The 2021 career reset (or, when to cast aside the journalism career)

Three funny things are haunting me as 2020 comes to a merciful conclusion …

First, with the most relevant part in bold:

By far the month’s most disturbing event occurs on July 15 when Twitter, responding to a cyberattack, temporarily suspends many verified blue-check accounts. Within minutes emergency rooms in Washington and New York are overwhelmed by media thought leaders whose brains are literally exploding from the pressure of unreleased insights.

Dave Barry, from his year in review

Second, a scene from When Harry Met Sally that I referenced in my remembrance of my dear stepmom, Meg Gunn Dure.

SALLY: The story of my life isn’t even going to get us out of Chicago. I mean, nothing’s happened to me yet. That’s why I’m going to New York.

HARRY: So something can happen to you?

SALLY: Yes.

HARRY: Like what?

SALLY: Like I’m going to go to journalism school and become a reporter.

HARRY: So you can write about things that happen to other people.

Third, Cowboy Mouth, wrapping up a typical show with a typical rendition of Jenny Says that turns into an exorcism:

Turn that smart phone off, dude. Stop recording life. Start living life.

See the 6:10 mark, but watch the whole thing. You’re on vacation, and it’s a great way to kick 2020’s ass out the door.

Make it four: I just read the autobiography of Monty Python’s Eric Idle, and I marveled at all the accounts of time spent with friends.

This post was going to be an elegy for my journalism career, highlighted by the lack of pay. I started in 1991, making $10 an hour, nearly $20 in 2020 money, which wasn’t bad for someone paying about $400/month in rent with no student debt and no car payments. By the time I left USA TODAY in 2010, I was making nearly $60,000. Had I stayed and not been laid off, I’d be making maybe $75,000 now.

Instead, I’ve written six books. I’ve lost money on four of them. On the others, the amount of money I’ve made works out to maybe $2/hour. I’ve had a book signing to which one person showed up, and I wrote a short book that one person has read. (And not purchased, though I did make about 17 cents through Kindle Unlimited.)

Plenty of people say they’ve read my books. Plenty of people told Wilt Chamberlain they were in Madison Square Garden the night he scored 100 points, which would be impressive if that game hadn’t taken place in Hershey, Pa. 

I did take a steady freelance gig a year or two ago that was technically part-time employment, and I was making …

Ten bucks an hour.

Then I was basically laid off.

But this career was never about the money. I’ve known that all along. When I went to a job interview the summer after graduation, the managing editor and editor of the papers in Wilmington, N.C., asked why I wanted to go into journalism, and I started by saying, “Well, it’s not the money.” They laughed and hired me.

Of the two short books I’ve cranked out this year, one was mere self-indulgence, scraping together remnants of my long-abandoned MMA book into a memoir intertwined with MMA history that the fans already know. The other was a neat little history project that I started while quarantining after contracting COVID-19.

The money these days isn’t in writing, anyway. It’s at YouTube. Seriously.

Sure, not everyone pulls in the eight-figure annual windfall of the top 10, but six figures are pretty common. I ran the numbers on some of the people I watch and found this:

  • Music critic: $641 per video on YouTube, $6,922 per video on Patreon. Figure about 20 videos per year, and that’s $150k. He also has a podcast.
  • Music producer/analyst: $840 per video on YouTube. He does about 80 videos a year, so that’s $67,200, though he says some of them are “demonitized” because YouTube enforces the music industry’s ass-backwards approach to “fair use” and takes away his money for using, say, a seven-second snippet of music. He makes more of his money on books, anyway.
  • Australian comedian: $5,500 per video, about 90 this year, so … holy crap, $495,000??!!!
  • Canadian comedian: $32,490 on one video. Close to $14,000 on another. More typically around $1,500, with about 80 videos a year. She had a very good year. She’s also getting sponsorships. Safe to say she’s over $150,000 for the year, though she recognizes this year was a bit of a blip because she had a fantastic idea and ran with it.

Part 1 (17 million views) is highly recommended, and the rest of the series is pretty good.

For sake of comparison, let’s look at blogging, where I thought in 2010 that I might make a bit of money on the side: 

  • WordPress WordAds: I get about 40 cents per 1,000 ad impressions. That means my top post at Ranting Soccer Dad got about $5. When I had my medal projections at my old blog, I could make $100 for a couple hundred hours of work. 
  • Medium: If you can figure out a pattern let me know. I got $1.09 on a post with 19 views and an average reading time of 2:39. I got $2.38 on a post with 1,400 views and an average reading time of 4:23. I know people can make money on Medium, and I’m hoping to turn X-temporaneous into a publication of some import, but I need writers to do that. (Hint hint.)

You get the picture. There’s no money in blogging on my own. The only way to make money as a freelancer is to keep hustling after any assignment you can find.

Don’t send money. Well, not a lot. You can always donate if you’re a fan of the tons of work I’ve done on the Club and League directories. But we’re not the type of people who blow our salaries and inheritances on $3 million houses, so we’re fine.

Let’s be clear — these have been my choices. I turned down a decent job with USA TODAY’s magazines. When I told the magazine department boss how much I made with USA TODAY proper, he assured me he was offering significantly more. After he finished laughing.

I’ve only applied for one full-time job that was a perfect fit for my experience — in fact, I knew I was better qualified than anyone they were going to get, and yet I knew I wasn’t going to get an interview because I wasn’t in the right clique and because the people doing the hiring are “woke” to the point of absurdity and also ageist. Jobs for “writer/editor” exist, but I haven’t been applying for them.

For the last decade, I’ve basically been a stay-at-home dad who writes.

That ends in 2021. 

I’ve planned for a while to start a consulting business. That’ll be launched in earnest in January at the virtual United Soccer Coaches convention. 

The other job is something I didn’t plan. In an effort to re-open schools after 10 months away, Fairfax County is hiring classroom monitors — people who can spend more time in proximity to students than teachers who have vulnerability that COVID-19 could exploit. I’ve already had COVID, and I’m confident in the schools’ safety efforts, so I applied. And was hired. 

So whenever schools finally open, I’ll be working in a physical non-home location for the first time since 2010.

That job will likely only last until June, when this school year ends and we wash our hands (literally) of the COVID academic year. By fall, we’d better have this thing under control. 

It’s also a good time to reset. 

But when I wrote the original draft of this post, I realized I wasn’t really planning to give anything up.

  • Writing for Soccer America? Nope, I’ll keep doing that.
  • Writing for The Guardian? I hope to do more of that.
  • Writing and recruiting for X-temporaneous? I might do less, but I’m not pressing “delete” on it.

With the latter, I’ve been taking cautious steps toward “news” journalism, in which I haven’t fared badly in previous forays. NPR picked up some my work on Millennials and small towns at OZY. A piece on Flat Earthers a few years ago did very well for The Guardian.

And yet there’s still “respectable” journalism to be done in sports. At the risk of seeming arrogant, I’m doing work other people can’t or won’t do because they’re afraid of biting hands that feed them or aren’t well-equipped to write about duplicity and scandal. Each year at the coaches’ convention, people always tell me how much they appreciate my work. It’s a shame that’ll be all-virtual this year, but I hear from people all the time, anyway.

So I’m not giving up any of these things. I’m also adding a consulting business. And a job. And I’m doing a big project for The Chronicle.

Then my goal is to have more “me” time.

That’s not really how time works, is it?

Perhaps, but a couple of things will be off the table.

First, no more books. Not this year. I’ve done a rough draft of a 24-page book to go with my consulting business, but that’s about it.

Second, significantly less time cataloging the decline of American democracy.

Go back to the first quote here from Dave Barry: “the pressure of unreleased insights.”

I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking it’s somehow my duty to share everything of importance that I read— maybe on Twitter, maybe on Facebook, maybe after cataloging everything in Diigo and writing blog posts that most undergrads would call “research papers.”

For what?

If I helped rally voters for the election, great. But I can’t pretend I have some sort of great influence on every topic.

I still won’t stop. I’ll still do the occasional Gen X-related post at X-temporaneous. I’ll occasionally round up a few things here at Mostly Modern Media. You’ll still see links on creativity at Before The Apocalypse, and I might turn all that into a book sometime in the future. I’ve just redesigned this blog to include widgets for my latest tweets and the latest links I’ve saved. At some point before I die, I want to take everything I’ve learned writing books, going to grad school and researching creativity to put together something of substance.

It’s just going to be a question of priority.

The laptop will be shut off at times. I’ll read more. I’ll figure out what I can do in the yard without triggering allergies or tearing my hair out. I’ll spend most time in the music room. When curling resumes, I’ll be making that trip around the Beltway more often. I might even get on the exercise bike every now and then. If that means fewer posts reminding people what fascist douchebags Donald Trump and his sycophants are, so be it.

So my new priorities will cut into my time recording life. They’ll add to my time living it.

Happy New Year.

A brief history of U.S. journalism (and how we got to COVID-19 crap)

Plenty of bad things happen in journalism. No one knows this better than journalists.

Like soccer referees, we tend to be lightning rods for angry people — and worse, slimy people trying to “work the refs” — and we don’t get enough money to make up for it. (Perversely, in journalism, the people who do make enough money are usually people who have transitioned into talking-head status and don’t do the grunt work any more, if they ever did.) Most people do it for the love of the game. Or the love of truth. Or the power trip.

It’s a little frustrating when we hear that we’re all biased. It’s true. Just not in the ways a lot of people think, and it doesn’t get at the heart of the problems.

For 20 years, I’ve been linking to a piece at Rhetorica.net in an effort to explain the issues, and it’s still useful today. That piece shows how bias isn’t necessarily political. It’s many things:

  1. Commercial (we need to stay in business)
  2. Temporal (what happened in the last five minutes >> something that happened yesterday)
  3. Bad news (not the Spinal Tap/Rutles-ish band below featuring 3/4s of The Young Ones)

Sound familiar? Explains a lot of COVID-19 coverage, doesn’t it? And I did warn people about this 20 years ago when I did my grad-school thesis.

I also did an interesting independent study in grad school that confirmed something rather obvious that we all tend to overlook: News organizations’ commitment to objectivity or partisan bias is dictated primarily by business concerns.

Duh, right? The same market forces that led Dominos to sell pizza rather than haggis are the same market forces that made a lot of 20th century newspapers reasonable but boring, and they make cable news interesting but unreasonable.

It’s not just the revenue side. Dominos delivers pizza instead of beef wellington because it’s easier to produce and get out the door for delivery. That’s how things work in journalism as well.

Those forces have evolved over time, as such:

18th and 19th centuries: Scandal! Chicanery! Blast those (Confederates, Whigs, Free Masons, etc.) with their other newspaper. Read ours! The media market was a free-for-all. Printing was relatively inexpensive.

19th and early 20th centuries: The miracle of the telegraph! Now we can transmit news over a vast distance! Of course, that costs money, so to make it cost-effective, we’d better be able to serve this information to a wide variety of newspapers, no matter how weird their politics might be. Welcome to the era of reliably middle-of-the-road news.

1914-18: War!

1918-1939: A time to reorganize during our well-deserved peace that will extend indefinitely now that we’ve had the war to end all wa- …

1939-45: WAR!

1946-1960s: Your local newspaper is basically another utility, like your power company or phone company. (Aside to those born after 1990: The “phone company” used to be just one phone company, and you had to sign up with them to have a phone. In your house. Not your pocket.) Your paper has nice roundups of what’s going on around town, complete with a short recap of the local roller derby games and the latest gardening tips on the ladies’ page. The department stores buy plenty of large display ads, and everyone who wants to sell anything takes out a classified ad.

Rule No. 1 of journalism: Get the facts. Rule No. 2: Don’t rock the boat. (Family lore holds that my grandfather quit a job in a dispute over how to play a story involving one of the heirs to the local department store fortune.)

1960s-1970s: Vietnam and Watergate shatter the post-WWII unity in the country, and news organizations have a more difficult time appealing to everyone. Television becomes a more important news medium, especially as shocking war footage changes the country’s perception of Vietnam.

1980: CNN launches. At first, the programming is a bit like a newspaper’s sections — a news report, a money report, a sports report and a fashion report. In prime time, the TV equivalent of the op-ed page takes over with a show called Crossfire.

Mid-90s: Rupert Murdoch, the master of figuring out ways to make content cheap, launches Fox News Channel with the slogan “fair and balanced” delivered with a wink to right-wing viewers who are still bitter over Vietnam, Watergate and maybe even McCarthy. At first, though, the political stance is less important than the staffing decision. Why have the global news-gathering organization of CNN when it’s much cheaper to mimic Crossfire? Just have people shout at each other for a while. It’s entertaining, it’s cheap — what’s not to love? (Unless you’re one of those nerds who likes context, nuance and that sort of thing.)

Late 90s-2000s: The newspaper business model collapses. No one needs to buy classifieds. Department stores’ importance dwindles. Journalism goes online but ad money does not, and newspapers get smaller and smaller. TV, though, keeps marching right along. Producing cable content is still pretty cheap as long as you don’t do any reporting.

TODAY

“It bleeds, it leads” has been ramped up to extremes as news organizations fight for eyeballs.

Search-engine optimization is ruining good writing Kim Kardashian because it makes Kim Kardashian journalists re-emphasize Kim Kardashian a particular key phrase Kim Kardashian to game the Kim Kardashian system, reducing the Kim Kardashian capacity to present Kim Kardashian nuance. (Hey, I just quadrupled my traffic!)

Money for local journalism is drying up, creating “news deserts” where local governments can operate with no watchdogs. Whatever you think of the government-watchdog dynamic (Jefferson said he preferred the latter), we’re not better off with one without the other.

Money for quality journalism is drying up, in part because a generation has been conditioned to expect free “news.” (It doesn’t help that news organizations have been less than creative. If The San Francisco Chronicle has four stories that appeal to those of us outside of San Francisco, do they really expect us to subscribe just to see beyond our three freebies? No a la carte payment? No bundling with other newspapers? Why not?)

The new generation has a lot to offer but often lacks respect for the job and brings it its own agenda. That’s particularly true in sports, where people can make a name for themselves as advocates. Sometimes, they do the work and have a healthy respect for the facts. Sometimes, they don’t.

Political theater is cheap and easy, which is why PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor has been so easily duped into playing exactly the role Donald Trump wants her to play. Being “tough,” in and of itself, can be a counterproductive way to question authority.

And the big one …

It’s a lot easier for a lot of people to tell a lot of lies. In some cases, it’s because people refuse to believe any information outside their own little bubbles. The Flat Earth bubble is small but hardened. If I don’t know anyone who has died of COVID-19 and my favorite politician says it’s not a big deal, then who’s Anthony Fauci to tell me otherwise?

I’m not going to argue that each “side” of the political spectrum as defined in U.S. terms is equally to blame. They’re not. One party has chipped away at the authority of academia and the media, and now it’s come to roost. Another group has preyed upon historical and theological ignorance to propagate a perverted form of Christianity that worships money and hate.

But there’s another “bubble” as well, and it’s mostly the urban view of less-urban America. No economic classes understand each other — TV networks get a lot of mileage out of the notion that rich people are all as effete and myopic as Frasier Crane — but the urban elites absolutely misunderstand the less-urban middle classes.

And here’s what I’d suggest:

  1. Absolutely, consider the perspective of someone who’s presenting information. Is that person seeing all angles? Perhaps not, but then don’t automatically dismiss everything that person is saying. If you think someone is missing part of the story, look for more reports from more angles. This is why media monopolies are bad things.
  2. Then, consider your perspective. When you scold small business-owners who want to reopen their businesses, have you really looked at it from their perspective and not simply the perspective of someone who can afford to stay at home indefinitely? Have you considered all possibilities for tip-toeing back toward normalcy?
  3. Down with slogans!
  4. Believe science. Climate change isn’t a hoax. Vaccines are thousands of times safer than going unvaccinated. The Earth isn’t flat. COVID-19 is contagious and dangerous.
  5. Question the narrative. Is the U.S. women’s soccer team really underpaid? Are we really stuck at home until a COVID-19 vaccine emerges?
  6. Then question the meta-narrative. Why have two “sides” in America defined by the pragmatic Clinton/Obama wing of the Democratic Party and whichever wing of the Republican Party is loudest at the moment? A lot of journalists have been slow to realize that we have at least five distinct political views in the USA — democratic socialism that is the majority view in many European countries, the “liberal” school led by Joe Biden (who’s more “progressive” than Sanders supporters realize but is still not AOC), what’s left of the “Never Trump” GOP movement, the libertarian-ish Tea Party (remember them?), and the authoritarians who’ve embraced Trump.

And please don’t throw up your hands and say “oh, they’re all liars” or “oh, they’re all biased.” Sure, we’re all flawed. But it’s our responsibility to weigh the preponderance of the evidence, and if you read enough, you’ll get the evidence.

How not to do social media (or, why Stephen A. Smith is not a role model)

A brief history of U.S. media: 

1950s: Calm, maybe a bit boring. Newspapers and TV news don’t have much competition, and they usually don’t want to rock the boat. 

1980: CNN launches. They strive to be taken seriously as a news-gathering organization to this day — a 2016 report shows they had a whopping 31 international bureaus. 

1996: Rupert Murdoch’s global empire, which loves to do things on the cheap and tawdry (I actually did a grad-school paper on this in the late 90s), launched Fox News Channel. They take the worst aspect of CNN — talking heads yelling at each other — and go all-in with that. In that same 2016 report, they have only three foreign bureaus. It’s just easier to prop up someone in front of a camera to yell a one-sided take on things for an hour before handing off to the next person who does the same thing.

2001-02: ESPN launches Pardon the Interruption, turning the newsroom conversations of Washington Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon into a rigidly formatted show, and Around the Horn, a panel discussion of “competitive banter.”

2006: Twitter is launched. 

2012: ESPN goes all-in on “debate” by re-hiring Stephen A. Smith, who had gained fame and infamy in his previous work. 

Today: LEBRON JAMES IS THE NO SHUT UP BERNIE BROS SOCCER STINKS EXCEPT RAPINOE AMERICAN FLAG LIBTARD! 

Or something like that. 

Over the past few weeks, Stephen A. Smith has been facing some of the worst backlash of his career. It’s generally not a great idea for anyone to claim a beloved hard-working fighter quit in a fight, especially when you haven’t established any credentials for knowing what you’re talking about, but that’s exactly what Stephen A. did in talking about Cowboy Cerrone after Conor McGregor smashed him in the first and only minute of their recent UFC fight. 

To get some sense of how this commentary has been received in the circles of people who know the sport and followed Cerrone’s career, including his five absurdly difficult fights compressed into one year, check this podcast excerpt from Luke Thomas’ SiriusXM show. (Start at 37-minute mark for the Smith content.)

To an extent, Thomas is also in the “hot takes” business (he used to do a segment called “Hot Takes Tuesday,” challenging listeners to come up with occasionally outlandish opinions), but he does his research and listens. So when Smith’s ever-shifting defense of his ignorant Cerrone turned to “I’m just trying to start a conversation,” Thomas correctly paraphrased that as “I’m going to fart in a room and then leave.” 

It’s easy to get suckered into the “hot takes” frenzy. I know this because … I’ve done it. 

I was a relatively early Twitter adopter because I was USA TODAY’s new media guinea pig for a while. When I went to the 2008 Olympics, I was asked to join Twitter and share observations as I ran around China. I got maybe 4,000 followers, a pretty good number in those days. 

Over the years, I’ve shared my candid thoughts, especially on soccer. Sometimes people like that, and it’s easy to get a big head when a lot of people agree. 

It’s also easy to piss off a lot of people.

The sport I’ve covered the most in the decade since I left USA TODAY for the novel concept of “seeing my family on weekends” is women’s soccer. Even before leaving, I did a lot in the sport. I did feature stories on women continuing to play without a pro league in the doldrums of the mid-2000s, then covered the sport in the 2008 Olympics, site of the U.S. women’s least-expected win. Then I spent a year freelancing for ESPN, covering the early rounds of the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the demise of Women’s Professional Soccer. 

My WoSo cred started to go downhill in 2013 when I wrote a book following the Washington Spirit through their first year of existence. Over the course of a woeful season, a vocal group of women’s soccer fans and media (at the time, the fan media was gaining a much louder voice than in any other sport I can think of) grew angry and angrier with the team’s management. Some were certainly hoping for some great investigation of how management ruined everything, but I simply didn’t have anything along those lines, and I defended them against some of the less substantial criticism. 

Over the years, I’ve staked out some unpopular positions. I questioned whether Megan Rapinoe’s kneeling during the national anthem was the most effective political protest, pointing out that she wasn’t having much success articulating a message behind the protest. (She has since grown into that role, much to her credit.) I called out Marta for diving. And at some point, I surely offered a mild criticism of someone’s favorite player. 

Case in point — a former women’s national team player was so angered by my take that Crystal Dunn had some shaky moments defensively for the U.S. women’s team that she said I should count her “the long list of people that don’t respect you and have cut you off.” That was after I pointed out that I respect Dunn so much that I told my soccer-playing son to watch her specifically when we went to Washington Spirit games.

And over the next few years, I’ve learned a lot about how NOT to engage on social media. Not many people can say they argued about the works of Ayn Rand with longtime U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, and a lot of the discussions I’ve had over the years have been enlightening. 

But some of my interactions have given me some hard lessons. 

Such as … 

Don’t be too flippant 

Even if you intend to be on someone’s side, it’s far too easy for a Tweet to be misinterpreted. 

And that’s why Landon Donovan, a soccer player with whom I’ve spoken frequently and of whom I’ve written glowing tributes, blocked me. 

I meant it as satire of the current discourse. And I tried to make sure Donovan took it as satire with a follow-up tweet. 

That didn’t do it. I’m blocked to this day.

But that was one person. When I was watching and tweeting about an NWSL playoff game, I said the following about Alex Morgan, who was out injured in that game: 

And Morgan did the equivalent of releasing the hounds:

I watched Twitter responses spin through so fast I thought my computer would explode. One person offered to buy my Spirit book and smack me in the face with it. One person offered to kill me twice. No, not two messages saying he would kill me. This would apparently be a double murder, with me as the victim each time. Not sure how that works. 

How did I get in this mess? With another mistake …

Don’t assume people know the context 

The Morgan tweet came in the midst of a discussion about national team players getting a lot of breaks from referees in the then-new NWSL. Out of context, it looks worse than it was, but that’s my fault. 

The Donovan tweet was similar. If he could’ve read my mind, he wouldn’t have been offended. 

Twitter is not a medium for telepathy.

You’d think these lessons would sink in, but oops, I did it again, and it brings up another thing not to do …

Don’t give a gut reaction 

In covering women’s soccer and U.S. soccer politics as long as I have, I’ve found a couple of things … 

1. The “equal pay” dispute is far more complicated than people think. Australia and Norway have alleged “equal pay” deals that would not satisfy the U.S. women’s team because the sticking point is World Cup bonuses, which are drawn from international prize money that is heavily weighted toward men.

2. The marketing around the U.S. women’s team is that they inspire little girls to be what they want to be. Some people take it literally and think every youth soccer player is on the field hoping to go pro, and I can tell you from a decade of coaching that they’re wrong. But some believe images of powerful women are helpful, and I can’t argue with that. 

3. U.S. Soccer is a deeply flawed federation. But its mandate is clear. It’s supposed to grow the game for all — both genders, able-bodied and Paralympian, youth and adult, etc. It’s a nonprofit organization that has planned to spend a big pile of assets, gathered up through a decade of improved sponsorship deals and hosting the wildly successful Copa America Centenario in 2016, for the betterment of soccer as a whole. 

So when the U.S. women file a motion for summary judgment in their 3½-year legal wrangling that tosses around a number of $66 million, a good bit more than the $42 million U.S. Soccer plans to have after its five-year plan, I see alarm bells. 

I start to question whether the women (and men, who recently presented a suggestion that the women’s pay should be tripled, surely with a corresponding raise for themselves) are trying to take away money earmarked for future generations.   

I got the notice about that court filing late at night. Here’s my response … 

Then I brought up some context from my reporting … 

But then came the tweet that drew the backlash … 

And the people who responded didn’t know what I meant. 

The biggest issue: People thought I was telling the U.S. women their role is to “inspire little girls.” I thought people would understand that I was referring to their public perception, not some mansplained assertion of what they should be doing. I was clearly wrong.

If I had stopped to think about it a little more, maybe I would’ve realized I wasn’t completely clear. Maybe I should’ve waited until the next morning and wrote a blog post so I could establish the context. 

In the frenzy that followed, I forgot another lesson.

Don’t engage with everyone

Some people, you just can’t reach. 

I tried to be selective in my responses, picking out people who had a significant number of followers. Two people who attacked me were journalists who followed me at USA TODAY, and I tried to contact them off Twitter. To my dismay, neither one has responded. 

It’s a natural instinct to defend yourself when you’re misunderstood, and every once in a while, you’ll have a productive conversation. But you can’t appear to have a thin skin. 

Flame ways generally have no winners, with the exception of the rare occasions in which truly horrible people try to engage with people who have an audience and a brain: 

Perhaps the lesson here is that if you commit to remorseless unexamined shouting, as Stephen A. Smith has done, you can make a career out of being a bad guy to many and a truth-speaker to a small cult. That just seems like a terrible way to live. 

So I’m giving up Twitter discussion for Lent. When I come back, maybe these lessons will finally take hold.

Or I can just take Smith’s job. 

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