Media roundup: Google to cut big checks for news publishers, Substack continues to draw top creators, more

Welcome back to Extra Crunch’s Media Roundup, where I round up the stories that entrepreneurs in the content and advertising business should be thinking about — trends, larger platform shifts, as well as noteworthy funding rounds.

This time, we’ve got some bad news for movie theaters, the specter of antitrust regulation and a new career path for journalists. Let’s get started!

Movie studios and theaters face a bleak fall

In the last roundup, I pointed to “Tenet”’s global opening weekend as a sign that the theatrical movie business might be coming back to life — but I may have spoken too soon.

While the latest Christopher Nolan film has continued to do reasonably well outside the United States, it’s only grossed $20 million domestically for Warner Brothers. The film’s underwhelming performance could be blamed on U.S. audiences being afraid to return to theaters — but it might simply be a reflection of the fact that theaters in major moviegoing markets like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco remain closed.

Either way, Warner Brothers and other studios are clearly spooked by the results and have pushed nearly all of their theatrical releases until next year, with knock-on effects for the movies that were already scheduled for 2021. For example, Warner’s “Dune” is being delayed until October 2021, and Daniel Craig’s final Bond entry, “No Time To Die,” was pushed back from November until April. Meanwhile, “The Batman” has been delayed from 2021 to 2022.

At this point, there are few Hollywood blockbusters on the calendar until Christmas, when “Wonder Woman 1984” is due for release. To be honest, I’d be surprised if it actually hits that date. (Video-game comedy “Free Guy,” starring Ryan Reynolds, is scheduled for December 11, but the cast has already created a tongue-in-cheek video acknowledging that release dates aren’t exactly set in stone right now.)

In the meantime, at least one major theater chain said it can’t justify keeping its doors open. The United Kingdom’s Cineworld, which also operates Regal Cinemas in the U.S., announced that it’s closing its theaters indefinitely. For now, AMC and Cinemark said they aren’t going to to follow suit. (AMC noted that it’s bringing in additional revenue through a deal with Universal where the theatre chain gets a cut when Universal films are released early via video-on-demand.)

#entertainment, #facebook, #google, #justin-waldron, #media, #media-roundup, #playco, #substack

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Substack launches Defender, a program offering legal support to independent writers

In the worlds of journalism and publishing, it’s fairly common for the wealthy to attempt to shut down reporting with legal threats. For those publishing on large platforms with plenty of resources, such challenges can be a massive headache. For independent writers and publishers, on the other hand, the consequences can be far more dire.

Citing an example wherein a politician’s lawyers recently went after a Substack writer over reports of business ties, the popular newsletter platform is announcing the launch of Defender. After some months in a closed pilot with a “handful” of writers, Substack is extending the service to interested parties.

There’s a form now on Substack’s site. To qualify, users must be based in the U.S. and use Substack for professional work. Co-founder/COO Hamish McKenzie says the company has no current commitment to extending the program to free users (though that could certainly change), but it’s using the U.S. program to determine when and where to more broadly expand Defender.

Writers also need to publish work “that may attract unreasonable legal pressure, such as abuses of copyright laws, assaults on first amendment rights, and spurious defamation claims.” Once approved, they’ll need to fill out a second form detailing the specific case for which they need support. Substack will approve users on a case by case basis, as well as which cases it ultimately supports.

The company says it’s willing to cover fees of up to $1 million, though “in exceptional cases, we may cover even more.” Such cases will continue to be fascinating tests of the First Amendment, particularly in an era when Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under strong fire from the president of the United States.

“Important writing holds the powerful to account – and quite often, that’s an arrangement that the powerful would rather not support,” Substack writes. “In some cases, antagonists use threats of legal action in an attempt to stop the work that makes them uncomfortable.”

As de-platforming has increasingly become a part of the social media landscape, eyes will no doubt be on Substack as the service decides which cases it ultimately chooses to cover. From the sound of its description, Defender will largely focus on reportage — though in such a fragmented media landscape, even that can be in the eye of the beholder.

The launch of Defender follows a few months after Substack introduced a $100,000 grant to support independent writers.

#journalism, #lawsuit, #media, #policy, #substack

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As media revenue struggles, subscription startups see growth

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been a friend to the media business. Its economic impacts slashed advertising budgets, diminishing a key revenue plank for many publications. The results of falling ad spend have been felt across the industry, with a wave of layoffs hitting publications large and small, niche and general.


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Other forms of publisher income, like events, have also been reduced. But the pain of 2020’s media downturn hasn’t been felt equally in the industry. Publications that had built subscription revenue bases were in a better position to weather declines in other media incomes than peers who hadn’t; revenue diversification can provide real shelter when the economy rapidly shifts.

Subscription incomes are not enough for publications to avoid all pain; The Atlantic’s subscription base famously surged during the early months of COVID-19, but the company still saw layoffs. The Athletic’s subscription business was predicated on sports events taking place — it too underwent cuts despite a membership-first model.

In this era, the healthiest publications tend to have a subscription component. The paywalled New York Times and Wall Street Journal are hiring, as is Business Insider, which launched a membership service in 2017. But not all subscription publications that are succeeding are large. Indeed, thanks to a growing set of publisher-friendly subscription services, there are a number of options in the market for supporting publications as small as a single author.

Perhaps most famously, Substack has seen good growth in the last year. The venture-backed newsletter-and-blogging service provides authors with the ability to charge for their writing. But other startups are competing in the space, helping publications derive more income directly from readers.

Pico, which provides paid-subscription tooling for publishers, has seen strong growth in the COVID-19 era. TechCrunch caught up with its co-founder Jason Bade to chat about what his company has seen in recent months. And a few months ahead of COVID-19’s arrival, publishing platform Ghost launched its paid subscription product into beta. TechCrunch asked Ghost about the reception, and growth of the membership portion of its business to better understand today’s media market.

What emerges from data and conversations concerning the startup-supported media membership landscape is something hopeful. Some writers are going to build micro-pubs that can finance their existence. And larger publications have never had more available help to wean their businesses off of ads, pageviews, and Google’s favor.

#extra-crunch, #fundings-exits, #ghost, #market-analysis, #media, #pico, #precursor-ventures, #startups, #substack, #tc, #the-exchange

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The Dispatch, a news organization built on Substack, passes $1M in annual revenue

Is there an audience for a center-right news publication focused on original reporting and analysis? That’s the proposition that The Dispatch set out to test when it launched last October, and the early results are promising. The startup says it’s now approaching 10,000 paying subscribers, adding up to more than $1 million in annualized revenue.

Editor and CEO Stephen Hayes (former editor in chief of the now-defunct Weekly Standard) told me that his vision for The Dispatch was to “slow down the news cycle.” That doesn’t mean ignoring the day’s headlines. But rather than just recycling the same stories about, say, Bernie Sanders or the COVID-19 pandemic, The Dispatch aims to “take a breath” and try to approach important news in a fresh way.

In order to do that, Hayes said that building a subscription business with newsletter-focused digital media platform Substack (the Substack team also handles all of The Dispatch’s technical and product needs) was key.

“We’re not trying to monetize eyeballs,” he said. “What Substack was doing fit pretty much exactly with what we wanted to build — a company with an editorial-first philosophy.”

As part of that strategy, The Dispatch has gradually been rolling out its membership program and paywall. At launch, it offered a lifetime membership ($1,500), then added an annual membership ($100) when it launched its full site in January, and finally introduced a paywall and a monthly membership ($10) less than a month ago.

Hayes said it’s been largely “an ad hoc process” of figuring what should and shouldn’t go behind the paywall. Apparently, one piece of advice that has been helpful is, “Don’t hide your good stuff behind the paywall. You need to be serving some of your best, most substantive work in front of the paywall, so that you get people into the top of the funnel.”

On top of its paying subscribers, Hayes said The Dispatch is reaching about 60,000 people with its newsletters. And it’s partnering with podcast company Sounder, with plans to participate in Google’s Play Me The News program for Google Home, where it will offer short-form audio news stories.

The startup has also raised $6 million in funding from individual investors (none of it comes from venture capital firms).

Hayes acknowledged that one of the constant questions he had to answer during the fundraising process was whether he was aiming for too narrow an audience — namely, the #NeverTrump slice of the political right.

It might look that way on “the traditional political spectrum,” but in Hayes’ view, it’s more accurate to see the spectrum as a “hardcore 15 percent” on the left and another 15 percent on the right that’s “more partisan than ideological” and will root for their party no more what. And while The Dispatch is “unapologetically center-right,” he’s hoping to appeal to the remaining 70 percent, who are looking for a publication that can “help you make sense of all this stuff that doesn’t make sense,” regardless of political leanings.

The Dispatch is in many ways the flagship among full-fledged news organizations built on Substack, but the list of publications now includes Asia Sentinel, Let’s Go Warriors and Write for California. The startup is also announcing that it’s now reaching more than 100,000 paying subscribers across its platform.

Substack CEO Chris Best said that The Dispatch’s success so far shows that there’s “a hunger out there.”

He added, “Are readers willing to pay for something that helps them make sense of the world and adds value to their lives? I think the answer is unequivocally yes.”

#media, #startups, #substack

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