Does the tech industry need the mainstream media?

Some VCs and founders think they can run their own media outlets.

Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:

Let’s jump right into it…

NYMag: Inside the nasty battle between Silicon Valley and the reporters who write about it

This is a great deep dive into a growing tension that spilled out into the open sometime within the last year or two.

To understand this tension, you need to know a little bit about the history of how the media traditionally covered the tech industry over the past decade. Before 2016 or so, the tech press acted largely as a promotional organ, rewriting press releases and treating every single product update and VC raise as a major event worth covering.

And while that type of coverage still exists, journalists have, over the past few years, shown much more willingness to cover the dark underbelly of Silicon Valley — the racism, the sexism, the income inequality, the anti-competitive behavior. The article does a good job of walking you through how that coverage evolved, so I won’t rehash it all here.

Suffice it to say, tech journalists have received plenty of praise for their investigations, but some within the upper echelons of tech — particularly founders and VCs — have bristled at what they consider unnecessarily antagonistic reporting from an industry that is quickly becoming obsolete.

And what is driving its supposed obsolescence? The fact that these tech founders can now communicate directly with their audience via their own blogs, podcasts, Medium accounts, and newsletters. It certainly doesn’t hurt that many prominent investors and founders also have large followings on Twitter.

Take angel investor Jason Calacanis as example. He has 400,000 followers on Twitter, 100,000 followers on Medium, and a tech podcast that regularly ranks pretty high on the Apple Podcast charts. He often refers to legacy media as “late-stage journalism” and advocates for a future where tech founders ignore mainstream media outlets completely and focus on communicating to their audience/customers directly.

What might that future actually look like? Calacanis and other advocates often point to the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested significantly in growing its online presence through its blogs and podcasts. It even recently hired a longtime journalist as its “executive editor.” Meanwhile, co-founder Marc Andreessen has stopped talking to reporters entirely and blocked thousands of journalists on Twitter (I’m one of them). A16Z also invested heavily in companies that boost individual content creators and are sometimes regarded as threats to traditional media — startups like Substack and Clubhouse.

Why am I writing about this? Because I’ve straddled both worlds. I’ve worked for traditional media companies as both a reporter and editor, and I’ve also done content marketing for a number of tech companies and organizations. I authored blog posts for SaaS companies, ghostwrote op-eds for CEOs, and even ran the digital marketing for a large tech association.

So do I think the tech industry can do away with the mainstream media and essentially cover itself?

I do believe the tech media ecosystem is more vibrant because industry players are able to participate in the conversation. A16Z’s podcasts are very good and often feature interviews with some of the smartest people in tech. Even Calacanis, as tone deaf as he often is, occasionally offers analysis that I actually find insightful.

As for my content creation for tech companies, not all of it consisted of hard-hitting journalism, but I think we created real journalistic value that benefited from my access to tech executives who were more at ease speaking with me than they would be with, say, a New York Times reporter. Branded content, when done well, is more than just advertising.

But if tech founders think that they can “replace” traditional journalism with content marketing, they’re kidding themselves. First of all, whether a CEO chooses to speak to a journalist is irrelevant when that reporter can just conduct backchannel conversations with the thousands of mid-level employees who work within the industry. Some of the best reporting on Facebook over the last few years stemmed from disillusioned employees speaking to investigative journalists on background. No founder can stem or even ignore that kind of coverage.

But I also think tech luminaries underestimate how difficult it is to consistently create content of high editorial quality. Tech CEOs often aren’t natural storytellers, and they certainly don’t have the spare time needed to create articles and podcasts each week.

This often means they have to hire professional journalists to create the content, but while that’s feasible for large companies like Google and A16Z, do you really think your average startup can afford to build their own media operation? Let’s say you’re burning through $1 million in seed funding that needs to last you to your Series A round, which could be years away; I sincerely doubt you’d be willing to throw $100,000 of that to hire a journalist to create content that won’t generate value for at least six to 12 months.

So no, I don’t think tech can “replace” mainstream media coverage. At best, it can enhance it. “Late-stage journalism” isn’t so late stage, after all.

This company specializes in turning industry conferences into podcasts

Marc Honorof is the “king of repurposing content” and has been doing so since the early 90s. Starting in 2019, he started striking deals with big industry conferences that allow him to take high quality audio recordings of their panels and adapt them into podcasts. He then sells sponsorships for the podcasts and shares the revenue with the conference organizers.

To access my case study about this company and others like it, you need to become a paying subscriber to this newsletter. By doing so, you’ll not only receive these case studies in your inbox, but you’ll also be supporting the production of the free newsletter and podcast. You get awesome content that’ll help you in your career and you’ll be supporting an independent creator. Click on the link below and get a 10% discount for the first year: 

Get 10% off for 1 year

Insider: Inside the lucrative and murky world of advertising search consultants

I did not know this, but there are consultants whose sole job it is to help major brands choose advertising agencies, and they'll charge upwards of $350,000 for this service.

Digiday: For U.S. News and World Report, first-party audiences are in decision mode

US News & World Report performed an interesting pivot a little over a decade ago where it mostly pulled out of hard news and doubled down on its rankings. This put it in a stronger position than its contemporaries like Newsweek and Time.

It’s now leveraging these rankings to generate better first-party data. From the article:

When the publisher curates ad targeting segments from the first-party audience data it’s been building for about five years, they’re not just based on whether people are reading news about cryptocurrencies or gas prices, but on whether people are at a stage in their lives to be considering colleges for their kids or scheduling an oncologist appointment next week. Rather than focus ad targeting solely on contextual signals, U.S. News thinks more like an e-commerce or search engine.

WSJ: The HBO Max Boss’s Script for a New Hollywood

This is a good profile of the guy who's been dragging WarnerMedia kicking and screaming into the streaming space.

It’s worth noting that the article came out prior to news breaking that WarnerMedia is merging with Discovery.

Hollywood Reporter: YouTube, Snapchat Move to Bring Influencer Economy In-House

From the article:

The focus on creators continues even to the original programs commissioned by the video platforms. Scripted shows were mostly sidelined this year in favor of unscripted fare, and prominent creators were front and center.

Snapchat’s new shows were fronted by Grammy-winning rapper Megan Thee Stallion as well as popular creators Charli and Dixie D’Amilio. YouTube’s originals included a kids’ show led by creator “Guava Juice,” and one from environmentalist Jack Harries. YouTube’s biggest new show, Best Shape of My Life, stars Will Smith, a world-famous celebrity but also a YouTube creator with 9.3 million subscribers, as the company was eager to highlight.

Every single platform is now aggressively competing to make it easier for creators to earn money.

Do you like this newsletter?

Then you should subscribe here:

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.