PEOPLE who run social and political media sites – unless they are the gatekeeper Google and Facebook platforms – are living a life of anxiety, not a life of Riley. The fragmentation of the media has turned into a licence to rage, not to print money. Money-making social and political ‘magazine’ promises of the online media revolution have not materialised, and now they are turning sour.
Now everyone is for sale, Derek Thompson reports in the Atlantic – not just the mainstream, formerly print, media but online social media too. Vice and Buzzfeed, like the New York Times, are taking huge advertising revenue hits and laying off staff. No one has cracked the code. Everyone is chasing the same sources of revenue and ‘almost no one is safe and everyone is for sale’. The past is dead and unrecoverable, he says.
You might think this the inevitable end game of the Facebook and Google duopoly. But Thompson argues it is more complicated and boils down to four factors:
First: there are too many players (without doubt true, and exactly what normal market forces will sort out – the winners from the losers).
Secondly, he argues, there are not enough ‘saviours’, with too many that are fleeting and fictitious. For example podcasts per se are not going to make websites profitable on their own. Venture capital, if you are lucky enough to get it, drains away and runs out. iPads and iPhones improve access but do not drive traffic sufficiently to bring in that so-desired advertising revenue in any meaningful way.
This is the classic chicken-and-egg trap of modern media: how to drive the readership to generate the advertising revenue – when Mr Google is the middleman – to invest in driving the audience. That’s difficult to do even with mass-marketable popular content, the route taken by the celebrity-oriented Mail Online. It means the more serious purveyors of news and views find they quickly arrive back at square one, with too little that’s original to say and audiences too small to generate anything like adequate ad revenue for proper news feeds.
Thirdly, Thompson observes that there is ‘no clear playbook’. News organisations, he says, are experimenting with everything and anything from merchandise to production studios and paywalls (nothing new but it ain’t working), from venture capital to the need for patronage. This, the patrons route – wealthy sponsors with varying degrees of beneficence – seems to be the only solution. Billionaire-supported journalism is better than no journalism at all, he opines, and as he points out, it is nothing new if you look back at previous ages, but hardly democratic.
Fourthly and finally: (and I could have written this from our own experience of setting up and running The Conservative Woman) he moves to the new ‘reader’ role – support from the bottom up, or people paying for what they like via donations or subscriptions. He describes as inevitable the shift from advertising-financed media to reader-supported media, on and off line. He is right. This is the clear direction of travel.
What escapes his focus in all this is content. Content has always been king when it comes to winning an audience. But with no easy advertising/investment money around the test is tougher. It’s about more than ‘quality’. With online media, just as it always was with popular print and TV, it’s about message, profile and personality. And only a few have it.
The US online commentators such as Mark Steyn, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson and PragerU prove this in buckets. They also demonstrate a public appetite for this brand of counter-cultural conservative thought. And they all prove that the reader-supporter model is the future – but for it to work the message has to be right. That’s the risk. That’s what Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson, who have just announced their departure from Patreon for pastures new and unknown, are hedging their bets on.
Thompson doesn’t mention this reader-supported heroes phenomenon, or even the genuine commercial success story of Ben Shapiro who, with one hell of a lot of energy and entrepreneurship (sadly lacking in the UK) has managed to turn ‘owning’ conservative thought into a lucrative business. His Daily Wire is a rising power in conservative online media.
How has he achieved this? Well, inter alia, he went back to the future with his own live ad breaks – remember the early days of ITV, anyone? If you are as savvy as Shapiro, you don’t fight shy of doing the direct product sell yourself.
The truth is then that the market works – and no less so in social media – if people are up for hard work, have the talent and don’t think they have a right to a salary from the start-out. But there’s something else too. The message must be conservative. That’s what people have been denied. And that is what is working. It’s certainly what TCW’s growing readership and popularity proves.