Re-inventing 20th century culture

The theme of this week’s newsletter is 20th century cultural institutions trying to find their way in the digital-first 21st century. I’ll look at cultural heavyweights like Condé Nast (magazines), The Guardian (news media), HBO (TV) and The British Library (literature).


  1. After the fall of the glossy magazine, what’s left of Condé Nast? 🎩

In a lengthy and unashamedly nostalgic profile, New York Magazine analyses how a magazine company started in 1909 by Condé Montrose Nast is adapting to the internet era over a century later. The company’s original motto was “Class Not Mass,” which to this day is still in the DNA of its leading brands: Vogue, The New Yorker, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Perhaps not so much in the DNA of Reddit, which Condé also owns. Anyway, together the four top magazines bring in more than 60 percent of Condé’s total revenue. But that revenue is now much more diverse, in particular leaning on social media and e-commerce:

GQ now sells boxes of socks and grooming products for $49.99 and recently launched a line of furniture with CB2. Allure has had success selling subscription makeup boxes. Bon Appétit’s test kitchen is a hit on YouTube, while Self does well on Snapchat. Teen Vogue, which went online-only in 2017, has refocused on fashion; a post-Trump foray into wokeness was hard to monetize.

Another interesting factoid:

Five years ago, Condé made 80 percent of its revenue from print advertising but now makes more than 60 percent in other ways.

My take: As I’ve said before, I think magazines have in general adapted to the digital age much better than other legacy cultural content (the book industry and most news media companies, for instance). That GQ is able to make money selling socks speaks to the power, still, of its brand. The content of course must continue to shore up that brand - something that Sports Illustrated’s new owners have disregarded, which I’m betting will lead to its eventual fall. But unlike SI, Condé still employs quality journalists and editors, to produce the content that underpins the legacy brands.

The New York article also makes much of Condé’s ‘pivot to video’ (one current executive told the writer Reeves Wiedeman that Condé was on its way to becoming “a video-first company”). The new CEO, Roger Lynch, is quoted as having “big hopes for video.” So far Condé has had success on YouTube, although the article noted that profit margins were slim. But certainly video hasn’t sunk Condé, like it has other high profile media companies - so it does seem like a promising pipeline for its content going forward.

  1. The Guardian doing ok financially, but challenges remain 🗞️

I noted above that most news media companies have struggled to adapt to the internet era, due primarily to Google and Facebook’s iron grip on online advertising. But The Guardian, a newspaper which harkens back to 1821, is one of the relatively few news media success stories in this century. As this Digiday report notes, The Guardian’s donations strategy has paid off:

The Guardian has set out a target to reach 2 million paying members by 2022. The publisher attracted 655,000 regular paying supporters plus 300,000 one-off contributors in the 12 months to March 2019. Reader revenue accounted for 28% of the total £224.5 million ($289 million) The Guardian Media Group generated in 2018-2019, up from 18% in 2015-2016.

Although Digiday also noted the still fairly large reliance on online advertising:

Advertising remains a large proponent of The Guardian’s revenue, accounting for 40% of the total last year. Buyers and industry experts praised The Guardian’s “strong” and “intelligent” commercial team that tends to look at the broader picture. Still, they noted some areas for improvement.

My take: The donations model has worked wonders for The Guardian, with its left-leaning audience happy to support stories about liberal politics and issues like climate change. But I do wonder if it is vulnerable to niche media brands - like newsletters, podcasts, and YouTube channels - on ‘accountability journalism’ topics like climate change. Heated is a new Substack newsletter, for example, written by independent journalist Emily Atkin. The relentless focus of Atkin has so far proven popular, and it’s a promising model for other indies to challenge The Guardian and other liberal big media on ‘accountability’ content. So I think The Guardian needs further innovation on the content and product side, to better support its continued drive for donations and/or subscriptions.

  1. Streaming war ends Golden Age of TV…enter Marvel-like content 📺

Slate argues that streaming TV is headed towards the same creatively dull period of reboots and sequels that has dominated movies over the past decade. Epitomized by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)…

…whose unprecedented dominance has transformed the nature of moviemaking in the past 11 years, but now even the MCU is just a piece of a much larger puzzle, sitting next to all the Star Wars movies and all the Pixar movies and all the Disney movies and all their infinite possible spinoffs. With their homogenous feel and post-credits teasers, the MCU movies provided an experience akin to watching a sporadic, incredibly expensive TV show. And now that they’ve turned movies into TV, they’re going to help turn TV into the MCU.

My take: God help us. I literally cannot watch Marvel movies these days, since (IMHO) they have no originality to them and little aesthetic value. Your mileage may vary of course, but I have noticed that 2019 has been relatively slim pickings for quality TV shows. Sometimes Netflix seems like it’s made up almost entirely of tv shows designed by committee to satisfy a specific demographic. So maybe the slide to mediocrity in streaming TV has already begun.

Although given what our culture ended up with at the end of the 20th century in TV (for each ‘Golden Age’ show like The Sopranos, there were 10 garbage reality tv shows), we’re still much better off in the streaming age.

p.s. Succession has been my TV highlight this year - what’s been yours?

  1. Litcraft blends literature with popular game Minecraft 📚

Ending on a more positive note, The British Library is promoting an event which features a fascinating mashup of books and gaming:

LITCRAFT uses the popular Minecraft gaming platform to build accurate scale models of authorial maps from classic works of literature. Impact is achieved by re-engaging children (primarily though not exclusively) with literature in a model of positive reinforcement that makes works accessible in entirely new ways, combining the textual and the digital. Reading and writing are integrated with an immersive experience of the literary world.

My take: This is a clever way to entice kids into reading a classic book of literature, by first getting them familiar with the book’s ‘world’ via Minecraft. The hope is they will play the game, read some of the text, return to the game, return to the text, etc. It’s innovation like this that gives me hope for the future of literature.


Data Points 📊

  • TV Time and UTA IQ: 70% of consumers say there are too many tv streaming services and 87% are worried it will become too expensive to keep up. 📺

  • SuperData: 78% of gaming preteens also watch online gaming videos. 🎮

  • MBW: Pandora’s user base is now nearly one quarter of the size of Spotify’s, having lost 1.8m listeners in three months. 🎹

  • NPD BookScan: sales of the 100 bestselling adult titles increased 23% in 2018 compared to 2017. All other titles ranked below that top tier either fell or remained flat. 📚

  • Digiday: The Economist has reached 1 million YouTube subscribers and aims to convert them into paying members. 📹


Tweet of the week 🐦

The new, 21st century, Vanity Fair is like…


That’s the latest subscriber newsletter in the new, refreshed format. Do let me know what you think. Thanks for your support, it’s much appreciated. 🙏

Image credit: top image is from New York Magazine.