Ben Thompson’s well-written, fascinating website might not interest you.
He probably doesn’t care.
That’s because Thompson lives up to his own advice: technology’s rapid evolution means media producers should target specific audiences, not try to appeal to as large a number as possible. And that’s just what he does with his website. In his own words, Thompson and his blog, “provide analysis of the strategy and business side of technology and media, and the impact of technology on society.” But there’s more to it than just that.
A more complete understanding starts in his website and blog’s name: Stratechery. Personally guilty of mis-pronouncing it “stratch-ery,” I’m the first to admit it can seem unwieldy. And at first glance, one might think Thompson had been hasty in making his portmanteau of “strategy” with “tech” and erroneously included too many syllables. But regular readers of his wouldn’t normally associate him with hastiness or errors.
It’s my suspicion that what at first might seem clunky or unwieldy is a glimpse into Thompson’s sense of humor. Call to mind Will Ferrell circa 2000 in Saturday Night Live and combine “tech” instead with “strategery.” This might be a stretch, but for me it doesn’t just explain the name of the blog, it shows Thompson’s style: nerdy, quirky, clever and not meant for everyone.
Everything Doesn’t Need to Appeal to Everyone
But accessible to all or no, Thompson’s blog at Stratechery is eloquent and well-researched. He writes about tech companies’ futures, technology’s impact on media, and media’s impact on society — and he’s interesting and funny all the while. Thompson’s writing style and topics may not interest everyone, but he doesn’t need it to.
One of Thompson’s central observations is that the advent of the Internet means that media creators don’t need to appeal to a mass audience – they can instead aim small to fully satisfy a small market. For someone considering working some day as a television or newspaper reporter, this alternative path seems to have the potential of being more lucrative and rewarding.
Throughout Winter 2018 term, our class has been preoccupied by wondering where technology will take our world next, how we’ll talk to one another in that world, and what that means for society. More than anything else I’ve read this term, Thompson’s thoughts, writings and predictions have given me grounds to step back, consider my own aspirations and career objectives, and make fundamental changes to those plans.
Newspapers: The Bell Tolls for Thee
Thompson writes about a ton of different things. He’s been writing prolifically since 2013 on hundreds of different topics, but for our purposes I’ve found his perspectives on the decline of newspapers’ relevance, “news” vs. “newspapers” and the economics of advertising to be most salient.
My work in my Masters in Journalism has been with the understanding that employment with a newspaper or in a newsroom could be a possibility. Much in the last several months has made me reconsider that. The opportunity to consider the industry from an academic perspective planted seeds of doubt. And Thompson’s writings have helped to grow my conviction that I should probably avoid it.
Thompson writes that “life is not “more difficult” for traditional newspapers; it’s unsustainable. They don’t have the best content, it’s not personalized, and they really don’t know anything about most of their readers.” For a technology blogger like him, newspapers seem to be the ultimate anachronism. All the content that newspapers create can be found online, but better. Not only is it better, but it can get delivered specifically to a person based on their interests.
That may sound scary for newspapers, publishers and even employed journalists. But Thompson’s encouragement is for creators to realize the potential that holds. Why are newspapers focusing on covering all of the topics that can be found online better? Why aren’t they refocusing on things only they can produce while giving their bloated overhead the axe?
He has the answer to those questions, too. Thompson’s training in business gives him the vocabulary and understanding to translate business realities into plain terms. When he turns that eye on newspapers, his conclusion is that their problems began when they assumed that their monopoly on consumer attention was universal. That in itself is not revelatory or ground-breaking. But when Thompson ties that technological reality with the business reality, the implications are obvious: once consumer attention can go somewhere else (like the Internet), your business model is doomed.
“The destruction of journalism is about the destruction of journalism’s business model, which was predicated on scarcity. In the case of newspapers, printing presses, delivery trucks, and a healthy subscriber base made them the lowest common denominator when it came to advertising, right down to four line classified ads that represented some of the most expensive copy on a per-letter basis in the world.”
Thompson, for his part, bemoans the loss of local news and local reporting. He just doesn’t care about local newspapers. And for good reason! He points out that nearly everything local newspapers cover they cover to justify room for ads to pay for the printing of the paper. Not only that, but everything they do cover is covered better online: whether it’s international news, horoscopes, sports or the funnies. But coverage of local topics that matter to citizens are important and go uncovered because reporters are either getting fired or covering broad, daily topics.
Whether it’s pointing out that the traditional role of publishers is over, or that blogging has never looked more attractive, Thompson’s central point (on this topic) is that now is the time for local news to shift to local production. An enormous ecosystem of printing presses, ad teams, editors and delivery trucks isn’t necessary for a one-person team who becomes an expert in a field, finds the right audience and delivers precisely what they’re looking for.
For me personally, it’s helped me fundamentally change my perspective on the future of making money as a writer. Thompson’s mentality almost seems to be, become the right expert so that 2,000 people SOMEWHERE in the world care enough about what you do to pay you $100/year to write about it. That’s all you need: those few thousand – you don’t need millions. What’s more – having those millions creates problems all its own.
The Best Things in Life Aren’t Free
“I believe that more and more consumers are coming to grips with the reality of online media: when everything is free, you too often end up getting exactly what you paid for.” Thompson wrote that when he was writing about the future of blogging. Read as advice to people hoping to monetize their blogs or writing expertise, Thompson is encouraging writers to have a point worth writing about, write it well and sell it.
Thompson focuses frequently on business models. His exhortations to consider the business model are crucial to understanding why newspapers are failing. A newbie journalist like myself who’s considering freelance work must factor his thoughts into future plans.
It is very important to clearly define what a subscription means. First, it’s not a donation: it is asking a customer to pay money for a product. What, then, is the product? It is not, in fact, any one article (a point that is missed by the misguided focus on micro-transactions). Rather, a subscriber is paying for the regular delivery of well-defined value.
Each of those words is meaningful:
– Paying: A subscription is an ongoing commitment to the production of content, not a one-off payment for one piece of content that catches the eye.
– Regular Delivery: A subscriber does not need to depend on the random discovery of content; said content can be delivered to to the subscriber directly, whether that be email, a bookmark, or an app.
– Well-defined Value: A subscriber needs to know what they are paying for, and it needs to be worth it.
All That and So Much More… After This!
Ben Thompson at Stratechery.com is clear-minded, well-researched and thoughtful. I’ve spent the last year or so imagining a career as a freelance writer, a journalist and maybe a newspaperman. After discovering his work this term, my trajectory is altered for the better.
Thompson thinks the world will pay for expert analysis of niche topics. I agree with him. It’s a long, hard road, but it can be walked. Throughout his website are scattered nuggets of helpful thoughts and advice (and even more behind his paywall), and the ones I’ve already scooped up have helped me immeasurably.