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“Creator economy” gets a Facebook-sized hamper: New opportunities for publishers

Facebook will introduce a new publishing platform in the coming months to “empower independent writers, helping them reach new audiences and grow their businesses.” 

As writers, experts and journalists publish more of their work independently, we’re working to better support those efforts and make it easier for those content creators to build businesses online.

Campbell Brown, VP, Global News Partnerships and Anthea Watson Strong, Product Manager, News at Facebook

The company intends to provide tools and support to help writers create content, grow audiences and generate revenue. These will include the ability to create newsletters and websites, publish across various multimedia formats, nurture a community of readers, monetization tools, analytics, and accelerator programs. Facebook plans to test the project with a small group of writers, and pay some of them to get the ball rolling.

This may make some publishers anxious about upcoming challenges in retaining their top journalistic talent if they have to compete with Facebook. But actually, it opens new opportunities for them as well. 

“The independent creator space is growing”

Essentially, the social media behemoth is doing what Substack has frequently been in the news for last year. And that is, enticing writers and journalists to take the entrepreneurial route using its platform. 2020 saw a number of high profile journalists exiting their day-jobs to go solo on Substack. A number of them have reported earning at par with what they were earlier. Some are doing even better. 

Facebook is just the latest entrant in what is being dubbed as “creator economy,”—where individuals with unique skill sets use platforms to monetize their craft, per Mark Stenberg, Media reporter at Adweek. Think YouTube and TikTok which dole out millions to their top performers. 

The more journalist-friendly Substack has over 500,000 paying subscribers. Its top 10 authors collectively make over $15M per year. Patreon, on the other hand, has 200,000 creators supported by 6M+ patrons worldwide, and is valued at $1.2B. 

Data from the Knight Institute shows that creator-economy apps are commanding significantly more user interest than traditional social media. The pandemic year saw more apps focusing on products and features that allow users to pay their favorite creators directly for exclusive content, according to Axios. And nearly every major app focused on content creators saw significant increases in downloads.

Twitter and LinkedIn announced strategic moves to support creators before Facebook. Twitter bought the newsletter platform Revue which lets writers create paid and free email newsletters earlier this year. The company later announced its plan to launch a “super follow” feature that will enable creators and publishers to monetize premium content. 

LinkedIn is also building a creator management team to help grow its community of content creators on the platform. The company’s Editor-in-chief, Dan Roth posted that they are looking to hire “an experienced leader to build a global team that supports creators around the world, enabling them to have an even bigger impact and better experience on the platform.”

“The independent creator space is growing,” write Facebook’s Brown and Strong. “We fully support the work that others are doing and want to ensure that we can provide additional avenues for growth and monetization as well. 

“We’re just beginning this work and look forward to collaborating with creators of all kinds to build products and features that can have a meaningful impact in sustaining their work.”

“Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings”

Does all of this indicate publishers trying to retain their top talent have a big challenge on their hands as Facebook promises reach that can overshadow everything else?

Not even remotely. In fact, it reminds of the anxiety around AI taking over journalists’ jobs in future. 

“All of a sudden this thing comes along where it’s like, imagine never having to ask your boss for a raise again. All you have to do is do good work and attract customers,” said Casey Newton after  quitting his day job at The Verge and moving to Substack.

But Newton is a star journalist whose tech journalism has become essential reading in the industry. Few journalists will have a reach comparable to the top earners at Substack like Newton, or Glenn Greenwald from The Intercept, Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone, climate science and political reporter Emily Atkin, and Alex Kantrowitz from BuzzFeed

They constitute a tiny minority. 

“While much ink has been spilled over the lucrative new incomes, the unleashed creative potential, and the sweet, sweet uncensored freedom entailed,” says Delia Cai, one of the top authors on Substack who publishes the media newsletter Deez Links. “There’s also been plenty of smart criticism over how the Substack model has most immediately rewarded established those with Twitter megaphones and decades-old followings.”

The Substack model works really well for some people who already have prestige and a following. And it doesn’t work that well for everybody else.

Meredith Broussard, Journalism Professor, New York University

“Build a new business around it”

“Substack is new and shiny now,” Broussard told NPR in December. “But it’s going to have a problem with becoming a cacophony once it passes a certain point in popularity.” 

The cacophony, it seems, is almost here with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn vying for their slice of the pie.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same…”

Which brings us back to traditional media. Good old publishing companies that can assure journalists the security of a regular paycheck besides other support like health insurance, legal cover and so on. It does not mean that publishers can rest easy and let this latest fad pass, for there are new opportunities to explore. 

We could look at this trend as yet another existential moment for media companies that have been disrupted by platforms across all business pillars. Or we could see this as an opportunity to lean into something we as an industry have always been good at and build a new business around it.

Jarrod Dicker, VP Commercial, The Washington Post

“This is an opportunity for the media business to reassert value on top of the current revenue streams by fulfilling a need for creators who should be focused on what they do best: create,” adds Dicker. “The solution is building the platform for talent, pairing both brand reputation and individual reputation, and connecting it all together.”

“Put them (journalists) into the center of a growth strategy”

“Media organizations can learn from the Substackization of media (and the consequent Substackerati) to see how journalists’ expertise can be channeled through newsletters to build their own communities,” says Pia Frey, Journalist and Co-founder, Opinary.

She suggests publishers invest in such “journalists and experts, hire and put them into the center of a growth strategy, and then let them guide the entire marketing subscription funnel, including their own newsletter, podcast, and weekly column.” Over time, these “personality-centered communities may even serve as an excellent gateway for advertisers to reach their target audiences.”

Publishers can take a cue from Forbes. The company announced a new paid newsletters platform called “Journalist Entrepreneurs,” earlier this year. It will allow writers to launch their own paid newsletters under Forbes’ brand and generate revenue from their work. They’ll be a part of Forbes staff and receive a salary and benefits, as well as a split of the subscription and ad revenue they generate.

The publisher is taking the best of both worlds and offering it to journalists. “The idea is to create a platform that offers writers all of the marketing, editorial and salary benefits of being a part of Forbes’ newsroom,” writes Axios’ Sara Fischer, “but gives them enough editorial independence to ensure that their audiences follow them over to Forbes.”

Forbes hopes to drive digital subscriptions, add a revenue stream, and bring new readers to its site with this new initiative.

Hearst’s Esquire, on the other, hand gives readers the option to subscribe only to the works of its popular and prolific journalist, Charles Pierce. 

Source: Esquire

“There was an obscene amount of people, like 60,000 per day, that were visiting his stories,” Michael Sebastian, Editor-in-chief, Esquire told Digiday earlier. “It got us thinking that we should build the membership program around Charlie.” 

“An entirely new well of business”

Dicker suggests publishers look at the record industry where “artists and labels work together in order to grow both their businesses and reputation in parallel.” 

“Emphasis on the talent (artist) only drives more value and more revenue for the label (brand),” he writes. “The label pays for a song to be produced so they can partially own the song. There is equity in their investment of that artist. Record labels are having record years because they own the publishing rights to songs. People hear a song, the label gets paid.” 

It’s a formula that on top of existing revenue opportunities (advertising, subscriptions, events) opens up an entirely new well of business.

Jarrod Dicker, VP, Commercial, The Washington Post

“Such a shift will funnel more talent to publications with sustainable business models that align quality journalism and revenue,” adds Jessica E. Lessin, Founder and Editor-In-Chief, The Information. 

“Those publications will better retain talent in our industry by creating a culture where they reward top performers for their impact.”