Why small publishers are set for a big win as mass media implodes.

Advertisers blindly buying an audience has gone out of fashion.

By Tim Burrowes

A version of this story first ran in Tim Burrowes’ weekly newsletter. It’s republished here with permission from the author.


I’ve always liked the point of view that there are two types of communications planners—lumpers and slicers—those who want to lump together as much of the population together as possible, and those who want to slice it as thinly as possible.

What’s emerged in alternative strategies for digital media publishers is similar. And in Australia, at least, the lumping is what now threatens the magazine industry.

There are those who have gone for selling to mass audiences, and those who have gone for targeting specific audiences.

In Australia the pendulum swung firmly over the last decade or two toward the portal approach of building big audiences, treating them all the same, and selling those aggregated masses to advertisers.

That left little room for the craft beloved of print magazines, which thrives when nurturing small but passionate audiences who have a lot in common.

A ton of new evidence has emerged that simply chasing mass audiences without a specific monetization plan does not work.

Mashable’s move three or four years ago from being a site about what’s new and interesting in social media to a bit of everything appears to have failed.

The three-year-old Australian edition of Mashable rarely makes a splash. Even its upwards blip in this week’s Nielsen digital news rankings only served to emphasize its lack of reach. An audience of 284,000 is untenable for a mainstream site.

The decision to sell to Ziff Davis for a reported $50 million suggests a site whose value (and momentum) has declined drastically over the last 12 months.

The end of reach

Then there’s BuzzFeed, the ultimate champion of native advertising. Yet there’s increasing evidence that it has struggled to build a native advertising model at sufficient scale to support its offering. The Wall Street Journal reported in the last few days that it may miss its revenue targets by 20%.

Locally, HuffPost doesn’t seem to be working, certainly not as a joint venture with Fairfax Media. I can’t remember the last time I saw a local HuffPo article shared on social media by anyone I know.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two partners go their separate ways in the coming days.

The smoke and mirrors of Lisa Wilkinson as an editor-at-large for HuffPo who barely files an article for the site (just 15 in the last two years) gained a few headlines early on, but didn’t help find a committed audience.

The arrival of the New York Times Australia has also been a fizzler. While it’s a magnificent title in print and online for those interested in US and wider international coverage, its Aussie output still feels like it’s being mainly written to explain those wacky Australian larrikins to a US audience.

When it comes to global brands creating credible local operations, the exception that proves the rule is The Guardian Australia, which has at least developed its own personality.

But of course, The Guardian is almost certainly still losing a shedload of money locally. Plus, it’s only here because of the seed funding of philanthropist Graeme Wood.

And what all the international brands I’ve just mentioned have in common is that they have deep pockets.

They’ve disrupted the existing media models without being expected to turn an immediate profit. Reach and mass have been the priority.

But it feels like the easy venture capital that gave the likes of BuzzFeed and Mashable the ability to chase audiences without making a short-term profit is coming to an end.

Building on small

A tiny audience can be a valuable, and monetizable, one.

The pendulum is swinging away from aggregated audiences.

But with so much renewed focus on the murkiness of the programmatic-tainted digital supply chain, advertisers blindly buying an audience has gone out of fashion.

If Australia’s magazine publishers have a future beyond managing decline by closing more titles every few months, it will come from refocusing on the powerful brands and putting resource behind serving those individual audiences.

Tim Burrowes

Tim Burrowes is Founder & Content Director of Mumbrella, Australia's media & marketing umbrella. Follow Tim Burrowes on Twitter.

From this week


Columbia Journalism Review takes a hard look at the journalism funding done by Facebook and Google.

There are millions of dollars going into this space. While many are happy to take the money on the table, others question the ethics behind it. “The British Empire wanted trains in Kenya and India to run well, too. So their concerns are sincere, but the effect is more often than not a deeper immersion in and dependence on these platforms.” Of course this isn’t an issue unique to the tech giants — grant-giving NGOs have also faced similar critics.
Columbia Journalism Review

Governments & policy



New Naratif put together a solid story on how the Muslim Cyber Army works in Indonesia.

If you haven’t heard of the MCA (no, not that MCA in Malaysia!), they have been spreading fake news and driving hate speech along religious and ethnic lines. Worrying trend, especially in a country that’s been fighting fake news factories like Saracen. What makes this one different? “MCA looks more ideological, has thousands of networks in different parts of Indonesia and therefore the destructive power of this group is greater than that of Saracen.”
New Naratif


The New York Times is partnering with FX and Hulu on a weekly documentary series called…The Weekly.

It centres around stories from the Times and the journalists that work them. This comes hot on the heels of The Daily, their incredible podcast about one daily story from the Times newsroom. This is part of the Times’ ongoing foray into entertainment: A New York Times Magazine feature is going to be a Netflix documentary series, and Brad Pitt bought the movie rights to the story of how the Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story. Also coming: a four-part series for Showtime about the Times newsroom during the first year of the Trump administration.
New York Times

Media startups



SilverKris, Singapore Airlines’ in-flight magazine, nailed it with their recent redesign by Ink.

I usually have the same attitude to in-flight magazines as I do to, say, a swift slap across the face: I’d really just rather not, thanks. But this reworked version was good enough for me to forget my Economy Class kneelessness, even though the cover is easily the most forgettable part of the whole redesign: a crowded image with no focal point. But here’s why I love this redesign: 1. The layout and typography have integrity in that they are led by the content. 2. The section fronts have bold, opinionated design. 3. The reading experience is immaculate — even though they crowd little surprise nuggets in the gutter. 4. The illustrations by Stuart Patience are delicious. 5. The writing isn’t all travel-fluff and doesn’t suck. 6. Those are some mad infographics skillz. Here's an interview with the Ink creative director.
The Design Air

The Malay Mail did a website redesign.

Load times were a priority, and the new site scores well on that front. The digital team also prioritised monetizing content and enhancing their “programmatic setup”. For me, this is translating into lots of badly-placed ads for pointless leather accessories in duplicate and Outbrain-forward sewage. They are testing a new section with Mandarin content for Malaysians working in Singapore, which says good things about their user research. Structurally, the website is fine, although better hierarchy on the home and story pages would be a good idea. (Also, those Open Sans headlines need some kerning; they’re w a y t o o l o o s e.) I’m impressed with how their head of digital responded to a question about the cost of the revamp: he said the company saw it as an investment rather than an expense. Respect.
Marketing Interactive

The article page is arguably the most vital page for a news website.

Getting it right across platforms is the Holy Grail. Last week, The New York Times took a giant step towards getting it right. This involved streamlining internal efficiencies on their CMS as well as a better user experience across mobile and desktop on web and native apps. Advertising also got a major overhaul: they killed their cluttered right rail of smaller banner ads for larger, full-width, midstream ads for a much cleaner read—and it’s working: “Ads on the new page are achieving twice the click-through rate of our old design, and initial studies show higher brand recall and four-times the reader attention to ads.” Read about the process here.
New York Times

“Hi, so did you hear that crazy phone call that, umm, the Google Duplex robot assistant made to the hair salon?”

She had the whole uptalk (ending verbal statements with that millennialesque question mark subconsciously designed to maximise responsiveness) thing going on? as well as an “mmm-hmmm?” and even an “er”? It wasn’t just how real it was that blew my mind; it was that the person on the other end of the phone was able to have a complete conversation without suspecting anything. I think the tech is amazing; I think the the whole construct is creepy. Would Turing give the bot full marks? Hear it for yourself.
The Guardian

Google’s Duplex bot will now identify itself as a robot on the phone.

There were some serious concerns that Google was putting the ‘dupe’ in Duplex: “Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing”. The company has clarified: “It’s important to us that users and businesses have a good experience with this service, and transparency is a key part of that.” What is it going to say, though: “Hey there, I’m Rishad’s bot assistant, so don’t be freaked out.”?