Seizing the means of monetization

In yesterday’s post I discussed the growing popularity of newsletters and podcasts. Although both formats offer a unique digital experience, almost untouched by the algorithm, interest from platforms and aggregators like Spotify might well end up scuppering their value to users - and the ability for creators to make money.

Sure, a platform like Substack might suggest another way is possible, but with VC money flowing in (it bagged $15.3 million Series A funding just last week), it’s hard not to worry that an independent platform that’s writer-friendly could easily transition into something much more investor friendly.

The Substack team have promised not to build ads on the platform and maintains that respect for writers remains central to the platform’s ethos. “We know that the media can’t be saved by algorithm” they said in a statement following the news last week.

Moreover, in spite of my reservations, the advantage Substack has is that it’s an independent platform - it’s something specifically built to manage the challenges of monetization in the digital media field.

This is critical when you consider that the media companies that have been blighted the whims of investors have largely been content companies - organizations that rely on huge established platforms. Even the most forward thinking content-only organization is as much a conduit for monetization through advertising, rather than an ecosystem for independent content and independent-minded consumers.

The case of Mic

This piece published yesterday by HuffPost on Mic, a media company that was once booming and now exists “as a shell of its former self,” is an excellent demonstration of what it’s like to be a content company in the age of Facebook, Google, and VC money.

The stand out part for me is this from former Mic writer Esther Bergdahl: “Journalistic institutions need to be institutions. They need to be able to grow in a healthy and steady way… When I think about things that grow that wildly and that successfully, I don’t think of a media company ― I think of cancer.”

In the article, you can see how the company shifts its focus (it was a victim of the ‘pivot to video’ trend), but continues along a path that exploits young writers’ optimism and ambition. It paints a picture that demonstrates what can go wrong when investors start to play around with content creators.

Content companies like Mic are, after all, already hedging their bets on their ability to leverage platforms such as Facebook to their advantage. Once you add the pressure that comes from investors, it becomes almost impossible to build an audience and a brand in a manner that keeps your integrity intact, let alone everyone’s job.

How do you seize the means of production when it comes to digital media?

The problem, like many things where economic power is concerned, comes down the who owns the means of production.

This is why the success of media unionization can only go so far. Organization and solidarity among journalists and editorial staff is undoubtedly important, but with the real locus of power in new media companies embedded in third party platforms and investors that decide whether a company lives or dies, even the most powerful and combative union is going to face a big challenge in protecting its members’ interests.

Means TV and The Media Fund

That’s why thinking outside of the typical digital newsroom or content shop is absolutely vital. Substack is one example of how to foster a better culture for independent writing, but perhaps to build a better future we need to focus on ownership models as much as the technology.

MeansTV, for example, which describes itself as an “anti-capitalist streaming service, is ultimately just another content shop that’s trying to build up a diverse range of content for a left-leaning audience. But where it gets more interesting is its cooperative model. Like Substack, the organization says that “Means TV will never have advertisers or corporate investors.” However, in contrast, MeansTV will “be funded the old-fashioned way: by viewers like you.”

Another example is The Media Fund. This is, I’d argue an even more interesting example - it’s not strictly a content company; it’s a cooperative that aims to invest in and support various left-leaning media ventures (here’s a nice visualization of its structure).

A digital media revolution

True, drawing a comparison between Substack and organizations like The Media Fund is a little like comparing apples and oranges. They have different aims and aim to empower and support content creators in different ways.

Nevertheless, at a fundamental level we are still talking about alternative ways of thinking about media - ways that don’t leave either creators or consumers dependent on huge platforms or wealthy investors. That’s necessary and admirable.