In spite of BuzzFeed, it’s not all doom and gloom in American media


The New York Times building in New York.

In the most recent edition of his must-read Sunday newsletter, Felix Salmon counts the carnage of recent layoffs in media, including 800 at Verizon Media Group (properties include HuffPo and Yahoo), 250 at Vice and 220 at BuzzFeed (including its director of quizzes) — which, in spite of $300m, revenue is still not able to turn a profit. But Salmon rightly points out the bright spots: Vox Media is profitable (with $185m revenue) as is the New Yorker (largely thanks to a surge in subscriptions, many of them digital).

He links to a fabulous analyis by Edmund Lee at the Times who points out a few other quiet successes. One of them, the business and politics-focused site, Axios (which publishes Salmon’s newsletter), brought in $25m last year, with a loss of just $56,000; profitability is clearly within very close reach.

With a strong emphasis on newsletters, Axios has also branched out into TV, with a series for HBO; an approach not dissimilar to Vox’s, which has Explained, a popular series on Netflix that explores one topic at a time.

“The audience for high-quality content is huge and voracious and growing,” Lee quotes Axios’s CE, Jim VandeHei, as saying.

Given the success of the New York Times’s paywall (digital revenue earned the paper more than $650m last year) as well as the New Yorker’s and others, it seems like there is an increasing willingness, at least in the US, for that auidence to pay for it. And as the much-hyped ‘pivot-to-video’ strategy has largely crashed and burned, in some instances it’s the humble, unsexy email newsletter that is making a comeback. While Axios and many other publications use sponsors as a key email revenue generator, Lee cites The Information, a plucky Bay Area-based tech publication, as using a different approach: paid subscriptions. In a crowded field, it promises readers “tech news you won’t read elsewhere”; a basic subscriptions for its newsletters and other content costs $39/month. It’s subscriber base was large enough for founder Jessica Lessin to double her news staff to 26 last year.

So: what are the ingredients necessary to ensure that a publication will survive — and thrive — in this turbulent era? As a journalist battling stagnant word rates and shrinking word counts, I have a personal interest in wondering this.

My hunch is that VandeHei is right. There are indeed people that are hungry for quality; insightful reporting and analysis across a multitude of fields. In the era of Trump and fake news, there’s a yearning for publications that can help us make sense of the present moment — and where we’re headed. Even better, some people are willing to pay for this.

The key though, regardless of media, is quality, and attracting the right audience (one that is engaged, willing to pay, and is attractive to advertisers). There are various ways of reaching this audience: from ye olde print and conventional digital and email offerings to TV/streaming tie-ups and podcasts (something which those two titans of legacy/traditional media, the Washington Post and New York Times seem now to be excelling at).

Unless it’s able to attract people who are willing to donate to their news operation, BuzzFeed’s woes may continue. I suspect the vast majority of its regular, loyal readers are the quiz-takers and consumers of fluff; I suspect very few of them will be willing to put their money where their mouth is. Someone who is willing to spend money on quality news (and let me be clear: BuzzFeed News has certainly had its fair share of excellent scoops) will most likely subscribe to a serious brand like the Times or New Yorker first, and be less inclined to spend even more by contributing to BuzzFeed too. In some senses it’s ironic that the silly quizzes and clickbait that has made BuzzFeed one of the most visited websites in the world might be the very thing that prevents it from ever maturing into a sustainable, profit-making news organisation.

Having read the New Yorker interview with Jill Abramson about her new book on media, Merchants of Truth, as well as the Times and Guardian reviews, I’m sitting on the fence about reading the book myself. She comes across as supercilious, occassionally vindictive, and often highly suspicious of the talents of younger people in the profession; the controversy around her depiction of Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Vice’s science and environmental reporter, certainly didn’t help her case either. But doubtless the tome will certainly make an important contribution to the debate on how media should be navigating this fucked-up best-of-times/worst-of-times century.

Photograph above taken by Haxorjoe. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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