Journalism in search of a cute little monkey
Having lost their traditional business to the internet, the news media are forced to sell ‘something else’. But selling something else, not content or ads, makes them sellers of something else, not the news media. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
Years ago, resort photographers had a good business, making beach pictures with the vignette “Greetings from Acapulco 1982”. Now, everyone has their own camera on their smartphone. The quality might be lower than a professional photographer would offer, but it is satisfactory. Or you can check the picture and try again. Besides, it’s always at your disposal and free.
What should resort photographers do? They have found an answer: a cute little monkey (a cute little
crocodile or parrot work just as fine). You can pose for a picture with an adorable pet or take a picture on your own device for a fee. No tourist would bring a cute monkey with them to the resort, so this is a unique and monopolistic offer that can potentially induce an impulse to purchase. It might not work as well as photography 30 years ago, but still, it is at least something.
The fun part is that the photographer sells not photography but rather a monkey. So, forced by the technological emancipation of photo-authorship, the resort photographer has departed from the art of (resort) photography to the craft of village-fair entertainment and zookeeping.
This is what has happened to journalism, without being noticed and due to the same reasons. Having lost to former customers the monopoly over ‘photography supply’, journalism is desperately searching for a cute monkey to sell instead.
The business model with two main sources of revenue (ads and readers) is not able to support journalism as it once did, so the media are forced to sell something else.
A side business related to content production — a media-allied business — would be the best solution.
Having highly professional writers, many newsrooms launched content studios that produce content for external clients to be published somewhere else. For example, the New York Times Company established T Brand Studio, a sort of content bureau. As its statement claims, “Through T Brand Studio, our branded content studio, we offer our brand partners access to The New York Times’s proven recipe for storytelling and work with them to develop industry-leading strategy, creative and distribution.”
The small local news site Richland Source in Ohio turned photo reporting about homecomings into profitable celebrity-style photo galleries. They do the same with proms and Christmas concerts. This provides a kind of professionally facilitated collective selfies for the local community. As students and families want to see themselves as socialites, these photo galleries are the most visited pages on the Richland Source website (10 times more visitors than their average). Sponsor spots in those public photo albums are sold out in advance.
In 2017, Charlotte Agenda in North Carolina created a print newcomer’s guide that brought in more than $100,000 and provided an unusual case of a purely digital media outlet moving against the grain — into print. However, in spite of some experts seeing this case as proof of print’s survivability, it was not about print or mass media at all; it was rather an attempt to find a new venture under the brand of the media.
The other moves by Charlotte Agenda prove that. It tried to expand its news business with a sister news site, Raleigh Agenda, but it failed to find a sustainable business model and closed it in 2016. Instead, Charlotte Agenda experimented (successfully) with a print guide in 2017 and planned a move toward business event organizing in 2019.
Event organizing is one of the most logical allied businesses for the media, as forums and conferences produce content, too, though in a different form. Thereafter, this content can be used or reprocessed in media outlets in classical media form. Moreover, event advertising, as with the promotion of any information, is a specialty of the media (by which faculty they endanger original event-organizing companies that do not have their own media channels).
The records testify that some media orgs expand to the event-organizing market. In 2018, Vice Media bought an events production company in Brooklyn with a staff of twelve and 300 events per year in its portfolio. The purpose was to promote editorial ventures and provide new services for advertising clients (such as hosting events sponsored by brands).
The Texas Tribune is the most recognized event producer among the American and, most likely, world media. The publication earned as much as one-fifth to one-fourth of its revenue on events. A significant part of its event revenue came from The Texas Tribune Festival, “a three-day extravaganza of education, health care, transportation, energy, and other topics that click with the Tribune’s audience.” This annual event gathered thousands of attendees, hundreds of speakers and profits from sponsorships and ticket sales. The idea mirrored The New Yorker Festival that started in 2000 as a seventy-fifth anniversary event and became an example for festivals organized by the media. In 2018, the Texas Tribune’s events attendance reached 14,382. In addition to the festival, the Texas Tribune produces about 60 sponsored and free-for-the-public events per year.
Event production is particularly fruitful for industrial and professional b2b publications. Russian publishing house Glavbukh (“Chief Accountant”) started with a print magazine but eventually turned it into an online consulting system and a nationwide network of conferences and workshops. New industrial and professional standards and practices are always in high demand, and the media format is not the only way to sell such content. Conferences and workshops are a popular vehicle for this content, too.
Along with conferences, Glavbukh established The Glavbukh Higher School, an educational institution combining offline and online courses for accountants. Graduates gain officially recognized diplomas and increase their professional value on the job market. Thus, media business became diversified by an educational business, which, for Glavbukh, long ago surpassed the print magazine in terms of revenue. Of course, the question may arise of what this has to do with media and its original social function, but, frankly, no one cares, particularly in the b2b media market, where the information service of the media prevails over their public function. And particularly when there are no other ways to survive.
Education as a form of content production and communication is an allied business for the media, too. The media can both produce educational content and promote their educational programs, in this way gaining some advantage over original educational companies.
Educational business attracts not only b2b media but also the biggest media brands. In 2016, The School of the New York Times offered its educational programs to pre-college and professional audiences. “We translate the knowledge and practices of the New York Times into educational experiences for diverse learners,” the School proclaimed.
The New York Times’ educational institution stayed in the shadow of the mothership’s main news business and, hence, the general public may well not realize just how large and diverse this new business branch is. First, at the pre-college level, the Summer Academy and the August Writers’ Workshop present “a new kind of classroom experience where students can develop skills to guide their educational and professional paths.” Second, the “Gap Year is a program for recent high school graduates seeking a transformative intellectual adventure before they go to college or as they consider future plans.” Third, the Professional Programs “are designed to provide real-time expertise across a wide range of specializations, including content marketing, virtual reality and writing and criticism.”
The School of the New York Times charges tuition fees and offers scholarships — exactly in the way traditional universities do. This is a full-scale educational institution with a brand and self-advertising capacity that many prominent universities would envy.
The list of allied businesses maintained by the New York Times is not limited to the content bureau and educational programs. The New York Times Store sells memorabilia and souvenirs branded by the New York Times. Clients can also buy branded and customized calendars, cookbooks or New York Times reprints related to certain data, such as someone’s day of birth. The store also offers a lot of New York Times-branded clothes, toys and goods of all kinds. In 2014, “the Times’ ‘other revenue,’ which includes the store and other brand extensions, brought in 5–10 percent of total revenue of the Times, up 3 percent primarily through store sales.”
As TV shopping shows say, “Wait! You also can get…” — yes, you also can get vacation and “educational” tours with The New York Times Journeys, which sells journeys that range from New York City tours to cruises around the world.
Others are dipping into tourism, too. In 2017, the Wall Street Journal launched the WSJ Business Travel Service, which became a part of its benefits program WSJ+ for subscribers, along with the WSJ Wine Club.
Cross-promotion in the media market has some peculiarities. Goods and services were previously used to attract subscribers. Now, subscription, or more often membership, and some goods or services complement each other and create a new business stream. New York Magazine’s membership program “with a bigger focus on food and drink events” not only promotes paid memberships but also the paid events hosted by New York Magazine ‘s experts. It states that,
There will still be special discount codes and early access to sales at retailers, but more emphasis on exclusive food and drink events, ideally hosted by editors of its Grub Street vertical. Earlier this week, for example, New York by New York members got together to eat an entire pig with food critic Adam Platt and Grub Street editor Alan Sytsma at Gramercy Italian restaurant Maialino.
Special events, sold to the general public and/or with discounts to subscribers, became a mandatory part of all membership programs after the Guardian invented this approach in order to have a substitute for subscription in 2011. It aims at subscribers, or now members-donators, but also creates a new stream of revenue by combining subscription and event production (or the production of some other services).
Undoubtedly, this cross-promotional innovation may slightly revitalize the business of media orgs. But it has little to nothing to do with journalism and its social functions.
The idea of selling branded ‘merch’ like Disney or the Transformers’ franchise is also quite acceptable to the media. Afterall Playboy has long played almost in the same league with Disney: in 2016, the retail value of Bunny-licensed goods sold reached $1.5 billion.
But the biggest player among the media in this market is Meredith, parent of Better Homes and Gardens, “which accounted for over $22 billion, … second only to the $57 billion generated by Disney, according to License Global.”
Many other publishers are active in brand-licensing, too, including Hearst, with $350 million; Rodale, with $155 million; and Condé Nast, with $150 million in brand-licensed goods sold.
Not only can the media produce branded souvenir merchandise or license their brand to someone else’s goods, they also can intervene in completely different markets with their “lines” of products. For example, Cosmopolitan launched its own jewelry line and ‘Cosmobranded’ cosmetic bags and accessories line. ELLE launched its own line of fragrances.
Other ‘cute little monkeys’ the media are seeking in order to replace their former business are even funnier.
Hearst Magazines sold a self-rolling yoga mat that was accompanied by a voice assistant yoga instructor. “The mat includes an Amazon Alexa command that turns your device into a yoga teacher and talks you through a flow of the day from Women’s Health”, announced Cosmopolitan.
Men’s Health not only branded a bag of beef jerky but also made sure it “had the right protein levels without compromising on the taste.” Not only is this an allied business, but also the noble function of watchdog journalism is performed here.
“We buy balloons and a helium tank,” said the head of the local newspaper Oktyabrsky Vestnik ( October Herald… well, okay, October Newsletter) from Russia at a media conference. “We inflate balloons and sell them at local events. It doesn’t bring in huge revenues, but it’s fairly profitable.” As a local newspaper is obliged to cover all local festivities and be present there, why not sell something celebratory? Yet another allied side business.
In 2017, BuzzFeed started selling an internet-connected “precision smart cooktop”. It seems that the experiment was so successful that BuzzFeed allied with Epoca International, a houseware manufacturer, and Walmart in a joint venture under the brand BuzzFeed’s Tasty, a video recipes division complemented by e-shopping. The venture is aimed at producing, promoting and selling spoons, spatulas and other kitchenware.
As the media are supposed to be capable of attracting an online audience, e-commerce looks like a logical and prospective solution for establishing an allied business. Many publications have tried e-commerce, though with different outcomes. Even new hybrid half-media/half-e-commerce forms have appeared, such as PopSugar, initially a lifestyle online media org that acquired a fashion shopping search engine and turned into a lifestyle media/shopping entity.
The only problem with e-commerce is that, in order to sell something, you need to have this something, and there are a lot of other actors in the market who already have it. With this move, the media enter an area with not even a tiny chance of establishing a monopoly, to which they were once accustomed. They might have an advantage in gathering audience members but not in goods production, logistics and selling. This hybrid zone may be flourishing, and this may continue, but not for media business; rather, it will be for businesses becoming media, a form that all of them must now take.
However, the bigger risk relates not to the uncertainty regarding business success but to the capacity of the media to hold true to their ideals when chasing digital dimes in strange lands of online commerce or online marketing. As Digiday once put it,
Given the challenges of digital media, commerce is a tempting way for publishers to create new revenue streams by extending their brands. But slapping commerce links on articles can lead to the impression that the editorial side is for sale, damaging the publisher’s credibility.
Having lost two major revenue streams coming from the sale of ads and news, the media are trying to apply a multiple revenue approach, similar to a casino’s strategy of ‘many small bets’: bet a little on many numbers in order to increase the probability of a win. It seems to be a reasonable strategy based on a philosophy of trial and error.
This is not, of course, an investment strategy from the industrial era, when you needed to invest significant capital into fixed assets, such as oil platforms, car plants, printing shops, distribution networks and other machinery in industries with a very expensive entry pass and guaranteed profits. This is a strategy from the post-industrial era, in essence a venture investment. The investor will lose something but also can win if they are smart, fast and lucky. A good strategy, but there is nothing specific in it that favors the media; everyone can try. Besides, while the strategy of ‘many small bets’ reflects a spirit of post-industrial business, it certainly distracts from journalism.
Without the excessive funding guaranteed in the past, mostly by advertising, journalism is reduced to marketing for others or to e-commerce for itself. From the small local newspaper Oktyabrsky Vestnik in the frozen north of Russia selling balloons with helium, to world-class media behemoths such as the New York Times selling tote bags, everyone in the media market who is struggling for survival is taking this slippery road which results in either being a marketing agency or a media-commerce hybrid akin to PopSugar. The need to sell ‘something else’ is turning the media into sellers of ‘something else’.
The question is how the quality of content and independent journalism can be preserved under such conditions. Journalism is turning into marketing. Native advertising has emerged, a prospective format that marries external selling intentions with the editorial journalistic narrative, directly using journalistic tools and styles and mindsets for the marketing of someone else’s goods under the guise of media storytelling. The dissolving of journalism’s integrity through marketing has intensified.
The wall between advertising and news, the achievement of 20 thcentury journalism, is crumbling. The fall of this wall used to be a dream of advertisers; now newsrooms offer it, and they are even often proud of their achievements in native advertising and other kinds of advertorials and infomercials — ads built in editorial content. Journalism invites marketing to come in and make itself comfortable. This is a Trojan horse built not by Odysseus but by Hector.
 Nahser, Freia, (2018, September 27). The Texas Tribune: audience strategy and business model. Medium. https://medium.com/global-editors-network/the-texas-tribune-audience-strategy-and-business-model-376c0a980194
Originally published at http://human-as-media.com on November 20, 2020.