The media landscape is changing all the time and as PR pros we need to change with it. Lately I’ve been wondering about the implications of journalists with high profile personal brands leaving established media companies to strike out on their own.
It’s not a totally new phenomenon; a number of successful bloggers and YouTube influencers started out as reporters with traditional print and broadcast outlets. But there seems to be an acceleration of what I’d call individual journalism lately. Two recent examples include ex-Fortune writer Polina Marinova (The Profile) and former Verge editor Casey Newton (Platformer). Their transition has been assisted by platforms like Substack. Substack offers a turnkey solution for publishing, distribution and paid subscriptions while providing access to affordable healthcare and even legal support, solving some of the business problems and minimizing some of the risks that might otherwise deter a journalist from striking out on their own.
Whether this trend is a seismic shift or a blip remains to be seen. But massive and lasting changes in the media landscape are often driven by outside forces.
I’ve been in the tech PR business long enough to remember when most tech news was delivered via mail, in printed magazines that could rival the thickness of a suburban phone book. (Pouring one out for the old Byte magazine…) Back then the news cycle was at least a week, sometimes longer. And local newspapers and TV was where most people got their news about what was happening near home.
Then, almost overnight, traditional publishers saw their print advertising and subscription-driven business models torpedoed by the Internet. New, online competitors gave away most of their content for free and offered less expensive advertising options. As media consumption shifted online the news cycle went from weekly or daily to effectively one continuous, never ending stream of news.
More recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated negative economic trends impacting the media and further decimated already shrunken newsrooms. The cuts have been across the board, hitting both traditional and “new media” companies.
Faced with layoffs and pay reductions, many journalists have chosen to either leave the field entirely or try and make a living as freelancers or independent brands. Balancing the risk, for some, is the editorial freedom to pursue topics and stories that might only appeal to a niche audience. For others, it’s a relief to escape the daily grind of chasing clicks and virality.
To get some context, I reached out to John Cook and Todd Bishop, former daily newspaper reporters in Seattle and co-founders of the tech-focused media company GeekWire, now coming up on its 10th anniversary. I asked them if they would consider going the Substack route today if they were striking out on their own rather than going through the effort of building a media company from scratch.
According to Cook, the answer was probably not.
From the outset, John and Todd had broader ambitions and a sense that they could build something that would cover and be a part of the broader ecosystem of the northwest’s tech economy. They knew there was an audience that was being underserved and their vision always included more than just a news website, but events, a job board and other revenue streams.
More recently, they’ve branched out into developing branded content for companies through GeekWire Studios (which they are careful to distinguish from their editorial coverage). Cook says that venture has been central to the company’s strategy for coping with the pandemic-related decline in their events business, which had previously been one of their biggest sources of revenue.
From an editorial standpoint, building a media company that doesn’t rely primarily on advertising means GeekWire doesn’t really have to worry about chasing clicks, according to Cook. Instead, they can focus on what they’re passionate about. “If we wanted to chase clicks, we wouldn’t be covering start-ups.” It’s a lot easier to get traffic covering big names and established brands.
As far as the individual journalism trend is concerned, Cook said he’s a “huge believer” in the power of newsletters and subscribes to many himself. He considers them an efficient way to consume a lot of news.
From a PR perspective, that’s an important point. Journalists read each other’s work. Even a mention in an influential and widely read newsletter might spark an idea and create an opportunity for a deeper conversation with another journalist.
The media, like the rest of us, is still dealing with the effects of the pandemic and it’s hard to know what the landscape will ultimately look like. But keep an eye on the individual journalism trend.