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As the media world staggers into an uncertain future, mired in a credibility crisis deepened by ideological warfare, some neon-red warning signs are flashing.
Some players aren’t going to make it, while others must change to survive.
In a country seemingly divided between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces, between those sympathetic to Joe Biden and those who believe he isn’t really president, between woke and woke-is-a-joke cultures, it’s getting harder to make a profit.
New media platforms are emerging, such as Substack, but these are either under attack by the old guard or beset by criticism from within.
The hottest media story right now is CNN Plus, the network’s streaming service, which is off to a terrible start. Skeptics questioned from the start whether many people would pay six bucks a month to see a slight repackaging of CNN’s existing on-air talent, plus some new features.
Fewer than 10,000 people are using the two-week-old service on a daily basis, CNBC reports. The budget may be cut by hundreds of millions of dollars, Axios reports, which would mean major layoffs.
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Looking at the home page, I see more shows that sound like digital replicas (“The Newscast” with Wolf Blitzer) than offbeat material (Anderson Cooper’s parenting tips).
Steve Krakauer, a former CNN executive, tweeted that there’s no opportunity to sample any of the online shows, just a handful of brief clips put out, which then can’t be shared on social media. That seems crazy. The CNN Twitter account, he says, has mentioned CNN Plus zero times.
As a corporate matter, the streaming service was Jeff Zucker’s brainchild, and he’s gone, with Discovery now having taken over the Warner Media empire. And that means that even with flashy new hires like Chris Wallace, the whole thing could be folded into Discovery’s current streaming.
As for newspapers, another one, the Akron Beacon-Journal, has cut one day from print publication, and Gannett’s other 135 papers will be doing the same.
As the Washington Post reminds us, this trend has been accelerating. The Cleveland Plain Dealer cut back to three days of home delivery years ago. McClatchy Newspapers dropped its Saturday edition in 2019. When the pandemic hit, the Tampa Bay Times began printing only twice a week.
Speaking as a longtime newspaper guy, I must say this breaks my heart. I have ink in my veins. It costs money to roll the presses and send out the trucks, and with print circulation way down from two decades ago, that no longer makes economic sense seven days a week.
As more papers beef up their websites after years of benign neglect, there is more online revenue to rake in. But aside from a few national success stories–The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post–many of the once-great regional newspapers are struggling. That’s why newspapers now tend to be owned by billionaires and cost-cutting hedge funds.
One America News network is in deep trouble now that DirecTV has dropped it, undoubtedly for ideological reasons. The ultra-conservative, pro-Trump network now has limited distribution, and the Daily Beast reports that many of its top staffers have bailed, some of them to work for Trump or his organizations.
Substack is a very different animal, created to allow ordinary folks and disaffected journalists a way to make money from newsletters without working for a big corporation.
But the Times attempts to take it down a peg, quoting some former columnists who didn’t earn much of a living or are worried that it’s building a brand at their expense. A handful of prominent writers, such as Glenn Greenwald, got big advances as a way to give the outfit some star power.
After much throat-clearing about possible “threats” to its future, the Times gets around to saying:
“The good news for the company, five years old this summer, is that it is still growing. Paid subscriptions to its hundreds of thousands of newsletters exploded to more than one million late last year from 50,000 in mid-2019. (The company won’t disclose the number of free subscribers.) A hiring spree hopes to net more than a dozen engineers, product managers and other specialists. Executives hope to eventually take the company — which has raised more than $82 million and is said to be valued at $650 million — public.”
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Uh, that sounds pretty successful to me.
With Substack now expanding into podcasts, tech newsletter writer Ben Thompson is quoted as saying that the company is trying to put its brand “front and center”:
“This is a way for Substack to draft off of their popularity to build an alternative revenue model that entails readers paying for Substack first, and publishers second, instead of the other way around.”
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Let’s say that’s true–so what? People can post for free, and those that charge have to give Substack 13 percent of their revenue, which sounds reasonable to me. If Substack becomes a destination where people subscribe to multiple writers, doesn’t that help its community?
Greenwald tweeted that “it’s public knowledge that many writers who received large advances from Substack are neither white nor male, but the NYT printed the claim anyway that that’s who gets advances because the goal of this article, as always, is to demonize any independent platform that won’t censor.”
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Substack may have hit on the business model that frees some journalists from corporate meddling, or some other outfit may come along and do it better. But given the declining fortunes of newspapers, TV and some streaming services, it seems like a highly worthwhile venture.