|Late last week, I arrived in Austin, a lovely and bewildering city, half of which appears to have been constructed during Davy Crockett’s day while the remnant portion was evidently rapturously erected in the past five years. It’s an unprecedented metamorphosis, even by modern standards.
I was a student in Western Europe during the fin de siècle building craze, when those low-slung cities were dotted with cranes that mass-produced office towers and attendant housing units. I spent plenty of time in San Francisco during its transcendence from Pacific bohemia to the modern corporate state. And, as I’ve shared before, I saw firsthand what happened to the lower Manhattan skyline after Goldman moved to 200 West Street, Giuliani developed the waterfront, Pastis arrived on Gansevoort, and the Richard Meier condos eventually rose from the ground on Perry Street like gleaming Trojan horses teeming with Eurotrash. Anyway, Austin has them all beat when it comes to rapid transformation.
I was in town to give a talk at the University of Texas, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, regarding the transformation of our very own craft: journalism. I’m not a big conference guy, nor am I a leave-it-to-the-last-minute guy, but I found myself revising my remarks up until the moment, largely inspired by the cityscape around me.
My chat was focused on business model innovation in journalism, a hobby horse and raison d’être at Puck—a company where our incredible journalists are not merely my colleagues but also my partners, incentivized upon success, owners in the business, enshrined in our capital structure. For me, it always had to be that way. I’m more than convinced that innovation arises in an industry when a business model shifts to incentivize success.
For generations, journalism relied largely on an advertising model. Companies spent tens of millions to deliver magazines and newspapers to homes and newsstands, or pipe their shows across cables, in order to justify charging their ad clients a certain amount of money. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was satisfactorily enriching so that there wasn’t enough of an incentive to shake it up. Over time, playbooks emerged. Executives were actually incentivized not to veer from the script. Succession planning was the priority, not disruption.
That all changed, of course, when the Internet arrived and advertisers discovered more efficient and metrics-based avenues to hawk their products than sending them to scrolls in dentists’ offices in Topeka and hotel newsstands. The value of journalism never changed, nor did the quality of the best work. The model simply broke. And we’ve been trying to fix it ever since.
The happy reality is that, as an industry, we are now beginning to figure this out. And, as I saw first-hand in Austin, there will be lots of winners. I listened to executives and journalists who detailed success with philanthropic models, community-based models, contribution models, subscription models, advertising 2.0 models, and all kinds of in-between hybrids. Their paths were all different in remarkable ways, and yet they shared one key attribute: rather than capitulate, they’d redefined their value and found a way to monetize it. Austin, a former railway depot and college town and fringe utopia turned modern Silicon Valley in Hill Country, was a fitting backdrop for this conversation. The future is very bright for the sector.
One more encouraging sign of this phenomenon, of course, is Dominion Voting Systems’ successful attempt to bring the Murdochs to their knees regarding the election fraud falsehoods spewed by the talking heads on Fox News. If you only have time to read one piece this weekend, I’d urgently direct you to a collaboration between MAGA scholar Tina Nguyen, legal ace Eriq Gardner, and media savant Dylan Byers regarding what’s next for the network, as future litigants lick their chops, and for the truth-telling industry, as well. The Fox-Trump Curse & the Murdoch Kiss of Death is the story of our time, and precisely the sort of work you should expect from Puck.
Have a great weekend,