Cleantech Media Survival & Value

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We recently noted that cleantech media giant Greentech Media is closing down shop. It’s a big loss to the industry, and thus to the world. Being in this industry for more than a decade, and running CleanTechnica for most of that time (since mid-2010), I thought I could offer some perspective on this, some words of wisdom (I hope), and a few core notes about the future of CleanTechnica that I think could be useful.

Greentech Media

Briefly commenting on Greentech Media itself, it’s important to recognize the kind of work the outlet did — why that was unique and how it was able to fill that specific role. Greentech Media focused heavily on expert-driven, in-depth, analytical content that required a lot of work. Whether the writer had to learn a lot or was an industry expert who brought years of real-world experience to the content, there was much sweat and investment behind much of the content. That’s why people loved the site and why Greentech Media has held a prominent place in this cleantech media world as long as I’ve been in it.

The problem — and even much more so today than several years ago — is that less frequent, long-form, analytical content like that cannot by itself sustain a media outlet. And by “sustain,” I don’t just mean financially — I mean that sites like that are fading in readership and influence (for reasons I won’t get into here). Volume is critical in the 2020s, and it has been for a couple of years. Infrequent, high-quality content — as loved as it is by those of us who appreciate it — is at a severe disadvantage. Unfortunately, that’s the way the online media world has evolved.

The CleanTechnica Perspective

Here at CleanTechnica, we have worked hard to roll that kind of content into our output for several years, and sometimes individual pieces do really get the love that they deserve — but only with the support of the rest of the content. We do it because we see it as genuinely valuable for society (and also valuable for our site in certain ways in aggregate and in the long term). Though, to be honest about it, that kind of content seldom pays for itself. If we tried to only publish such content, one of a few things would happen:

  1. We’d have to publish fewer articles, we’d lose traffic as a result, and we’d continually shrink and become much less influential or just die.
  2. We’d have to raise money from investors, and if they determined they needed a great ROI within a certain short-term or medium-term timeframe, there’s a high chance they wouldn’t get that and may end up getting us to shut down to get them some of their money back (depending on the contract and level of investment).

I’ve seen both things happen at numerous cleantech sites, including some that were once upon a time in the top circle of cleantech sites along with Greentech Media and CleanTechnica.

The fact is that, as great as high-quality, in-depth, analytical content is, it has to be subsidized by something. It does not “pay for itself” if it’s 100% or even >50% what you focus on.

Before I touch on some other topics, I will say that we strive hard to add useful context and value to as many of our news stories as possible — in addition to publishing more original, analytical content than anyone else in the cleantech media industry (I think). Though, I think that it’s also clear that we sometimes can’t invest that extra work into certain stories and we have to “save our energy” (and money) for future pieces.

Why Greentech Media is Shutting Down — Common Sense + A Theory

As I noted above, high-quality, in-depth, analytical media content has to be subsidized by something. I’m sure the money-making sides of Greentech Media have always been its research and events arms (or just its research arm before the events arm was much of anything). Back in mid-2016 when Verisk Analytics bought Greentech Media, the latter’s research arm, GTM Research, was rolled into Verisk Analytics’ Wood Mackenzie business, which Scott Cooney pointed out in his article 10 days ago focuses on “Upstream oil & gas, Gas & LNG, Chemicals, Power & Renewables, Corporate analysis, Metals & mining.” GTM Research was what the company wanted. This was the moneymaker, and everything around it was basically just marketing to sell the research products. Data is gold, as they say. A small-ish media business? Well, not quite as golden. Back then, there wasn’t even the now commonplace effort to get paying subscribers (I’ll come back to that in a moment), and Greentech Media never ventured into the paying-subscriber model.

So, from the beginning of that new era for Greentech Media, I think there was an obvious question of whether the media arm would survive. As we know, it did survive, for 5 years, but now its laptops are being turned off and sold. I personally wonder if there was a clause in the acquisition that forced the media arm’s survival for a certain period of time. The person who started Greentech Media most likely had similar ambitions as those of us here at CleanTechnica — to help the world through high-quality media coverage of clean technology sectors. It seems more likely than not to me that he’d like to ensure that work continued as much as possible even after cashing out, and he could have put a clause in the sale requiring that Greentech Media continued to operate under certain parameters for a certain period of time. Just to be clear, though — I don’t have any inside knowledge on this and may be wrong. It’s just a hunch.

In any case, it is not that surprising to me that another cleantech media leader is being shuttered. Without an owner or group of owners committed to the mission, this type of outlet typically doesn’t last. Wood Mackenzie got what it wanted and is dropping the rest. It doesn’t need the help selling reports or data on cleantech industries at this point in time — everyone and their mother wants intel on these topics. And it’s basically a fossil fuel information and research firm at its core. I guess the biggest surprise is how long it took to get to this point.

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What’s the Future of Cleantech Media?

Clearly, it’s not hard to find newsy, clickbaity stories on Tesla. Tesla is a cultural phenomenon as well as one of the biggest business success stories in US history. Heck, a single committed individual can make a living obsessively covering Tesla. And people like that do it much better than large media outlets. But the various cleantech industries we cover go far beyond Tesla, and covering these industries well, in depth, and with a bunch of extra analysis and context is important as well, but not nearly as popular.

CleanTechnica has been lucky in that we rolled into this work with ideal timing, an enormous amount of sweat that has paid off, and a good strategy to grow with these industries. However, no one is “rolling in it” here and it’s been a 10+ year exercise in bootstrapping it. I’ve accumulated a large enough mountain of stress in that time that I’d rather not know the long-term effect it has had on my body. I also haven’t taken a full day off in more than a decade. Though, I’m not complaining about that (I hope). I’m just acknowledging that this is the reality of getting CleanTechnica to this point. And I don’t think this should be the path for the next decade. Nor do I think it’s the ideal path in general for a media company.

As I’ve said a few times, we do the work we do because we think it’s valuable for society. For a long time, my short byline was “Tryin’ to help the world, one word at a time.” That’s a core reason most of our team members are doing what they’re doing — if not all of them. I know many readers agree, because hundreds of you contribute some amount of money every month essentially as an altruistic donation. Like most serious media outlets, that is becoming a bigger part of our long-term game plan and funding pie because, if you’re a media business (like we are), it’s the best way to ensure that 1) your media outlet survives, 2) your media outlet is resilient to difficult changes in the industry, 3) your media outlet is providing true value to its main customers (readers), 4) your media outlet has its priorities in order (serving readers), and 5) your media outlet focuses on high-quality content.

However, there’s a deeper and more powerful net we could build around CleanTechnica as well, and it’s our intention to do so this year. To go beyond subscriber-supported work and go into a reader-owned structure (to some extent) would allow us to really focus on constantly improving quality and analysis while also enabling more content and more growth (i.e., influence).

I don’t see CleanTechnica going the route of Greentech Media. Though, being perfectly honest, I know that it could. Now is our opportunity to cut off that option and instead bring our media entity to the next level of its evolution, to a state that would increase editorial investment and focus on high-quality, in-depth, analytical, context-powered content. That is our dream for the 2020s.

Stay tuned in the coming months for more on this. And in the meantime, if you appreciate our work and would like to see more of it, please consider becoming a monthly subscriber. If all of our regular readers just contributed $3/month (let alone $10/month or $100/month, as some do), we could increase both the volume of content and the depth of content enormously, and we could hopefully inspire many more to join you.

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Zachary Shahan

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.

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