Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
4 mins read

What if the future of media is only newsletters and podcasts? Axios seems to think that’s right.

Successful tech startups and new media ventures bet big on paid newsletters and podcasts. Big Tech seems to follow.

The recipe for starting a new media venture in 2021 seems to be straightforward: blog, newsletter, podcast. From there you scale up and start adding additional verticals, like events (both virtual and in-person as more people get vaccinated), discussion forums (like a Discord server for paying subscribers), a YouTube channel and so on.

In the past few months, there has been ample coverage of the rise of independent media ventures, with a focus on individuals — or groups of journalists — leaving newsrooms and setting up paid blogs with a newsletter and a podcast.

The stories have tended to focus on how this will affect newsroom operations and whether outlets will be able to hold onto talent. 

Meanwhile Apple and Spotify announced they are going big on paid podcasts this year. Both of the companies are providing podcasters with options to put their audio content behind a paywall and in effect giving them the ability to build up a recurring revenue stream.

Let’s have a look at how the above may help guide the decisions newsrooms and news startups are making.

How Axios has built it success on newsletters

The Fix has already written about Axios and the lessons we learned from them. Recently, though, the media startup has made more headlines. The most recent was an acquisition by the European media giant Axel Springer, first reported by The Information.

Axel Springer acquired Business Insider, a US-based digital media company, in 2015, and then, in October 2020, acquired Morning Brew, a rapidly growing media business that operates a slew of newsletters aimed at younger audiences. Morning Brew now has more than 2.5 million subscribers.

(I highly recommend reading Morning Brew‘s blog on building a referral program.)

With the more than 1.3 million newsletter subscribers at Axios (and its content management system, Axios HQ, for writing “scannable emails”) added to its holdings, Axel Springer seems to have a strong hold on the email business. So why are newsletters so important?

More and more media businesses are basing their future on growing recurring reader revenue. The two pillars of reader revenue hinge on acquisition and retention. Newsletters are a great retention tool and a superb distribution tool, with almost no algorithms standing in the way of the audience.

Substack’s guide to going paid recommends growing the audience enough so that you can start converting free subscribers into paid ones from an existing audience. This is easier than starting from behind the paywall.

Even though Axios has repeatedly said it will introduce a paywall, it has not yet done so. Instead, it is continuing to grow its audience — most recently with the quick expansion of Axios Local.

It will be expanding its local operation into eight new cities and Adweek writes that it has attracted 350,000 subscribers in just four months, with the newsletters driving an average open rate of 35%. Those are big numbers in a short period of time, even with Axios’ ability to build on existing subscribers.

The main point, though, is this: Axios treats email as the primary product. Both Morning Brew and Axios understand it and that’s why they were able to create a lot of value and scale up quickly. Also, that’s a reason why independent journalists are increasingly opting for this model.

Podcasts are also essential for building habits

A similar wisdom has driven news media to adopt podcasting. Podcasts are probably more similar to newsletters than anything else. You subscribe to them, they are both free and paid, the distribution is without algorithms and you regularly get new content with which you build up a habit. 

And building habits is more essential than ever for building a successful media operation. 

Podcasts entered the mainstream, similar to text and video, as free, ad-supported content. That is about to change with the introduction of paid podcasts features both by Apple and Spotify.

While new media ventures (also independent journalists) are starting from scratch, they have a simple road ahead when it comes to setting up a paid podcast. On the other hand, legacy publishers need to incorporate audio and paid audio into their overall strategy and technology templates. That means having an online audio player on the web, having audio options in their apps and making it all seamlessly work together. The end result is sometimes referred to as a super-app. (WeChat, for example,” is considered a super-app because of all the features it encompases without forcing users to leave. 

With this logic, any large publishers’ strategy should be focused on building a super-app that provides text, video and audio, all made easily accessible for subscribers. This, of course, is costly, and few publishers have the resources.

Alternatively, having a single blog (or a group of blogs) tied together with a newsletter (or a group of newsletters) and a podcast (or group of podcasts) seems to be a simple value proposition for a future subscriber.

It is also more scalable than building infrastructure that will cause your media to move slower than your competitors.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.