Who would launch a site right now?

By: Rob Corbidge, 05 October 2023

a cartoon cloud of fighting fists and feet with a rainbow shining behind, illustrated by hergé, style of tin tin comics, pen and ink

Innovating with formats, presentation, and tone and voice, some new media start-ups have feet not quite of stone but not certainly not of sand.

It's very apparent that we are in difficult times for many B2C publishers, yet a wealth of opportunity is there for the brave - even if it looks like they might be balancing bravery against foolhardiness.

Prompting this belief are a number of a factors, and not just based on the insight gleaned from years building headless CMS especially for publishers and media businesses and working alongside some of the best there are in the business.

One is the almost inevitable march of most of the social and search platforms to resemble publishers in all-but-name. The aspects of publishing-esque behaviour they are embracing such as subscriptions for ad-free or additional content, paying content makers directly, reducing exposure given to content published elsewhere and so on, is but a disguise for their true nature. They are ad businesses, and largely shown themselves not to be trustworthy to publishers.

For many publishers this trust issue now extends to search results - already an unstable foundation stone for most publishing businesses.

Yet publishing success stories are out there. Or people trying to be success stories.

An initial bunch of hype-driven content start-ups dominated the initial digital-first period - large of-the-moment US sites such as Buzzfeed, Gawker, Huffington Post and so on. Almost to a one they have faded away, or morphed into something less distinctive or important as others caught up. The listicle is now but a terrifying tumbleweed in most experienced Editor's heads.

Big legacy media mostly pushed on through this difficult period, but the very nature of most of those first wave digital publishers - and their national variants across the globe - didn't do a great deal to help the growth of new news sites. They didn't leave enough behind for others to find encouragement in.

We've seen innovation anew from the US though in just this news category - the pain category you might call it. Axios for example is not a fleeting phenomenon, with its quality of reporting reigning over any formatting tricks to highlight brevity. Investing in good people pays off. The Information breaks a lot of stories with quality reporting, and Semafor is trying something too. 

The US is fortunate compared to most of the world in that money can be found to back media ideas a little more readily than in most countries. Yet in Australia, CapitalBrief is trying to occupy a similar new news slot.

It's not a revelation to say that much of the developed world is in somewhat of a political stew at the moment. Yet that alone gives opportunities for strong and distinct brands to develop. Plurality still matters, especially set against the commoditised outrage of large parts of public social media.

Meanwhile, old-fashioned emailing of content, or using a platform such as Substack, has been an escape route of a kind for publishers - aided you could argue by the very throttling of news content the platforms have openly carried out. It's proven resilient enough for old and new brands to find success with, especially impressive for the newcomers that may have little brand heritage and recognition to lean on. If the content is good enough, subs will be won.

It's not that simple of course. As a publishing technology business we know that each national market has its differences and similarities, even if what divides is less than what unites, and that it's an invigorating challenge to get a successful site off the ground anywhere, never mind a news site.  

One thing there isn't a shortage of is good content though. There's a lot of fine reads in our inbox.