The Messenger was a particularly spectacular failure, but it also highlights how desperate the media industry has become to find a viable business strategy, especially at scale. Various pivots—notably to video via Facebook and YouTube, and audio via podcasting—led to brief windfalls. Both have dried up in recent years, thanks to tech companies’ dominance in advertising, their lies about revenue and audience potential, and the general glut of content.
Subscriptions and membership plans offered another possible path—albeit one that would have been difficult to pursue for a new outlet of The Messenger’s size and ambition. But this model has its risks too. The Washington Post expanded dramatically thanks to a boom in Trump-era subscriptions, but those declined precipitously in recent years, leading to a wave of cancellations and then, last month, buyouts. Now, the Times seems like the only large, mainstream outlet built on this model—and its robust subscription numbers owe as much to non-journalistic offerings (puzzles and recipes) as they do to stories.
There are larger economic problems as well. Not long ago, digital startups could survive by pivoting to the latest revenue model, as long as they could continue raising money from investors with promises of continued growth. This was, in retrospect, a phenomenon of the zero-interest-rate era. Now that capital actually costs something for investors, they’re far less likely to throw money at risky ventures like digital media. (This has also played a role in the decline of advertising. Recently, digital news outlets could rake in cash from Silicon Valley start-ups promising to disrupt the underwear industry. Now venture capitalists are being more careful, and there’s less ad money being thrown around to raise brand awareness of start-ups.)