How to Fix TheStreet.com
- Joshua M Brown
- July 29th, 2012
"While you're saving your face, you're losing your ass."
- Lyndon Baines Johnson
Mebane Faber's recent post, in which he asked rhetorically why it was that TheStreet.com wasn't coining money, got me thinking. I was probably one of the first 1000 people ever to have read TheStreet, beginning in 1996. I worshiped Jim Cramer and read every post he and Herb and the gang put up. What made it pop and sparkle was that it was mainly written from the standpoint of someone who was actually in the investing business (Cramer, Harrison, Kass et al) or by a journalist with serious reporting chops and strong convictions (as in the case of Greenberg, Task etc).
I wrote an homage to the site, its early days and the amazing roster of talent that's passed through it in the fall of 2010 and I meant every word of it.
But TheStreet has lost its way. It's having an identity crisis, a financial crisis and an existential crisis all at once. They're burning cash, flailing about for social media strategies and fighting to stay relevant now that the rules of the web have changed.
The suits are mostly clueless as to what to do, no matter what they say. The editorial side is aimless; a hodgepodge of uninformed, redundant one page articles chopped up into three pages for CPM purposes, paywalled insights from a handful of great financial writers and a host of filler and fodder that serves no discernible purpose whatsoever. And the ad placement is atrocious, it's slapped across every open space as if to remind the reader that much of what he's stumbling across on the site is there mainly for the pageviews anyway.
Some would argue that it's too late, that TheStreet cannot be fixed and is destined to just lose a little more each year until someone swallows it up and guts it. I realize there's a very real possibility of this, but in the interest of offering another option to an institution we all once loved, I've put together a list of ten ways the site (and by extension the company) could have a shot at revival. They won't listen, of course, because these are radical - it is more likely that they will simply attempt to make incremental moves and preserve the status quo. But still, I thought it worth a shot.
If were in charge of TheStreet.com I could turn it into the most widely-read and respected financial news and opinion site in America within six months. I'm not going to get much into earnings and revenue, I'll focus more on the editorial and product side. I think my changes in these areas allow the financials to take care of themselves.
The fixes are obvious:
1. It starts with a new mission and a renewed dedication to the principles that made TheStreet.com so special in the mid-to-late 90's when I (and many others) fell in love with it:
"TheStreet.com is written by market participants for market participants and aims to be the number one destination for actionable ideas and real-time market commentary."
I just made that up, it's probably never been written down anywhere, but that's what TheStreet meant to me in the old days and that's what it should strive for now. It works. Yahoo Finance gets 40 million unique users a month, so don't tell me people don't care about the market anymore. They do, but you have to give them something worthwhile to bring them in.
2. No paywalls ever again. Newsletter subscriptions should be the primary revenue source, followed by advertisements and sponsored content. No more charging people to read content. The FT and NYT can't do big numbers with paywalls, why on earth does TheStreet think they can? Grow up, it's 2012 and content is not a business unto itself anymore.
3. Speaking of newsletters, I think Stocks Under 10 is a great, creative idea and something that can be imitated elsewhere within the company. There should be more newsletter/alerts products and they should be more quantitative in nature (as opposed to Johnny Fox's Hot Tips or Bobby Johnson's Stock of the Day). In terms of what not to do, as a rule of thumb, the more a product looks like a Gene Marcial column - all winks and nods and storytime nonsense - the more it should be thrown in the trash.
3. Plan and execute an annual Actionable Ideas Conference. No global macro bloviating, just stocks and themes and sectors people should buy or sell and why. Big guest speakers who actually invest and trade. This is how you brand TheStreet in the eyes of pros and individuals again as the Actionable site that's about investing and trading alongside the pros.
4. Shut down Stockpickr. It sucks and is unusable for investors in actual practice, the perfect combination of noise, outdated information and scatological unfacts. The truth is, it has always sucked and TheStreet got tricked into buying it anyway, as has been well-documented by Stockpickr's creator, James Altucher. Closing it down would signal to readers that TheStreet is once again looking to be taken seriously - the story of Stockpickr's genesis and takeover are a monument to the cluelessness of prior management. End it.
5. No more generic reporting. No more content for the sake of content. If you have reporters who are just writing the same "Cisco reported earnings" stories, they need to be let go of. You're doing them a favor, they are writing repetitive articles that no one wants to read. I don't care how much ad revenue it means, stop pumping out articles for no reason. Fire the bullpen and its accompanying brigade of editors and other cost centers, the whole thing generates zero goodwill from readers and is a distraction from what TheStreet needs to be about.
6. The reporters who are left after this merciful blood-letting should be the best of the best. There are ten S&P sectors, each one should have a "bureau chief" editor who can call the shots on how that sector is covered. He or she should be turned into a star by TheStreet so that people know his or her name and flock to that section's coverage of a big story. Adam Feuerstein is a perfect example. He should be promoted to editor or bureau chief of all healthcare sector coverage at TheStreet. When a major story in medical devices or pharma or biotech breaks, every consumer of web financial content should say to themselves, "I gotta hear what Feuerstein's saying at TheStreet." Adam should have a budget and the freedom to decide the way his sector will be handled by the site. He needs the latitude to either bring in cub reporters under him or to source content on TheStreet from outside bloggers, post links to other media companies etc. Make him a journalist-entrepreneur and watch him go. Same for Materials, Energy, Consumer Staples, Tech.
7. No more web video, effective immediately. It sucks and it's not getting better. It's actually getting worse. Non-TV people trying to ape the cadences and lilting tones of TV people, droning and stuttering no-name guests, odd camera angles, random topic selection and on and on. I promise you, no one wants to watch any videos that don't involve celebrities, nudity, motorcycle jumps or slam dunks. Investors and traders and pros have enough great financial video to chose from out there (Bloomberg TV, CNBC, Yahoo Finance) and only a limited attention span. TheStreet is not doing anything interesting, innovative, effective, viral or purposeful in this area. You want to start sending Gregg Greenberg out onto Wall Street to interview pros or people on the street, that's fine (TheStreet is certainly paying enough to be located at 14 Wall or whatever). But please, for the love of god, no more in-studio 3 minute long circlejerks about nothing just for the sake of saying "we make video!" By the way, this "stop video" idea is much more widely applicable and should be considered by all financial media companies. If you don't have a ground-breaking new idea for why something needs to be a video, just write it so we can consume at our pace and prerogative.
8. Be a web company! Streamline! Once you've jettisoned the non-productive copyrighting journos, you're left with your sector bureau chiefs and whomever they've decided to keep on. No need for any layers of editorial bureaucracy above that until you get to Editor-in-Chief. Clean out everyone else, they've proven they have no place there already. Don't take my word for it - TheStreet has 300 employees, burns tens of millions a year and has less monthly visitors than Zero Hedge, which is ostensibly run by one guy and a handful of internal and external contributors. It's embarrassing already.
9. Now let's talk about the columnists and contributors. Time to find some new Cramers. The old Cramer's heart is no longer in it in terms of TheStreet, which is understandable. It must have been hard for him to watch this thing he created and loved and nurtured continue to decline for the last ten years. Other than he and Doug Kass, there are few marquee market participant bloggers writing for TheStreet these days. There is a reason for that - there's no cache for writing there anymore. It's lost its meaning. Time to restore that.
One of the greatest misallocations of capital in the financial media biz is the fact that a company like TheStreet is paying so many contributors that no one is interested in while the most talented and interesting bloggers are writing on sites for NO MONEY. My blog, just as a point of reference, gets around a million page views a month and I make less than a thousand dollars from that on average. There are two hundred top-shelf financial bloggers out there and then another 200 bloggers a step below them that could be top-shelf someday. 90% of them are in the markets, investing and trading as they write. This is what TheStreet pioneered! These bloggers are writing daily and earning nothing for their efforts (outside of selling newsletter subs and the satisfaction and clarity that comes from the writing itself), why isn't TheStreet "discovering" people like this and making them stars? The Food Network realized it couldn't ride Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay into the next generation, it needed to produce new stars. They're so focused on this idea that they've actually launched a reality show about their hunt for new talent. TheStreet.com has birthed some of the most talented market commentators in the business historically - but not recently. Let's get back to basics.
10. The new rule at TheStreet should be "We are what we are and we aren't what we aren't." Seems obvious, and yet... Time for TheStreet to do what they do well and leverage that - and to stop doing everything else where they have no edge or special expertise. Global macro stuff, central bank coverage, government coverage etc are great examples of this - TheStreet has no business putting third string reporters on these topics. It's poorly done and probably expensive anyway. They're not going to compete with the Business Insider on speed or Bloomberg on breadth of coverage or with the bloggers on depth of coverage (us bloggers are borderline Rain Man-esque savants when we latch onto a specific topics, see Kid Dynamite on ETF creation/redemption or Barry Ritholtz on Mortgage Fraud or Cullen Roche on Modern Monetary Theory etc.) So stop competing with one hand tied behind your back. Outsource all global macro stuff and non stock market content from outside partners. Pull in content from FT Alphaville, Reuters, DealBook etc. Cheaper to bring that in and pay for it than try to make it in-house. Do you make sushi at home? Do you roast your own lamb on a spit when you've got a souvlaki craving? You could but it will suck. So enough already, admit the limitations of the TheStreet as a news organization and focus on the content the site used to be known for, the sheer authenticity of which used to stand out so prominently amidst a sea of j-school rehash.
Oh yeah, and this:
10 and a half. TheStreet needs to worrying about its "social media strategy." It doesn't have one. It missed the boat. But here's the good news - no one else in the space has a working social media strategy either. The bottom line is that no one is going to replicate StockTwits and it will cost too much to buy - tis way better to simply use the platform to share ideas and content while cementing the brand's digital bona fides. If TheStreet gets re-focused on great content again, social media will find it and share it and the imagined need for some kind of magical strategy will fade away. Winning on social media is an extension of winning in real life.
Anyway, if I were in charge, this is what I'd do. It would be short-term painful because there'd be a lot less articles each day (meaning less ad clicks), tons of layoffs and a whole new entrepreneurial way of running the news organization from the top down. These changes will lead to a resurgent TheStreet.com and a site that kicks ass at covering markets and stocks and trends and trades. The new site will make up-and-coming bloggers want to contribute and be seen there. It will make investors flock to the site each day for the latest, freshest content on the financial web. It will put the other financial media content farms, corporate or otherwise, on their back feet; "Wait a minute, these guys at TheStreet are really going for it again, look at this!"
Or there is the alternative, which is to save face and do nothing, awaiting some distant time and place in which the boomerang comes back around and the old ways begin bearing fruit again. The alternative is to just keep doing what they've been doing and watch the grains of sand dwindle as time runs out. And that will be a lot more painful in the end - for the employees, the management, the investors and for we, the user base.
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The Reformed Broker is a blog about financial markets and the economy. Joshua Brown is a New York City-based investment advisor for high net worth individuals, charitable foundations, retirement plans and corporations... More.