When we started to put together the paidContent Live conference, which we held in New York last week, one of the driving forces behind our selection of speakers was to find those who are doing interesting things — either in new or traditional media — so that we could try and figure out what the future of media is going to look like. As I said during my opening remarks, we may not have all (or any) of the answers, but we do have plenty of interesting questions, and that is a start.
Among those questions are the following: Are people going to pay directly for content? Is native advertising going to subsidize media? Does sponsored content raise ethical issues for media companies? Are individual creators going to succeed by connecting directly with their audiences or by striking deals with existing media entities? And as far as I can tell, the answer to all of these questions is the same: Yes. And no. That may not seem very helpful, but I think it is.
You have to try everything
At one point during the panel on monetization — which also included Richard Tofel from ProPublica, Raju Narisetti from News Corp. and Bob Bowman from Major League Baseball — Atlantic Media president Justin Smith said that his organization didn’t really have a single answer to the question of how to monetize content, because it was more or less trying everything it possibly could (which is one of the reasons why I have said Atlantic is one of the media companies worth watching).
For the Atlantic, that means experimenting with sponsored content (despite its potential pitfalls, which were highlighted during the Scientology incident) as well as doing live events, and introducing a premium offering — which Smith wouldn’t provide much detail about but is supposedly coming soon. As he put it:
“To say that the ad model is going to win over the pay model is foolish. I think the solution will be multiple revenue streams, it will be how experimental, how creative you are in seeking out those revenue streams… we must try everything. And we must not believe that one thing is going to work over the other until we actually experience it and see it over a period of time.”
The future isn’t going to be one model
Even just on that panel, we had almost every model represented, with ProPublica — which is built on a donation model, one that Dick Tofel believes will be replicated in dozens of states and cities, in the same way most metropolitan areas have symphonies or ballet troupes — and the Atlantic, and then News Corp. with its variety of hard and soft paywalls, and MLB with its app-based and content-focused strategy. Bowman said everyone should have some form of pay model, because why not give your hardcore fans a way to pay you for what they value?
The “blogging superstar” panel also had a variety of models, none of which was obviously better than the other. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings said that she didn’t even think of herself as a business — she wrote “for an audience of one” and was happy to get whatever donations she could get. Andrew Sullivan has famously bet his future on a direct-to-reader model, but he also said he isn’t opposed to advertising either (although he is adamantly opposed to native advertising). And Andrew Ross Sorkin says he is happy to continue building a personal empire of sorts within the New York Times.
Maybe that in itself is enough of a valuable insight, at least for now: that the future of media isn’t going to be one thing, or even a couple of obvious things — there is no one-size-fits-all solution (if there ever was) and waiting around for one to appear is a mug’s game. At least for the foreseeable future, the landscape of digital media is going to be a form of loosely organized chaos, with everyone trying whatever they can. As Clay Shirky said about newspapers two years ago, this chaotic environment is actually beneficial, because we need to try everything in order to figure out what works.
Note: You can find streaming videos of each of the major sessions at paidContent Live in this post, and links to transcripts of those sessions in this post, as well as a roundup of our live-blogging of the event.