What kind of name for a magazine is Traffic? It clearly nods to web traffic — the conventional measure of a modern media operation. But one can also traffic in ideas. Or goods. When the word was coined in the 16th century, “traffic” meant “to carry on trade.” Today, traffic has become an online commodity — a resource to be mined and processed — and yet the digital world has managed to preserve all the haggling and commotion and profanity of the ancient bazaars where the word first came into use.
Traffic magazine uses the tools of journalism to examine the media itself, to analyze the industry as it reinvents itself in the digital age. After nine months of scouring databases, digging into financial filings, and interviewing sources, we’ve produced an inaugural issue that covers everything from the media’s ineffective pricing strategies to a revolution in ad blocking to the rise of video games as a spectator sport.
I became interested in the economics of digital media four years ago, when I helped political writer Andrew Sullivan launch his blog the Dish as an independent media company. My job was to produce editorial content while also running the business side of the operation. There were plenty of resources to lean on to master the basics of operating a small business (thank you, “Limited Liability Companies for Dummies”). It was much harder to find solid intel on how to turn a profit in digital media.
At the Dish, we regularly churned out 50 posts a day — roughly one every 15 minutes during peak hours. “We’re building the car as we drive it,” Andrew liked to say. And as we pressed the pedal to the floor, we hardly had a second to glance up and see if we might be heading over a cliff. So we tapped the brakes: Andrew closed the Dish in early 2015, and I’ve spent most of my time since trying to better understand the business of media. The product of my efforts is the magazine you have before you.
Much like our financial backer, the software company Piano, Traffic is obsessed with data. Our mandate is to spin numbers into narrative, to offer the utility of a trade magazine with the readability of a newsstand glossy. We want to give media executives the information they need to build sustainable businesses — without boring them to death.
At the Dish, we brought in $1.87 million in subscriber revenue over the course of two years — modest by media company standards, but impressive for a website with a single-digit staff. Our subscriptions started at $19.99 a year, but under our pay-what-you-want model, a full 20 percent of subscribers paid $25 or more. One reader gave $25,000. When we shut the business down, it had around a 40 percent profit margin.
We spent countless hours at the Dish debating the virtues of programmatic ads, newsletters, and other revenue generators. Those kinds of discussions continue today inside media operations around the world. My hope is that Traffic will enrich those conversations.
Despite what you’re reading about the media’s dire straits, the same tools that destroyed many of the industry’s old business models can be used to create new and better ones. Traffic isn’t here to rehash the same old stories about how the media is dying. Instead, we want to show how it’s being reborn.