The “pivot to video” becomes the “pivot to Hollywood”

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The “pivot to video” becomes the “pivot to Hollywood”

Those who listen to my podcast know that last week I put out an episode about the distorting effect Hollywood has had on the magazine industry, namely in how streaming services’ ever growing demand for adaptable IP has led to a rise in longform narrative journalism. 

That episode had perfect timing, because Variety reported this week that magazine publisher Conde Nast is essentially going all in on trying to create a pipeline between its journalism and the film/television industries. 

The New York-based media and publishing company is launching studios initially for five magazine titles: The New Yorker, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Wired and GQ. With the move, CNE plans to hire a studio head at each title who will work alongside the editorial teams — with the goal of better identifying and developing projects for film, TV and podcasts.

Conde Nast isn’t alone in this regard. Just as every publisher pivoted to video a few years back, hardly a day goes by without another media company announcing they’ve hired for some kind of “head of studio” position so they can pitch story ideas to streaming companies that have billions of dollars to burn. Publishers that include Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, and OZY have all made significant bets on TV and film.

And I continue to be skeptical that there’s a scalable, reliable business model here. One of the most common adages in Hollywood is that only an infinitesimally small number of projects will even reach the filming stage, and of those that do, most disappoint at the box office or don’t get renewed for a second season. Film and TV are high overhead mediums and publishers are subject to the whims of a handful of tech and media conglomerates to greenlight their projects.

What’s more, it’s entirely possible that we’re in the midst of a streaming bubble right now. Netflix is racking up billions of dollars of debt, Quibi is entirely VC funded, and both Amazon and Apple might get bored with streaming all together. 

At least the pivot to video, in theory, had a scalable model. It just turned out that that model was based on pie-in-the-sky economics and Facebook’s fake view count metrics.

Speaking of unscalable business models

WNIP reports that the digital publisher Thrillist is attempting to act as a sort of travel agency, packaging together “immersive trips for ‘intellectually curious and adventurous global travellers.’”It joins companies like Atlas Obscura and Culture Trip that are trying to take their online travel content and convert it into real-life experiences that consumers will actually pay for.

Ah, yes, because you know what’s a thriving industry right now? Travel agencies!

Talk about an industry with high overhead and difficulty scaling. By the time these publishers’ pay out all the various middle men and tour guides and bus drivers and restaurants and all the other millions of businesses that need to be curated for these trips, I’d be surprised if there’s much more money left over at the end. I’ll believe that this is a great business when I start to see some hard revenue numbers.

Know what will help you scale your business more effectively?

It’s a little thing called content marketing, and who better to handle it for your company than the person whose newsletter you read every week? White papers. Newsletters. Case studies. I do it all. Check out my list of services over here. [link]

How Axios tries to create truly differentiated content

There are few people as knowledgeable about web publishing as Scott Rosenberg. In 1995, he and a group of other San Francisco Examiner journalists launched Salon.com, one of the first online magazines. An early blogger, he wrote the definitive history of the blogosphere and published it as a book in 2009. Today, Rosenberg is the tech editor for Axios, a website launched in 2017 by Politico founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei.

Since its debut, Axios has tried to upend the paradigm for how news can be delivered. Instead of adhering to the structure of the traditional news article, Axios reporters strive for succinctness by delivering information in a bulleted, just-the-facts-ma’am form. As co-founder Jim VandeHei explained in a 2017 interview, “Ninety percent of stories either shouldn’t have been written or should have been 10 percent the length. Most people do not want to spend five minutes on 1500 words of mediocrity on something that has one interesting fact, figure or quote.”

In my interview with Scott Rosenberg, he told me about Salon’s first viral story and explained why the online magazine was way ahead of its time, in both the way it delivered news and how it monetized content. We also discussed Axios’s approach to news gathering and whether its “Be smart” tagline is patronizing or enlightening.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. I also rounded up some of the biggest insights from the interview over here: [link]

Schrödinger's podcast bubble

I’m on record arguing that every single publisher should have a podcast strategy, and I stand by that assessment. The barrier to podcasting is so low, and the medium has nowhere to go but up, in terms of both revenue and audience size. In that column, I presented the short and long term benefits for how podcasts can solidify a publication’s connection with its audience, drive subscriptions, and ultimately generate revenue.

But that doesn’t mean that bubbles can’t form. This happens when investment far outpaces industry growth. Think of the dot com bubble as a good example. The revenue potential for the internet was there -- in fact some of the most profitable and valuable companies in the world today are internet-based -- but internet adoption in the late 90s was still low and there was no justification for the tens of billions dollars of capital being dumped on businesses that had no near term path to profitability. 

In that sense, I’m open to the argument that the podcast market is heating up too quickly. Digiday has a new article out about the disappointing returns some publishers have seen, both in terms of how quickly they could grow their podcast audiences and how effectively they can monetize those audiences.

Podcasting was meant to be a low cost way to diversify revenues and digital audiences. But as the competition for listeners and ad dollars has heated up, publishers that were merely audio curious are finding that producing successful podcasts these days requires more internal resources and attention than before. Now more than ever, podcasting requires sustained editorial, marketing and promotional support — all for an increasingly uncertain payoff.

As a journalist who writes often about the podcast industry, I receive a lot of press releases about new show launches, and I’ve been surprised by how many publishers dive head first into creating super expensive narrative podcasts -- the kind that require six months to produce a single season of 10 or so episodes. The production cost for these run into the six figures, and I’m guessing they need over a million downloads per season. And guess what? Most won’t pull in a million downloads.

Some of the most popular podcasts in existence -- The Joe Rogan Experience, Fresh Air with Terry Gross, The Bill Simmons Podcast  -- are conversational shows with relatively low production costs. As much as you may want to create the next RadioLab or Reply All, I’d advise most publishers to walk before they run.  

Want to interact with me directly?

I have a secret Facebook group that’s only promoted to subscribers of this newsletter. I try to post exclusive commentary to it sometimes and have regular discussions with its members about the tech/media space. Go here to join. [link]

Other news

I wrote a Twitter thread about why I decided to move my writing from Medium to Substack. I might expand this into a longer piece sometime soon. [link]

The top kids channel on YouTube generates $11 million a month in ads, yet its founder has remained mostly anonymous and never participated in any press interviews. Until now. [link]

A really fun read about a female sportswriter who elbowed her way into an industry that didn't want to let her in. How did she do it? By launching a newsletter! [link]

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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.