Digital didn’t just upend industries like music, retail, or news. It modified how you access music. It changed whose shopping recommendations you trust. It interrupted the habit of reading the paper as you sip your morning coffee.
Digital disrupts industries by changing behaviors. That, in turn, changes how the money is made. And, as Will Page, chief Spotify data wonk, says on page 38: “That changes everything.”
These behavioral shifts pull at the ligaments of old business models, making room for upstarts and forcing established firms to adapt. In this issue, we dive deep into the numbers and business rationale behind companies capitalizing on what may first seem like innocuous trends, like more people ordering takeout or teens watching short video clips on their phones.
The businesses we deconstruct aren’t limited to media. We examine (page 48) how discount lunch app MealPal deploys, in the words of its co-founder, “jaw-dropping, competition-crushing” promotions, trying to become to eating what Uber is to driving. We talk (page 16) with everyone from chicken keepers to survivalists about how to build a successful subscription-box business, covering the logistical and strategic fundamentals.
We also delve into older companies adapting to new realities. On page 54, we report why the Star Tribune, founded in 1867, has weathered the industry maelstrom better than any other American metro paper. On page 42, we tell the story of how a little-known, 86-year-old university came to dominate online education, reinventing itself to serve nontraditional students hungry for affordable degrees.
Other articles examine emerging or fading mediums. Our article (page 20) on smart speakers strives to understand what a lack of voice-app monetization options means for everyone besides Jeff Bezos. On page 62, Ken Auletta compares ad agencies to cockroaches, adaptive creatures in danger of being trampled by Google, Facebook, and other frenemies.
And then there’s Tortoise, our cover story (page 30). Tortoise is as much a response to new digital behaviors as it is an attempt to craft new ones. The news startup, founded by the heaviest of heavyweights in British journalism, understands that creating a viable news organization today requires more than clicks.
Success requires renegotiating the contract between publication and reader to demand more of both. Readers need to do more than read. Publications need to do more than publish. Which is why paid memberships and in-person events — fusing newsroom and readership into one community — are at the heart of Tortoise’s business model.
“For me, membership at its core is about belonging,” Tortoise publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith says of her business philosophy.
Community is core to Traffic’s mission as well. We are not limited by digital-first ideology. Print remains critically important for a for-profit civic institution like the Star Tribune. We are not defined by our media focus. Southern New Hampshire University can teach you as much about how to develop a successful digital product as The New York Times can.
We are defined by our readers. The shared challenges of our readership holds this magazine together. If you are reading this, it’s because you’ve been tasked with navigating a new economic reality, one where best practices are half-formed and there’s more noise than signal. That’s why, with all our articles, we endeavor not just to tell an enterprise’s individual story but to use that story to give you the insights you need to spot opportunity in this age of behavioral disruption.