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May 22, 2020, 11:06 a.m.
Business Models

The Atlantic’s layoffs may sound the death knell for two media revenue hopes: Video and in-person events

“In one week in March, maybe two, the ground fell out from under live events.”

The Atlantic’s announcement Thursday that it’s laying off 68 people — 17 percent of its staff — brought the freakout about the state of the media business to a whole new level: If even a billionaire-owned, profitable!!! publication that thanks in part to its widely praised COVID-19 coverage is pulling in thousands of new paying subscribers (nearly 70,000 just in March and April), then what hope is there for anybody else?

In his memo, chairman David Bradley noted three areas where The Atlantic is having trouble: Advertising, events, and video. Advertising is no surprise — it’s been decimated for nearly everyone, with losses accelerating in the last couple months — but events and video were once seen as potential bright spots for digital publishers — ways to diversify their revenue and reach new audiences. If there was any doubt, it’s now gone: Video and events will not save us.

First up, video: We “are closing our video department,” Bradley wrote. A couple years ago, publishers raced to bulk up their video departments, guided in part by Facebook’s now-extremely-suspect-seeming guidance that it was really, actually what news consumers wanted. It turns out they do not. The 11 members of The Atlantic’s video team accounted for half of the layoffs on the editorial side, per The Washington Post.

But The Atlantic’s events business, AtlanticLIVE, was hardest hit. From Bradley’s memo:

In one week in March, maybe two, the ground fell out from under live events — live anything worldwide. Of necessity, our events work went virtual. It turns out, there is substantial room for original creation in a zoom-led frame on life; to begin, we are able to bring our writers into conversation with our readers — at a scale no hotel ballroom can match. Even so, all of us hope for that day when we can create, or contribute to, signature events such as The Atlantic Festival and the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Virtual events can’t bring in nearly as much money as live ones. For one thing, people aren’t that inclined to pay for something if they’re just going to be sitting at their desks. (On Thursday, we ran a post about how the Center for Cooperative Media brought its annual summit online; while “attendees” jumped, most of those people weren’t paying — one of the first things the Center did was make tickets free.)

As my colleague Joshua Benton wrote in March, even as parts of the U.S. economy start to reopen, conferences will be among the last things to come back — if they do at all:

The time gap in the conference business will be longer than in a lot of other areas. And events revenues will dry up for a longer period of time than, say, advertising revenue.

Most conferences are, like Wall Street Journal print subscriptions, ultimately paid for by companies who determine the information gained by their employees will be worth the cost. And who knows how businesses will look at a $600 registration fee, round-trip flights, and four nights at the DoubleTree after all this?

And all the people who plan and work on those conferences — many of them will either lose their jobs or be reassigned to different work. After coronavirus, how many of them will want to or be able to return to their old work, right away or at all? How much muscle memory will be lost as predictable planning processes suddenly go fractal all across the calendar?

Since Josh wrote that in March, we’ve learned more about how COVID-19 spreads, and poorly ventilated indoor spaces packed with people talking are going to be a must-avoid long after beaches and restaurants have reopened. (The Online News Association announced Thursday, by the way, that its annual conference this October will be fully virtual.)

Closed theater in Burbank, California, by Cory Doctorow used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 22, 2020, 11:06 a.m.
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