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Feb. 21, 2018, 12:57 p.m.
Business Models

Publishers’ pivot to video appears to have become a pivot to layoffs. And not even the biggest and most successful of digital-native companies is safe.

Vox Media, one of the many companies that embraced social video over the past two years, said Wednesday that it will lay off 50 employees, approximately five percent of its workforce, The Hollywood Reporter’s Jeremy Barr first reported. The layoffs will affect its Racked, Curbed, and SBNation sites, as well as its video services division, which produces content designed to live on social platforms.

In a memo sent to staffers this morning, CEO Jim Bankoff blamed the layoffs on “industry changes over the past few months,” presumably referring to Facebook’s recent decision to reduce the percentage of News Feed content from publishers’ pages. While Vox Media’s native social video efforts “were growing successfully and surpassing their audience growth goals,” Bankoff wrote, “those initiatives won’t be viable audience or revenue growth drivers for us relative to other investments we’re making.”

By “other investments,” Bankoff is likely referring to deals such as the one Vox Media recently made with Netflix, which will run a Vox explainer video series this summer. Netflix has been shelling out a lot of money to get more video content onto its service, making it a more practical alternative to Facebook, which has so far largely failed to follow though on its promises to help publishers monetize the video content they publish on its platform. While many publishers beefed up their video teams to capitalize on Facebook’s emphasis on video (and the surge in video traffic that that emphasis created), the monetization side of the picture has failed to materialize.

The news that Vox Media is losing its fondness for Facebook-native publishing isn’t entirely out of the blue. At a Recode Media event last week, Bankoff said that Vox Media would scale back its plans to publish content directly on Facebook, citing the strategy’s “unreliable monetization and promotion.”

It’s worth mentioning that cuts come just a month after Vox Media formally recognized an employee union formed to safeguard workers against the industry’s current instability.

With the layoffs, Vox Media has joined fellow digital-native media darlings like BuzzFeed and Vice, which have both missed revenue targets and laid off staffers in the past few months. As with BuzzFeed, Vox Media’s layoffs are a bellwether for the industry overall: If these digital-first media companies can’t thrive in today’s environment, then things are likely a lot more grim elsewhere.

Discussion of a digital media bubble waiting to be burst has been frequent, especially in the past year. In a Reuters Institute report published in December, Tom Nicholls, Nabeelah Shabbir, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen covered the many challenges facing digital media companies, particularly those that, fueled by venture capital money, chased scale with the hopes of making money in the future. They concluded:

Ultimately, while their international, expansionist strategy and often the investment behind them that allows to them to pursue audience reach first, profits later, sets them apart from legacy media and from most domestic digital-born news media (especially outside the US), the fundamental challenges they face are broadly the same — how to develop editorial, distribution, and funding strategies that enable a sustainable, perhaps even profitable production of quality news in an increasingly digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment.

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