Happy New Year! Unless you work at an ad-funded news outlet (in which case, I'm sorry for your loss)
Happy New Year!
I hope you had an enjoyable festive break and are back, relaxed and refreshed, ready for the end of the world.
I know I am!
2017 is daunting for all of us, but especially so for anyone working in the news business. What role is there for "journalism" in a post-fact world? What hope is there for news websites in a Facebook and Google dominated ad universe? What prayer do any of us have when the new president promises to obliterate the first amendment and make it easier for public figures to silence critics?
These are all questions I’ve been asking myself over the holiday break, with the goal of deciding if to return to my desk on January 2nd, or to hurl my laptop in a river and retire to a dairy farm. The fact that you’re reading these words and I’m not elbow deep in cow uterus should indicate that - to my mind, at least - the prospects for journalism, and the media business generally, aren’t entirely bleak.
Mostly, but not entirely.
Let’s start with the bleak stuff. If you’re a work-a-day news reporter, working for an ad driven publication, this is going to be a horrible year. Ghastly and depressing. Real arsenic-in-the-tea stuff. The 2016 election was the final nail in the coffin for any outlet whose success was predicated on the notion that the wider population is looking for unbiased, deeply-reported facts. Explainer sites are done. Vox is screwed, but at least it has some cash. Joshua Topolsky’s “The Outline” never stood a chance. See also any number of “long form” startups which were funded on the notion that the problem with factual reporting was that it didn't contain enough words. Even the short formers are screwed if ad-supported news is their primary product. At least outlets like Fusion have wealthy parents and large traditional outlets without paywalls (the Guardian springs immediately to mind) have the advantage of cash in the bank. But even so 2017 is going to be depressing as journalists realize just how little anyone cares about facts any more. And if readers don't care, advertisers certainly won't.
So who in the journalism business will have a good year?
In short, anyone who figures out how to channel the American public’s bubbling anger -- on both sides of the political aisle -- into direct action. Specifically angry direct action. On the right of the political spectrum, you know who the winners will be. Sites like Breitbart that have figured out how to marshall frothing alt-right loons into attacks against women, minorities, and basic human decency. They’re going to clean up in 2017.
The left hasn’t quite figured out the winning equation yet, but I expect to see at least one hugely successful site popping up in 2017 that aims to tell liberals which companies to angrily boycott and why. These being liberals, though, the site will struggle to find a business model. We couldn't possibly use affiliate links to point to ethical alternatives.
Anyway: Partisanship, anger, meanness, direct action. If you’re an ad supported business in 2017, you’d do well to channel one or more of these.
But what if you’d like to succeed in media and still keep your soul? Another winning category in 2017 will be media outlets that tell people how to spend their money. That might be consumer advice sites like the Wirecutter, or trade outlets that tell investors or venture capitalists which bets to make. Yes, Trump's policies are likely to bring us to the brink of nuclear war. But, in the short term, his plans to slash taxes and regulation - combined with an upcoming IPO boom - should leave the 1% (y'know, the ones in the states that didn't vote for Trump) with plenty of cash to spend. Bloomberg should do pretty well in the upcoming IPO frenzy. Smaller 1%-friendly outlets like the Information should too. Forget investigative journalism, though, unless it directly addresses the question “should I invest in this product or company?” If Pando were still ad driven, we’d be fucked. Re/Code sits in an odd mushy middle, although it benefits from a wealthy parent and a lucrative conference business.
Which brings me to the last un-fucked category of media companies in 2017: Any one for which readers have proved they’re willing to pay a monthly or annual subscription, or shell out for costly conference tickets. The New York Times and Vanity Fair and the New Yorker are going to have a great year, espeically as Trump continues to attack them by name. As will Teen Vogue by the way. In the tech world, the Information (again) and Pando should keep our heads above water as will any number of niche outlets for which there is an eager audience with a few bucks a month to spare. This will be the biggest year yet for subscription businesses. Conference businesses will have to work harder because suddenly everyone will have a conference.
Oh, actually, there’s one more hopeful category, although in some ways it’s an adjunct to the subscription category: Books. Especially books containing journalism. With fake news and partisanship destroying the news media, being in the non-fiction book business in 2017 will be like being in the ice-cream stand in the desert business. Print or e-pub, doesn’t matter. 2017 is going to be a bumper year for publishers and bookworms alike. If you're a reporter for an ad-driven news outlet, this is the time to find yourself a literary agent and start bashing out that sample chapter.
And that'll be the media world in 2017.
At least until the first nuke hits.
I reckon we have until about April.