In 2013, two of the most storied media institutions in the United States were sold at going-out-of-business-sale prices: Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for $250 million, while Boston Red Sox owner John Henry purchased The Boston Globe for $70 million. The New York Times Company paid $1.1 billion for the Globe in 1993. To give you some idea of how the media landscape has shifted in the past decade and a half: Spotify recently agreed to pay $100 million to be the exclusive platform for Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience.
Between 2008 and 2018, newspaper advertising revenue collapsed from $37.8 billion to $14.3 billion, newsroom employment fell from 71,000 to 38,000, and circulation plummeted from around 50 million per day to less than 25 million. While it’s clear that traditional media is never going to be the same, the success of alternative media like The Joe Rogan Experience is a reminder that the demand for content isn’t disappearing – it’s just taking a different form. Since 2008, the proportion of Americans who say they’ve listened to a podcast in the past month surged from 9 percent to 41 percent, while 28 percent say they’ve listened to one in the past week. In 2008, just 12 percent of Americans said they’d listened to any form of online audio within the preceding week – a proportion that has jumped to 62 percent.
It’s no surprise that legacy media outlets are investing in their own podcast platforms – while around 2 million unique weekly visitors downloaded NPR podcasts in 2014, that number spiked to almost 14 million by 2020. There are plenty of lessons established media outlets can learn from the world of podcasting. As anyone who worked in a newsroom at some point over the past several years will tell you, one of the dogmas that has emerged in the media industry since the collapse in ad revenue is the idea that consumers no longer want longform content. But it’s clear that this isn’t the case – as I write, the most recent episode of The Joe Rogan Experience is an interview with the standup comedian Eleanor Kerrigan, and it clocks in at almost four hours. Meanwhile, longform journalism podcasts like Serial – which dedicates an entire season to covering a single story – have proven to be extremely popular.
In 2015, The New York Times had 1.3 million digital subscribers – a number that reached 7 million by the first quarter of 2021. Between 2019 and 2020, The Atlantic added 300,000 subscriptions. Other legacy outlets – including those that focus on longform content, such as The New Yorker – have seen their subscriptions increase significantly over the past several years. Meanwhile, the newsletter service Substack now has more than 500,000 subscribers and its top ten writers collectively bring in more than $15 million per year. It’s clear that media consumers are more than willing to pay for high-quality content, and their attention spans aren’t as limited as many editors and publishers used to think.
Earlier this summer, I wrote a post about how startlingly easy it is for inaccurate information to spread online. In 2018, MIT researchers found that falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be shared on Twitter than facts, while fake news reached people six times faster than legitimate stories. One of the reasons fake news is so stubborn is the fact that outlets are desperate for on-demand content and willing to settle for articles that depend on secondhand information from blog posts and other articles scattered around the Internet. Rather than taking the time to conduct original research, writers all too often repurpose content that was published elsewhere. As I noted in my post, this can lead to falsehoods getting recycled again and again.
With the ever-increasing need for content and the ever-shifting economics of the media industry, many writers and editors have convinced themselves that high-quality, in-depth work isn’t worth the investment. This has never been true in our experience – clients have repeatedly expressed their willingness to invest in well-researched, original longform content. While it’s difficult to know what the next few years will hold for the rapidly evolving media industry, there are good reasons to believe that this demand is only going to become stronger.
Credits: Matt Johnson, writer; Pixabay, image