Published on Oct 11, 2020

Don’t miss the boat


Media was arguably the first industry to feel the impact wrought by the internet. The entire business model was disrupted when distribution became free. The cost to distribute & replicate content went down to zero. At the same time, much more effective advertising channels rose. This dual whammy is something that most traditional publishers never fully recovered from. The saving grace came in the form of changing their business model around five years ago. The race was on to shift towards subscription models. Big legacy players like the NYT, WaPO and regional players like LeDevoir adapted their business model. This isn’t the end of the story though.

What’s interesting about this industry is that is not settled into a “new normal” but rather the sands are still shifting. The collapse of the old model has not created a stable situation but rather innovation & creative business models are flourishing. For instance, digital upstarts are rising and falling. It seemed a few years ago that digital native publishers like Vice, Buzzfeed and others would dethrone the old establishment. Yet, this hasn’t been the case. Online advertising is one hell of a tough business especially when you have to compete with the current duopoly. Instead of competing for ad dollars, new peer to peer models are now becoming the new norm.

Let a thousand flowers bloom

The current trend is one of decentralization. Why follow a large media “brand” when you can follow (and pay) the journalist/writer that you like directly. The rise of platforms like Substack and Twitch are enabling creators to reach their audience directly. Substack in particular has seen massive growth. There have been a few big names that made the jump recently. Tech journalist Casey Newton left The Verge to join Substack which sent shockwaves in the industry a few weeks ago. Locally, a great journalist Christopher Curtis left PostMedia to join a niche subscription platform.

Just as it seemed that the way forward for publishers was focusing on subscription, this isn’t entirely clear anymore. Journalists with strong followings can decide to write for their audience directly and be independent. The tools and monetization capabilities are now fully at scale.

The power of the internet is enabling the creation of long tail niches. Platforms like Substack are enabling experimentation on a huge scale. Not every writer will prosper as a result though. The ability to experiment and fail rapidly is what makes this type of platform so powerful. The cost of trying is zero. With many more attempts being made, there will be many more journalists that find a way to make a living. Journalists with strong followings will be the most tempted to make the shift and this is a huge threat to the legacy media business.

Don’t miss the boat

There’s an expression in French that I love, “manquer le bateau”. It means missing the boat. Well, the next boat is here. Independent writers & creators that have a direct connection with their audience.  There are still many traditional media players that are focused on advertising and are slowly moving towards subscription but is it already too late?

Perhaps established journalists with brand names won’t leave en masse to start their own individual publications. They might miss the influence & cultural relevance of reaching a wider audience via a brand name publication. This still doesn’t change the strategic imperative for publishers, they need to empower their creators.

They need to provide more support, tools and monetization capabilities for their journalists. Otherwise, they might miss the boat again.

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