Forests need to burn to regrow

“The drive for scale has made so many places way, way too big. And there just aren’t enough good jobs to keep everyone working, satisfied, succeeding.”

This is going to sound darker than it is, but this is my general take on digital media after 2016: Forests need to burn to regrow.

hillary-freyLayoffs are terrible. Endings are gutting. But the drive for scale has made so many places way, way too big. And there just aren’t enough good jobs to keep everyone working, satisfied, succeeding.

So what’s going to happen in 2017?

Prediction No. 1: Some digital nomads, young, middle-aged, and old, will leave journalism altogether and go into different industries. In the last month, I’ve talked to a number of laid-off and/or miserable writers and editors tired of jumping from promising digital news upstart (or well-funded expansion/reinvention) to the next. In each case, the same cycle is repeated: investment, growth, the hiring of writers with big social footprints (to bring their followers — which, by the way, is not how a brand grows an audience!), the setting of impossible metrics, demands to increase video views. STOP! Change of strategy, layoffs, reassignments, re-orgs, possible sale or IPO, lose/change identity.

I’ve been through this cycle myself four times in the past six years. Based on my own experience, you can get through between 9 and 18 months before the end of what you built is clearly near. And by “end” I don’t mean that your company is going out of business — it’s just going to try and reinvent itself, already and again. The second you get going on one strategy, the directive comes to shift, your colleagues (and possibly you) are out of work, and all you have to show are a few good stories, a successful experiment or two, some unhappy and anxious writers you are begging to post three times a day, and a whole bunch of frustration.

The writers and editors I talked to are exhausted by this hamster wheel — even if they are in their 20s! So, in this new Trump world, they are contemplating nonprofits, city council jobs, labor-organizing jobs, LSATs. The same thing that drove them into journalism — the desire to do good work that has impact on the world we live in — will drive them out of the industry that, in their own instances, has ceased to value their contributions, or give them a runway to success.

Prediction No. 2: Some of these journalists will end up in the agency world. The work, of course, will be called content, not journalism. But agencies will make things that aren’t ads that have news value and that change the way we look at the world. This may be more relevant for film and video journalists than print — at first. But that won’t last. These ex-journalists will play with forms, and ways of storytelling, and do it outside the pressures of a newsroom. And my guess is they will have fun, too.

(Note: What’s wrong with the newsroom anyway?, you ask. Well, somehow, despite building more collaborative, open spaces with no offices and glass walls, we still function as siloed institutions where it’s almost impossible to develop ideas across specialties. Reporters still don’t know their counterparts in design, or development. The C-suite execs may have weekly staff meetings where they find things they are doing in their own areas dovetail, but the bulk of people charged with coming up with ideas don’t have ways to talk to one another, inspire one another, create with one another. Slack is great, but it’s not a cure-all. Some companies have tried to address these issues with interdisciplinary task forces to take on certain projects, or brainstorm ideas, etc. But they never last. People have day jobs, responsibilities, to achieve scale. And a task force is always just an add-on of time suckage that no one wants to prioritize — especially the brass, who want the clicks. Get back to your desk! This has to change. Innovation can’t just happen in the “innovation” group. And we can’t just make beautiful open physical spaces and expect proximity to do the work, either.)

Prediction No. 3: Voices will realize they don’t need big media to make a living. By “voices” I mean those writers with huge social footprints desired by every scale outlet in the country. They may make brand deals. They may find VC investment in specific projects and ideas, or do an angel round to start a newsletter. They may find a nonprofit to fund their trip to Iraq, and a studio to help cut the pilot for their video series. They could meet a rich person at a dinner party, and that person could write them a check! They will value creative control of their voice, copyright, and ideas over a 360˚ big-ticket deal that sounds amazing and pays them enough to go on a nice vacation but prevents them from ever getting anything done the way they want. Because they still answer to the (white) man.

These voices will change the media world in the process, and show the next generation that they can chart their own paths, too. They will go step by step, and will listen to the desires of their followers and, hopefully, support one another. And more startups looking to seed ideas, to develop them and shape them, will pop up to support these creators, too, and help turn their best dreams into sustainable realities that can nurture a wider, more diverse world of great stories, and fuck with old, dead models in the process.

2016 sucked, and 2017 is going to be a rough year. But at the end, things we didn’t expect will grow. And journalists, even working in different industries, will do important work. And that will be beautiful.

Hillary Frey is co-chief creative officer at Matter Studios.

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