How to fix online media: focus on the true fans

Between the Vice News layoffs, the podcasting industry crumbling, and Jezebel closing its doors it’s safe to say that the media industry is having a bit of a crisis. It’s clear that advertising on sites like Jezebel and large podcasts aren’t cutting it anymore, so what’s the next step? For many, it looks like focusing on the “1000 true fans” rather than trying to make an impact en masse.

Jezebel Shuts Down

On Thursday, November 9th, Jim Spanfeller, CEO of G/O Media, announced that feminist news site Jezebel would be shutting down. In his statement, Spanfeller explained that G/O Media’s “business model and the audiences we serve across our network did not align with Jezebel’s.” Shortly after, Jezebel’s union, Writer Guild of America East, shared that the real reason for this was “strategic and commercial ineptitude.”

The closure of Jezebel also underscores fundamental flaws in the ad-supported media model where concerns about ‘brand safety’ limit monetizing content about the biggest, most important stories of the day

– Writers Guild of America East

After a few weeks of searching for a buyer, G/O Media decided to abandon Jezebel, closing shop instead of continuing investment. 404 Media decided to look further into this and boy does it get bleak for advertising-funded sites like Gizmodo and the rest of G/O Media.

Lauren Tousignant, Jezebel’s interim editor in chief, told 404 Media that Jezebel was told “brand safety,” the fact that advertisers don’t want to be next to the type of content Jezebel was publishing, was “one of the biggest factors” that led G/O to stop publishing the site and lay off its staff. Tousignant said that a couple of weeks ago, the ads sales team asked if it could remove Jezebel’s tagline—“Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth”—from the site.

“They took it off because they’re like, let’s see if this makes a huge difference,” Tousignant said. “So yeah, it was very much the problem here that no one will advertise on Jezebel because we cover sex and abortion. I know taking the tagline off was to see if the algorithm advertising would change. After it was removed one of the editorial directors was like, ‘I’m seeing an ad for J Crew for the first time ever, maybe this will be good.’”

– Jason Koebler and Emanual Maiberg writing for 404 Media

Even now Jezebel‘s current tagline is “Politics. Entertainment. Work. Style. Health. With Teeth.” instead of the previous tagline of “Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth.”

Koebler and Maiberg continue to show just how much control advertisers have on what news content gets made today.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the largest companies in the world are colluding to put their thumb on the scales of what types of news is monetized, and which types of news is monetized at lower rates or not not monetized at all. The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of its “projects” and includes every major marketing agency, as well as brands like Nike, Merck, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, TikTok, Disney, Walmart, Adidas, BP, Shell, Goldman Sachs, Electronic Arts, McDonalds, and more.

In August WFA wrote in a blog post that “the risks are rising for big brands” because of “today’s geo-politics, marked by polarization and its accompanying 24/7 newsreel.” 

“In the wake of the conservative backlash against Bud Light, Nike, Target, and others, we have witnessed unprecedented desire on the part of WFA members to share insights and concerns in private on how to manage risk and reputation,” they wrote. “After all, it only takes one marketer sending a personalized can of beer to a transgender TikToker for all hell to break loose.”

With regards to wanting risk-averse articles and sites on the internet many companies took part in this in 2020. They wanted to be far away from any kind of COVID-19 coverage out of fear of being associated with deadly virus.

John Montgomery, the Chief Marketing Officer for the gigantic brand agency GroupM, which spends billions of dollars on advertising annually, said in July 2020 that initially brands didn’t want to place ads next to stories about COVID-19, and specifically the death tolls from the pandemic. 

“As it happens, it was a largely unwarranted concern,” he said. “Consumers don’t seem to worry too much about brands being next to hard news. In fact, sometimes it’s even better for them.” Montgomery went on to explain that, eventually, “85 percent of our clients were no longer blocking news, or were blocking news in a much more sophisticated way.” Stories specifically about how advertisers eventually came to understand that advertising next to news about Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19 (after initially blocking it) because people care about it are common in the industry and are used to show that the brand safety industry cares about journalism and the news.

Now, this isn’t meant to be making the point that eventually feminist sites like Jezebel might one day be sought after for advertising. Jezebel could have been catered to brands that put their feminist foot first had G/O Media given a shit. But instead Spanfeller, and the leadership at G/O Media, decided that it was better to simply give a curtain call for JezebeI.

It is easy for me to “Monday quarterback” this entire thing as someone with no stake in the events unfolding. That said, it should have been beyond clear to anyone running sites like Jezebel and Gizmodo that the days of ad-revenue are numbered and that it is instead time to make some changes and focus on other ways to get revenue.

Things like memberships and paid newsletters could have saved Jezebel from being closed down. Having those hardcore readers willing to pay a few bucks a month could have offered G/O Media a new way to afford keeping Jezebel up and running.

There is a huge opportunity for brands to buy ads on websites that have a dedicated readership and cover important issues people care about in an uncompromising way. It should not be difficult for advertisers to understand the value that websites like Jezebel and VICE (which made more drastic cuts to its News division Thursday) bring to their readers. But this requires an ad sales team that can explain to ad agencies and brands that their money is better spent reaching dedicated readers rather than bots and people who accidentally end up on MFA sites. More importantly, it requires the brands buying the advertisements and the ad agencies that represent them to be brave.

– Jason Koebler and Emanual Maiberg writing for 404 Media

Thanks to risk-averse advertisers, sites like Jezebel, which had edginess and personality, have been swiftly sanitized for a softer, brand-friendly touch. Blogs and websites now have to wear kid gloves when tackling important issues if they want to continue to meet brand expectations. No more sex, drugs, or rock and roll for news sites. All this being said, another industry is in a bit of a shrinkage as well.

Podcasting Woes

In a recent Confider newsletter, Lachlan Cartwright shared that Pushkin, the podcast company co-founded by journalist and writer Malcolm Gladwell and journalist Jacob Weisberg, is having some turmoil regarding where the company stands currently. This comes after 30% of Pushkin’s staff was laid off.

According to four people familiar with the situation, Gladwell has grown increasingly frustrated with how Weisberg has run their business, zeroing in on the serial lack of profitability at Pushkin.

Podcasts like Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Michael Lewis’ Against the Rules are within the Pushkin Podcast network. In an all-staff meeting within Pushkin, Gladwell took responsibility on behalf of himself and Weisberg stating, “We made mistakes. I think we grew too fast. I think we lost sight of who we are and what we stand for,” he admitted. “I think we got a little blinded by some of the hype and craziness in our industry over the last couple of years. I don’t think we took our financial crisis seriously enough back in January when we had the first round of layoffs and we regret all of that profoundly and sincerely.”

Pushkin isn’t the only podcasting company that is having trouble, Spotify is also in the same boat. Back in June, Spotify laid off 200 people in the podcasting department due to “strategic realignment” and combined podcasting giants Gimlet and Parcast into one entity. On top of that, Spotify effectively walked back their exclusivity in podcasts and started offering their shows on all podcasting apps and platforms.

In both cases I think that the issue was focusing more on growth and reach rather than catering to the smaller group of “true fans.” It’s time to focus less on mass popularity and more on small communities that will stick around no matter what.

Finding your Community

Back in 2008 Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wiredwrote an essay where he shared his idea that all you need is 1000 true fans to be a successful creator. It has since become a mantra for so many content creators on the internet, and I think that there is some truth to the sentiment.

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

Here’s how the math works. You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan. That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans.

– Kevin Kelly

While I know that getting 1000 people to give you $100 in profit each year seems daunting, it is far less Herculean than what tech giants like Spotify or The New York Times need to accomplish to get in the black. Sites like Patreon, Subsctack, beehiiv, and other services have shown that it is indeed possible to make something online and be successful from direct support.

If I’m honest, Substack’s opportunity for me to potentially make money from my creative efforts is a large reason why I continue to come back here time after time. The chance that someone reading might put their money where their mouth is and support my work is exciting. Not just because I get paid doing something I love but also I get to be directly supported from my readers rather than be beholden to advertisers, algorithms, or affiliate links. That direct support effectively ends the song and dance so many online creators have to make to meet criteria to get ad revenue. YouTube is one of the worst places in my opinion when it comes to this.

Many new-age journalists, like that of Andrew Callaghan and Channel 5, have said in the past just how important it is to be independent. In his live show in Detroit, Andrew shared in November of 2022 that one of the reasons that his movie, This Place Rules, was put on shelved for nearly a year because it was more important for A24 to market The Tragedy of Macbeth. Callaghan stated “It is more clear that ever that Channel 5 needs to be independent.” While Channel 5, and Andrew Callaghan specifically, has dealt with allegations and problems outside of being independent it is clear that the only reason he can create the content he does is because of direct support on Patreon.

Along with Patreon and Substack there are other publications that are “worker-owned.” Sites like the aforementioned 404 MediaDefector (a site made by former Deadspin employees), Hell Gate, and the latest addition to the list Aftermath. These sites offer essays, journalism, and content that users can read online and directly support the writers. Aftermath, in there announcement post, said,

These days it’s tough for journalism, especially about games. The past few years have seen mass layoffs and site closures, with remaining writers being asked to do more and more with less and less. The ad-supported model is crumbling, social media is a mess, and the businessmen and private equity firms buying up news outlets don’t care about workers, readers, and quality writing, they only care about profits. The four of us saw our sites closed, ourselves and our colleagues laid off, and our workplaces turned hostile in management’s pursuit of growth at all costs.

The success of worker-owned sites like this depend on many different factors, but they all have the same big decisions to make when it comes to revenue. 404 Media even touched on this in their Jezebel piece.

This broken business model of digital media is why, when we launched 404 Media, we decided to go with a primarily reader-funded subscription model. As we have slowly and cautiously started putting advertisements on our website for non-members in an attempt to diversify our revenue sources, we have been repeatedly demonetized or dinged by Google for publishing articles that are not brand safe (this, on top of already paltry programmatic ad rates).

The online media and news business is changing, there is no question about that. While there is no silver bullet to fix the revenue problems, it seems clear that direct support from the “true fans” could be the path to success.

There may not be any more empires like G/O media, Vice, etc. but this could the a start to many more smaller successful companies that offer a living to journalists and creators.