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On The Content Business

Fair disclosure: I have no idea why Jeff Bezos bought WaPo. You won’t find much about that in this post. This is going to be a rambling, ill-focused post.

Much of the discussion around the content business eventually comes around to the question of paywalls and subscriptions. I feel this is the wrong approach to trying to find a future for an industry that always has had a key role to play in the society. The business of content has not been supported by subscriptions for a long time and that has been the case even before the internet became as big as it is right now.

The scale that the bigger content businesses achieved during their glory days was not because the consumers of the content were paying a price that was close to what it took to produce that piece of content. The scale was there because of the advertising the content producers could bring in. The majority of the damage has happened on that front and trying to repair that damage by getting subscriptions to cover for it is bound to fail.

The business of content is really quite simple:

What do you publish?

How is it consumed?

Who gets to consume what is published.

The three factors together makes a publication a platform play for advertising. Yes, subscriptions are there, but they only make for a bit of nice loose change in the larger picture.

A hypothetical publication, if it attempts to explain its business of content may wind up looking like this:

What do you publish: A weekly magazine on automobiles.

How is it consumed: Print and internet.

Who gets to consume it: 20-45 year-old, 80% male, from the top three metros in the country.

Where internet has been destroying the old content business is in identifying the ‘who gets to consume it’ part of the business. You are not going to make up for the losses on that front by trying to fix the subscriptions part of the business. That horse bolted long long ago and the fact is that, as a large publication, you can’t hope to survive and revive based on how you can charge your subscribers more.

The key question is: how can you deliver a better audience for your advertisers, without compromising the quality of what you publish? There seems to be little effort being put into addressing that crucial question. Audiences these days, like good content, need to be curated and nurtured.

It won’t, though, be an easy thing to do as traditional advertising is used to picking quantity over quality and a historical lack of instrumentation in the industry has allowed them to get away with this. So, even the newer products and models are essentially reinventing the older flawed way of doing things and a way forward that is different seems to be nowhere in sight.


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