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April 13, 2016, 3:45 p.m.
Business Models

Newsonomics: With new roadblocks for digital news sites, what happens next?

The digital startups were supposed to figure out how to replace the legacy news outlets. Now they’re facing their own headwinds.

At BuzzFeed, a 32 percent miss in 2015 revenue and a halving of its 2016 revenue target, according to the Financial Times.

At Mashable, a massive layoff after the company failed to sell itself.

At Yahoo, an upcoming sale of its news-producing assets, portending great uncertainty for journalists employed there.

At Medium, a new way forward focused more on curation and licensing its platform for publishers and less on original content creation.

The list of cutbacks — at The Huffington Post, at Gawker, at Al Jazeera, at International Business Times, and at Salon among others — keeps growing. And each round poses new questions for a news business struggling to find a way forward in this millennium. After all, even if the old world of news faded (like its readers) into older age, at least we could point to the cohort of digital-native outlets with a bit of optimism.

I feared this day would come — the new digital news companies bumping into a wall. Remember the Pew study that found that more than 5,000 new, fairly decently paying journalism jobs had been created by digital news startups?

I often contrasted that increase with the great losses suffered by the local and regional newspaper industry. Those losses now stand at more than 25,000 across the country, with more jobs lost (though unreported by parent companies due to publisher edict and editorial fear) every week.

Now, if the new news companies join their legacy peers in searching for sustainable business models — just as would-be Yahoo suitors talk about the company as “legacy digital media turnaround” — we’re entering new territory.

Is this the apex of the new news? It may be — at least for a while.

Is what we’re seeing a real cratering? No. BuzzFeed investor Ken Lerer is correct on this; all the whispered schadenfreude reflects BuzzFeed envy as much as anything. (BuzzFeed has disputed the FT’s 2016 reporting, while its 2015 miss has been confirmed by Recode’s Peter Kafka.)

It is, though, a significant recalibration. If people expect these companies to have figured out how to replace the legacy news companies and navigate this new world, they’ve got to think again. There is no secret sauce in news publishing.

What we have gained: a wealth of new national news and analysis, often spirited, occasionally groundbreaking, and instructive to a news craft that needs shaking up. Most of that remains in place, and we can hope it will continue to do so.

But overall, we’re seeing the economics of text-based (not print, but text) content turning more generally dismal. Well-funded startups like Vox Media and Mic have all been talking up video, or even TV itself.

Vox has said it wants its eight brands to be thought of as eight networks, in part spurred by Facebook’s big video distribution push. The big prize here, described today by Lindsay Nelson, Vox Media’s global head of brand strategy, at London’s FT Digital Media 2016 conference is mobile video. She made a major point: The ad rates for mobile video are now matching those for desktop video.

Mic CEO Chris Altchek told me that he believes more than half of its content would be in video form by mid-2016. The newly reconfigured, slimmed-down Mashable will focus on — guess what — video. In its case, CEO Pete Cashmore’s “pivot” is to commercial video more than editorial video, but it’s still the pictures business that seems the new shiny object.

Why? It’s not primarily that customers are demanding more video. It’s that video ad rates continue to hold up far better than for ads placed alongside all those tiresome words. If the advertisers demand more video inventory, then the content side must produce more video.

Certainly, this age of almost-convergence is a wonderful one for consumers. We get to have our useful video packaged with our useful stories, and toggle back and forth. But in the world being born, video content trumps text, and more mere scribes, of all ages and of all digital skill levels, are finding themselves unwanted. The ad tail is wagging the new digital news dog, at a quickening pace.

Take the trend to a logical progression. If VR moves into the mainstream of news delivery, how many digital news companies will dial down the text and the video and make VR a format of choice for delivering the news?

The big point: While convergence should allow journalists the luxury of using the best tool — words, video, audio, interactives — for the right storytelling job, it’s video driving the business and the jobs, more and more.

Now, let’s put this turndown in digital news startups in perspective. The new U.S. digital news economy, looked at with some envy by Europeans who care about the news business, is now mature. It happened quickly; less than two handfuls of companies have followed the digital dictum of “Get Big Fast,” fueled by enthusiastic venture funding. Now those funders are newly cautious.

“It’s definitely a trend, claims taken” one major new media investor told me this week. “Next phase: consolidation.”

Axel Springer has been a big player globally, and especially in the U.S., where it can count investments in 15 digital media companies (including Mic and Ozy) in addition to its $400 million buy of Business Insider last year. That consolidation is taking many forms. I noted it last summer when Vox Media added Recode to its stable. Further, NBC Universal’s investment of $200 million each in BuzzFeed and Vox signaled maturity. The old guys hedged, buying into the new guys.

Now, all that audience growth must turn into money, into some kind of sustainable profit over time. Almost universally, those running these newer companies say, when asked about their profitability: “We could be profitable if we wanted to be.” That sounds silly, but it offers the ring of truth. Translation: If we stopped plowing all this money into international expansion or video build-out, we could turn nicely into the black.

But there are now other factors at work.

Big is relative. Yes, the digital startups have gotten big by publisher standards — but they’re small compared to Google and Facebook. Those companies have formed an effective duopoly, taking in more than 40 percent of the still-fast-growing digital ad business in the U.S. (and probably more in Europe). The two companies are built for mass, and their size means that even ad rates driven down by programmatic buying can be made up by sheer scale.

Against that scale (and against their targeting technology that moves farther ahead of the competition day by day), all original content publishers — legacy and newer — suffer. That’s part of what we’re seeing in the BuzzFeed slowing and general worries about how much ad monetization can be wrung out of the big newer media audiences.

Let’s note two other factors. First, this slowdown in new digital news media comes amid the best American economy in a long time. These companies have been built for growth in good times; what further happens when the next recession inevitably comes?

Secondly, this year’s three-ring American political circus has greatly benefited all these sites that have paid hyper-attention to all things Trump. As Politico’s Joe Pompeo laid out in February, the new media players have made the most of their opportunity.

Reader data supports that 2016 boom. While the size of the U.S. digital audience is essentially static (up two points year over year) the amount of time spent on political news has ballooned.

Three years ago, political news accounted for 816 million monthly minutes of usage, according to Comscore. In February, it accounted for 2.36 billion minutes — almost a tripling. February was a high-water mark, but political news hit one billion minutes in June 2015 and has grown steadily since.

Over that time period, total minutes spent on digital — thanks to smartphones — increased markedly, but political news minutes greatly exceeded even that growth.

Let’s face it. This extraordinary political news year won’t last, likely replaced by a relatively boring second Clinton administration. News fatigue, anyone? As that political time spent shrinks, who and what will replace it?

Which brings us back to legacy media. Watching the new guys’ growth had left me wondering how they would fare when the world got tougher. We’re now seeing that play out in real time.

I have hoped that legacy news media DNA — newspaper companies understanding their long-term role in supplying the democracy’s news, even in hard times — would act as a counterweight to the whims of venture-backed news companies.

On a national/global level, if not a regional one, that seems to be the case. The Digital Dozen — those national/global companies I’ve identified, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, AP, Reuters, The Guardian, Axel Springer, the BBC, and more — are most mindful and respecting of that heritage and mission, even as they struggle mightily. They, too, are testing more video, but they try not to let the new overwhelm their essential reasons for being. It’s a slog — a tough one to work through and a tough one to report on. The news mission touchstone looms larger in importance, as we see digital news companies retrench.

In part, we’ll see what kind of next mating of old and new media now moves forward. Is Business Insider now better positioned as a part of deep-pocketed, longterm-looking Axel Springer, than it would have been as independent? Will BuzzFeed and Vox Media (which recently merged some ad sales with investor NBCU under the rubric of Concert) be buffered by their old media partners?

It’s impossible to say exactly what’s next in news. These big “startups” have lots of life in them, and we’ll see how they reckon with difficulty. In the meantime, what’s new is old, in part, and that’s a fresh revelation in these digital times.

Photo of a different kind of roadblock by Ian Rees used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 13, 2016, 3:45 p.m.
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