Has media become nothing more than marketing?

“Media and publishing is now just another form of marketing for those who can afford it.

“And those who create good content? Get close to nothing — or nothing.”

So says my friend, Zakaria Zainal, an independent photojournalist.

It’s hard to disagree, going by what I’ve been seeing in the media market both in Singapore and the world. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how new publishers of media here today are not purely media companies anymore, but graphic design studios or companies that essentially do not earn from media at all.

Underscore, published by design studio Hjgher, is a classic case. At The Design Society’s Sessions last night on the phenomenon of self-publishing, I got to ask publisher Justin Long how the magazine earned its revenue. His answer? It barely breaks even. But Underscore is not about making money, he said. Instead, it earns its “value” through the network of friends it has gained, and how it has helped to market the studio to the world. According to Long, only a 1000 copies are sold in Singapore, and the rest, some 4000, are distributed overseas. The other two speakers that evening also had similar models. Basheer distributes and sells books, when it does publish books, it makes sure the market is big enough. Yanda, the man behind THEARTISTANDHISMODEL keeps his blog going purely out of passion, and also makes a living from elsewhere.

What surprised me the most was that none of the contributors to Underscore magazine get paid, according to Long. For someone who earns his keep from producing media, it only proves that I cannot earn from creating media I like. Instead, I have to “sponsor” work that I like by taking on jobs that actually pay — essentially Underscore‘s business model. Although I still continue contributing to magazines and websites that pay very little, because I believe in the magazine and the content that it puts out, you always question how sustainable is this. Will the contributor/magazine who doesn’t get paid or gets paid miserly eventually die out? Highly likely.

A conversation that happened after Sessions also proved Zakaria’s point. A designer told me about a client who wanted to create media online to attract eyeballs to his brand. It shows that people do demand good content, but at the same time, they are not willing to pay for it directly. So, businesses have benefitted the most from the boom in self-publishing. They can easily fund and create media that will eventually attract attention their brands. On the other hand, media not meant for marketing or commercial gains find it easy to start, but hard to sustain.

But this problem is nothing new, traditional media’s approach has been to sleep with advertisers. But now that readers are immune to the advertisement and content distinction, media owners are forced to blur the lines, producing advertorials to keep this age-old funding model alive. Look at Monocle and how it partners with governments and corporations to produce content, events and even products. While a Monocle x Porter bag shows how strong the media brand is, you also question, what difference does Monocle make to the Porter bag? It’s a fine line between meaningful collaborations and selling out.

So where does all this leave media producers like me? Are we cheapening ourselves by sleeping so readily with companies and organisations just for a platform to say our piece? Can we demand media owners pay bigger share, especially if they are profiting from it? Should consumers pay us more and directly?

I haven’t figured it out. But as Zakaria says: “Exciting times nonetheless.”

One comment

  1. Yin Shanyang says:

    Aye Sir,

    I think I have heard someone describe Facebook as such: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.”

    With regards to the topic of cheapening oneself by sleeping with sponsors, I agree that any publication cheapens itself simply by associating itself with advertising. ( For contrast, there is Bloomberg Businessweek’s tribute to Steve Jobs. ) But missing from the discussion is scale. Essentially, “How low does it go?”. The rephrase, I think you can mediate the damage by curating the advertisers that go into the publication. Selling your readers as eyeballs is has a very different effect from endorsing a company or product that you / the publication actually uses or believes in.

    On the topic of alternate models for income. I think initiatives like Readability ( readability.com ) and Ramen Music ( ramenmusic.com ) aim to solve the problem of getting content producers closer to the consumer whilst garnering income for content producers.

    Though, I think there is a darker undertone whilst talking about media and money. That is, what is the value of media in the eyes of the consumer. How much, if at all, is the consumer willing to pay, and if there are ways to change this. So maybe the other important question here is how to get consumers to pay for quality content.

    I think the additional effect of getting closer to your readers, hopefully, is that readers will start to see the person behind the content, how they directly affect the incomes and thus sustainability of the writer. And maybe, this transparency will allow readers to be more willing to part with their money.

    To be honest, I don’t know where I’m going with this. But I do agree that it’s exciting times, because of the avenues to experiment and try out different models. And to know first hand, what works and what doesn’t.

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