Discover more from Simon Owens's Media Newsletter
Who is the world’s most prominent journalist?
PLUS: How The New York Times designs a hit game
Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media industry newsletter. If you've received it, then you either subscribed or someone forwarded it to you.
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Let’s jump into it…
The rise of non-consensual TikTok filming
A huge genre within TikTok involves engaging in some kind of public stunt and then filming the reactions of bystanders. In many cases, those bystanders are service workers, and they’re not exactly thrilled to be non-consenting video extras:
Restaurants and bars have become hotbeds of impromptu videos, as customers capture the exotic experience of…dining out. At times the patrons like to catch workers reacting to a prank. Some videos have gone viral online, attracted millions of views and turned waiters, servers and bartenders into unwitting bit players in skits.
While many workers don’t mind being featured in these videos (especially if the creator tags them), others hide behind the counters or spend their shifts on high alert, wondering what fresh hell or hilarity awaits.
Another blow to short fiction magazines
Genre magazines that publish short fiction once thrived in the mid-20th century, but over the last few decades most have either shut down or are operating with a much smaller readership. Amazon ending its Kindle periodical subscriptions has dealt a major blow against these publications:
Last March, Amazon stated that it was dropping all of its print and Kindle magazine and newspaper subscriptions — a new policy that went into effect on September 4th this year. Since that announcement, independent publishers have been scrambling to figure out how to make up for the loss in income that would ensue when many of their subscribers would suddenly disappear. Subscribers who, according to Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine, could not be contacted directly and redirected to other subscription methods because “none of us know who these subscribers are.” Because they were subscribing through a third party: Amazon.
I’m looking for more media entrepreneurs to feature on my newsletter and podcast
One of the things I really pride myself on is that I don’t just focus this newsletter on covering the handful of mainstream media companies that every other industry outlet features. Instead, I go the extra mile to find and interview media entrepreneurs who have been quietly killing it behind the scenes. In most cases, the operators I feature have completely bootstrapped their outlets.
In that vein, I’m looking for even more entrepreneurs to feature. Specifically, I’m looking for people succeeding in these areas:
Niche news sites
Video channels like YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram Reels
Interested in speaking to me? You can find my contact info over here. (please don’t simply hit reply to this newsletter because that’ll go to a different email address. )
How The New York Times designs a hit game
Nieman Lab profiled Connections, which is “now the Times’ second-most played game (after Wordle) and the most successful launch of any game developed in-house since the Times introduced the Mini Crossword in 2014." What I found especially interesting from the piece is the NYT’s formula for creating a hit game:
The game should be very approachable. “You should be able to hand your phone to someone without explanation,” Knight said, “and they should, relatively quickly, after a little bit of trial and error, be able to understand the rules, and how to win or solve it.”
The “game should be fun to play, and fun to play with.” Knight says he talks about this aspect — how feedback is given, how reactive buttons are, how it should feel tactile and good to play — with his team all the time.
The game should be “easy to learn, hard to master.” The games on offer range in difficulty from the relatively straightforward Wordle (acquired by the Times in 2022) to a themeless Saturday crossword puzzle.
Bots need not apply. A human editor should be behind every day’s puzzle. Knight isn’t ruling out using AI to construct puzzles in the future but, for now, he sees the human-crafted element in NYT Games as “a differentiator” for the Times going forward. “We have a process for rigorously constructing and editing and testing this content before we put it out,” Knight said. “As a player, you’re faced every day with a real puzzle by a real person. There’s this awesome, almost two-person game going on between the constructor and the solver [where] they’re trying to trick you and you’re trying to outwit them.”
Who is the world’s most prominent journalist?
CJR argues that Fabrizio Romano, an independent journalist who covers the European soccer scene, is "probably the most famous reporter in the world." He has over 58 million followers across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, so he's certainly in the running.
Romano’s magic trick has been getting people to trust him in a business that often runs on suspicion. He’s done that by applying extremely old-fashioned reporting skills and building a reputation for accuracy, speed, and trustworthiness that more traditional news reporters can only dream of. “He works hard to do what he does,” Mitten told me, “and has built an army of young followers who hang off his every word.”
How my subscriber phone calls have been going
A few months ago I launched the ability for paid subscribers to schedule a half-hour introductory phone call with me. Basically how it works is that when someone becomes a paying subscriber they receive an automated welcome email that includes a special Calendly link where they can book the call. If they don't book the call from that, then I send a follow up email the next week encouraging them to book one.
This is what my weekly calendar schedule looks like right now:
These calls have been a blast. Many people use it as an opportunity to pick my brain for their own media businesses. Quite a few of them have ended up as case study subjects or podcast interviews. My hope is that in the longterm these folks churn at a lower rate and are much more likely to recommend my newsletter to their colleagues.
If this sounds like something that interests you, then you can use the link below to get 10% off for your first year:
And if you’re already a paying subscriber and want to schedule your call, reach out to me.
Does Rotten Tomatoes deserve its stature as the arbiter of movie quality?
Rotten Tomatoes remains the gold standard for signaling to audiences whether a movie will be good or bad. But does it deserve its stature? Vulture investigates:
The site was conceived in the early days of the web as a Hot or Not for movies. Now, it can make or break them — with implications for how films are perceived, released, marketed, and possibly even green-lit. The Tomatometer may be the most important metric in entertainment, yet it’s also erratic, reductive, and easily hacked.
“The studios didn’t invent Rotten Tomatoes, and most of them don’t like it,” says the filmmaker Paul Schrader. “But the system is broken. Audiences are dumber. Normal people don’t go through reviews like they used to. Rotten Tomatoes is something the studios can game. So they do.”
Do you sell a product targeted toward marketers, media executives, or professional creators?
What a coincidence! That’s exactly who reads my newsletter. You can find out how to reach them over here.
The minimum threshold for a viable newsletter
According to newly-published data, only 11% of newsletters make it to 10 issues. Making it to at least 21 issues greatly increases your chances of success. So much of this business is built on patience and consistency:
Many newsletter writers set their sights on a goal of one thousand subscribers. Among active newsletters that haven’t yet reached this milestone, the average number of issues stands at 21. With that in mind and the fact that only 5% of newsletters make it to 21 issues, it's a great target to improve your odds of establishing a sustainable newsletter.
Likewise, active newsletters boasting fewer than one thousand subscribers have only been in publication for around five months on average. This implies that patience is key, as you should expect to publish for an extended period before seeing results.
Jonathan Rick’s writing appears in hundreds of mainstream publications, but it rarely includes his byline.
Your weekend cocktail: Kentucky Sling
Here’s something most of you don’t know about me: I like to invent my own cocktails. In fact, we’ve gotten so into it that my wife and I finally began filming short form videos of our recipes that we plan to upload each week to Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
Our first featured cocktail is the Kentucky Sling, which is a modified version of an already-existing, gin-based cocktail called the Singapore Sling. We swapped out the gin for bourbon and then added a touch of guava to give the drink a southern twist. Check out our first video: [Instagram] [TikTok] [YouTube]