to a clumsy hit piece at Buzzfeed, which found an alleged profile page of Inman’s and ran with it. Oops. He’s not married, and he has no kids. (Also, Buzzfeed writer Jack Stuef somehow thought Inman was a Republican.)

So Inman, in the same style as his lawsuit response, shredded Stuef’s piece and Stuef himself on his blog, again proving that no one should make an enemy of Inman.

Roughly 90 percent of Inman’s piece is wholly justified, and most of the reaction on Twitter is along the lines of “Huh, yeah, take that, you stupid Buzzfeed writer.”

But is Inman going to get a complex from his two takedowns of his critics? And couldn’t he offer a more sincere mea culpa for the initial rape joke? Inman knows the Internet — he surely knows people have been excoriated (or fired) for better-intentioned rape comments than that. (Right, UFC fans?) You just don’t compare everyday things to rape. If you do, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy — it just means you need to learn not to do that.

Betabeat and Salon have questioned Inman’s response. So far, their comments sections haven’t exploded.

We’ve seen one talented comic artist, Scott Adams, go down a bad road. Dilbert is, by any measure, a terrific comic strip. Unfortunately, Adams decided that his success with Dilbert meant he was some sort of guru. He began to pontificate about things with which he had passing knowledge (the workplace) and things with which he had no knowledge (intelligent design, “men’s rights.”) Now Adams is pretty much at war with academics like PZ Myers.

Inman probably won’t go down that road. He seems to have a firmer grasp of life outside an office cubicle. But a little dose of humility never hurt anyone, even when you’re answering critics who haven’t done the slightest bit of accurate research. Others’ imperfections don’t make you perfect.

Hey, reporters! Slow down, you move too fast …

Reporter!So says Amy Sullivan at The New Republic, drawing heavily upon the CNN/Fox “oopsie” with the health care verdict:

I know I’m often out-of-the-loop when it comes to journalism norms and conventions, but this one honestly confounds me. Has any publication ever received a Pulitzer for being the first to report a major announcement? Is there some secret reward at stake—free cookies for a year? A trip to Hawaii? Do colleagues buy you a drink to congratulate you on beating the other networks by ten seconds?

Sullivan quite rightly distinguishes between a “scoop” in the sense of “the money trail that connected the Watergate break-ins to the White House” and a “scoop” in the sense of “hey, I learned 10 seconds before this other dude that Romney is picking Ross Perot to be his running mate.”*

To which Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith tells AdWeek

Scoops matter, in part, because they are typically a product of being deeply sourced in your beat, and good beat reporters get them almost as a by-product of good beat reporting.

To which someone who warned about the dangers of hyperspeed many years ago said:

Bullshit. Scoops are just as often a product of being in tight with your source, either through careful psychological maneuvers or being completely biased toward their point of view. 

But that’s a little off-topic. Sullivan has responded to the critics (all of whom are apparently journalists who take a lot of pride in being “first”):

It was obviously once a matter of pride that has now become the expectation for every story, big and small. That may be good for business, but I still say it’s not good for journalism. And I still don’t care who yells “first!” in the giant comments section that is modern journalism.

Jeff Jarvis, someone with whom I don’t always agree, came up with a quote worth remembering in the wake of the original crisis:

Journalists must think how they can best add value to information, not how they can most rapidly repeat it.

Andrew Sullivan was quick to criticize Sullivan, but as he so often does, he has continued into a reasonable discussion. (You know, the sort of thing we don’t get in “news” these days.)

* As far as I know, Romney is NOT picking Ross Perot to be his running mate. This is a hypothetical. You didn’t just Tweet otherwise, did you?