Editor’s note: In The Fix’s new Friday column, tech and media journalist David Tvrdon reflects on how the forces of business, technology and journalism intersect and what that means for the media industry
Trend no.1: The best and brightest going to The New York Times.
Trend no.2: Journalists leaving established publications for Substack to go independent.
The end of 2020 is turning out to be rather turbulent in US media. Just in the last few weeks all of this happened: BuzzFeed is buying HuffPost; Insider Inc. has acquired a stake in the email and podcast company Morning Brew; Two co-founders are leaving Vox for New York Times and Substack; ESPN cuts workforce by 10% due to pandemic; Glenn Greenwald leaves The Intercept [for Substack], claiming he was censored.
The two media trends of 2020
Big, bold moves with a lot of yet unanswered questions. Despite that, many analysts have spotted the two trends which have been growing in 2020 and the last few weeks are possibly the peak moments.
After hearing that Ezra Klein has left Vox, a publication he co-founded, to join The NYT Opinion section I Tweeted: NYT swallowed another one. This year, a couple of high profile journalists have left the publications they founded or co-founded to join the Gray Lady.
The Times is not shy about its strategy to acquire the best and brightest journalists out there. But as one of them noted [Ben Smith, former BuzzFeed News editor, now NYT media columnist], I worry that the success of The Times is crowding out the competition.
Another trend, mentioned a few times in this column before, is journalists leaving well established and mainstream publications to start their “own shop” on Substack. Meaning, going independent and setting up a paid newsletter at the service of choice for many nowadays.
Some have called the trend a big unbundling, others hinted this move is just the first wave, which big stars will survive because they have already built big audiences and others will join forces and re-bundle to create new publications.
In a way, this is something that has been happening in the media forever. The difference today is that technology (Substack) helps you create a new publication within a few minutes together with setting up a paywall. That’s why it seems to be so easy to start fresh and independent.
Of course, looking at these trends from Europe you see a different picture.
European niches and no Gray Lady
Compared to the United States, there is not a single digital market in the European Union, yet. The lawmakers in Brussels have realized this a few years back and since 2016 they have been drawing plans and strategies to create one.
So far, each country operates as a single entity within the Union, there are some shared rules (like GDPR), but there are various approaches for example to digital taxes.
To build a media giant like The New York Times seems to be impossible at the moment, as does the media consolidation under one brand (not a company, we are seeing signs of that). In the US, some have even floated the term monopoly when it comes to the NYT.
Possibly, the German publishing house Axel Springer SE, as the largest European publisher, comes to mind to build such a brand. Springer owns news media in more than 40 countries but readers outside Germany would seldom recognize the brand.
Also, to set up a news media like the Times you would have to operate it in English, which is not spoken by many in the EU. That’s why, when you hear digital brands coming to Europe, they choose the biggest countries to start offices there.
No one is thinking of serving a more general population across the whole EU. And to be frank, that’s a good idea at the moment because it just wouldn’t work, there is too much friction.
In part, this is also the reason why Europe is not seeing substantial Substack exits by journalists. The technology might be there, but in order to successfully operate, you would need to have a language localization.
Now, I am not saying this is not happening. Obviously, the European journalists are watching the development around Substack in the US closely, and some have already started their own Substacks.
High profile journalists, especially from bigger EU countries should be fine. Although compared to the US, the scale of the audience has clear limits.
Of the 27 EU countries, only 5 have a population of over 20 million, and 15 countries have a population below 10 million.
So, if you are talking about setting up a niche publication in the US and EU, the target audiences start to shrink exponentially based on the country and language you want to target.
Sure, you could start publishing in English and say you will have a global audience. Either way, you would want to start with an audience that you have and that knows and understands you.
The thing for journalists from non-English speaking countries (which is most of the EU) is that English content is less appealing. I have seen it time and time again and discussed it with several European journalists. Whenever someone switched to English on their social media account, the engagement rate of the posts plummeted. And without reach, it is hard to build out an independent venture.
There are many businesses in the EU that would very much welcome a single digital market to operate on, including media and journalists with an ambition to reach wider EU audiences.
All that said, let’s keep watching out for trends from the US but don’t forget to look at the trends happening also in the EU – the rise of the daily news podcasts, experimentation with TikTok, or using AI in journalism.