Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.
Last week an email hit my inbox with a simple and powerful sentiment. “I miss your writing,” it said. The person who sent it was a longtime reader of this site.
I miss writing too. But there’s a reason I’ve been quiet here and on other platforms – I wrote a very short post about that earlier this summer. To summarize, last year I decided to take the leap, for the seventh time, and start a company with my dear friend and frequent co-conspirator John Heilemann. John and I have worked on projects for the better part of three decades, but we’d never started a company together. Now we have: Recount Media is an entirely new approach to video about politics. And the truth is, Recount Media not only requires all of my time, it’s also in fields that seem pretty orthogonal to my previous career trajectory.
Over the years I’ve found some of the best business partners by posting on this site. The overall audience for Searchblog has waxed and waned, but I’m deeply appreciative that there’s a core group of you who still watch this feed to see whatever it is I happen to be thinking about.
You may have noticed I’ve not been posting as much as I normally do, and there’s a reason for that. Back when I wrote about moving to New York, I promised to keep you updated on what I’m working on now that I’ve settled in. While I continue my work at Columbia and my engagement with NewCo (more on that soon), one my projects has become central, a new company I’m working on with several New York-based journalists and entrepreneurs. We’re keeping the focus of the company under wraps for now, but we’ve started hiring, and I’m looking for a business side partner who can handle any number of key functions as we build the company. I’m posting the role below. As the weeks progress, there’ll be any number of other roles we’ll be looking for, across technology, partnership/sales, and more. So stay tuned for that. But for now, I’m looking for what I’m calling Lead, Business Affairs. If you or someone you know is interested, please reach out. I’m jbat at battellemedia dot com. I look forward to hearing from you.
The Los Angeles Times was the first newspaper I ever read – I even attended a grammar school named for its founding family (the Chandlers). Later in life I worked at the Times for a summer – and found even back then, the great brand had begun to lose its way.
I began reading The Atlantic as a high schooler in the early 1980s, and in college I dreamt of writing long form narratives for its editors. In graduate school, I even started a publication modeled on The Atlantic‘s brand – I called it The Pacific. My big idea: The west coast was a huge story in desperate need of high-quality narrative journalism. (Yes, this was before Wired.)
I toured The Washington Post as a teenager, and saw the desks where Bernstein and Woodward brought down a corrupt president. I met Katherine Graham once, at a conference I hosted, and I remain star struck by the institution she built to this day.
And every seven days, for more than five decades, Time magazine came to my parents’ home, defining the American zeitgeist and smartly summarizing what mattered in public discourse.
Now all four of my childhood icons are owned by billionaires who made their fortunes in technology. History may not repeat, but it certainly rhymes. During the Gilded Age, our last great era of unbridled income inequality, many of America’s greatest journalistic institutions were owned by wealthy industrialists. William Randolph Hearst was a mining magnate. Joseph Pulitzer came from a wealthy European merchant family, though he came to the US broke and epitomized the American “self made man.” Andre Carnegie, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., and Henry Flagler all dabbled in newspapers, with a healthy side of politics, which drove nearly all of American publishing during the Gilded Age.
Which brings us to the Benioffs, and to Time. This week’s announcement struck all the expected notes – “The Benioffs will hold TIME as a family investment,” “TIME is a treasure trove of the world’s history and culture,” “Lynne and I will take on no operational responsibility for TIME, and look only to be stewards of this historic and iconic brand.”
Well to that, I say poppycock. Time needs fixing, not benign stewardship. While it may be appropriate and politic to proclaim a hands-off approach, the flagship brand of the former Time Inc. empire could use a strong dose of what the Benioffs have to offer. Here’s my hot take on why and how:
Don’t play down the middle. What the United States needs right now is a voice of reason, of strength, of post-Enlightenment thinking. Not a safe, bland version of “on the one hand, on the other hand” journalism. As Benioff well knows, politics is now the biggest driver of attention in the land, and taking a principled stand matters more than ever.
Learn from Bezos. Sure, the richest man in the world didn’t mess with the editorial side of the house, but then again, he already had an extraordinary leader in Marty Baron at the helm. But Bezos did completely shift the business model at the Post, implementing entirely new approaches to, well, pretty much every operating model in the building. New revenue leadership, new software platforms and processes, even a new SaaS business line. He thoroughly modernized the place, and if ever a place needed the same, it’s Time.
Invest in the product – editorial. But thoughtfully. First and foremost, the Benioffs should force the Time team to answer the most important question of any consumer brand: Differentiation that demands a premium. Why should Time earn someone’s attention (and money)? What makes the publication unique? What does its brand stand for, beyond history and a red band around the cover? What mission is it on? If anyone understands these issues, it’s Marc and Lynne Benioff. Don’t hold back on forcing this difficult conversation – including on staffing and leadership (I’ve no bone to pick with anyone there, BTW). American journalism needs it, now. I can imagine a Time magazine where the most talented and elite commentators debate the issues of our day. And what issues they truly are! But to draw them, the product must sing, and it must also pay. Abolish the practice of paying a pittance for an argument well rendered. It’s time.
Related, rethink the print business. Print isn’t dead, but it needs a radical rethink. There isn’t a definitive weekly journal of sensible political and social discourse in America, and there really should be. The New Yorker is comfortably highbrow, US News is a college review site, Newsweek is rudderless. Time has a huge opportunity, but as it stands, it plays to the middle far too much, and online, it tries to be everything to nobody. Perhaps the hardest, but most important thing anyone can do at a struggling print magazine is to cut circulation (the base number of readers) and find its truly passionate brand advocates. The company already did this a year ago, but it may not have gone far enough. Junk circulation is rife in the magazine business. It’s also rampant online, which leads to…
Please, fix the website. A site that has a nearly 10-month out of date copyright notice at the bottom is not run like a lean product shop. Time online is a poster child for compromised business decisions driven entirely by acquiring junk audience (did you know that Time has 60mm uniques? Yeah, neither do they). Every single page on Time.com is littered with half a dozen or more competing display banners. The place stinks of desperate autoplay video, programmatic pharmaceutical come ons, and tawdry link bait (there are literally THREE instances of Outbrain-like junk on each article page. THREE!). Fixing this economic and product mess requires deep pockets and strong product imagination. The Benioffs have both. Invent (and or copy) new online models where the advertising adds value, where marketers would be proud to support the product. I’ve spoken to dozens of senior marketers looking to lean into high-quality news analysis. They’ve got very little to support at present. Time could change that.
Move out of Time Inc’s headquarters. Like, this week. The original Time Inc. HQ were stultifying and redolent with failure, but even the new digs downtown bear the albatross of past glories. It’s soul crushing. As an independent brand, Time needs a space that reclaims its pioneer spirt, and encourages its staff to rethink everything. Move to Nomad, the Flatiron, West Chelsea – anywhere but a skyscraper in the financial district.
Finally, leverage and rethink the cover. One of the largest single losses in the shift from analog to digital publishing was the loss of covers – the album cover (and its attendant liner notes), the book cover (and its attendant social signaling), and the magazine cover (and its attendant declarative power). The magazine cover is social artifact, editorial arbiter, cultural convener. The digital world still lacks the analog cover’s power. Time should make it a priority to invent its successor. Lock ten smart humans in a room full of whiteboards and don’t let them out till they have a dozen or more good ideas. Then test and learn – the answer is in there somewhere. The world needs editorial convening more than ever.
There’s so much more, but I didn’t actually set out to write a post about how to fix Time – I was merely interested in the historical allegories of successful industrialists who turned to publishing as they consolidated their legacies. In an interview with the New York Times this week, Benioff claimed his purchase of Time was aligned with his mission of “impact investing,” and that he was not going to be operationally involved. Well, Marc, if you truly want to have an impact, I beg to differ: Please do get involved, and the sooner the better.
Like you, I am on Facebook. In two ways, actually. There’s this public page, which Facebook gives to people who are “public figures.” My story of becoming a Facebook public figure is tortured (years ago, I went Facebook bankrupt after reaching my “friend” limit), but the end result is a place that feels a bit like Twitter, but with more opportunities for me to buy ads that promote my posts (I’ve tried doing that, and while it certainly increases my exposure, I’m not entirely sure why that matters).
Then there’s my “personal” page. Facebook was kind enough to help me fix this up after my “bankruptcy.” On this personal page I try to keep my friends to people I actually know, with mixed success. But the same problems I’ve always had with Facebook are apparent here — some people I’m actually friends with, others I know, but not well enough to call true “friends.” But I don’t want to be an ass…so I click “confirm” and move on.
We’ve seen this debate before — Google refused to call itself a media business for years and years. Now, well…YouTube. And Play. Twitter had similar reluctancies, and now…the NFL (oh, and college softball!). Microsoft tried, but ultimately failed, to be a media company (there’s a reason it’s called MSNBC), and had the sense to retreat from “social media” into “enterprise tools” so as to not beg confusion. Then again, it just bought LinkedIn, so the debate will most certainly flare up (wait, is LinkedIn a media company?!).
Once upon a time, print was a vibrant medium, a platform where entrepreneurial voices created new forms of value, over and over again. I’ll admit it was my native platform, at least for a while – Wired and The Industry Standard were print-driven companies, though they both innovated online, and the same could be said for Make, which I helped early in its life. By the time I started Federated, a decidedly online company, the time of print as a potent cultural force was over. New voices – the same voices that might have created magazines 20 years ago, now find new platforms, be they websites (a waning form in itself), or more likely, corporate-owned platforms like iOS, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, and Vine.
Now, I’m acutely aware of how impolitic it is to defend print these days. But my goal here is not to defend print, nor to bury it. Rather, it’s to point out some key aspects of print that our industry still has yet to recapture in digital form. As we abandoned print, we also abandoned a few critical characteristics of the medium, elements I think we need to identify and re-integrate into whatever future publications we create. So forthwith, some Thinking Out Loud…
Let’s start with form. If nothing else, print forced form onto our ideas of what a media product might be. Print took a certain form – a magazine was bound words on paper, a newspaper, folded newsprint. This form gave readers a consistent and understandable product – it began with the cover or front page, it ended, well, at the last page. It started, it had a middle, it had an end. A well-executed print product was complete – a formed object – something that most online publications and apps, with some notable exceptions, seem never to be.
Now before you scream that the whole point of online is the stream – the ceaseless cascade of always updated stories – I want to question whether “the stream” is really a satisfying form for providing what great media should deliver – namely voice and point of view. I would argue it is not, and our obsession with producing as many stories as possible (directly correlated to two decades of pageview-driven business models) has denatured the media landscape, rewarding an approach that turns us all into hummingbirds, frantically dipping our information-seeking beaks into endless waving fields of sugary snacks.
I, for one, want a return to form in media. I want to sit down for a meal every so often, and deeply engage with a thoughtful product that stops time, and makes sense of a subject that matters to me. A product that, by its form, pre-supposes editorial choices having been made – this story is important, it matters to you so we’ve included it, and we’ve interpreted it with our own voice and point of view. Those editorial choices are crucial – they turn a publication into a truly iconic brand.*
Closely tied to the concept of form (and antithetical to the stream) is another element of print we’ve mostly discarded – the edition. Printed magazines and newspapers are published on a predictable episodic timeline – that’s why we call them periodicals. They cut time and space into chunked experiences, indeed, they stop time and declare “Over the past (day, week, month), this is what matters in the context of our brand.”
I’ve noticed a few interesting experiments in edition-driven media lately – Yahoo News Digest, Circa, and email newsletters (hello ReDEF!) most notably. But I think we could do a lot better. When the iPad came out, powerful media outlets like NewsCorp failed spectacularly with edition-driven media like The Daily. And the online world gloated – “old” media had failed, because it had simply ported old approaches to a new medium. I think that’s wrong. The Daily likely failed for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was its reliance on being an paid app in a limited (early iOS) ecosystem. As I’ve said to many folks, I think we’re very close to breaking free of the limits imposed by a closed, app-driven world. It’s never been easier to create an excellent app-based “wrapper” for your media product. What matters now is what that product stands for, and whether you can earn the repeated engagement of a core community.
Which takes me to two critical and quite related features of “print” – engagement and brand. I like to say that reading a great magazine or watching a great show is like taking a bath, you soak it in, you commit to it, you steep yourself in it. When good media takes a bounded form, and comes once in a period of time, it begs to be consumed as a whole – it creates an engaging experience. We don’t dip in and out of an episode of Game of Thrones, after all – we take it in as a whole. Why have we abandoned this concept when it comes to publications, simply because they exist online?
The experience that a publication creates for its audience is the very essence of that publication’s brand – and without deep engagement, that publication’s brand will be weak. A good publication is a convener and an arbiter – it expresses a core narrative that becomes a badge of sorts for its readership. I’m not saying you can’t create a great branded publication online – certainly there are plenty of examples. At FM, we helped hundreds through launch and maturity – but those were websites, which as I said before, are declining as forms due to social, mobile and search. But every brand needs a promise – and that promise is lost if there’s no narrative to the media one experiences.
Our current landscape, driven as it is by sharing platforms and mobile use cases, rewards the story far more than the publication. Back and forth, back and forth we go, dipping from The Awl to Techcrunch, Mashable to Buzzfeed. Playing that game might garner pageviews, but pageviews alone do not a great media brand make. Only a consistent, ongoing, deep experience can make a lasting media brand, one that has a commitment from a core community, and the respect of a larger reading public. If the only way that public can show respect is a Facebook Like or a Twitter retweet, we’re well and truly screwed.
Reflecting on all of this, it strikes me that there’s an opportunity to create a new kind of media, one that prospers as much for what it leaves out as for what it decides to keep in. Because to even consider the concepts of “in” and “out” you need a episodic container – a form. Early in the Internet’s evolution (and I think it’s safe to say, two decades in, that we’re past the “early” stage), it made sense to explore the boundless possibilities of formless media. And while most media companies have been disappointed with “apps,” remember, it’s early, and that ecosystem is still nascent. We’re 20+ years into the Internet, but barely half a decade into apps. The next stage will be a mixture of the link economy of the original web with the format of the app. And with that mixture comes opportunity.
But as we consider the future of media, and before we abandon print to the pages of history, we should recall that it has much to teach us. As we move into an era where media can exist on any given piece of glass, we should keep in mind print’s lessons of form, editions, and brand. They’ll serve us well.
NB: Writing this made me realize there are many topics I had to leave out – longer ramblings on the link economy, on how the stream and “formed” media can and should co-exist, on the role of platforms (and whether they should be “owned” at all), on the role of data and personalization, on why I believe we’re close to a place where apps no longer rule the metaphorical roost in mobile, and more. As summer settles in, I hope to have time to do more thinking out loud on these topics…..
*I’ve noticed a few publications starting to do this, whether it’s the experiments over at Medium (with Matter, for example, or the hiring of Levy to focus tech coverage), or The Atlantic’s excellent Quartz.
Man, sometimes you have to venture out onto the real web to realize how far much of the “professional sites” have to travel before they have a viable model.
Case in point: The San Jose Mercury News. Today the paper (yeah, I’m calling it that) published an interesting-sounding piece entitled Silicon Valley job growth has reached dot-com boom levels, report says. It was widely retweeted and otherwise socially circulated. It’s been a while since the Merc has mattered in my world, and I was pleasantly suprised to see the story pop up in my feeds. So I clicked through to the Actual Web Site to Actually Read The Story.
LordInHeaven I wish I hadn’t. Look at what I saw:
Now, it’s going take some work to break down this hot holy mess. So stay with me.
First off, believe it or not the belly flab ad isn’t the worst part of this experience (it’s close, believe me). The worst part is the layout, which looks like – well, something you’d wrap a fish in.
There there are the ads. As the Grinch might say…the ads ads ads ads. Six or more of them in this screenshot, and three more below the fold. There’s a Verizon site wrapper (on either side of the page), an expandable top banner, and three medium rectangle units crammed in there. Not one of them is what you might call a “quality” ad – at least by most standards. (Do you think Verizon is happy that their site takeover is overrun by social media buttons and competing with belly flab, diabetes, Frys’ Electronics and travel pitches?) If you bother to scroll down (who would?) there are three more pitches waiting for you there.
And check out the number of beacons and trackers on the right, in purple. That’s Ghostery, which I run on my browser to see who’s laying down data traps. Man, Merc, that’s a lot o’ data. Are you doing anything with it? (I’m guilty of the same, as a commentator points out below.)
It’s late, I’ll stop. But before I go, one more thing: I just don’t believe that’s the same person Before and After in that belly fat ad. Oh, and what was I reading again? Ah, never mind.