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Brand-backed media gets another look

“I wouldn’t call brand-backed journalism a ‘lifeboat.’ It’s more of a floating door from the sinking ship that can save at least one person. At this point, that’s good enough for me.

In her capstone feature on the 3,000-plus journalists who were laid off in 2019, Maya Kosoff summed up the year perfectly: “If 2019 signaled a change, it was the realization that not only is the ship sinking, but that there aren’t any lifeboats.”

Earlier in my career — say, around 2016 — the Titanic of ad-backed media was already well on its way to the bottom of the ocean, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry was hawking a lifeboat. You had venture capitalists and tech titans who all promised to solve the problem of media despite having little to no experience in the industry and deeply resenting the people who did. There were acquisitions based entirely on ego; a financial doubling-down on concepts like “viral video” with little evidence that you could actually build a real business on them. The good news was that the extremely reckless and unsustainable growth meant a bunch of new jobs for budding young journalists like myself who grew up on the internet. The bad news: None of us would get to keep them — as Kosoff notes, “the valuations assigned to these companies were ultimately meaningless” — and we’d all quickly develop layoff-related PTSD.

Around this time, there was also a conversation around brand-backed media. But the disbelief that a brand could ever fund good journalism — and the upturned noses at anything deemed “sponcon” — was still strong. It didn’t help that certain brands had tried and didn’t last long (Casper and Van Winkle’s, for example). When I came to MEL in late 2016, industry people told me I was insane to go work at a men’s magazine owned by Dollar Shave Club. (Fun fact: If I’d stayed at the website I was at, I most likely would have been collateral damage in their forthcoming layoffs, making it my third purge in two years.)

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to callously promise that the brand model is the FUTURE OF JOURNALISM, I do think it offers a glimmer of hope — especially in the lifestyle space, where there has been enough good work done on a brand’s dollar that the association isn’t toxic. Though they launched the website first and the brand second, look at Glossier and Into The Gloss: Both are wildly successful on their own and only grow more powerful in their association with each other. We’ve seen a similar symbiosis at MEL, and frankly, have created a thought leader despite the fact that our funder sells cheap razors online.

Although it’s by no means a panacea, I believe brand-supported media will be one of the few models that experiences success next year. In 2020, investors and tech CEOs would be demented to launch websites with a traditional business model. But brands — because they can bypass advertising — don’t come saddled with the same baggage. And I think we’re only beginning to see the value authentic content and journalism has to offer them.

Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to “fix” media forever, but instead seek out models that allow us to do the best work we can, for as long as we can. Redbull Music Academy, which sent journalists all around the world to write about music, shut down this year, but it had a pretty good run for a decade. (For context, that’s longer than Fusion.)

I wouldn’t call brand-backed journalism a “lifeboat.” It’s more of a floating door from the sinking ship that can save at least one person. At this point, that’s good enough for me.

Alana Levinson is deputy editor of MEL.

In her capstone feature on the 3,000-plus journalists who were laid off in 2019, Maya Kosoff summed up the year perfectly: “If 2019 signaled a change, it was the realization that not only is the ship sinking, but that there aren’t any lifeboats.”

Earlier in my career — say, around 2016 — the Titanic of ad-backed media was already well on its way to the bottom of the ocean, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry was hawking a lifeboat. You had venture capitalists and tech titans who all promised to solve the problem of media despite having little to no experience in the industry and deeply resenting the people who did. There were acquisitions based entirely on ego; a financial doubling-down on concepts like “viral video” with little evidence that you could actually build a real business on them. The good news was that the extremely reckless and unsustainable growth meant a bunch of new jobs for budding young journalists like myself who grew up on the internet. The bad news: None of us would get to keep them — as Kosoff notes, “the valuations assigned to these companies were ultimately meaningless” — and we’d all quickly develop layoff-related PTSD.

Around this time, there was also a conversation around brand-backed media. But the disbelief that a brand could ever fund good journalism — and the upturned noses at anything deemed “sponcon” — was still strong. It didn’t help that certain brands had tried and didn’t last long (Casper and Van Winkle’s, for example). When I came to MEL in late 2016, industry people told me I was insane to go work at a men’s magazine owned by Dollar Shave Club. (Fun fact: If I’d stayed at the website I was at, I most likely would have been collateral damage in their forthcoming layoffs, making it my third purge in two years.)

Although I wouldn’t go so far as to callously promise that the brand model is the FUTURE OF JOURNALISM, I do think it offers a glimmer of hope — especially in the lifestyle space, where there has been enough good work done on a brand’s dollar that the association isn’t toxic. Though they launched the website first and the brand second, look at Glossier and Into The Gloss: Both are wildly successful on their own and only grow more powerful in their association with each other. We’ve seen a similar symbiosis at MEL, and frankly, have created a thought leader despite the fact that our funder sells cheap razors online.

Although it’s by no means a panacea, I believe brand-supported media will be one of the few models that experiences success next year. In 2020, investors and tech CEOs would be demented to launch websites with a traditional business model. But brands — because they can bypass advertising — don’t come saddled with the same baggage. And I think we’re only beginning to see the value authentic content and journalism has to offer them.

Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to “fix” media forever, but instead seek out models that allow us to do the best work we can, for as long as we can. Redbull Music Academy, which sent journalists all around the world to write about music, shut down this year, but it had a pretty good run for a decade. (For context, that’s longer than Fusion.)

I wouldn’t call brand-backed journalism a “lifeboat.” It’s more of a floating door from the sinking ship that can save at least one person. At this point, that’s good enough for me.

Alana Levinson is deputy editor of MEL.

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