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.