I’m trying to write more in February, and besides thing I’ll write for work, I’ll also be writing about one of the few things I know about: digital media.
What do I do? In short, I get the right information, at the right time, to the right audiences. And I’d like to help media, in particular, be better at this. (here’s the longer version)
When the print habit died
I started in newspapers in 2005, which was both the peak and the beginning of the end for newspapers, at least in terms of advertising (and total) revenue.
The other thing that peaked by 2005, and probably much earlier, was the daily habit of taking the newspaper (and the nightly TV news, etc.) as the primary consumption of news and other information. Recapturing that habit is not simply a matter of redirecting advertisers or moving print subs onto the web or (as unfortunately happened) cutting costs, raising circulation prices and trying to guilt-trip people into resubscribing.
What happened was people removing a chunk of their day dedicated to local and national news organizations and redirecting to literally anything else. The challenge for media is somewhat like taking a piece of paper, running it through a shredder, and then trying to piece the paper back together.
So, here’s what I think is particularly underrated and underdiscussed today: When media companies say, “Read our work, visit our site/app/Facebook page/Snap channel, subscribe to our service, etc.” they too often think they are asking for eyeballs, or attention, or even an immediate influx of money. Yes, those things are important, and worth asking for. But all of those things are, by default, one-time actions.
The ideal ask is something that, yes, generates enthusiasm and eyeballs and money, but is also a commitment to form a habit. This habit must also be measurable, in one way or another, by the organization, its backers/advertisers and the reader (acknowledging that the reader’s measurement might be less analytical).
When I recommend that people sign up for one of my newsletters, I’m not just asking them to receive yet another email or to be a “fan” in a passive sense. I’m asking them to add me to their day. Moreover, I’m indirectly asking people to subtract something less important — and I’m competing against every single moment of their day, not just other media.
I want people to make my newsletters a habit, something they invest in by subscribing (volunteering their email and maybe other key demographic information), opening and reading the emails and, hopefully, clicking on some of the links. I ask them to commit, and I must deliver something worthy of this time and commitment. I must be consistent in delivery and in what I deliver (as TheSkimm has realized).
When I recommend that people sign up for one of my newsletters … I’m indirectly asking people to subtract something less important — and I’m competing against every single moment of their day, not just other media.
This is not an ask that should be taken lightly. Let’s say your organization produces serious journalism. If it isn’t compelling, important or relevant enough (all vague terms, I know, but their definitions vary depending on your aim and the desired audience), that’s a problem. If you don’t have a specific enough ask, that’s a problem. You could be undercut by an organization that delivers better or hyperfocused content. Maybe your competitors are more frequent or accessible or multfaceted or engaging in their journalism.
If your content is more of the free-and-entertaining variety, you might be reaching a wider audience, but you’re going to have trouble finding the specific advertisers you need, and they’ll always want a bigger audience than whatever you’re providing (increase that audience, and their ask will undoubtedly go up).
Maybe you’re going super-niche, in the form of a subscription product (think Stratechery, The Information or high-end research firms). Now, you’ve established a financial habit, but your content is going to be judged even more directly and critically. Can you match the expectations of your customers? Can you sustain the output, especially if you’re a small or one-person shop? You’ll have superfans, but you’ll also have people who find your information isn’t vital enough to remain a habit, and thus not worth the money or time.
Everything is your competition
In any of these models, unfortunately, you’re competing against everything else in the world. Is your fun meme factory a better use of your desired users’ time than Instagram, Netflix, Twitch, texting, or a million other forms of passing the time? What of those will they give up for your offering?
Is serious news, even high-quality news, worth it for people to set aside the time to think critically? Is that subscription information service better than what they could get from other sources? On a technological level, are your offerings seamless to access, or is your product just difficult enough to access that many people switch to literally any other app or distraction?
This isn’t just journalism’s problem. Broadcast TV has learned that people have discovered better habits than blindly watching hourslong blocks of their programming. Cable is learning that even live sports aren’t enough for millions to continue the habit of paying extraordinary monthly charges to subscribe to a couple dozen channels they’ll watch and hundreds they won’t.
Even Netflix appears to be deciding that they’d rather be the habit for people who like watching original programming they can binge (and also standup specials), increasingly leaving current network seasons and nostalgia TV to the Hulus of the world.
This problem extends to other industries. The childhood toy habits of my generation and our parents’ weren’t the same as today’s children. This isn’t good or bad; it just is, but being a traditional toymaker is suddenly a more difficult proposition.
Any activity that requires leaving the house is in danger when there’s an alternative that requires no movement or replaces pickup with delivery. Convenience is an easy habit for humans to adopt, and truly valuable news is often an inconvenient jarring of people’s preconceived notions.
Who are you for?
You can’t be all things to all people — this lesson media seems to have finally learned. But you must be something important to some people in an increasingly finicky world. It’s hard to ask the question “Why should people make us a habit?” when the answer is often going to be, “They shouldn’t.”
But asking this question is better than the yearslong media habit of saying, “How can we glom on to the latest fad or meme or platform and grab some quick [unsustainable] cash?”
I know, I’m being cliche here, but it’s still a necessary philosophical starting point: Decide who and what you are, be damn good and reliable at that, and go out to the people who want that in their lives. You’ll serve all your audiences better, those who generate revenue and those who don’t, even if you have to “settle” for being a niche.
One last thing: None of this necessarily dictates your business model. Maybe you’re still a website with display ads. Maybe you’re subscription-only, or an events-driven business, or some combination of revenue and grant sources. Maybe you focus on apps, or a website, or something else. You can be hyperlocal or vertical or horizontal in your approach. It’s all in the details of your reality and dream (I’d make a lousy consultant, I know).
I say the above because I don’t want to discourage creativity, experimentation or the value of serendipity. That short golden age of blogging where people could write about anything (i.e. a million Kottkes and Awls and Toasts and countless Web 1.0 sites I’ve forgotten) was a great thing we cannot give up on.
But strictly from a standpoint of survival, habit is what matters. If people make your offering part of their world, it goes on living in new forms. Fans lead to advocates lead to patrons, each one more tightly integrating your journalism or content into their lives. That might not be enough (see, The Awl), but it’s a necessary first step.