Do media brands have a future?
Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 24, 2015.
Years ago, my online browsing habits followed a predictable routine. Each morning, after checking my email, I’d click over to read the headlines on the New York Times, then The A.V. Club, followed by whatever blogger, probably Andrew Sullivan, I was following at the moment. Although I didn’t think of it in those terms, in each case, I was responding to a brand: I trusted these sites to provide me with a few minutes of engaging content, and although I didn’t know exactly what would be posted each day, there were certain intangibles—a voice, a writer’s point of view, a stamp of quality—that assured me that a visit there would be worth my time. These days, my regimen looks very different. I still tune into the New York Times and The A.V. Club for old time’s sake, but the bulk of my browsing is done through Reddit or Digg. I don’t visit a lot of sites specifically for the content they provide; instead, I trust in aggregators, whether crowdsourced by upvotes or curated more deliberately, to direct my attention to whatever is worth reading from one hour to the next. In many cases, when I click through to a story, I don’t even know where the link goes, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve told my wife about an article I saw “somewhere on Digg.” And once I’m done with that one spotlighted piece, I’m not particularly likely to visit the site later to see what else it might have to offer.
As a content provider—which is a term I hate—in my own right, the pattern of consumption that I see in myself chills me to the bone. Yet it represents a rational, if subconscious, choice. I’m simply betting that I’ll have a better time by trusting the aggregators, which admittedly are brands in themselves, rather than the brand of a specific writer or publication. Individual authors or sites can be erratic; on slow news days, even the Times can seem like a bore. But an aggregator that sweeps the entire web for material will always come up with something diverting, and I’m not tied down to any one source. After all, even the most consistently reliable reads can lose interest over time. I started visiting Reddit more regularly during the last presidential election, for instance, after I got tired of Andrew Sullivan’s increasingly panicky and hysterical tone: reading his blog turned into a chore. And I became less active on The A.V. Club, particularly as a commenter, after much of its core staff decamped for The Dissolve and Vox, although I still read certain features faithfully. To be honest, it’s been years since a new site grabbed my attention to the point where I wanted to read it every day. And I’m not alone: the problem of retaining loyalty to brands is the single greatest challenge confronting journalism of all kinds, even as musical artists deal with much the same issues on Spotify and Pandora.
Faced with a future driven by aggregators, which destroy the old business models for distributing content, most media companies have turned to one of two solutions. Either you provide content in a form that resists aggregation while still attracting an audience, or you nurture a voice or personality compelling enough to draw readers back on a regular basis. Both have their problems. At first glance, the two kinds of content that might seem immune to aggregation are television shows and podcasts, but that’s more of a structural quirk. From a network’s perspective, the real brand at stake isn’t Community or Parks and Recreation but NBC itself, and with the proliferation of viewing and streaming options, we’re much less likely to tune in to whatever the network wants to show us on Thursday night. And podcasts are simply awaiting the appearance of a reliable aggregator that will cull the day’s best episodes, or, even more likely, the best two- or three-minute snippets. Once that happens, we’re likely to start listening to podcasts as we consume written content, as a kind of smorgasbord of diversion that isn’t tied down to any one creator. As for personalities, they’re great when you can get them, but they’re excruciatingly rare. Talk radio is a fantastic example: the fact that maybe half a dozen guys—and they’re mostly men—have divided the radio audience between them for decades now points to how few can really do it.
And there’s no reason to expect other kinds of content to be any different. Every author hopes that his voice will be distinctive enough to draw in people who simply want to hear everything he says, but there aren’t many such writers left: David Carr, who passed away over a year ago, was one of the last. Even I’m mostly reconciled to the fact that readership on this blog is largely dependent on factors outside my control. My single busiest day occurred after one of my posts appeared on the front page of Reddit, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, after a heady period in which a mass of eyeballs equivalent to the population of Cincinnati came to visit, few, if any, stuck around to read more. I’ve slowly acquired a coterie of regular readers, but page views have remained more or less fixed for a long time, and my only spikes in traffic come when a post is linked somewhere else. I do what I can to keep the level of quality consistent, and if nothing else, I don’t lack for productivity. All I can really do is keep writing, throw out ideas, and hope that a few of them stick, which isn’t all that different from what the major media companies are doing on a much larger scale. (Although you can find lessons in unexpected places. One brand that caught my eye—in the form of a shelf of musty books, most of them long out of print—was the Bollingen Foundation, which I still think is a fascinating, if not entirely useful, counterexample.) But I can’t help but feel that there must be a better way.