Shower thoughts, Scout, The Spinoff and why big media struggles to launch new online media brands—UPDATED

While showers can be vicious killers, water on the neck can also create moments of clarity, so it’s generally worth the risk. And last night as I sat in the corner of the shower weeping, scrubbing myself down after another day spent working in trade media, I started thinking about Rachel Glucina—and, more generally, the folly of big media trying to get down with the internet kids. 

One of the interesting things about the launch—and then, as The Spinoff’s founder and editor Duncan Greive recounted in riveting detail, the rapid unravelling—of MediaWorks’ online entertainment and gossip brand scout.co.nz is that it seems to fit a pattern. Big media company decides to launch a cool new online brand (often using its own media assets to promote it). Big media company makes song and dance about cool new online brand (often hiring far too many people to run it, despite not having any revenue). Cool new online brand doesn’t really catch on as hoped. 

Internationally, the origin stories of some of today’s most successful websites generally seem to be about starting small and becoming big very quickly; the result of serendipity and adaptability as much as a set strategy. Vice started as a street mag and is now one of the biggest media companies in the world; The Huffington Post began as an aggregator of other news sources and blogs before eventually becoming big enough to hire its own journalists and win a Pulitzer (Time magazine also started as an aggregator); Buzzfeed started as an experiment in virality (something that caused a bit of a kerfuffle among journalistic purists when it deleted some of its early ‘experiments’ without telling anyone); Business Insider is often seen as being quick and dirty but it nailed the art of curation, something traditional media brands tend to look down their noses at, and it recently sold to Axel Springer for US$442 million; and many others have followed a similar trajectory. 

Bauer’s chief executive Paul Dykzeul thinks the hypothesis that big media companies suck when it comes to launching new online brands is fairly accurate. 

“They tend to be much more conservative and wait until something gets going and then tend to pay a premium,” he says. “They often can’t see the opportunity.”

They’re also often mired in process, have biases towards legacy media and, as evidenced by News Corp’s Internet Action Force, are often terribly derivative. Traditionally, Bauer has launched websites that are attached to its existing print brands, as many of the newspaper and TV media companies have done (a la viva.co.nz or 3news.co.nz. As a standalone brand, Stuff.co.nz is an exception to that rule). But it took what could be seen as a risky approach by launching its new hubs Food to Love and Homes to Love recently (fq.co.nz still has some attachment to print, although it is also a hub). He says that strategy is proving successful and, when all its sites are combined, it had over 850,000 visitors in October, according to Google Analytics. And he says that’s all down to hiring the right people and admitting when you’re wrong.  

“The people who are working in that space are very different from the other sorts of people we employ. They are a lot more entrepreneurial … There have been times when I’ve said ‘what’s going on here, that’s contrary to everything I know, no way’. But the reality is I was wrong [about giving away content for free]. And you’ve got to acknowledge that. You need to be able to modify and change your approach. But I don’t think most companies can do that.”

Another typical pattern is when a big media company acquires an up and coming media brand and then drags them into the mire, as many people think Conde Nast did with style.com and other fashion websites it acquired to put under the Vogue umbrella. And Dykzeul believe that’s also a fairly common occurrence. 

“Most of those smaller start-ups are very entrepreneurial and make decisions quickly. The bigger companies step in and then there are 13 people in the process. Everyone wants to have a say and they lose a lot of momentum.”

The websites of ‘traditional’ media companies often rank highly in terms of traffic (but it’s taken a hell of a lot of suffering and seemingly endless restructuring to get to that point) and some, like Atlantic Media’s Quartz are impressive digital-only brands, so there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. But there does appear to be something of a formula and in New Zealand, The Spinoff appears to be the best example of a modern online publishing brand that, while still in its formative years, seems to bear some resemblance to those seen overseas. 

As far as its commercial model goes, Greive agrees with the assertion that it’s still unproven, but he says it’s proving popular, its potential is being grasped and he has a lot of confidence in the approach (it has recently increased the amount of content it supplies to NZME and it was also approached by Fairfax to syndicate content).

Greive says it’s a bit of a tech cliché to say you need to be in “permanent beta”, but he says that’s true. “It can never be finished” because by the time you’ve settled on a model, consumer behaviour might change. And if he thinks about where The Spinoff started—and the general range of his ambitions—they’ve altered a lot in a short space of time. A few things he thought would be huge don’t exist and a few things he didn’t really think would work are now quite big. If you have a set idea that doesn’t bend in this media environment, then you’re screwed, he says, and he feels that was part of the issue with Scout.

Dykzeul says the problem with Scout was not so much the idea, “it was the people it hired”. Greive agrees and while he says he doesn’t take any joy out the Scout saga (plenty of others seems to, however, and he says he’s never seen the word schadenfreude used as much as it was after he published his article), he does believe it was a failure of the MediaWorks executive team to give Glucina a managerial role and expect her to build a media brand at the same time. 

“She wasn’t the right person for the job, for a variety of reasons. Trying to build a team, all of the HR stuff, it really matters and it’s not easy.”

He says it’s almost impossible for big media companies to keep their noses out of the businesses they acquire or the new media brands they launch. He points to ESPN’s Grantland as a property that initially succeeded in spite of its parent company, but was eventually killed off by the parent company’s meddling, much to the chagrin of its many fans.

“If you pick the right people and leave them the hell alone, then anything can happen,” he says. 

That’s not generally how large corporations work, of course. They are businesses that are always looking for better returns, as MediaWorks’ chair Rod McGeoch pointed out fairly bluntly during the Great Current Affairs Purges of 2015. Scout seems more likely to create a fairly large bill at this stage. But Greive thinks NZME’s recently launched WatchMe site has the potential to succeed because it seems to have picked the right people to run it and has given them a degree of freedom to experiment (Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells are creative leads, Cameron Death is commercial lead and it is working alongside The Civilian’s Ben Unfindell, Jesse Mulligan and others). 

In the past, there were very high barriers for entry to media ownership and only the rich could afford to buy a printing press, set up a magazine or buy a TV or radio frequency. That power kept others out and their large distribution networks meant new products had a good chance of succeeding. But now Greive says it’s more of a meritocracy. 

“That’s the beautiful, beautiful thing about the internet. On some fundamental level, we’re all kind of equals. They have vastly bigger resources. But we’re all trying to get people’s attention.”

And, in many cases, everyone has the same tools to try and get it, whether it’s a Facebook account, a major news website, or a blog. 

“When someone’s doing something that’s working, people can tell there’s an energy and an interest around it,” he says. 

He points to RNZ’s The Wireless and StopPress (awww shucks) as other examples of online media properties in New Zealand that have started small, hired good people, created a good product for its target audience and grown the audience over time (another shower thought: while it’s well known that RNZ’s funding has been frozen since 2008, given what’s happening at other media companies, some might argue that having the same level of funding as it had seven years ago actually means it’s quite fortunate).

MediaWorks didn’t want to comment on the Spinoff story but it’s thought it’s done a few laps of the Flower St offices—and many other offices around the country—and few are disputing the accuracy of the account. But while there appears to be a fair bit of grave dancing at the moment—some warranted, some not—Scout’s lights are still on. When we spoke to MediaWork’s Glen Kyne on launch day, he said the commercial model would be focused on native advertising and when asked if that was still the case, a spokesperson said that is “absolutely the path we are following. In fact, all third party campaigns to date have been in the native space.” No word on how many third party native campaigns have run so far. But when asked if the site would continue to produce stories they said: “Yes of course it is continuing to produce stories.”  

While there certainly hasn’t been as much ‘snacking’ as Weldon and Glucina hoped, a bad launch doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road. For example, Bustle, a “lady-centric news site”, was created by Bryan Goldberg, the man who co-founded sports site The Bleacher Report. When it launched, many said he couldn’t just chuck a whole bunch of money into something he knew nothing about and buy into a market. But he hired the right people, he trusted the editors to engage with that market and now it’s up to 45 million uniques a month (he also just launched a site for millennial parents called Romper). 

So what separates the successes from the failures? In media, as in all forms of business, there are always many more failures than successes—and that’s particularly true at a time like this when there is so much uncertainty about the future. Quality is subjective and one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure, but as James Hurman said when talking about Stolen Spirits’ recent windfall, and as Peter Cullinane says about Lewis Road Creamery, when you boil it down it’s actually pretty simple: the product and the brand are inseparable. And when there are so many online media options currently available, the cream eventually seems to rise to the top. 

Right, excuse me, I’m off for a shower. 

  • This story originally stated that Bauer’s hubs had over 850,000 visitors but it was all of its websites combined. 

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