Here’s something extra depressing: I’ve also come around to the idea of practicing journalism as a hobby. As somebody who went to j-school, who’s worked for metro dailies and who’s freelanced for major international publications, I would never have said this a few years ago. But the industry isn’t what it was a few years ago. At this point in my career and my life, I’d rather report whatever interests me and publish it for whoever’s interested than deal with the daily dysfunction of most media organizations.
I love that Medium engenders these kinds of dialogues, thank you. The VC debate aside, a couple notes on the following excerpts from your response…
“giving money to more and more publishers only further dilutes a totally saturated market… Who has the time or the shits for another random publication?”
First, I honestly believe Latterly could work — should work. Human rights are such important subject matter. It just takes the proper target market and business model. Think of the demand from ACLU, Peace Corps, UN, specialty lawyers, etc. If you’re particularly passionate about or qualified for the human rights department, you could convert Latterly into a consulting firm — like Stratfor for human rights instead of geopolitics. Were you to market yourself chiefly as a consultant-for-hire, doing deep-dive investigations into human rights cases for private contracts, that’s where you could monetize. It’d allow you to fund “hard news” and establish some authority in the field, which are things that readers covet. Yes, the publication would be a secondary supplement, but the consulting research is an irrefutable synergy, spinning-off some really expert, differentiated, unsubstitutable, competitively defensible content.
As such, the human rights vertical requires incredible passion and devotion were anyone to provide tangible value to end-user demand. It’s a high bar, because you’re competing against every blogger who has some public data and an opinion, not to mention every supermassive publication looking for a beat. In terms of resources and access, the consulting wedge would be a structural advantage over all of those comers. Of course, we have to comp this against consulting competitors too, not just the media. To wit, journalists are endowed with a scrappiness that lets them outhustle all the other species on a beat. Between a native journalist and a native consultant, I take the journalist to win the hunt for info every time.
The question of passion and devotion to the niche is rhetorical. (And, it’s certainly not pointed at you personally, Ben.) It’s relevant only to illuminate the reality of this — and many other — verticals: The act of writing is currently a commoditized skill, so modern journalists must create the conditions for scarcity somewhere else along media’s supply chain. In our hypothetical business model, call it Latterly 2.0, scarcity would be created both upstream and downstream from the writing process. You’d be gathering and processing one-of-a-kind primary research upstream, then gating access to the refined product downstream.
The problem so many journalists have with that structure is the altruism of democratization. In other words, I’m sure that part of you must hope your human rights coverage has an impact, so it feels perverse to gate access to that coverage, because it not only adds friction, but also promotes the information aristocracy that the free and open web worked so hard to vanquish. In these instances, you really have to ask whether your objective is impact or eyeballs. Yes, those can be highly correlated, but not causal. For human rights specifically, resonating to clients across the ACLU, Peace Corps, UN, specialty lawyers, etc. is far more impactful than reaching all the eyeballs in a republic.
Plus, given sufficient working capital from consulting fees and subscriptions, Latterly 2.0 might be able to finance the production of a few, free, open investigative stories every year, selling sponsored advertising prospectively.
“I’ve also come around to the idea of practicing journalism as a hobby… I’d rather report whatever interests me and publish it for whoever’s interested than deal with the daily dysfunction of most media organizations.”
Sure, journalism-as-a-hobby is a viable alternative. When marketplaces are in a disequilibrium, particularly the deadweight loss that characterizes today’s media production glut, there are major advantages to producers who aren’t forced-sellers. Look at Uber and Lyft. Ridesharing has no barrier-to-entry for drivers, and therefore a fierce competition for riders. Given infinite supply and finite demand, part-time drivers have a huge sustainability advantage in treating their fares as supplemental or incidental income. In aggregate, media finds itself in a similar situation.
For my money, I do think you have something differentiated in your resume. While your background isn’t wholly unique, it does differentiate you from the 90%+ of the mass market who don’t have the j-school/masthead/freelance combine credentials. Listen, I myself could start a publication like Latterly 2.0 tomorrow — after all, there’s no intellectual property for the kind of business model innovation we’re talking about here. However, I don’t have the background to sell as a value proposition were we in a head-to-head bakeoff, competing for clients and audience; I don’t have a journalist’s hustle on the beat; I don’t have the passion and devotion to the vertical.
Perhaps you’d call those intangibles, but I’d argue that they’re rather tangible if applied properly. I’m a Bostonian, and I remember some of your investigative reporting for the Globe. The acquired knowledge required to investigate, research, and report on things like homeland security spending is an art and a skill.
“You know what I’d kind of like to do? Move to a small town in the U.S. and start a community newsletter or write for the neighborhood weekly. I feel like that’s where I could have the most impact and try the most innovation.”
Whatever you do next, just make sure to reference the framework we’re discussing here. If I had to distill it down to one sentence, I guess I’d go with: ‘What can I offer that’s scarce and who wants access to it?’