News, media, marketing, and power

Let's talk about Coinbase

It’s early and I am late for work. There will be stray typos in the following paragraphs. Please ignore them. All complaints, corrections to ryan@scrawler.co (Scrawler Media). — Alex

News is out this morning that Coinbase is getting into the media game. The revelation shouldn’t surprise. Coinbase, part of the larger a16z family, has seen its long-time backer build up its own media operation through internal team-building, and external investment.

a16z backs Clubhouse and Substack, two companies that could be construed as empowering smaller creators, talkers, and writers outside of the traditional media landscape. That parental ethos, mixed with Coinbase’s liquid wealth, gisting down to a crypto media arm is not a shock.

From Axios:

While sources say the media operation would act as a top-of-the-funnel marketing vehicle to draw more people to its cyptocurrency exchange, it also could be used to help the company drive its own narratives. […]

Between the lines: The idea, still in its early stages, is to hire an in-house team of roughly 30 to run a cross-platform media operation. The operation would be led by a VP Content & Editorial, which the company is still searching for, according to two sources.

(For reference, that’s an editorial team probably around the size of TechCrunch’s writing staff, if I am counting correctly.)

A company building its own internal content creation machine is standard in today’s startup economy; as on-demand pricing becomes increasingly common, and self-service sales takes successive bites out of the traditional enterprise SaaS sales model, building out libraries of content to attract externals to the corporate site is table stakes.

But then, there’s that Axios point noting that Coinbase’s media arm “also could be used to help the company drive its own narratives.” That stuck in my craw a bit.

This is where internal media-ish operations (normal, fine) try to do a bit more than just talk a company’s — or an investing firm’s — book. And the idea is becoming more and more popular. And confused.

There’s a key difference between building a media-ish operation and a news operation; the latter, I think, is what many folks conflate the former with. And it’s an error.

In the Coinbase example, Axios notes that “unlike a typical newsroom, that person would report into Coinbase's marketing team.” Got it. Let’s talk about that issue, and what it means regarding media-ish work, and news, at for-profit, non-media companies.

Media?

I have had the somewhat unique experience of starting news media organizations at two different startups (Mattermark and Crunchbase). In both cases, I reported to the CEO. That was a key part of my acceptance of the work, as I was not interested in doing the company’s marketing job. (And, to be entirely clear, am wholly unqualified to do so.)

What I was interested in doing is building an independent team to cover the private markets — the focus of both Mattermark and Crunchbase. And in both cases it went medium, more or less. Mattermark, for example, was a messy year for me as I had to dip to rehab for a half month. And then the company’s cash issues became sharp, dooming the news project.

Crunchbase went better for a few years, until I ran out of internal political capital and, after around 2.5 years of independence and work that I am very proud of — a bunch of the Crunchbase News team are now at TechCrunch with me, doing kickass work — wound up at a crossroad that involved my either accepting my team being moved into the marketing org, or leaving.

So I left. No hard feelings, welcome to startups. Things change. You just have to know what your hard lines are, and what you want to do next.

But with some folks saying that Coinbase is building a media arm, the answer is only sorta.

It’s building something that will produce content. But that output not going to be more than pre-chewed, pro-crypto blather. That’s because marketing’s job is incredibly different than a news’ teams own; its metrics are different, its timeline is different, its approach to writing is different, its approach to paying attention to sales’ needs (it wants to) and potential customers (it has to), are antithetical to what a news team does.

And the editor that they hire won’t have much ability to push back against the head of marketing, a person inside of startups who has way more budget than the media group, frankly, and pull with other divisions inside the company that the media group won’t be able to combat.

So the term media in the case of what Coinbase is building feels a little bit much. It’s building out its personal megaphone. It’s bolstering its own Coinbase Is Great message. Cool. But media? The word implies some sort of independence, I think; it learns towards news.

To call what the company is doing, working to hire a vassal to its marketing head to write more blogs about the company, media just feels wrong. No matter from where it hires its impending editor from. That person’s heritage is moot once it runs crossways to the company’s messaging, positioning, or market focus.

Coinbase is not alone in looking to build out a large content operation, seeded with traditional journalism experience. I know because one tried to hire me the other week. I declined, as I did not want to trade a job that trusted me to do journalism for a place where I’d report to someone who’d report to someone who probably didn’t like journalism. You know?

Anyhoo, the much-ballyhooed media-push by startups to drive their own narratives smacks more of CEO hubris than it will likely engender in real-world impacts. But who cares, it’s not our money.