Weekly Wrap-Up, 14-20 Sep 2019

Welcome to the Weekly Wrap-up, a review of the week’s culture-tech coverage here on Cybercultural. 

A Peek Behind The Paywall 🔓

First up, a list of news stories I wrote about this past week for paying subscribers. I’ve included some choice quotes from my takes.

  • How digital technology helped form the Peak TV era 📺

    • “Given the popularity of gaming for younger millennials and Generation Z, I do wonder if gaming will replace TV as the next water cooler cultural content.”

  • Music video platform Vevo celebrates its 10-year anniversary 🎹

  • Björk made music’s first “VR pop album” 🤩

    • “Perhaps VR will be the future of music videos, after Spotify and others have finished with the smartphone [innovations].”

  • Resale of e-books considered illegal in EU 📚

  • Washington Post builds ad network for publishers to take on Big Tech 🗞️

    • “So Jeff Bezos wants to join the duopoly Google and Facebook in controlling the online advertising market. I guess three is better than two.”

  • Can online advertising create a quality metric? 💰

  • SoulPancake granted some control over advertising on its YouTube videos 📹

    • “This article illustrates how little control creators and cultural sector companies have over the advertising that runs on their content.”

  • Vivendi, Riot veterans announce gaming broadcast network, VENN 🎮

Deeper Dive 🥽

In this part of the Weekly Wrap-up, I take a deeper look at one of the stories I covered this week.

I’m intrigued by the promise of VENN, a new “post-cable” broadcast network that aims to be the MTV for the gaming generation. It will feature gaming and esports content.

In case you didn’t get that it’s inspired by MTV, the company’s branding hits you over the head with it:

Here was the first tweet, which explains the company’s lofty goals:

VENN.tv - a new 24/7 post-cable gaming, esports & entertainment Network. Launching in 2020, broadcasting live from NY and LA, VENN will be distributed across broad media platforms with original programming and partnership with the biggest names in the industry.VENNVENN is a new 24/7 post-cable network aimed at gaming, esports and entertainment audiences. Launching in 2020 and broadcasting live from studios in New York and Los Angeles, VENN will be distributed across a broad range of media platforms and offer original programming produced in-house and in partn…venn.tv

I didn’t immediately realise that VENN is an acronym, but according to The La Times it stands for “Video Game Entertainment & News Network.” I also liked this money quote:

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, the lens to pop culture was music,” said Ariel Horn, a former executive with Riot Games and NBC Universal. “Now, we’re looking at gaming. The esports athletes are the new celebrities.”

Currently the lens to pop culture is TV. I’m not sure gaming or esports as we currently know them will be the next lens, but I definitely believe interactive media in some form will be.

Best Reader Feedback 🗣️

My feature article this week continued my series about the state of blogs and email newsletters in 2019. Focusing this time on email newsletter monetization, I presented the results of an Alpha survey of 359 general population US consumers, surveying their willingness (or not) to pay for email newsletters.

The best feedback I got from this article was via a private message. I’ll just quote the opening, as it doesn’t divulge anything personal:

“I read your latest email about whether people will pay for newsletters. It's interesting but I typically won't. Why? Because I subscribe to Sky tv, netflix, amazon prime, deezer music, linkedin premium and xbox gold. I'm saturated. I do subscribe to a lot of email newsletters. All are free. I have the time and inclination to read a few a week and the rest remain unread.”

I suspect many people have the same experience. As this reader points out, from the consumer point of view there’s saturation in both money and time. There’s no easy answer for producers, but bundling might help the first kind of saturation. The second kind (time) is more about cutting through the noise and providing a signal your target audience needs.

One More Thing 🙋

Thankfully, people in my network are working on monetization solutions for online media. Matt McAlister, formally of The Guardian and Yahoo, has just joined the blockchain-enabled browser Brave:

That’s a wrap for this week on Cybercultural. If you want culture-tech news and analysis in your inbox four times a week, please consider subscribing (if you haven’t already). It’s just $7 per month or $70 per year. In addition to the extra content, you’ll become a valued member of a growing community of culture-tech fans.

Exclusive data: email newsletters & monetization

In my previous two weekly analysis posts, I’ve made the case for why blogs and email newsletters represent the future of independent media - and could also provide an antidote to the ills of social media. But of course there’s one glaring problem with my hypothesis: monetization. Can the subscriptions model of email newsletters work for independent media, especially since there are clear signs of subscription fatigue in the market?

In this free Cybercultural analysis, I present the results of an Alpha survey of 359 general population US consumers, surveying their willingness (or not) to pay for email newsletters.

Bygone blogging days

Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again after the money's gone
Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
Once In A Lifetime, Talking Heads

I was fortunate enough to live through the golden era of blogging, and I was able to build a thriving niche media business from it. ReadWriteWeb ran from 2003-2012 under my direction and I made a good living from it - plus at its peak I was able to support over 20 other people concurrently (mostly writers). The revenue model was primarily online advertising and sponsorship, with a portion coming from events and premium reports.

However, the type of blogging business ReadWriteWeb was - bootstrapped, self-sustained, and profitable - is almost impossible to build in 2019. Simply put, online advertising is no longer a viable revenue stream for most niche publications; mainly due to Google and Facebook’s duopoly over the market.

That’s partly why email newsletters have usurped blogs as the default format for independent, niche media in 2019. I outlined some differences between email newsletters and blogs in the opening post in this series. But as I noted in the second post, in terms of content the two formats are essentially the same. The one striking difference is in monetization.

Because the ad model no longer works, email newsletters are placing all their chips on the subscription model. In other words: instead of advertisers and sponsors paying for the content, newsletter publications are asking readers to stump up.

But are people willing to pay a subscription, no matter how small the amount (most email newsletters are in the $5-10 per month range)? After all, there’s a lot of competition for those dollars. Think about all the subscriptions from much larger media and tech companies that many people already pay for: Netflix, Spotify, The New York Times and/or Washington Post, Amazon Prime, Apple News+, Microsoft Office online, Google cloud, etc., etc. Subscription fatigue is a real issue here.

The crux of my concern about email newsletters is this: are normal, everyday people willing to pay for them? Let’s find out…

Survey results

I conducted a survey on Alpha, an on-demand insights platform I’ve partnered with. I was particularly keen to see what people outside the media business and associated Twitter bubble think about subscriptions. I asked the following questions to a general population audience of US consumers:

  • How many email newsletters do you subscribe to?

  • How many email newsletters do you pay for?

  • What do you spend per month on email newsletters?

  • Would you subscribe to an email newsletter about your favorite hobby?

A note on how the survey was conducted. After I set the survey questions, Alpha launched the test by connecting to panel marketplaces to reach my target audience. The majority of Alpha’s sourcing is done through the Lucid sample marketplace, which offers access to roughly 100 million panelists from over 250 diverse suppliers worldwide.

How many email newsletters do you currently subscribe to?

Let’s look firstly at how many newsletters - free or paid - people currently subscribe to. Between 1-4 was the most popular answer. Almost a third (31%) said none at all, but that’s the glass-half-empty statistic. We can also state that email newsletter signups have a nearly 70% penetration rate, which is actually very good.

How many email newsletters do you currently pay for?

Here’s where we get to the nitty of the gritty, to quote Prince. 64% of respondents don’t currently pay for email newsletters. That’s the challenge for indie media in a nutshell: to convince those six-seven out of ten people to pay for online media.

How much do you spend per month on email newsletters?

Of the respondents who do pay for email newsletters, over a quarter (26%) pay between $21-30 per month. A further 12% pay over $30 per month. That’s higher than I expected, which suggests there is an appetite among consumers to pay for email newsletters.

What email newsletters do you currently subscribe to?

I was curious which email newsletters people subscribe to currently. While the answers were eclectic - and a mix of free and paid - it did show that signing up to receive content by email is a common activity. There was plenty of niche content, too. Here are some examples of responses:

  • “cnn, nbc martha stewart, real simple, this old house, better homes and gardens”

  • “Post Gazette. Esquire. Flip board wall street journal”

  • “nelson- adkins museum, kansas health institute, downtown Lawrence, Lawrence public library, new york times daily articles, kansas land trust,”

  • “Maggie Kerr, Planets Within, Lynn Hayes, Astrodients, NIH News in Health, Judicial Watch, Genetic Lifehacks, don't remember the others.”

  • “Farmers Almanac, Book Basset, WHoot, AMAC, Only in Florida, Mother Earth News, Herbal Legacy, Shop Talk.”

  • “the Skimm Money The New York Times Fortune EW People”

  • “Emails from blogs, brands, school, stores”

How likely or not likely would you be to pay for an email newsletter about your favorite hobby?

What I was trying to get at with this question is whether people would be willing to pay for a non-news publication. We know from the recent digital success of large media companies (NYT, WP, et al) that people have been willing to pay for those news brands at least. But what about a newsletter that covers quilting or golf, or some other hobby?

The results above state that 38% are very likely or extremely likely to pay, which is encouraging. In fact, that’s the same percentage of respondents who said they pay over $20 per month for email newsletters. There may be some correlation there, but either way it’s a healthy percentage.

On the other hand, half of respondents to the above question said they’re “not at all likely” or not very likely to pay. Which suggests there’s a lot more work to be done yet to convince mainstream society of the monetary value of niche online content.


From the perspective of independent media, the survey results are promising in some respects:

  • Nearly seven out of ten people already sign up to newsletters, which is a pretty good penetration rate.

  • The newsletters that people have signed up for are eclectic and wide-ranging, which shows there are plenty of niche topics available for publishers.

  • Just under four in ten people pay over $20 per month for email newsletters.

  • The same number (38%) would be willing to pay for an email newsletter that covers their favorite hobby.

However, a couple of the stats show how steep the challenge is for media:

  • 64% of respondents don’t currently pay for email newsletters.

  • Half of respondents said they’re unlikely to pay for an email newsletter covering their favorite hobby.

My own experience with Cybercultural lines up with the survey findings. My free signups have been growing at an excellent rate - especially over the past several weeks, as you can see in the chart below. So clearly people have been willing to give my newsletter a chance.

However, enticing my free signups to convert into paying subscribers has - so far - been a much tougher nut to crack. I won’t show you that chart! I am still in the early stages of building this media brand though, so I am encouraged by the signups growth.

Overall, there’s enough promising data in these survey results to suggest the subscriptions market for email newsletters is indeed viable - even though there’s a lot of work to do to convince more people to pay.

I’ll end, of course, with a plea for your subscription 😉 If you enjoyed this post, you can receive all four Cybercultural emails per week for just $7 per month or $70 per year:

Weekly Wrap-Up, 7-13 Sep 2019

This week I’m introducing a new Friday edition of the newsletter, which will be sent to everyone. It’s called the Weekly Wrap-up, and will be a summary of the week’s culture-tech coverage here on Cybercultural. It’s partly to show free signups what you’ve been missing, but also I’ll add a few bits of brand new content (primarily as a thanks to my paying subscribers 🙏).

Some of you will recognise the inspiration for this: a long-running feature on ReadWriteWeb called the Weekly Wrap-up. It was a weekly roundup of web technology news and trends, and one of my favourite features of RWW (I always wrote it myself, even after I began employing many other writers). And hey, it was even available as an email newsletter! Here’s an example from 2007:

Ah Feedburner, how we miss you. But enough with the nostalgia, let’s get to what’s new in culture-tech!

A Peek Behind The Paywall 🔓

Here’s a list of news stories I wrote about this past week for paying subscribers. I’ve included a few choice quotes from my takes.

  • Apple TV+ costs $4.99 per month and launches on November 1 📺

    • “Ultimately, this slow build of new tv shows won’t matter, since most new subscribers will come from the one free year offered to anyone who buys a new Apple device […]”

  • Apple Arcade is launching on September 19th for $4.99 a month 🎮

  • The rise of vertical videos & other music video innovations 🎹

    • “The vertical video format includes new, TikTok-like short looped videos, a format that the popular artists of today - like Taylor Swift and teen sensation Billie Eilish - are taking advantage of.”

  • Netflix loses title as No. 1 bandwidth-eating application 🦖

  • Experimental, non-violent video game ‘Sky: Children of the Light’ is a hit 🎮

    • “Most noticeably, and unlike many popular video games, there’s no fighting or shooting.”

  • Joshua Beamish's @giselle reimagines classic ballet in the digital age 🎭

  • The Face magazine is back in print, after its 2019 relaunch on the Web 📃

    • “Of all the cultural industries, magazines - with their reliance on brand affinity and visual identity - are one of the best placed to monetize on the internet.”

  • Almost everything about Goodreads is broken 📚

If these are the type of culture-tech stories you’re keen to track, with my added analysis, you can get them in your inbox twice a week as a paying subscriber:

Deeper Dive 🥽

In this part of the Weekly Wrap-up, I’ll take a deeper look at one of the stories I covered this week.

I was fascinated by The Ringer’s story about “vertical videos” on Spotify. As noted, artists are not only releasing entire music videos formatted for vertical screens (an example from Taylor Swift), they’re also doing short looped videos to accompany their songs on Spotify. This is done using a Spotify feature called Canvas:

“Canvas is an 8-second visual loop that can be added to any of your tracks to appear in the Now Playing View in place of your album artwork. It's a new format for artistic expression on Spotify that we’re currently testing with a small group of artists.”

As Hypebot noted back in January, a Canvas video “replaces cover art and will loop in the Now Playing view of the Spotify app.”

The other thing I’ve noticed is that when you’re playing an album, sometimes each song has a different video or looped clip. It definitely adds to the experience of listening to a new album, and yet the potential is there to take this much further. Just as MTV videos ignited the popular music scene in the 1980s, perhaps these new, smartphone-centric, videos could be the defining visual aspect of the next decade in music.

In the short term there’s speculation this could turn into a version of ‘stories’, the popular Snapchat and Instagram feature where people post mixed-media clips as a short narrative device (this feature is also on Facebook, although it’s less popular there). Based on some code sleuthing, Jane Manchun Wong thinks that “Spotify is working on bringing Stories to Playlists, providing artists a way to connect with listeners through storytelling.”

I love it and am looking forward to seeing more musicians experimenting with vertical videos and Canvas.

Best Reader Feedback 🗣️

Glen Barnes, a Cybercultural subscriber, made an excellent point in response to my take on the new Apple Arcade:

This is my dream for Cybercultural: that readers will regularly comment on the stories I highlight. As I learned in the RWW days, it’s all about building a high-quality community - so we can all learn from each other. In this case, a community of culture-tech fans. Thanks Glen, and I encourage others to send me feedback; whether via the subscriber comments section on Substack, on Twitter (or any other social media), or even via direct email to me (just hit the reply button).

One More Thing 🙋

When I write enthusiastically about a new technology, I like to ‘eat the dog food’ and use said tech more. So after my recent public posts (1, 2) about my hopes for Tumblr and blogging, I’ve revived a couple of old Tumblr blogs.

Firstly, I’ve re-branded my personal Tumblr blog as the Cybercultural Tumblr (“Multimedia miscellanea brought to you by Cybercultural, a newsletter covering the intersection of tech & culture.”). You may also want to check out my other Tumblr, Indie Bookstores (“Celebrating indie bookstores all around the world.”)

That’s the first Weekly Wrap-up, I hope you enjoyed it! Once again, if you want culture-tech in your inbox more often, please consider subscribing. It’s just $7 per month or $70 per year, and you’ll receive all four editions of Cybercultural each week. You’ll also be a valued member of a growing community of culture-tech fans here.

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