It came as a shock to the digital news industry when more than 1,000 workers, many of them reporters, recently lost their jobs at companies like BuzzFeed, HuffPost and Vice.
Just five years ago, these digital news outlets were seen as the future of journalism. But the layoffs suggest that the business model on which the companies all rely, click-based advertising revenue, doesn’t allow them to pay for their newsrooms.
Then there’s the problematic reliance on Facebook and Google to distribute digital news content. The two tech giants are eating up the bulk of digital ad revenues, leaving the Buzzfeeds of the world in roughly the same place as newspapers and other legacy news organisations before them – trying to find new models to make their businesses work.
“We’re accustomed to traditional media companies losing people … But people expected that BuzzFeed and Vice and other digital companies were the future of digital media,” says Mathew Ingram, chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review.
It’s an industry-wide contraction that feels like a correction and amounts to an admission that for all their indie sass and swagger, the Buzzfeeds and Vices of the news world are as dependent on the tech giants as a child is on its parents. But Hipster cred will only get you so far and they need Facebook and Google to survive.
“It’s about the role that Google and Facebook have played in delivering audiences to publishers,” explains Keach Hagey, media and tech reporter at the Wall Street Journal. “They both have algorithms that they are constantly changing without warning, and publishers will see their traffic tank overnight without any ability to respond to it. The problem is that when you rely on Facebook as your distribution mechanism, when Facebook changes, you really are at their mercy.”
One model that seems to be working in a limited way, is the old-fashioned subscription model that so many news organisations have abandoned.
While BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost were shedding staff, the New York Times announced it now employs 1,600 journalists, the most in its history, and that it ended 2018 with a record 3.3 million digital subscribers, a 27 percent increase over the previous year.
Having convinced many Americans that their journalism is worth supporting, papers like the Times and the Washington Post are thriving – the indirect beneficiaries of President Donald Trump’s attacks on the US news media.
However, very few news outlets have the name recognition and prestige of the Times or the Washington Post. And the digital newbies have gone all-in on the digital advertising model. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer.
Not “all hope is lost”, according to Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Anti-Social Media. “But it does mean that we must confront the two dragons: Facebook and Google. If we fail to confront Facebook and Google and their terrifying ability to distort journalism, to corrupt journalism and to crush journalism, then we are in trouble.”
Keach Hagey – Media and tech reporter, Wall Street Journal
Rasmus Kleis Nielsen – Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Siva Vaidhyanathan – University of Virginia and author of Anti-Social Media
Mathew Ingram – Chief digital writer, Columbia Journalism Review
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