Digital media has always been a turbulent business, but last week’s layoffs suggest a reason for panic.
The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.
.. In the troubles at Verizon, we see a behemoth that tried to take on Google and Facebook. Under a former executive, Tim Armstrong, the phone company bought up Yahoo and other media brands as useful pawns in a strategic war against internet giants. For similar reasons, Comcast has also plowed money into media start-ups.
But Verizon quickly learned that Facebook and Google are insurmountable. When new management took over last year, it began dumping the news in favor of readier ways to make money.
.. It’s the cuts at BuzzFeed that sting most. You may regard the site as a purveyor of silly listicles and inane quizzes. I think of it as a relentlessly experimental innovator: It’s the site that gave us The Dress and published The Dossier, a company that pushed the rest of the industry to regard the digital world with seriousness and rigor.
More than anyone else in media, BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, bet on symbioses with the tech platforms. He understood that the tech giants would keep getting bigger, but to him that was a feature, not a bug. By creating content that hooked into their algorithms, he imagined BuzzFeed getting bigger — and making money — along with them.
At the least, the layoffs suggest the tragic folly of Mr. Peretti’s thinking. Google and Facebook have no economic incentive for symbiosis; everything BuzzFeed can do for them can also be done by the online hordes who’ll make content without pay.
So where does that leave media? Bereft.
It is the rare publication that can survive on subscriptions, and the rarer one that will be saved by billionaires. Digital media needs a way to profitably serve the masses. If even BuzzFeed couldn’t hack that, we are well and truly hosed.
Developing now, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019
RUSH TO JUDGMENT – AND ITS LESSONS: The much-discredited BuzzFeed story alleging that President Trump urged former personal attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress and the viral video of the encounter between Covington High School students and Native American protestors in Washington, D.C. last weekend have two things in common and one very important lesson… Both were examples of the media’s rush to judgment before the facts surfaced. And both illustrate the media’s hatred of Trump and shows how that anti-Trump bias infects the way they cover the news.
BuzzFeed still stands by its report, even though Special Counsel Robert Mueller has said it was “not accurate.” But as “Media Buzz” host Howard Kurtz points out, the damage had already been done, with several media outlets repeating the erroneous report, drumming the impeachment alarm, seemingly on loop, with the somewhat flimsy caveat “if true.” Pundits and Democratic lawmakers followed in tow, on the airwaves and on social media.
Coverage of the encounter between the Covington students and Native American group – specifically student Nick Sandmann and activist Nathan Phillips – was arguably much worse. Initial coverage, fed by an abbreviated video of the encounter and a rabid social media mob, portrayed Sandmann, a junior, and his classmates as young “MAGA” hat wearing, Trump-supporting racists who were taunting Native Americans and people of color. And people on both the left and the right jumped to condemn the students before a longer video told a different, more nuanced story.
Kneejerk pundits rushed to delete their kneejerk tweets. Some journalists, pundits and celebrities, like actress Jamie Lee Curtis, owned up to their own mistakes in rushing to judgment. But not everyone did. The lesson learned here, as Kurtz writes, is this: “There’s no harm in waiting for more details before denouncing people based on fragmentary information, even if you have to restrain yourself from joining the hot-take crowd.”
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