Power to the writers
6 min read

Power to the writers

A massive realignment of human capital is coming for the media industry.
Power to the writers

A song to read by: "Crab," by Alex G

What I'm reading: "In defense of degrowth," by Giogos Kallis

The next big news disruption

In what you will soon understand to be a meta introduction to this piece, I started my Saturday morning off as I often do, reading, bleary-eyed, a handful of newsletters on my phone. Some of my favorite emails arrive on weekend mornings, but this time one from the editor-in-chief of The Information, Jessica Lessin, caught my eye.

Titled “The Next Big News Disruption,” it argued that the media industry has reached the final stages of its first major disruptive event, a shifting business model prompted by the advent of the internet, and is now approaching its second.

“But there is another change underway that is going to determine the next decade’s (or century’s) winners and losers,” Lessin writes. “It’s related to technology, as is most disruption. And it’s the realignment of human capital in the news business.”

She offered the example of The Athletic, perhaps the only publisher as maniacally hellbent on a subscription-based business model as The Information. The company made news recently for exploring an acquisition by The New York Times, but Lessin cited its chief executive, Alex Mather, not for his deal-making but for his prescient understanding of the changing tides of editorial.

Mather famously hired legal counsel for The Athletic long before most editorial startups do so. The publication needed a lawyer so early, Lessin wrote, because it was negotiating complex contracts for “news talent,” which in itself is somewhat of a neologism.

As most fans of The Athletic can attest, its primary appeal is rooted in the caliber of the sports writers it poached from just about every major publication in the country. Mather knew earlier than most that such a strategy would lead to success.

The exchange between the two underscored their shared belief: that the future of editorial lies in recruiting and supporting marquee journalists.

“This is not a passing fad,” Lessin writes. “It’s been developing steadily for a long time, and it amounts to a major human capital realignment in the news business that will ruin many news organizations and propel those smart enough to realize what to do about it.”

If Lessin sounds dramatic, it might be because she more than most has an inkling as to the potential for disruption the creator economy poses. The editor-in-chief, whose publication was among the first in the country, if not the first, to hire a reporter exclusively dedicated to covering the creator economy, has had a front-row seat to the transformation taking place in the tech world.

In less than six months, the creator economy has grown from a buzzword into a paradigm shift: there are no longer users, only creators, and whichever platform most enriches them will become the most popular.

This new reality is not without its complications, many of which I’ve chronicled, and it promises to upend what few parts of the economy have not yet been waylaid by the internet.

But as Lessin suggests, while this brave new web will rattle publications the world over, it offers a glimmer of hope to writers, both journalists and otherwise, who have in recent months seen a number of signs that their market worth is far more than they realize. The problem, in other words, has never been them.

“Value is what someone is willing to pay”

When Substack launched its newsletter platform in 2017, it unwittingly (or wittingly, as I imagine they would say) created a new way to appraise the value of writers in the process: First you launch a paywall, then you find out how much your thoughts are really worth.

Once word of this new concept got around, some very valuable people began experimenting with it, and they discovered what the rest of the internet has since found: That they were worth far more than they were being paid.

As writers flocked to Substack, other platforms began taking notice: What about podcasters, sex workers, videographers, fitness instructors, illustrators, teachers? Were they being underpaid as well?

The nut was quickly cracked, and in short order virtually every popular platform rolled out a suite of products that helped its users make money from their output.

Chart via Axios

Some of these products, specifically the ones from Twitter and Facebook, were designed with writers in mind: tipping, subscription revenue share, paywalls, and newsletters, to name a few.

While these new products have not been fully released, they promise to unleash conflict-of-interest pandemonium on much of the editorial world, as others have argued.

Can a journalist take a tip on their personal Twitter? Can they paywall a story they wrote for their newsletter? Can they split revenue from a side project with a source they might have to cover? If history is any indication, the answers will be no, no, and no. So it goes for the professional class.

All the more reason then, the devil on your shoulder might argue, to go solo.

Substack has already proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that journalists of a certain prominence can make far more money on their own than when working for a publication. Now, these new tools give unattached writers even more ways to generate revenue.

With every new creator tool the platforms unveil for writers, the difference grows starker between what a journalist is making and what they could be making.

The creator economy: Who is it good for?

If you are a publisher, or rather, per Lessin, a publisher unprepared for this shift, these trends should unnerve you. The platforms have made it abundantly clear that the writing class is squarely in the creator economy, meaning they see money to be made by helping writers make money themselves.

This development pits platforms against publishers in a novel way: over talent. The number of high-profile journalists who have left prestigious jobs only continues to grow, and the advent of an even more sophisticated suite of monetization tools threatens only to hasten this editorial exodus.

And why not? What have publishers done in response to this trend? Some have dug their heels in, most have kept quiet, but few have begun actively negotiating contracts, rethinking the employer-employee relationship, or otherwise creating real-world incentives for their talent to stay put.

Instead, in fact, the industry has only continued to crumble, with jobs disappearing, money evaporating, and basic human dignity left unregarded.

So when it comes to the creator economy, far be it from me to put my faith in the platforms to save journalism, but have you seen the current set-up?

Rise of the writer

If you are a writer, however, that unfamiliar sensation you might be feeling is what people call agency.

The rise of the creator economy has proven quite convincingly that there is an enormous, lucrative hunger for quality writing. In my conversation with Max Tani last week, we both shared the epiphany that, over the last year, our media consumption has shifted from publications to almost exclusively newsletters and independent writers.

The industry has brow-beaten so many talented writers into believing that they have spent years of their life honing unmarketable skills, when in fact the opposite was true. Publications have been handing their staff leaky buckets and asking them to bail water, then blaming them when the ship sunk.

The media industry might be imploding, but that in no way tolls the death knell for writing. Yes, as Alicia Kennedy wrote yesterday, the solopreneur life is no walk in the park. We need labor laws protecting independent creators, and we need platforms to create structures that acknowledge the equity of their creators.

But if the creator economy has done nothing else, it has given a long-embattled writing class a new breed of leverage. The individual writer is now an economic force to be reckoned with — “news talent,” in other words — and with this new autonomy comes new options.

Savvy publications will acknowledge this new paradigm, and it will be incumbent upon them to devise creative ways to keep their star writers aboard. Others, though, that bury their heads and demand fealty to a system that has floundered for the past two decades, will find their best and brightest quietly leaving for greener pastures.

Some good readin'

— This piece by Terry about the unnerving rise of "social commerce," which I have seen borne out in the publishing world too. (Vox)

— Speaking of me, a piece I wrote on the return of advertising. (Adweek)

— And since we're on a roll, this guest Study Hall is also about the blending of editorial and commerce. We love a trend! (Study Hall)

— Say it with me: Stress caused by failing social systems requires systemic change. (Void Network)

Cover image: "Sulphur Miners," by Renato Guttuso