The Fourth Estate is Bankrupt.
The creative industries have a big problem.
They can’t monetise their elite talent and IP.
This is today’s Sunday Column, whose hook is this…
People now seem to have no concept that great content or creativity really needs to be paid for, to continue to exist. They aggressively baulk at having to pay for top ideas and writing, art and intellect, even when it costs a fraction of their monthly bill for skinny lattes, chai tea and almond croissants. For some absolutely bizarre reason, these people feel entitled to receive elite creative and IP for free. They slide into piracy with a clear conscience.
Our industry talks earnestly and repeatedly about revenue models for sports content, and, inevitably, I guess, that truth will out. This is not an article about (sport) media companies and their future.
We did that here.
In my own head, the Big Media revenue model debate is a false problem for sport. The remuneration of players will just adjust, as a shock-absorber, to whatever topline revenues we ultimately find ourselves with. There will be a new Social Contract with athletes. As the bull market made our heroes very rich; the bear will be equally dramatic on the downside.
This article is instead about the creators, the writers, the IP owners.
Artists have always been absolutely crucial to humanity and society. Their importance goes way beyond business models and share prices, especially in a moment where our world seems to be so desperate.
The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason have all arrived in Western Civilisation thanks to thinkers, poets and philosophers. They see things early, transform it in art, distract us with pleasure. They have always kept the barbarians from the gate, metaphorically, and are absolutely how one should judge progress in humanity.
In the past, great journalists and creative directors were remunerated, well, by the juicy margins that used to exist in the bundles of the media and advertising sectors.
Print mark-ups and media buying paid for those magnificent art-copy idea guys. The glorious newspaper model, from print sales to classified ads, allowed for the “ marquis names” in journalism.
The internet sooner or later relentlessly eviscerates all bundles, leaving IP, even the best stuff, exposed to the cold reality of having to pay for itself.
And we haven’t yet found, in the digital world, a reliable new way to do that; to monetise artists. Books don’t sell, recorded music is now the poor cousin of live performances, film makers are being laid off, actors are on strike, and artists often live on fumes.
Leonardo and Michelangelo were funded by rich bankers, let’s not forget that.
Is that our future once again? Is that the next “investment” of Saudi? If I was them, I’d employ the very best sports and media writers and create the definitive editorial product, to reach a zenith in 2034. Own the writers and the culture.
The road to this Bleak House for creators
has been long and winding.
It, everything, is ultimately now all about polarisation, into elite versus commodity. Premium versus long tail. There is no middle.
So to ponder the future of great writers, we should really try and define what the Fourth Estate was, and now is.
Newspapers were a fantastic business model. A bundle, yes, but a bundle you could touch. A fresh paper always felt substantial, and for sure entered into the true definition of fashion accessory. The paper you bought, and how you held it, said a lot about you. It was after all a real product. Tangible property, not IP.
Is that a clue? Do people ultimately not value the intangible?
Never mind the quality feel the width, was perhaps absolutely spot on. Older readers will get it!
I caught the last great years in newspapers in 1998, from the inside, when I became a public figure in Scotland. The newspapers had teeth, power and leverage. They could make or break you, having the first and the last word. People believed they were organs of truth.
Under the hood, however, especially if you were a person of interest, you understood what the newspaper bundle really was. The truth was optional and not all people calling themselves journalists were honest brokers or even good writers.
Their broad church included people doing factual breaking news (ideally scoops), some gossip and titillation, serious op-ed analysis, investigative hounding to get bad guys, and then also simply the great pens, just for art and brand.
But It was a more complex product than that segmentation, in reality.
I mean, Homer could be described
as a very talented war correspondent, no?
One can put their own weighting of value on all of this, but I’d suggest that scoops in breaking news were what editors craved, more than the poetry. Especially in sports. So the hacks who chased these were obviously not going to be the romantics and artists; they were/are the mafiosi. The offer you couldn’t refuse was:
Give us access and the sweeties, and we’ll make you look good. If you don’t, we will need to slap you down. To whack you.
At the margins, being likeable to these guys may have afforded you, on a good day, a brief stay of execution, but in the big moments, when the scoop story broke, they would always give you a call.
Those of us whose phone rang, resisted, and then got slapped down, reacted in one of two ways.
You folded like a pack of cards,
or you got stronger and angrier.
I recognise that I am in the second category. All my petty squabbles today with various (ex) journalists stem from the bitterness seeded back then.
Bias declared… I didn’t and don’t respect commodity hacks.
They are not the protagonists in life; they just report what the important people do. Average wannabe plodders, having the outrageous privilege of getting to ask the stars snarky questions; arrogantly demanding responses. They’ve enjoyed being mercilessly critical, themselves never having had to take a decision of any note in their lives. They’ve insisted on a standard of behaviour of absolute Calvinist purity, when they often were the most conflicted and reprehensible individuals, spending most of the day in the pub making sexist advances to the barmaids.
Nigel Lawson, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, once called the Financial Times “teenage scribblers”. They got to you.
Yet, none of that justifies the fact that I watched with some satisfaction over the years as the business model of the newspaper, the mastheads, was eaten away by the internet. Those hacks were faced with no profitable market in breaking news, no competitive advantage in op-eds, no budget for serious investigative work, and the low-cost clickbait publishers ate their lunch on the titillation and gossip.
I smirked at those, who had strong-armed and abused me, trying to reinvent themselves into PR, communication and marketing gurus.
Forgive me Father for I have sinned. It is a long time since my last Confession.
But the real schadenfreude was
in seeing their closed shop being blown away.
Commodity journalists aren’t the talent, and regularly weren’t even the best wordsmiths in their class. The new media model dealt them a very cruel blow when they had to watch willing amateurs now compete with them, with better “insider” insight, and even superior prose.
The internet and new publishing platforms gave everyone distribution, to an extent that today you can see 50 folks simultaneously writing good op-ed pieces around the news cycle of the day. Certainly in sportsbiz, there is no longer any “scarcity”, and that always destroys value in content.
AI will make this overwhelming. It will pummel commodity content and its creators. Be warned.
One of the first sportech companies I helped a dozen years ago was one of those new platforms. GivemeSport, was the type of Facebook-fuelled publisher that evolved post Internet, and it gave me the perspective to write one of the first Columns, here, five years ago. It still stands up.
The clickbait ad-driven traffic-buying model of GivemeSport was replaced in the industry by the branded content KoolAid of Vice, and ultimately the pivot was to the quality long form subscription model of The Athletic.
Let’s face into the fact that all of these have failed.
The Athletic and its journalists know that the game has changed under the New York Times. Editorially they are now told, “strongly encouraged”, to write what drives traffic and works for the data. That’s not what they signed up for. Their monetisation has no pricing power, with heavy churn once people come off the £1 a month offer.
The Fourth Estate and its bundle is bankrupt.
The war is lost.
All that’s left to ponder is the fate and future of the great writers, artists and creators.
Artists are special, and we need to find them a model to be rewarded. Or they will disappear.
Back in my mid 20s in London, I worked in investment banking, and I would often randomly pop into a theatre after work. I never booked anything.
I once saw Richard Harris in Pirandello’s Henry IV. The night I went, and experienced for the first time great acting up close, the curtains came down with him telling us Rex Harrison had just died. Making a beautiful eulogy, I guess off the cuff. Stunning talent.
This was the energy of London as I first experienced it. Elite culture and art you just didn’t get in the provinces. Theatre was for sure expensive, but I was happy to pay.
Same with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs at the Curzon. Or Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Left-field creativity that I felt needed to have a serious entrance fee.
Have you something you wanna say to me? Where the fuck were you?
Temptation, remorse and forgiveness.
A scene encapsulating the 2000-year history of the Catholic Church.
I tried to forgive those hacks. But I am weak.
This level of writing and acting needs to be paid for. Keitel is not the Paisley Amateur Dramatics Society!
Every day I walked past the old Fleet Street, when that still meant something, and it too had its magnetic charm of talent. So much so, that I actually booked in advance to see Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, with Peter O’ Toole.
“Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell is a play by Keith Waterhouse about the real-life journalist. Bernard wrote the “Low Life” column in The Spectator. The play’s title refers to the magazine’s habit of printing a one-line apology on a blank page when he was too drunk or hung-over to produce the required copy and a substitute article could not be found before the deadline for publication. Its premise is that Bernard has found himself locked in overnight at his favourite public house, The Coach and Horses, and uses the occasion to share anecdotes from his life with the audience. A highlight of the play is a trick involving a glass of water, a matchbox, and an egg which must remain unbroken at the end of the trick.”
I paid very willingly to see the tangible in-the-flesh gravitas of artists like Harris, O’Toole, whose drinking and questionable behaviour was only surpassed by their talent. This video gives you a flavour of what you were shelling out for. Sadly, it speaks to an age of society and characters long gone.
Our sector of sport had many of its own Jeffrey Bernards, deeply flawed hard-drinking men, who, in their lucid moments, had the pen of an angel. Poets, not mafiosi. And they were more than just great storytellers. They were pirate adventurers, with a treasure chest bulging with old tales and off-the-record anecdotes, of the rich and famous.
We on AYNE had the luck to host one of this breed:
Simon Barnes, here.
Top sports journalists were also true protagonists in the events of the day. For example, it was they who were used by the big managers to tap up players, or get out a message. Jim Rodger, Gentleman Jim, was as friendly with Thatcher and Wilson as he was with Shankly, Stein and Ferguson. He knew everything and everyone.
I remember a lunch with another one of these giants, Alex Cameron, in Scotland. I was the snottery new kid running Scottish football, and he was infamous as “Chiefy”. For some reason he wanted to see me.
In those days, the league CEO was summoned by these guys, not vice versa.
He told tales all afternoon, of the Munich Olympics and the Israeli athletes tragedy, climbing walls, picking locks, all to get the story. He must have appreciated the wide-eyed respect in my face as I listened, because he then “marked my card” about who were the guys never to trust in the jungle I had just entered.
We have all loved and respected people like Chiefy. They were the gatekeepers to our sport, when TV didn’t yet show us it all directly. These types were very much value for money, and rewarded well. It just wasn’t apparent to us how we were paying for them. Their cost was hidden in the cover price of the newspaper bundle.
And the newspaper business was so florid and rich, that it could get away with the blank pages of Jeffrey Bernard, when he was “unwell”. The haze-filled missed deadlines, the misogyny, the odd righter-handler thrown at the insult gone too far.
Not today, alas.
The exceptional writers, a Jonathan Liew, a Marina Hyde, both work for a masthead that shows you a begging letter at the front of every article.
That is not a sustainable model.
People think they get quality talent IP for free.
Shame on us.
So where to now?
The truly great writers, and there won’t be that many, have no future working for a masthead. They need to translate their audience, followers, and talent into thinking more like a best-selling author. Self-publishing for themselves. They will also build a community of subscription-paying customers, as a revenue base. But their name, their brand, needs to be further monetised in speeches, appearances, master-classes, etc.
They should also find their own Lorenzo De Medici patron. They will give private commissions. Hint: he or she will likely be dressed as an Arab, or come from a hedge or PE fund.
For the rest of us? The average content creator or media publisher? Most journalists today?
I don’t think there is much of a future, as in making a living. And this pains me so so much.
There’s no money in content.
Albachiara over the last 5 years has put out what we humbly consider is a decent quantum of credible, visionary and unique IP, through podcasts, Columns, the Sport Summit Como, and now the book. We will do well to get past break even. I personally would do better with my time trading Nvidia put options.
Subscriptions won’t work for anything less than very elite and unique IP. Piracy and password sharing eats the rest. Sponsorship is somewhat valid, but as soon as it slips into “pay to play” in content, it’s lost all credibility. Advertorials have always been rubbish.
Ads have a role to play in some form. But that’s tough to do on the social media platforms, as GiveMeSport realised.
Models will be found. New bundles created. But the vast majority of writers, podcasters, bloggers and vloggers just won’t be able to put food on the table. At best their work should be considered as marketing and personal brand building.
So we might as well do what we enjoy, say what seems personally meaningful and fulfilling to us, and have a playful adventure with what we choose to create. Think of it as a message in a bottle. Who knows who finds it in the 8bn of humanity, and how it inspires them.
There is no serious money in IP, unless you are at the very top. And even there, AI will soon copy you.
The one thing artists have, that we never will, is legacy, and a trail of footprints. Glory.
Talking of great writers, artistic culture, even the Guardian, may I leave you, dear reader, with an example of why we need to fix this.
Art like this splendid article by Rushdie is humanity at its best. Some of the passages are so profound as to make you cry.
Religion instead is divine, and should always leave the artist alone. Better, like the old popes, give them a cheque and let them create the Pieta’.
As you watch the news, and marches today, and firm up your opinions on right and wrong, be very scared of mob cultures, religions, or politicians that want to silence independent thought and restrict artists. That’s a very big clue as to who Salman’s bad guys are.
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