The great digital media culling of 2017
In recent weeks and months, several digital publishers have executed a "pivot to video," a now-notorious euphemism for "firing most or all of your writers to chase video advertising dollars." Mashable, Vocativ, MTV News, Fox Sports, Vice, ATTN, and now Mic have tried this, at least to some extent. It probably sounded like a sexy and forward-thinking strategy in whatever corporate boardroom it was cooked up in. But as a long-term business proposition, it will almost certainly fail — just as dependence on Facebook traffic did.
There are many reasons why this all-in-on-video strategy is ill-conceived — not least of which is that we have not quite reached Idiocracy-levels of vacuousness yet, and many if not most news consumers still prefer to, you know, read things. There is plenty of good video on the internet, some of it even made by digital media organizations. But not every publisher needs to be in the video business. And the fact that so many quality news sites are canning their writers, reporters, and editors to churn out glorified slideshows in pursuit of those sweet CPMs misunderstands both the audience and the industry. This is a fool's bargain.
Why? Because even as digital publishers relentlessly pursue quick profits — often by trying to cynically engineer referral traffic bonanzas from monopoly platforms like Google and Facebook — these same monopoly platforms are devouring almost all new online advertising dollars. And it's not hard to see why. Facebook has more than 2 billion monthly users. Google handles billions of searches every day. Their audiences are so massive that they can serve advertisers the exact sort of eyeballs they want. A website with 1 million or 10 million or even 100 million monthly visitors can offer advertisers the audience it has. Google and Facebook can offer advertisers whatever audience they want.
Mic provides an eye-opening case study of the perils of contemporary digital media. The Outline posted an excellent portrait of the decline and fall of the site (really, read the whole thing), which was notorious for overheated social justice writing, stoking furious outrage about some injustice or another for cheap clicks, often before all the facts were known. This would sometimes result in several amusing iterations of a story, as deadline-crushed writers desperately tried to stay ahead of the balance of opinion.
This was the product not of some clear-eyed and full-hearted deliberate editorial direction, but of stumbling onto a traffic model. Dashed-off articles about injustice, pop culture, and politics, finely tuned for Facebook virality or Google's search rankings, got monster traffic for little investment.
Of course, Mic still did hire some pretty good writers who actually took journalism seriously. And indeed, many storied journalistic institutions have long relied on this sort of cross-subsidization, where the more popular fluff about celebrities and style paid the bills for the more serious, responsible journalism, which in turn increased the brand appeal for deep-pocketed advertisers. The New York Times' Baghdad bureau doesn't exactly pay for itself.
Mic was hardly alone in chasing the gold rush of Facebook traffic. Viral content factories like Upworthy and ViralNova based their entire business models — and absurdly astronomical valuations — on gaming Facebook. This probably seemed like an awesome idea until Facebook tweaked its algorithm in a way that penalized clickbait. Mic, for one, attempted to recoup its losses by pivoting from churning out Facebook-optimized dreck to churning out search-optimized dreck, which worked for a bit. But all the while, Google and Facebook were themselves scooping up more and more of the online ad market. In 2015, Facebook and Google gobbled up 60 percent of the growth in online ad spending. In 2016, that figure was 99 percent. For every $100 in new digital ad spending, only $1 went to a company not named Facebook and Google. That ought to terrify every sentient being working in the digital news media.
Online advertising has become a duopoly, badly squeezing nearly every digital media company. And that has led to today's "pivot to video." Video ads are the last pot of serious money left — and so that is where many digital publishers are piling in. But make no mistake: This is foolish.
First of all, the supposed savior of "video ad dollars" will be no more permanently beneficial to digital publishers than every other ephemeral advertising trend that burned bright and flamed out fast (looking at you, sponsored content). Second, Facebook is setting its sights on video, too. They will decimate the Mics and Vocativs of the world if they wish.
Mic's fall is also a good illustration of how modern capitalist institutions typically treat social justice issues: cynical full-volume endorsements when it's profitable, followed by quiet abandonment when the money dries up. The commitment to journalism or justice was never there. The overwhelming focus was finding some formula that would immediately deliver quick growth and profits — or in Silicon Valley investor parlance, "iterating for success."
That in itself led to some strategic blindness. Trying to get to a successful business model through tweaks and patches tends to foreclose a more long-term outlook, especially one that might emphasize a lot of upfront investment for a long-term payoff. Other smaller publishers, like Talking Points Memo, used a demonstrated commitment to genuine journalism to build up a base of subscribers, providing a critical financial buffer against the vagaries of the online ad market. But that requires a genuine — and expensive, in the short term — commitment to ethical journalism, something the hyperactive disruption-obsessed perspective of the digital media class instinctively foreclosed.
However, as satisfying as it is to poke fun at various publications — especially those that are breathlessly and sloppily rewriting the same news in a race to score traffic hits — the truth is that the platform monopolies are by far the bigger problem. Digital ad spending is reportedly going to surpass television spending soon, and it's a safe bet that Google and Facebook are going to take all of it. It puts them not only in an almost unprecedented position of power over the press in general, but also the political process writ large. Already people are discussing how to structure regulations that will break up or regulate these platform giants so as to make digital publishing a viable business again. The ability to influence the discourse by strategically forbidding ads or attention from certain candidates or publications scarcely needs to be spelled out.
It would have been far better to clamp down some anti-trust regulations before Facebook and Google consolidated their duopoly. But if meaningful freedom of the press is to be preserved in the digital age, it will have to happen, and soon.