What’s happened to media companies in the last decade or so — and what continues to happen to them even now — is a little like a more boring, digital version of the Book of Job. He’s the biblical character who got hit with a plague of boils and lost all his family and possessions, just because God wanted to test the depth of his faith.
For traditional media companies, there are no boils — just a steady decline in print subscriptions and TV viewership, lower ad revenue, and the rise of mobile (which means even lower ad revenue). And now, the dominance of Facebook and other platforms, who have won the war for consumers’ attention.
All of these things have one underlying theme: Namely, a complete and total loss of control over the audience, or what New York University professor Jay Rosen has called “the people formerly known as the audience.” Many media companies had only the illusion of control over their audience’s attention, but in some ways, those kinds of illusions can be even more powerful than the real thing.
It was so much easier back in the good old days, in the 1970s and ’80s. Media companies controlled not only most of the news and entertainment that was produced, but also the distribution channels. And that scarcity generated huge revenues via advertising.
Now, the media world is in total chaos. The old channels have been blown up or torn down, or are in various states of disrepair. Print is dying, TV is being disrupted, and almost anyone can be a publisher — including the brands, celebrities, and important people who used to rely on media companies as a way of getting their message out.
In a way, it was probably easier to be Job, because at least he knew who was trying to test his faith. All traditional media companies know is that the world they used to rely on is crumbling, and there’s no one to blame. It’s just evolution, which is messy and mean — and in most cases, ultimately fatal.
It would be nice to think that we’ve seen the worst of it, but there’s no real reason to believe that, unfortunately. If anything, the loss of control that media companies have seen in the past few years is only continuing to accelerate.
Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram are the platforms that matter for distribution now, and they are becoming more powerful rather than less — Facebook already accounts for a huge proportion of the web traffic to major media sites. And publishers are rushing even further into its embrace because they have no choice and can’t think of a better option. The long-term repercussions of this surrender are unclear.
Meanwhile, adblocking is taking care of what’s left of the media’s ambitions to continue as standalone entities. And brands are creating their own media portals and content efforts, some of which are drawing audiences larger than the ones they gave up when they stopped using mainstream media as a way of reaching those users.
I’m sorry this sounds like such a gloomy forecast, but it is what it is. And yet, there are rays of hope in the darkness: For example, some media companies — like ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, De Correspondent in the Netherlands, Politico, Quartz — have shown that if you are intensely focused on a community, you can thrive. Not everyone can be worth $4 billion like Vice Media, but there’s a living to be made if you focus properly.
In the end, Job’s faith was rewarded (sort of), although that didn’t bring his family or his possessions back. In the same way, media companies can’t recover what they have lost, but they can find new things that might ultimately be better in the long run. Onward!
Mathew Ingram is a senior writer at Fortune.