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The Business of Content
23 minutes | Nov 9, 2021
Can the mainstream media compete with Substack?
Over the past few years, dozens of star journalists at mainstream media outlets announced that they were quitting their jobs to launch their own ventures, usually on platforms like Substack. As a result, some have drastically increased their income, sometimes into the seven figures. As more and more writers defected, I and others wondered how legacy media outlets would respond. Would they adapt their business models so that their writers could capture more of the value that they generate? Last week, The Atlantic announced that it's partnering with about a dozen writers to author standalone newsletters for the magazine. Though the partnership details are somewhat vague, they could provide a framework for how media outlets will compete with platforms like Substack moving forward. To discuss these moves, I sat down with communications consultant Jonathan Rick. We dove into The Atlantic's newsletter strategy and discussed whether it's effective enough to lure independent journalists back into the warm embrace of legacy media.
63 minutes | Nov 4, 2021
How The Globe and Mail uses AI to drive engagement
For the past decade, publishers have utilized metered paywalls to grow their subscription businesses. Under that model, a reader gets to view a certain number of free articles before a paywall pops up and requires them to subscribe. But how many free articles should a user encounter before they hit a paywall? Increasingly, the answer to that question is: It depends. Publishers are starting to roll out dynamic paywalls that assign varying weights to different kinds of stories. If you’re reading a business article, for instance, you may only get to read three free articles before hitting a paywall, but if you’re perusing real estate listings you might get unlimited free access. The Globe and Mail has taken the idea of the dynamic paywall to the next level: it’s developed a sophisticated AI that’s able to analyze user behavior and determine the exact moment that a reader is most likely to subscribe. The AI is so powerful that the newspaper’s editors now allow it to automate the placement of stories on its homepage and social media. I recently sat down with Gordon Edall, the person who runs the product team that developed the AI. We talked about how the paywall was initially designed, his experience recruiting data scientists, and why the Globe and Mail is licensing its AI product to other publishers.
25 minutes | Nov 1, 2021
Spotify is the newly crowned king of podcasting
Over the past several weeks, Spotify made several major announcements in the podcast space. It opened up its advertising ecosystem to anyone who hosts their podcasts on Anchor. It launched the ability for podcast hosts to create video versions of its podcasts. And it reported two major milestones on its quarterly earnings call: that it grew its podcast advertising revenue by 100% over the last year and that it surpassed Apple as the #1 podcast player in the U.S. What do all these announcements mean for the podcast industry? To figure it out, I invited on Jaclyn Schiff, CEO of a company called Podreacher. We discussed whether Spotify is a threat to the open podcast ecosystem and if it can become the YouTube of podcasting.
51 minutes | Oct 19, 2021
How Google collaborates with news publishers
Google has a long and complicated relationship with news publishers. On the one hand, it sends billions of visitors to their websites every year through its main search engine, Google News, and other products. On the other hand, some publishers believe that the Mountain View company has siphoned away ad revenue on the back of their content. Amy Adams Harding, Google’s director of analytics and revenue optimization for news and publishing, believes the search giant has the potential to provide a net benefit to publishers. Over the past several years, her team has developed a suite of tools aimed at helping media outlets to optimize their content so it reaches a bigger audience and drives more revenue. In our interview, Amy walked me through these tools and explained how they work. She also talked about why publishers need to adopt many of the strategies that ecommerce platforms developed over a decade ago.
65 minutes | Sep 29, 2021
The Juggernaut is hyper focused on an underrepresented market
Snigdha Sur’s first idea for a media startup was a kind of Netflix-for-Bollywood streaming service, but when she spoke to investors about the idea, they all pointed out that it would be too easy for Netflix to simply copy her strategy. Though she quickly scrapped that idea, she still wanted to launch some sort of outlet that would service South Asian Americans, a group that she felt was underrepresented in mainstream media. This led to the launch of a free weekly newsletter that amassed several hundred readers. That free newsletter eventually evolved into The Juggernaut, a subscription-funded publisher that has a dedicated and growing fan base. I interviewed Snigdha about how she convinced YCombinator to let in a media startup, why she launched a hard paywall, and whether she’ll ever introduce advertising into her revenue mix.
47 minutes | Sep 8, 2021
Content creators are charging their fans for text messages
Most subscription strategies have a pretty straightforward value exchange: in exchange for a monthly payment, the subscriber gains access to premium content that’s locked behind some kind of paywall. But what if you want to keep all your best content in front of the paywall? What could you still offer to your audience to make a monthly subscription payment worth the price of admission? Thousands of content creators have turned to platforms like Subtext, a tool that allows them to exchange text messages with their fans. Creators can either send mass texts out to their entire audience or get into individual conversations with subscribers. I’ve tried out the tool myself, and it’s truly innovative. For this episode, I spoke to Subtext CEO Mike Donoghue. We talked about how his team developed the application and the different ways creators use it to generate revenue.
14 minutes | Jul 15, 2021
Yes, I'm still here
My newsletter: https://simonowens.substack.com/
45 minutes | May 28, 2021
How the Art of Manliness monetizes its loyal audience
Most major media companies are focused on scale. They want to reach ever larger audiences and then leverage that reach to drive more revenue. To accomplish this, they invest time and resources to create content across all major social platforms, from YouTube to TikTok to Snapchat. The Art of Manliness isn’t that kind of media company. Let me give you an example of what I mean: it managed to build its YouTube channel to 1.2 million subscribers, an impressive feat, only to mostly abandon the channel several years ago. In a 2017 video, founder Brett McKay explained that there were other projects he’d rather devote his time to -- projects like writing a book, lifting weights, and producing his podcast. According to Jeremy Anderberg, the Art of Manliness’s managing editor and one of only three full time employees, this kind of narrow focus is part of the company’s ethos. It purposefully didn’t try to scale like the BuzzFeeds and Vox Medias of the world. Instead, its team devotes nearly all of its energy into writing articles and producing a podcast, the latter of which has an incredibly loyal audience. That audience is so loyal that thousands have signed up for a 12-week bootcamp the company runs for “those who wish to revolt against our age of ease, comfort, and existential weightlessness.” Anderberg spoke to me about how The Art of Manliness built its audience, why it launched its bootcamp, and what it’s like to work for a media company that purposefully stays small.
39 minutes | May 24, 2021
How Mental Floss evolved over its 20-year history
In the spirit of Mental Floss’s 20th anniversary, let me give you a few pieces of trivia about the magazine. It made a cameo in two episodes of Friends and an episode of Netflix’s The OA. It started as a print magazine but discontinued its print edition in 2016. In addition to its web content, it produces several popular video series on YouTube. And in 2018, it was acquired by Minute Media, a conglomerate that mostly consists of sports media sites. Suffice it to say, the Mental Floss of 2020 looks a lot different than when it was a magazine published out of the dorm room of two Duke University students. I recently sat down with its editor in chief Erin McCarthy to talk about its post-print strategy and why a sports media company was interested in a publisher that specializes in history trivia.
41 minutes | May 12, 2021
He writes one of Hollywood's most influential newsletters
By the time Richard Rushfield launched his newsletter The Ankler in 2017, he had held journalism jobs at several major media companies that included The Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. But because he served as a behind-the-scenes editor in most of these roles, he didn’t have much of a personal brand to speak of, which meant he needed to build a newsletter readership from the ground up. Despite these headwinds, Richard managed to replace his full-time salary within about two years, and The Ankler is now a must-read for virtually every Hollywood studio executive. In our interview, he explained how he built his audience and why he prefers his life as an independent writer much more than his past career as a traditional journalist.
42 minutes | May 7, 2021
His daily podcast got 5 million downloads in its first year
If you’re in the media, then you’re probably aware of The Daily, the massively successful podcast produced by The New York Times. It now receives over 4 million downloads a day and generates eight figures in revenue for the newspaper. But is it possible to replicate The Daily’s success without the institutional support? That’s the question Jamie East set out to answer. A year ago, he and a few colleagues launched The Smart 7, a 7-minute podcast that’s published each weekday at 7 a.m. Its relatively simple format and consistency made it easy for listeners to build it into their daily habits, and within its first year it hit five million downloads. I recently interviewed Jamie about why he struck off into indie podcasting when he already had a successful career in traditional broadcasting, and he explained how he plans to build an entire network of niche daily podcasts.
52 minutes | Apr 30, 2021
How to form a podcast collective
If you look at the Apple and Spotify podcast charts that track the most downloaded shows every week, you’ll notice that many of the most popular podcasts belong to large networks. Organizations like Gimlet Media, Wondery, and NPR are able to pool their resources to promote their content, and this gives their shows a distinct advantage over independent podcasts, even those of similar quality. That’s why some indie podcasters have formed collectives. These entities provide many of the same benefits of a network while still allowing for the podcaster to own their intellectual property. To get a better perspective how these collectives work, I interviewed Amanda McLoughlin, the founder of a collective called Multitude. In our interview, Amanda explained her process for recruiting shows to join Multitude, the collective’s business model, and why podcasters shouldn’t be timid about asking their audience for financial support.
45 minutes | Apr 22, 2021
This writer and podcaster amassed a huge audience of comic book fans
David Harper wrote hundreds of thousands of words over a five-year period without making a single penny from his comic book criticism. In 2009, he and a couple friends launched Multiversity Comics, a fan website that went on to be nominated for an Eisner Award, which is basically the comic book equivalent of an Oscar. In 2015, David struck off on his own, launching an incredibly popular podcast and website. As his audience grew, he began to think about ways he could monetize it, and he eventually rolled out a paid subscription model. In my interview with David, we talked about the origin of his comic book fandom, where he found his audience, and how he designed his subscription offering.
51 minutes | Apr 14, 2021
This company scaled local newsletters to five cities
Every morning, tens of thousands of people who live in cities like Miami, Portland, and Pittsburg receive a conversational email that updates them on the latest news within their city. These newsletters don’t often contain any original reporting, but they’ve been embraced by their local communities because they’re so effective at distilling dozens of newspaper articles, social media posts, and government announcements into an easy-to-read digest. These newsletters are owned and operated by a company WhereBy.US. Launched in 2014, the company built out a scalable model that includes newsletters, self-service ads, and paid memberships. I recently interviewed its founder Christopher Sopher about how he built the company, its role within local journalism, and why he decided to spin off a SaaS publishing product that he sells to other media entrepreneurs.
28 minutes | Apr 6, 2021
This BuzzFeed-like site has become a cultural powerhouse in Nigeria
Daniel Orubo had no intention of becoming a media personality when he graduated with an engineering degree in 2013, but his funny tweets just happened to catch the eye of a Nigerian publishing executive who planned to launch a BuzzFeed-like website called Zikoko. Daniel started out as a senior writer, crafting humorous listicles like the “12 characteristics of Nigerian mothers,” but over the next half decade he helped transform Zikoko into a cultural force that’s willing to discuss hot-button issues around sexuality -- the kind of issues that are typically considered taboo in conservative Nigeria. Daniel is now the editor-in-chief of Zikoko, and we recently sat down to discuss how the website found its audience and why it expanded beyond funny memes so it could tackle controversial topics.
48 minutes | Mar 23, 2021
Inside The Information's paywall strategy
These days, nearly every digital publisher utilizes some kind of reader revenue strategy, but when Jessica Lessin quit her Wall Street Journal job and launched The Information in 2013, it was still a novel concept. At that time, the paywalls that existed were usually metered, but Jessica was among the first to place her website’s entire library of content behind a hard paywall. If you wanted to access to any of its articles, you needed to fork over up to $400 a year for the privilege. In our interview, I asked Jessica about why she chose that model, how her journalists compete with much larger publishers for scoops, and what marketing strategies drive the most paid conversions.
15 minutes | Mar 9, 2021
Lessons from my first year of running a paid newsletter
https://simonowens.substack.com/ I just passed my one-year anniversary of launching my paid newsletter, so I decided to dive into some of the biggest lessons I learned during that time.
41 minutes | Mar 5, 2021
His sports podcast network manages over 100 shows
If you review Kevin Jones’s resume on LinkedIn, it’s easy to see why he ended up founding a sports podcast network. He’s worked in virtually every sector of the sports media industry, from creating content for pro football teams to reporting for traditional radio stations to writing for sports news sites. He also launched Striking Gold, a 49ers-focused podcast that eventually accrued several thousand listeners. But Kevin wasn’t content with simply being a podcast personality. Back in 2018, he began to notice that there were a lot of people like him -- podcasters with extremely passionate fan bases but no way to convert that fandom into actual revenue. So he began pitching them one by one on joining Blue Wire Podcasts, a network that would help them produce their shows and sell advertising in exchange for a cut of the revenue. Flash forward two years, and Blue Wire has since taken on several million dollars in investment, is now producing narrative documentary podcasts, and recently signed a huge deal with one of Las Vegas’ biggest hotels. I recently sat down with Kevin to discuss how he convinced podcasters to join his network, his approach to working with talent, and why he’s doubling down on longform narrative series.
41 minutes | Feb 25, 2021
How newsletter writers are teaming up to bundle subscriptions
Over the past year, thousands of journalists have announced the launch of their paid newsletters, which are often hosted on platforms like Substack. Writers with already-existing large audiences have seen immense success with this strategy, pulling in six figures incomes within weeks of debuting their new newsletters. But the vast majority of writers don’t have huge Twitter followings to promote their newsletters to. For them, growing a sustainable media business can take years of work, and many don’t have enough savings in the bank to hold out for that long. That’s why we’re seeing a new trend in which writers team up to launch bundled subscriptions. This approach allows writers to cross pollinate their audience growth and ramp up content production to make a subscription much more worthwhile. Publications that include Defector, the Discourse Blog, Brickhouse, and Every have seen tremendous success with this model. To understand how these writer cooperatives work, I spoke to Mark Stenberg. Stenberg runs his own Substack newsletter and has spent the last few months reporting on the creator economy for Business Insider. He recently moved over to Adweek to cover the media beat.
30 minutes | Feb 17, 2021
This newspaper chain pivoted to digital subscriptions, and it's working
The last 15 years have not been kind to the local news industry, with thousands of newspapers either reducing staff or closing down entirely. But not all newspapers have been affected equally, and some of the hardest hit chains were owned by hedge funds and private equity firms that had no actual interest in investing in journalism. Family-owned newspapers seemed to have fared better, and that seems to be the case for Forum Communications, a chain of newspapers and other media outlets situated in the midwest. A few years ago, the company’s newspapers rolled out a digital subscription model, and so far it seems to be performing above expectations. I recently interviewed Stephanie Schroeder, Forum’s Chief Digital Marketing Officer, about the gargantuan amount of work that went into this pivot and what strategies resulted in the most success.
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