Notes on Project Coda and the Mad Men memo
Future News 114
For the uninitiated, Ben Smith, media columnist at The New York Times and ex-Editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed, and Bloomberg Media boss Justin Smith are launching a new media outlet. The initiative is shrouded in secrecy and is currently going by the ‘Project Coda’ codename (how very dramatic and spy-like).
Justin has revealed his rationale behind the move in a lengthy and insightful memo. It’s also a great piece of marketing, reminiscent of Don Draper’s ‘Why I'm Quitting Tobacco’ mission statement/ad in Mad Men.
Funny enough, Don’s parting shot at ‘Lucky Stripe’ was published in none other than The New York Times. Justin, however, is a lot more grateful to his former paymaster, describing Mike Bloomberg as “one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs and philanthropists”.
I’ve reproduced the full note below with some feedback – both good, bad and indifferent – on Justin’s thoughts, claims and opinions. You can find the full downloadable memo here.
JS: “...Across my work, especially in the last decade, I realized that a new cohort of global, digitally-native, educated news consumers had emerged that were poorly served by legacy news media - an insight that has inspired me to launch this new venture...”
These sentiments aren’t surprising since Justin helped found Quartz, which was initially all about global business news for Gen-Y professionals. He’s also right to distinguish a digitally-native demographic – some of the narratives, terminology and general story formatting in traditional print news media do not fit the online world (exclusives are still topped with the mildly hilarious ‘it emerged last night/today’, for example).
Perhaps Justin should also go further here and think more about global smartphone proliferation (he briefly mentions the ‘mobile internet’ further down), which has helped newsletter-driven outlets like Politico and Axios thrive via the old tech of email distribution mixed with pre-work brevity. This has changed the way news media is digested, collected and distributed.
JS: “...Over and over, my colleagues and I have been able to invent or create sustainable business models for original journalism. And by sustainable, I don’t mean break-even - I mean consistently profitable and sources of considerable economic value. Now, with consumer subscriptions on the rise and the advent of “first party data” led premium advertising, I think there’s a chance to do something new and ambitious that makes money…”
For all of the charity-based models, you can’t escape profitability as the best way of ensuring the survivability of long-term quality journalism. That also means readers have to pay for it. The subscription model or Journalism-as-a-Service (JaaS) system has provided visible and recurring revenues for individuals and outlets, changing some business fortunes and creating others.
Equally, with the end of third-party tracking cookies that means first-party data of desirable marketing targets/demographics becomes substantially more valuable. Given both of the founders recent backgrounds and Justin’s notes, Project Coda will likely be aimed at The Economist online readers or news consumers that have paid for a Coursera course or watched one too many TedX videos.
JS: “The global news business hasn’t seen significant new entrants in more than 40 years…”
I would argue here that media and social media platforms have instead provided this global desire for news consumption. YouTube is the one that really sticks out. It’s not a pure play, but as a global media success story it is right up there. Perhaps more on a Western level, the aforementioned Politico has been a ‘significant’ new entrant.
JS: “The news industry is facing a crisis in consumer trust and confidence due to the distorting influence of social media, rising levels of polarization, parochialism, and the growing reliance on opinion over fact-based reporting.”
This is where I depart most from Justin. He seems to miss the point that the new media platforms have created and enabled fresh narratives and formats for storytelling. Here, the inverted pyramid news article template has well and truly gone out of the window.
As just one example, audio and video podcasting has become extremely popular by rejecting the five or ten-minute-long broadcast interview (if you ever wondered why Joe Rogan has become so popular, this is one of the reasons why). The crisis in consumer trust is partly because the digitally-native demographic sees through the formats and language the media has wrapped itself in.
Leading up to the last US Presidential election, for instance, the American broadcast media were obsessed with the horse race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They were shocked (once again) when a large proportion of Hispanic voters backed Trump. That’s because they weren’t interested in the issues: ‘wages’, ‘unemployment’ and ‘health care’ were the three top search terms ahead of the vote.
As for Justin’s claim that opinion has trumped fact-based reporting, well, it doesn’t seem based in facts. The straight-down-the-line reporting of the BBC is more popular than ever (see OfCom’s figures here) in the UK and high-quality publications like The Guardian, The New York Times and The Telegraph are seeing record subscription rates.
Admittedly, opinion and analytical videos and articles are doing very well at the same time, but traditional tabloid journalism is dying. I would point to News Corp as a case study for this point. Its Dow Jones division, which includes the Wall Street Journal, is going from strength-to-strength, while its legacy tabloid publication in the shape of The Sun is diminishing. The Times and The Sunday Times, meanwhile, are holding strong with more than 380,000 subscribers.
JS: “These organizations often see the world through a domestic lens, the international market an afterthought. There is a large opportunity to invent a modern, general-interest, global news business from scratch that serves unbiased journalism to a global audience and provides a high-quality platform for the best journalists in the world.”
It’s natural for an outlet to have a ‘house view’ and that would be typically based on the organisation’s location. Unless, of course, you hire a bunch of relativists.
He is right to say that the international market is an afterthought and that’s been seen most visibly with the demise of the foreign correspondent. However, what Justin (and others) are really expounding here is an ‘urbanist’ view.
These intelligent and English-speaking people are increasingly based in cities. That is the way the world is going (the World Bank reckons 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050). Drawing back to the US election example, how will ‘fly-over country’ be covered if an urbanist readership are more interested in features about London, Singapore or Sydney?
Quality global news business, as shown by the FT and The Wall Street Journal, is possible to achieve because there’s a recognised community who are often based in these urban centres. Global general interest news is a lot tougher, with Justin and Ben potentially falling for a ‘view from nowhere’ demographic trap or ultimately just serving Western (not global) tastes, as BuzzFeed did.
JS: “Our crises — and biggest stories — are more global in scope than ever before: from climate change to pandemics, rising inequality to supply chain disruption, political instability to misinformation and extremism. We are dependent on each other and need shared facts to progress.”
Again, it’s about how you angle and base the story. Is a misinformation investigation actually and ultimately about a social media platform based in the US? Equally, is a supply chain story really about goods reaching the West? This sounds good from Justin, but the proof will really be in the pudding of whatever comes out of Project Coda.
JS: “Around the world, national media and global social networks are too often cacophonous, tribal, partisan, radicalizing, algorithmically serving the lowest common denominator and amplifying the basest content, presenting people with alternate facts that they want to hear rather than the shared facts they need.”
I would retort that a partisan (not tribal) media can have a positive impact on society, as long as there is a plurality of it and one outlet does not have an unfair advantage over the other. The hyper-competitive British press is an example of this, though with the aforementioned criticisms still very much in play.
It’s fashionable to denounce partisan media nowadays, but it does often serve as a safety valve and having a plurality of high-quality news media outlets means the Fourth Estate has a wider scope: the right-wing outlets investigate issues the left-wing outlets wouldn’t touch and vice versa (The Spectator vs The New Statesman, The Nation vs National Review and so on).
JS: “Faced with the technological and societal disruptions of the past two decades, traditional editorial institutions have become almost paralyzed -- operationally, politically, culturally. The grist of the social web -- addictive content that triggers an emotional response -- has bled back into the ethos of news organizations because they had to compete in an algorithmically driven marketplace to survive.”
This argument would have been much stronger five years ago, but it still rings true today. Outlets should really embrace multiple lines of revenue (events, merchandise and so on), even if the subscription model has saved their bacon for now.
JS: “Limited entrepreneurial talent on the business side of news media has led to incremental - not transformational - innovation and change.”
The level of innovation in news media has been extremely slow compared to other industries. Partly this is to do with a lack of incentives, the biggest one being historically low pay in the sector, and the old Chinese wall between editorial and sales. Modern journalists should see themselves as more full-service marketeers, rather than just a narrow producer of content.
JS: “This large new global audience, rising consumer frustration with legacy news platforms, increasingly diverse revenue streams for premium journalism, and the entrepreneurial talent gap in news media open up a space for something new. There is an opportunity to reimagine quality global journalism, and the talent model that supports it, for the most worldly audience in human history.”
Justin’s sentiments around the ‘talent model’ are of most interest and link to my comments about incentives above. It’s still surprising that nobody has built a royalty payment system for journalists. This is bread and butter stuff for the music industry.
With that being said, I wish Justin and Ben all the best in their new venture. If Justin can achieve what he outlined in his memo, it will be a great success, and hopefully a bunch of hard-working journalists will be rewarded handsomely on the back of it.