The latest buzz coming from the online publishing world is that it makes more sense to invest in video at this juncture, which means that a lot of writers are getting laid off. What gives—and is this something the niche media space is going to have to worry about?
From online-only outposts like Mashable, Vocativ, and Mic to traditional outlets with digital arms like MTV News, the stories have been pretty hard to ignore in recent months.
After spending years investing in writing and traditional journalism, there seems to be a shift to something much different by many of these outlets—short, interactive clips of momentary information, designed to both do well on social media and better serve advertisers.
Words have become less effective as vessels for advertising in a variety of ways in recent years: Part of it is that a race to the bottom proved unsustainable from a business standpoint, and by the time media outlets refocused on quality, social media outlets stepped in and took a piece of the pie away. But the biggest part of this is that the models that are most financially sustainable for general media outlets are related to video, where a higher cost per mille (CPM), or the value of a thousand views, can be had.
And that is leading to situations like the one that faced the startup millennial-focused news outlet Mic last week. The company laid off 25 employees, many in the newsroom, in a push toward “visual journalism,” which the company defines as “premium video” or “tap stories.”
“We made these tough decisions because we believe deeply in our mission to make Mic the leader in visual journalism, and we need to focus the company to deliver on our mission,” the media outlet’s cofounder and CEO, Chris Altchek, said in a statement.
The move suggests a degree of decisive thinking—it came less than two weeks after Mic’s publisher, Cory Haik, made the case for “an evolution of text” in an op-ed for Recode.
But strangely, this logic seems to go against the recent headlines we’ve seen around this—including a Pew study that found the old-standby email newsletter is more successful than a standalone app. Additionally, the study found that the average monthly traffic to large news sites went up by 4 million between 2014 and 2016. So page views aren’t the problem—rather, it seems to be the value of those page views.
Millennials like video enough—but they actually prefer to get their news in text form. But the ads attached to the text simply aren’t paying the bills, so the model at many major media outlets is shifting.
This is a large part of the reason why we’re seeing a push toward autoplay-driven video, specifically with audio, something that we’ve seen on sites like Newsweek and Time. Zach Schonfeld, a reporter for Newsweek writing about this “pivot to video” problem, even apologized for the video atop his June article: “I didn’t make this decision. My employer says the video has to be there, because video advertising is central to this company’s revenue model, along with every other digital media company’s revenue model.”
Now, that clearly stinks for readers of Fortune, Vox, or Business Insider, and I’m not totally convinced that this “pivot to video” is as fundamentally sustainable as efforts to improve the effectiveness of non-video advertising, or better, convincing your readers to pay for the articles they read.
Your Audience Isn’t General
But I think what should not be lost here is that the rules for general media outlets are far different for the ones in niche media outlets.
I think in a lot of ways, niche media outlets like the ones at associations are often slightly behind the curve of industry trends. Often, that doesn’t always feel like a good thing, when folks like me are trying to make the case to stragglers to embrace responsive design or reconsider how they do banner ads.
But, on the other hand, there are rare occasions where this behind-the-curve status can be a virtue. And, honestly, the “pivot to video” is one of those situations. Certainly, you want to be aware of video as a differentiator, but in a lot of ways, associations’ use of online video even into 2017 feels more experimental or clever rather than bleeding edge or matter of fact.
This, I think, buys the association space some time. By the time your association might be ready for a bold rethink of its magazine or online news resource, you’ll be able to look at how things actually worked out for Mic or MTV News, while being able to see whether video was an actual differentiator, if it came down to demographics, or if the rules are different because your association’s niche is narrow compared to general media outlets.
Despite the buzz around the “pivot to video,” now is a time of great care, especially if your advertising model is already working effectively.
If you’re reading about these broader trends, keep in mind that the operative word here is “broader.” Your audience is niche. It plays by different rules.