How should we value digital media? (+ behind the scenes of The Berlin Files!)

Tribune Publishing has a wacky, turbulent, and soap operatic history (if you have any interest in this kind of stuff, Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab is indispensable). At the time that I worked there — and it always seems to be changing — Trib owned a bunch of newspapers, including Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun. I worked out of the LA Times building in downtown Los Angeles, a grand and historic structure that you see featured in more movies and TV shows than you might realize — recent seasons of Bosch and American Crime Story leap to mind, for example. Sadly, the LA Times (now decoupled from Trib and under the ownership of billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong) recently moved its headquarters all the way over to El Segundo, but that’s a story for a different time.

I helped to manage digital registration and subscription tools (i.e. login and paywall stuff) while I was there. It was challenging and interesting, and I got to work with some of the brightest and coolest people that I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around. It also gave me the opportunity to think a lot about the exchange of value between publishers who produce content — news content in this case, heavily focused on the printed word but also lots of pictures and some video — and readers.

The Internet of course helped to scramble what was once a pretty straight forward business model. With so much news content now available on the Internet for free — some of which is of a very high quality — how do publishers get people to actually pay for news, or for written content at all?

Coming from a background in blogging and co-owning a blogging-centric company (Blogcritics), I was acutely aware of how hard it is to gain attention (read = eyeballs or website traffic) to content even when it’s available for free. Equally hard is monetization (read = making money) based upon a non-paying audience, which requires, at the least, millions of monthly page views to have any hope of generating anything close to real money via advertising revenue.

“Tip jars” started showing up on blogs at some point as a way to allow readers to voluntarily and directly support the publisher’s efforts. Other experiments pop up from time to time, such as Dutch publisher Blendle’s deployment of “micropayments,” which essentially allow readers to make small payments per article that they view.

These days, many large publishers are looking to the paid subscription model as the key to revenue growth as there’s a general recognition that the digital advertising economy is inherently volatile. And paying one subscription to gain access to an aggregation of news sources — such as Apple’s recent Apple News+ launch — may point the way forward for some publishers as well.

But the truth and reality is that no one knows how things are going to play out and how publishing is going to stay viable in the long term. There are weighty things at play here, such as the value of journalism as a public good, and how writers and creators of all kinds should be compensated for their knowledge and output.

You’re probably not shocked to learn that all of the above is partially why I became interested in launching an e-mail newsletter. The expansive and flexible format, coupled with the relative “intimacy” of e-mail, is appealing to me in a digital world awash in the noise of social media and the difficulty of drawing people to one document that has the temerity to cover more than one topic at one time. I realized that there are very similar reasons that I’m also obsessed with podcasts. A great long form newsletter or podcast conversation gives you a feeling of closeness with the writer/speaker(s) in a way that you don’t get with other media formats.

One of the more frequent questions I get about the newsletter is how long it takes to write. The short answer is that I really don’t know. I’ve gotten more efficient at integrating the writing of it into my other activities, which has helped some. And I’ve also become a little bit more organized in not necessarily chasing every story that catches my interest during the week (though it may appear that way at times!). A week typically goes as follows:

  • Sunday: Usually I don’t do much with the newsletter. As a football fan, this fits rather well, but because I’m a New York Giants fan, maybe not so much.
  • Monday-Wednesday: Lots and lots of reading. As much time as it takes to write this newsletter, I spend far more in scouring the webs for interesting stuff. As I find things that I think might fit — and over time I’m filing most stories under media/tech, pop culture, or politics (mainly 2020 electoral machinations) — I save them and perhaps make a few notes.

My two main tools for writing the newsletter, by the way, are e-mail and Evernote. It’s pretty bare bones, but it works for me. When I find stories that I want to read later, I’ll often e-mail them to myself and then use my inbox as a clearinghouse at the end of the week. Gmail’s “snooze” tool is a killer feature as it allows me to “punt” anything that I don’t need to look at immediately. It’s a fantastic organizing tool.

  • Thursday-Friday: I’m trying to get what I’ve assembled into some kind of shape here, seeing what I have a lot of, where I might want to do a little more digging, and starting to flesh out what I want to say about the topics I’ve decided to cover.
  • Saturday: Production day! First, I make a go at getting to “inbox zero” (see; the “snooze” thing that I mention above), and then I mow through the mess I’ve made in Evernote to assemble a rough draft, during which I’ll play around with the layout, make some cuts and additions, and get it close-ish to the shape it’ll take as its final form. I then move the copy from Evernote into Mailchimp, where there’s a bunch of grunt work involved with adding links and such, but also gives me the chance to do some additional polish. Finally, I send a test version of the newsletter to myself and do a final read through, which serves as a proof read and opportunity to do fact checking (I try very hard to be accurate whenever/wherever possible, though I’m positive I will get things wrong from time to time!). And then, finally, I schedule it for publication on Sunday.

So, yeah, there’s some stuff involved. I’ve come to understand that I put the time in because I enjoy it. I try to create something each week that I myself would want to read. I find the weekly “production deadline” that I’ve set for myself is a good and motivating thing, and I also believe that a consistent publishing schedule is important in many ways.

Early on, I landed on scheduling publication for Sunday mornings with the thought that this newsletter is akin to the Sunday print newspaper that so many of us grew up with. It’s long, it’s ruminative, and you can read the parts that are interesting to you and skim over the parts that aren’t.

The fact that I’m hearing so many nice things from y’all is incredibly gratifying as well.

I started writing this On Media section in part because of the name change to The Berlin Files, but also because of Siobhan Thompson, one of my favorite follows on Twitter (for more Siobhan, see Tweets of the Week below). I saw her mention that you can “buy her a coffee” via a site called Ko-fi, which got me intrigued. Basically, the idea is that Ko-fi makes it easy to send three dollars (or multiples thereof) to anyone, including creators of stuff that you enjoy, so that they can purchase some caffeination to keep the good stuff a-rolling.

It’s not only established, brand name publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic that are scrambling around to find a sustainable business model, of course. The “little guys” have been getting crushed by the whims of Google and Facebook policies and the increasingly difficult challenge of obtaining new readers without a highly paid full time staff and/or spending a king’s ransom of coin on paid marketing efforts.

I loved Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, which was a successful effort around a subscriber-backed publication focused on the output of writer/journalist/pundit Sullivan. Sadly (for us, not so much for Andy), Sullivan shut down the project due to burnout from the ruthless blogging schedule that he had set for himself.

More recently, sites like Patreon (which my brain keeps wanting to turn into Peloton for some reason) are a natural evolution of the “crowd sourced” movement. So whereas Kickstarter is crowd sourcing for projects and products, Patreon is stepping in so that creators can “develop a direct relationship with your biggest fans and generate predictable, recurring revenue from your creative work.”

So Ko-fi and Patreon are not so different than the tip jars of old (and if you want to go really old school, the concept of artistic patronage extends at least as far back as the Renaissance and Italian city-states) and can be thought of modern experiments in the exchange of value between publishers (or “content creators”) and people who dig on what they’re creating.

On that note, I set up my own Ko-fi page as an experiment. If you want to buy me a cup of joe, you can (anyone who knows me knows I’m a big fan of the stuff), but you are under no obligation!

As The Dana Gould Hour, one of my favorite podcasts, likes to say of itself: FREE…. AND WORTH IT!

A few other quick notes on podcasting.

I read this piece, “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?” and found it to be cranky and out of tune with what’s happening in this booming space.

As I mention above, podcasting is a great format because it’s intimate and flexible and asynchronous/on demand. Episodes can be long or short, and conversations become a “theater of the mind” that you can enjoy while you’re mowing the lawn or driving across town.

Also, can’t people find it within themselves to listen to both talky podcasts and music? Not at the same time, of course, but I do indeed think this is possible.

Finally, Mark Zuckerberg has launched a podcast called Tech & Society with Mark Zuckerberg. I started listening and maybe got 35 seconds in. My review: Zuckerberg comes across as an entity with a computer in his mind designed by aliens. The computer is immensely powerful and does an incredible job of feeding the Zuckerberg host form with the words and sounds so as to appear as a relatable human who just happens to run one of the largest and most powerful technology companies of all time.

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

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