Working in digital media is like trying to build a fort out of marshmallows on a foundation made of marbles in a country ruled by capricious and tyrannical warring robots. I’ve toiled in this business for nearly 20 years, and even in the best of times, it has been a squeamish and skittering ride, the sort of career you’d counsel your kids to avoid in favour of something less volatile and more enduring — bitcoin mining, perhaps.
It might be tempting, then, to dismiss the recent spate of media-biz layoffs as unfortunate but otherwise not concerning. Two hundred workers, including dozens of journalists, were given the slip last week at BuzzFeed. About 800 people are losing their jobs in the media division of Verizon, the telephone company that owns Yahoo, HuffPost, TechCrunch and many other “content brands.” And Gannett, the once-mighty newspaper empire that owns USA Today and hundreds of smaller outlets — from The Bergen County Record to The Zanesville Times Recorder — is letting go of 400.
But it would be a mistake to regard these cuts as the ordinary chop of a long-roiling digital media sea. Instead, they are a devastation.
The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the bloodbath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.
Coming in a time of economic prosperity, at world-historical levels of interest in the news, last week’s cuts tell a story of impending slow-motion doom — and a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.
Consider: We are in the midst of a persistent global information war. We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice us up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism — a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumour and mendacity.
And for a while, it looked like we could do that. The past half decade has been a season of bold and optimistic innovation in media. In addition to the Trump bump, there was new money from venture capitalists, and giants in cable and telecom. Big brands, looking to attract millennials, began to spend haltingly and then generously on advertising, leading to a Cambrian explosion of new sites, new formats, new business models. And consumers began opening up their wallets to support journalism, turning around the fortunes of The New York Times.
Many in the industry remain optimistic about these ways forward. There’s a doubling-down on subscriptions, a rush to podcasts and high-end video, and a return to smaller and more calculated media ventures, like Bill Simmons’ tiny but profitable startup, The Ringer. Then there is the charity of digital billionaires. The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post, Laurene Powell-Jobs’ Atlantic magazine, Marc Benioff’s Time and Farhad Manjoo’s Colour Me Sceptical That the Billionaires Who Got Us Into This Mess Will Save Us Gazette.
But it takes only a quick jaunt through the particulars of last week’s layoffs to snuff out much reason for optimism.
In the cuts at Gannett, we see the nearly final evisceration of local news, an institution recognized as democratically vital even by the mainstream media’s most frothing detractors. Gannett’s end now looks nigh; the company is presently labouring under a hostile takeover bid by a secretive hedge fund whose only demonstrated expertise lies in “strip-mining” publications of their final morsels of profit.
In the troubles at Verizon, we see a behemoth that tried to take on Google and Facebook. Under a former executive, Tim Armstrong, the phone company bought up Yahoo and other media brands as useful pawns in a strategic war against internet giants. For similar reasons, Comcast has also ploughed money into media startups.
But Verizon quickly learned that Facebook and Google are insurmountable. When new management took over last year, it began dumping the news in favor of readier ways to make money.
It’s the cuts at BuzzFeed that sting most. You may regard the site as a purveyor of silly listicles and inane quizzes. I think of it as a relentlessly experimental innovator: It’s the site that gave us The Dress and published The Dossier, a company that pushed the rest of the industry to regard the digital world with seriousness and rigor.
More than anyone else in media, BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, bet on symbioses with the tech platforms. He understood that the tech giants would keep getting bigger, but to him, that was a feature, not a bug. By creating content that hooked into their algorithms, he imagined BuzzFeed getting bigger — and making money — along with them.
At the least, the layoffs suggest the tragic folly of Peretti’s thinking. Google and Facebook have no economic incentive for symbiosis; everything BuzzFeed can do for them can also be done by the online hordes who’ll make content without pay.
So where does that leave media? Bereft.
It is the rare publication that can survive on subscriptions, and the rarer one that will be saved by billionaires. Digital media needs a way to profitably serve the masses. If even BuzzFeed couldn’t hack that, we are well and truly hosed.
© 2019 New York Times News Service