An Ode to “What Is the Future of Publishing?” Articles

Good morning!

Welcome to this week’s edition of Are You Engaged? I hope you and your loved ones are staying safe as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Before we get into this week’s newsletter, I wanted to do a brief follow-up on last week’s topic. One of the outlets I follow closely, The Ringer, has started to pivot more to evergreen programming. The Ringer is built on coverage of sports, movies, and pop culture so their content strategy has been majorly impacted by COVID-19. But they’ve rolled out a new, evergreenish series looking at the pivotal moments of the NBA season as well as some more evergreen topics on podcasts that would normally be more news-driven. This is just one example, but it will be interesting to see how evergreen content does or does not make its way into the programming at other media organizations.

For this week’s newsletter, I want to bring the focus back to one article–or type of article—I’ve been thinking about.

Clearly, because I’m writing an audience development and media industry newsletter, one of my favorite article genres is the “what is the future of publishing?” article. You see these articles come in many shapes. In some cases, these pieces can take the shape of more comprehensive surveys or features; other times they are case studies of single publication; or other times they are even built into full-scale publications, verticals-as-newsletters, or recurring columns.

Regardless of what shape these articles take, they all have one common denominator: I will absolutely devour them with great fervor.

This past weekend, The New Yorker dropped a classic version of one of these articles. Michael Luo, the editor of The New Yorker’s website, wrote a piece called “The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus.” In it, Luo covers a few familiar beats: the slow rise of the paywall, the class and quality divide created between subscription-based news and free news, the problems with digital advertising as a business model, the problems with valuing speed reporting over quality reporting, and the ways digital-first organizations have tried to diversify their revenue streams.

Luo’s article is thorough and well-written. You should read it! But the headline is a bit misleading. The piece only gets to the “fate of news in the age of coronavirus” in its last two paragraphs and doesn’t offer much in the way of prediction or assessment. 

I don’t fault Luo or anyone at The New Yorker for the headline. A piece like this is hard to headline. It’s less of a prediction piece and more of “a brief history.” And headlining a piece “A Brief History of Digital News Businesses” or “What Coronavirus Reveals About the State of News” lacks the same kind of drama as the actual headline. Even at The New Yorker, a publication with a large but seemingly loyal audience, you need to think about the packaging.

What I wish the piece had elaborated a bit more on was things like the way an organization like BuzzFeed has transformed its revenue model. Based on the piece’s actual scope and approach, this really wasn’t possible. But a piece looking at the “fate of news in the age of coronavirus” would have given more space to that kind of thread.

BuzzFeed is asking most of its employees to take a reduction in pay during the COVID-19 pandemic, and cofounder and CEO Jonah Peretti will forego his salary. This is happening in a time where BuzzFeed flipped its revenue model so that advertising now makes up 20% of their revenue vs. 75% three years ago, as Peretti said on a recent Digiday podcast episode

Some of that flip is due to a reduction in advertising revenue overall but also due to replacing it more and more of it with revenue from “commerce” or “affiliate” revenue. According to Peretti, in 2019, BuzzFeed drove about $500 million in downstream revenue to affiliate links via their content, of which they receive about a tenth in commissions. As Peretti says, “We thought a lot about how people take action, how does content inspire someone to do something. So in early BuzzFeed it was inspiring someone to share something...Now we took that same data driven approach to say can we make something that inspires someone to buy something or transact or go on trip.”

Signs were pointing to BuzzFeed turning a corner in their business model, though it was hard to say if it would actually end up leading to profitability. The fact that they were using their wide-reaching audience to balance a commerce content approach with the prestige of BuzzFeed News was a rare inspiring media story. Now that seems to be on hold as their advertising business suffers due to COVID-19. What do they do now? What does the next six months look like at BuzzFeed? That would have been a more interesting basis of a story (though potentially harder to get quotes and report on) and more fitting of the headline “The Fate of the News in the Age of the Coronavirus.” (Note: After writing this newsletter, The Information reported that BuzzFeed’s affiliate revenue stream may also be in jeopardy.)

Meanwhile, former BuzzFeed News editor in chief, Ben Smith, is now working at The New York Times as their media columnist. This weekend, he, like Michael Luo, took a look at the future of digital media and how the nonprofit journalism model, potentially backed by government money, could be the future. Luo’s headline would have fit more neatly on Smith’s article.

Regardless, I’m sure there will be plenty of “what is the future of publishing?” articles for me to devour and feel depressed about in the weeks and months to come.

A Little Bit of Culture:

Each week I end the newsletter with a brief ode/rant/riff on a bit of culture I’m passionate about. It might be music, it might be movies or TV, it might be a book, and sometimes it might be related to sports. Once a month, I’ll go a little longer on something.

This week: Blitzen Trapper’s 2008 album “Furr”

Blitzen Trapper doesn’t get mentioned much these days, and perhaps you’ve never heard of them. There was nothing truly remarkable about Blitzen Trapper, so I don’t blame you. I learned about the band back when I used to religiously read Pitchfork in the late aughts. Furr, their fourth album, was one of the albums I listened to the most in 2008-2010. It was a CD player (yes! CD player!) and iPod (yes! iPod!) mainstay for both my roommate and I when I lived in Williamsburg. I hadn’t thought about Blitzen Trapper in years, but for some reason they crossed my mind when I was determining albums to revisit or dive into during quarantine. Blitzen Trapper has released 10 albums and none of them are as good as Furr. There is something endearing about listening to a band simply try to be Little Feat, The Band, Pavement, and maybe ELO (but like weird ELO, not Beatlesy ELO) all on one record. They subsequently tried to be Yes and the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd and it didn’t work nearly as well. But Furr is a highly enjoyable, full album, listening experience.

I’m bad at this, but here it goes: If you liked what you read today, please share this edition or tell your friends to subscribe.

Also, if you want to read any of my non-newsletter work, you can find the majority of my writing here.