RIP to the big digital media pivot: 2015-2018.
Vox Media announced plans to lay off around 50 staffers today, most from its social video teams. Cuts can happen to any company–even successful ones–but this announcement follows a disturbing trend that’s been plaguing the media industry for well over a year. Although we’ve been hearing about the failings of the “pivot-to-video” for a while, we may now be in the final throes of the trend.
Let’s look at how we got here:
It was only about a few years ago that media companies–especially the new, millennial-focused ones–began talking about this pivot. Digital publisher NowThis announced in 2015 that it wouldn’t have a homepage, and would instead only publish its news clips on social media platforms. That same year, Business Insider launched Insider, another initially webpage-less entity, which produced easy-to-consume videos.
These moves were caused largely by Facebook’s increasing preference for video content. Lest we forget, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016 that Facebook would be mostly video in five years. The company announced, in a strategy to get more eyeballs, that videos–including pushes on both live and long-form–would be more highly ranked than other content. Soon media companies began completely changing their editorial strategies to conform to this change. Many, in fact, laid off entire teams of journalists in the name of doubling down on video–this includes Vocativ, Mic, Mashable, and others.
But this didn’t work out as planned. Video engagement, especially for news content, didn’t produce the intended numbers, either in terms of audience growth or revenue. NowThis and Insider both have home pages again, and companies are quickly realizing the limits of social video. According to one report, the best performing videos are focused on food.
Meanwhile, the companies that were supposedly generating the most revenue on these platforms began to see some troubles. Both BuzzFeed and Vice missed key targets in 2017, indicating that efforts to double down on social and video weren’t getting the ROI the companies expected. Thus began new cuts. BuzzFeed laid off 8% of its staff. Vice and Mashable laid off staff, too. To put this into context, some of the companies that restructured editorial products and teams to focus on social video were now cutting these new teams.
To make things worse, Facebook announced plans to de-emphasize content from brands and publishers in favor of content from friends and family. I guess Zuckerberg’s soothsaying for his own company didn’t work out as planned. This change means the efforts to boost platform-specific content was all for naught. As these algorithm tweaks become reality, media companies are having to retool their entire strategies. Slowly, we’ve been seeing other publishers realize the error they made in focusing on video–Vox Media is the latest example of this.
Perhaps the only lesson to be learned here is that long-term strategies cannot be predicated on the whims of one or two platforms, no matter how powerful they are. What Facebook and Google want is to make money: No matter what they say, they really don’t care that much about media companies. Because they currently control the lion’s share of the digital advertising market, they can do whatever they want for the time being. The short-term plan of contorting business strategies to the myriad beta tests of these companies hasn’t worked–and sadly, good journalism jobs have been casualties of this lack of foresight.
For now, we wait for more dominos to fall. I just hope that when Facebook tweaks its algorithm for whatever trend it sees next, publishers won’t bow down. But I’m not too optimistic.