A song to read by: "Beat 100," by Benny Sings, Marc Rebillet, Mocky, Cola Boyy
What I’m reading: "Braiding Sweetgrass," by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Welcome back to Medialyte, my dear, faithful readers, and thank you so much for being here.
No matter what corner of our crumbling civilization this email finds you in, rest assured that even as the state collapses in on itself all around us, I will continue writing this weekly newsletter until the last clouds of acid rain melt my Bed-Stuy apartment into a puddle. But do expect it on Thursdays, going forward, as it works a bit better with my schedule.
Now, to business.
As we are already nearly halfway through January, and no doubt you have already been inundated by some unimaginable number of year-end prediction lists, I thought I would spice up the genre a touch. Instead of wasting time trying to forecast the trends most likely to shape the world of news media in 2022, I want to go another way.
So, here are six extremely outlandish, but still somewhat fathomable predictions, none of which will likely come true, but all of which are rooted in real trends I see subtly transforming the industry.
An old medium emerges from the shadows
You can call it the techlash, you can call it nostalgia — heck, you could even call it an overcorrection. But in my experience, the prevailing mood on the internet today seems to be one of reconsideration. It feels like we messed up somewhere along the way, and now we have to walk the web back a bit.
I see it as no surprise that some of the most dominant trends in publishing in the last two years have been moves toward mediums that evoke a simpler technological experience: newsletters, podcasts, apps and decluttered interfaces. Readers want off the social media merry-go-round and on to a clean, calm, familiar news-consuming routine, something that reminds them of when the internet felt like a positive place.
What this medium will be, I do not know. Texting continues to feel like a nut yet to be perfectly cracked. Clubhouse had such a big moment this time last year that it feels like a different take on its social audio concept might still have payload to cash. Print feels too outdated and is unfeasible for a long list of economic reasons, but could there be some other web 1.0 fixture whose return to glory is right around the corner?
I continue to think that the idea of “home pages” might yield something, and no news publisher has fully committed to exploring the Wikipedia model of archiving and presenting information. Maybe we moved past guest books too quickly?
The point is: I would not be surprised if the next hot medium is something from the past, not the future.
Podcasting has its pivot-to-video moment
It is hard to overstate how far, in terms of technical sophistication, the world of podcasting lags behind its digital brethren of text, image and video.
Have you listened to a podcast ad in the last three years? Up until recently, most of them just involved the host reading a prepared snippet of copy, then telling listeners to visit a specific URL and enter in a particular coupon code. In terms of advertising tech, it was essentially the stone age.
However, recently a number of companies, most notably Spotify, are attempting to perform a magical act of capitalist alchemy that hopes to put Jesus at the wedding of Cana to shame. These companies have invested billions of dollars into production studios, enhanced advertising technologies, talent acquisition and a number of other ventures geared at turning sound into money.
But when an antiquated industry comes quickly up to speed, it will eventually realize the scope of everything it didn’t know before. As Lao Tzu once said, “The wise man is one who knows what he does not know.” And as an ad-tech practitioner probably once said, “With newfound addressability comes newfound disappointment.”
A recent report from Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw, for instance, has quietly made the rounds because it presents an elegantly simple, yet massively consequential revelation: Podcasting hasn’t produced a new hit in years
The article has likely sent a chill down the spine of audio executives across the world because it suggests that this cash cow of an industry might be more of a cash alien. The business of podcasting could have a culture all to its own, one that flaunts the conventional wisdom of radio. When you shine a light in the darkness, you might find things you won’t like!
What if podcast ads don’t work? What if people only listen to the same two podcasts for their entire lives? What if your star podcast host is spreading dangerous vaccine misinformation? What if you have to undo the last four years of your audio strategy because you realize it was built on a faulty premise?
I have no doubt that podcasting will grow into a sustainable, lucrative business. I just think the industry might have some growing pains in its near future.
The dawn of post-social-media publishers
Ah, social media: You hate it, I hate it, everyone I know hates it. Everyone who uses it wishes they didn’t, and everyone who doesn’t use it wishes the people who do use it wouldn’t use it. We know it is bad for our mental health, for our democracy and for nuanced public debate. Even the people who invented social media have, for the most part, issued a collective mea culpa.
In fact, outside of those sweet, sweet bursts of serotonin, the world has generally realized the ills of liking, posting and sharing.
So, why do we still use it? Well, news organizations still get a huge tranche of their traffic from the platforms. Imagine, then, what a news organization would look like if it were built with the express purpose of conveying news to readers without social media? What if — I’m pausing here while you draw breath which you will soon exhale in a gasp — it didn’t even rely on Google?
These are crazy ideas, but they are the natural conclusion of a path that many publishers have vocally embarked upon: owning their audiences. If you tilt your head and squint, you can even see some of this messaging in The Smiths’ amorphous media endeavor.
Social media is a distribution system, but it is also a cesspool. What if you could deliver news without it? How would it change a news organization if it had no reliance on platforms for distribution? Now we are asking the big questions!
Newsletters evolve into apps
I love newsletters — I have never hidden that about myself. But, like most sane people, I do not love email. Why would you? It is designed for communicating, not reading, and it reflects that in its stunted feature set and clunky design.
Publishers also do not love email. Compared to the kind of first-party data that they can capture when you visit their website or read on their app, newsletters offer only a fraction of the user information. But without building newsletters into their apps — idea alert! — publishers will still have to meet readers on their own turf, which is to say their inboxes.
As a result, I predict that savvy publishers will soon begin dedicating the kind of technical resources they devote to their website and app to their newsletters. The emails will gradually evolve from blocks of text, image and links into rich, responsive multimedia experiences.
They will become smarter, presenting you different versions of the newsletter based on your reading history. Perhaps the news of the day will remain the same, but when you are served an article about a new bike path, I will see one about a new restaurant opening. They might even start showing you different ads based on your tendencies and reading profile.
In short, newsletters will become more like emailed versions of publishers’ apps and websites: dynamic, sensate products that respond to readers’ behavior. You might be able to specify when you want to receive them or be presented with a weekly calendar of your newsletter selections that you can drag and drop, curating a schedule of newsletters that best suits your life.
Given the increasing technical sophistication of publishers, it would be foolish for them to continue to operate under the constraints of email. I predict they will soon reach that conclusion themselves.
Publishers become retailers
To students of the media industry, this is the least far-fetched of my predictions: Some publishers are already transacting on their websites. But at the moment only commerce stalwarts like BuzzFeed and BDG have invested the tech and infrastructure necessary, and even then the efforts are still mostly experimental.
I include this prediction, though, because I think it has the potential to transform the internet — for better or for worse is a matter of opinion. Already Instagram has turned into a new-age QVC: gone are the days of pictures, replaced by clickable, shoppable advertisements that induce you to buy with every flick of your thumb.
Publishers are not far behind: Soon, if you read a product review, find an item on a gift list or peruse an article on the fashion must-haves of the season, you will be able to click, pay and purchase them in an instant. You will not have to leave the website to travel to the vendor, and with Shopify and Apple Pay, payment info will only require a squeeze of your fingers. Throw in buy now, pay later options offered natively, and you will be able to make purchases instantaneously without a cent in your bank account. Now that’s freedom!
This has huge ramifications for commerce-centric publishers, who will benefit in ways both subtle and overt. First, their commerce revenues will rise. Second, they will capture more information about you than they could have if you were whisked away to a third-party site. Third, the CPMs they will be able to command on digital advertisements will rise, as every inch of their website becomes a point of potential purchase.
Already the line between publishers and retailers has blurred into near nothingness, but this will obscure the difference even further. Shopping, reading, searching, browsing, buying — soon it will all be the same.
A heroic publisher embraces digital newsstand pricing
You might not have received a Medialyte in two months, but rest assured I have continued to bring up monthly access payments (MAPs) at least once a day to a stranger. I am also experimenting with calling the concept digital newsstand pricing, because it provides a tidy analog analog.
As digital media further embraces the subscription-first concept, it would follow that it might experiment with another vestige of the print era: buying a magazine or a newspaper from a newsstand. People who did not want to subscribe to a product but were still willing to pay — a heightened price, mind you! Newsstand pricing was more expensive than an annualized subscription in part to encourage subscribing — now had an option.
In the digital world, we still have no equivalent. I understand better than most the economics of subscriptions, including LTV, CAC, ARPU and all the other letters in the alphabet soup, but I still have not heard a good counter-argument for digital newsstand pricing.
If I want to read an article in the Houston Chronicle and I hit a paywall, it makes not one iota of sense for me to subscribe to a newspaper in a city halfway across the country. It is also unreasonable to expect that the consumer will subscribe, read the article and then unsubscribe immediately.
Instead, if publishers provided the option to pay a rate slightly higher than a monthly subscription — say $12 — but they could access the site for an entire month, wouldn’t that feel like a fairer exchange of value? And the reader would not have to make a mental note to unsubscribe: At the end of the month, poof — their commitment dissolves.
Everyone wins: The publisher gets consumer and ad revenue from a reader that would never have subscribed or read the article in the first place. And the cost model still incentives regular readers to subscribe, because doing so would be cheaper than paying newsstand pricing month after month.
So the only question remains: What brave, brilliant, courageous and sexy publisher will be game to experiment with newsstand pricing for six months and share the results?
Some good readin'
— My Adweek piece about publishers using buy now, pay later technology — it turned out well! (Adweek)
— Okay and one other recent Adweek piece I liked, about about publishers using read-later technology. (Adweek)
— Nothing better than an adversarial book review, two literary titans, at each other's throats ... the sheer spectacle. (Vulture)
— Read everything Real Life Magazine publishes. That's it, that's the recommendation! But start with this one. (Real Life Mag)
— And then read this one. (Real Life Mag)
Cover image: "The Rural Postman," by Jean-Marc Côté