Some thoughts on Australia and the future of Journalism

Some thoughts on Australia and the future of Journalism

The latest struggle of Facebook and Google vs the Australian regulator has been framed as a battle of good against evil. Although I don't disagree that Facebook is evil, in this case, they are right. @benedictevans has a great post summarizing the issue as does @caseynewton here and here - both great newsletters you should subscribe to.

In summary - sharing links is the basic model of the internet and if we decide to charge for it, why publishers?  Why not non-profits?  Schools? Tiktok creators? Why tax specific links and not others?  If anything - these organizations are getting free traffic, something any start-up would die for.  Imagine a startup that manages to create content that people want to read and they flock to it in millions - wouldn't you want to be the founder of that company?  That is the biggest challenge of consumer tech.

How to monetize the traffic is the same challenge every successful startup has to deal with (and the majority never get the luxury of getting there as they fail earlier due to lack of consumer interest). That being said, investigative journalism is critical for our democracy and holding power accountable.  If we want to fund that via taxes, let's say it and do it (i.e. BBC).

The main issue, in my opinion, is the lack of innovation by most publishers in figuring out monetization models.  The NYT has proven it can build a profitable business via experimentation, technical excellence, strong brand and content creation.  It understands it is a consumer-tech company and is investing accordingly. The mindset should be adopted by other publishers even if the actual model would probably be different since each company is unique.  Throwing up a paywall and asking for subscription because it worked for the NYT is not a one size fit all solution to all publishers.

We are seeing interesting models emerge, the Guardian is asking for donations, Substack created paid newsletters, News break has automated local content aggregation and a great advertising model, Twitch created tipping, Patreon created influencer monetization opportunities combining business model and content, in China, we see a boom of ecommerce driven creator monetization, virtual goods and other innovations. Publishers need to invest in experimentation, technology, user centric thinking and not just follow the NYT and expect the same results.

The issue of profitability for publishers is a space I care a lot about and have been researching. I feel that Liberal Democracies require independent media to hold power accountable and for that to work, they MUST be profitable. No amount of donations from corporations, governments or billionaires can be a long term solution that also keeps them independent and honest.  We need trust in these institutions, something we are missing in our society today across all institutions but when we cancel out the publishers and start believing anything we read online from any source, we end up with fake news, radicalization, loss of trust and a damaged society.  The @curaffairs article says is all "The Truth is Paywalled but the Lies are Free"

So what should they do?

  1. Realize that you are a consumer tech company and invest heavily in infrastructure
  2. As a consumer tech company, put your users first. The current user experience on most publishers are terrible - popups, autoplaying videos, email capture, discounts, paywalls....
  3. Build a culture of experimentation - know who you are, know who your users are, try different models that work for you, not what works for the NYT (unless you are the NYT...)
  4. Don't count on the platforms to save you, it is not their business or responsibility. They are a great source of traffic for you but not your piggy bank nor will their aggregation services save you.  Your brand, and its trust is your biggest asset - dont sell it out.
  5. Be scared - The NYT and WSJ are getting bigger faster and you won't be able to catch up to them if you wait. They have better tech, bigger audiences, attract better talent and this virtuous cycle will only accelerate.  They will enter your market and go after your audience - anywhere there is margin, they will come for it. How are you going to be different for your users, your brand, your offering and your business model when they come for you?

Liberal Democracy needs publishers to be profitable and independent but you can bring the horse to the water, you want force it to drink. Publishers need to rise to the challenge and fight back with innovation, not regulation.

Happy to chat with any publisher thinking through these issues, I have a few ideas.

Noam