The long tail of media is thriving
PLUS: How embedding an audio player on your article pages increases audience engagement significantly
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The long tail of media is thriving
There are always opportunities for journalists to bemoan the decline of the media industry, but the past month has been especially tumultuous for the sector.
In just the last week alone, in fact, Sports Illustrated fired its entire staff, Pitchfork was placed under the auspices of GQ after significant staff cuts, and the Los Angeles Times initiated a layoff that will encompass 20% of its headcount. Add in the fact that a rightwing billionaire with an outright contempt for journalism purchased a beleaguered Baltimore Sun, and it’s no surprise that we’re getting hyperbolic claims like this one:
And lest you think these troubles are sequestered to the news media, just open up any Hollywood trade publication and read about the travails of David Zaslav and Shari Redstone, the latter of whom is desperate to offload Paramount Global at a significantly lower valuation compared to the price it would have fetched when she first inherited it.
But while it’s important to recognize the very real pain and anxiety that many media professionals are experiencing, I do think it’s a bit myopic to measure the industry’s health on the financials of legacy outlets and a handful of high-profile, VC-funded digital upstarts. If you instead widen the lens to include the media’s “long tail” — a group that includes tens of thousands of bootstrapped outlets, creators, nonprofits, advocacy organizations, academics, and even non-media companies that significantly invest in content marketing — then you’ll come away with a much more optimistic take on the state of media.
It would probably take a full month for me to research and quantify the true size of the media long tail, but you don’t have to look too far and wide to conclude that it’s absolutely huge. YouTube alone, for instance, is paying out upwards of $10 billion a year to creators via its ad revenue share. Substack announced a year ago that it crossed 2 million paid subscriptions, and Patreon is now distributing more than $1 billion a year to its creators. And those stats only represent a fraction of the Creator Economy; consider the fact that there’s a wide proliferation of Substack competitors and that the vast majority of video creators also monetize through direct sponsorships, online courses, and merch. Goldman Sachs estimated that the Creator Economy alone is now generating $250 billion a year across all platforms.
It’s not just YouTubers and Substack writers generating income from content; just take a look at my podcast archives to find hundreds of interviews with bootstrapped media entrepreneurs that are building real companies across a range of niches and regions. The vast majority of these outlets have never been covered by the traditional media, hence why they’re never taken into account when people opine on the state of the industry.
Then there are the thousands of organizations that take on media roles but don’t generate revenue directly through their content. Take my home city of Washington, DC as an example. If I want to keep up with all the news and policy developments targeted toward the city’s growing bicyclist community, I could read the occasional coverage in local outlets like the Washington Post and City Paper. But if I want a more granular understanding of the day-to-day developments, I’m probably better off following the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which runs a newsletter and social media accounts followed by a combined 34,000 people. While this organization doesn’t derive revenue from this content, it does help them in attracting paid membership and donations.
Once you acknowledge that these types of organizations play a vital role in our media ecosystem, you’ll realize how robust the sector truly is. I can give you countless instances of non-media institutions putting out incredibly informative, entertaining content across just about every niche. Take a company called Wood Mackenzie as but one example; while its main products consist of consulting services, analytics, and cloud software, it also produces some of the best podcasts about green energy. But because those podcasts don’t monetize through traditional media business models, most people wouldn’t consider Wood Mackenzie to be a media organization. I think those people are wrong!
To be sure, there are real media blind spots that have emerged over the last 20 years, most notably in local news. Newspaper layoffs have contributed to a significant increase in the number of local government meetings that have no journalists in attendance, for instance. But even there we have cause for optimism, as local news startups continue to pick up the slack. A recent article in Poynter cited a report that “found 704 digital-native local news outlets in the United States and Canada — a steep increase from a 2010 study that identified only 120 in total.” That same Poynter piece also noted that LION, a trade association for local independent publishers, has grown from from 339 to 483 members in just the last three years.
Don’t get me wrong; media is an incredibly difficult business to be in, and many of these startups will no doubt fail. But we do ourselves a disservice when we don’t account for them in our assessments of the industry. By focusing only on saving legacy outlets, we end up with extremely bad policy proposals that mostly benefit a handful of corporate conglomerates. Our media ecosystem is richer than it’s ever been in human history, and I, for one, am optimistic about its future.
What do you think?
I think it's way too early to know whether many of Spotify's bets will pay off. It's only five years into its podcast expansion and just at the beginning stages of its audiobook launch. It took Netflix 10+ years before its expansion into original content translated into healthy profit margins. [WSJ]
A science channel with 20 million+ YouTube subscribers details its financials. What's most amazing is that nearly 40% of its revenue comes from sales of science education products and merch it developed. [Kurzgesagt]
Yet another case study showing that embedding an audio reading of an article increases audience engagement significantly. [INMA]
Netflix wading into live sports probably signals the beginning of the end for the cable bundle. [Axios]
It doesn't look like advertisers are super excited to be using Chrome's new privacy sandbox. [Digiday]
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More quick hits
"Traffic to political coverage on digital news sites is down compared to the 2020 and 2016 presidential primaries. Television ratings for the Iowa caucuses were terrible: CNN averaged 688K total viewers ... while MSNBC averaged 1.15 million total viewers ... Fox couldn’t crack 2.8 million viewers ... In 2020, Fox News drew 4.4 million viewers overall, while 1.8 million people tuned into CNN and 2.5 million watched MSNBC." [Semafor]
A good profile of the aspiring media mogul who wants to buy Paramount. [WSJ]
"We’ve known for a while that young consumers discover brands and products through TikTok — now we know they’re willing to shop and spend there, too. This integrated funnel — audience, talent, videos, feed, storefront, payments — has proven to be effective, at least so far." [New Consumer]
This is a great piece of transparency showing how a marketing newsletter hit $715,000 in revenue in 2023. [Stacked Marketer] You can also check out my interview with the founder of that newsletter over here: [The Business of Content]
The media is pivoting to a scarcity mindset that harkens back to a pre-internet era when distribution was limited: "Many of the most effective tools publishers have embraced in recent years—newsletters, podcasts, events—are all ways of having deeper relationships with a smaller number of people. None are really geared toward or built for scale, at least not intrinsically." [Medialyte]
"The number of ‘independent’ movies to crack $20 million at the domestic box office in recent years is down about 30% from 2018 and 2019." [Bloomberg]
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