Why so many publications are “pivoting to video”

This morning, we learned that Mic is laying off 25 staffers and pivoting to video. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the same thing happened recently to MTV News, Vocativ, and many, many other publications.

So why are so many publications pivoting to video? Where is the demand for this video coming from? And why do the results of these pivots often fail to inspire confidence?

For some guidance, I’d recommend checking out this Twitter thread by Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall. I’ve embedded the first tweet and recommend that you follow Josh on Twitter. For the sake of readability, I’ve included the full text of his comments below.

With the news that yet another publication is “laying off staff to pivot to video”, I wanted to return to what is driving these moves. You may know me as a writer or pontificator. But what I know best is running digital media sites. No site is “pivoting to video” because of audience demand. Not even close. They are pivoting to video because the industry is in the midst of a monetization crisis.

Expectations for digital ad revenue were unrealistic. There was already an excess number of publications relative to ads. And then coming into that already difficult situation, the platform monopolies started scooping all the money. Most of the money invested in these sites did not anticipate this set of circumstances. That was a mistake because most but not all were visible years ago. In this difficult environment, there appears to be one pot of money available: ads on video. And there’s one potential source of audience: viral videos driven by social media platforms like Facebook. Facebook also wants access to the video ad pot of money.

So the investments were made on the flawed predictions. The money that was supposed to be there is not there. And the video money bucket is the only available option.

Now, my personal take is that the video money bucket is largely a mirage. Everything up to this point is a dead certainty. My prediction about the video money bucket is a prediction. Not certain. But my best guess. The point is that from a financial point of view the “pivot to video” makes sense in this context. It’s usually not presented very honestly because it’s presented as the amazingness of video which everyone is going to love. Really it is at best indifferent to consumers of news. But it’s still worth understanding what’s driving it. The real key is that the financial models are driving in a direction that has zero to do with readers. That won’t end well. Again, no publisher is “pivoting to video” because of anything to do with reader/audience demand. Not in the news and political news space. Not even close.

This is needless to say a disaster for a lot of journalists. And I expect more of it. I am happy and grateful to be able to say that nothing like this is in the offing at TPM. That is because we saw of this coming a few years ago and shifted our business model accordingly. We are putting our resources not into video nonsense but rather new content that will increase the value of our membership program.

The key issue, though, as I see it is that the business model too many of the pubs are premised on is flawed and it is in addition to being flawed it is (if not collapsing) then rapidly deteriorating and very importantly out of sync with audience interest and demand. Again, that won’t end well.

Let me end by thanking our audience. We have a dedicated audience which allows us to with any triumphal spirit. I say it simply to explain to people outside industry, the business side of the industry, why it’s happening.

Platforms like Facebook control the vast majority of ad money, and editorial content is following the money, even if the money is not necessarily aligned with the public interest or even reader’s interests.

What’s fascinating is how every single publication has gone through this has presented this as some kind of audience-centric decision in service of innovative storytelling. In reality, publications like Mic are subject to the whims of Facebook’s algorithm.

What blogging hath wrought

John Biggs has written a reflection for TechCrunch on the impact that the internet, blogging, and social media has had on how we consume news:

Because my experience is a microcosm of what happened to media in the 21st century, it can begin to explain how we ended up in an era of intentional ignorance and with a truly broken media. The tools we perfected in those early days were some of the most pernicious and powerful tools in existence, honed to razor sharpness to cut off only the fattest parts of the truth, abandoning the nuance. We were not originally butchers – we had loftier goals – but when traffic (and traffic bonuses) became our driving impetus and when Google advertisers valued eyeballs over brains we had to provide content that fit a certain mindset and provide it at speed. It was as if we had invented a steam engine and set off across the landscape without inventing a brake. And we had limitless tons of coal.

“What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?”

Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer has some thoughtful reflections on last week’s MTV craziness:

Let’s imagine a pivot to video is genuine rather than just a scheme to give everyone a pink slip. Other than Vice and a few other shops, there’s almost no model for what a good web video job would be. Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a profile of Serena Williams with beautiful photos from Annie Leibovitz and a story from Buzz Bissinger. But as The Awl’s Silvia Killingsworth wrote, a video that accompanied the article was just a collage of Leibovitz photos and pull quotes from the article. The article’s sentences were labored over; the pictures were composed; the video was an afterthought.

Some of this may just be timing. A decade ago, if a web publication said it was “pivoting to podcasting,” the news would have been greeted like the End Times. Now, getting tapped for a podcast is like earning a journalistic merit badge. In a few cases, writers have realized they could both write and pod. In others, writers realized that if a zippy conversation about the news of the week consumed the time they’d have otherwise spent crafting a memorable piece, well, that’s the price of success. It’s a lot easier to have the zippy conversation.

The culling of online publications will likely continue as viable business models for video sort themselves out. In the meantime, let the good times roll.

GQ’s baffling investigative piece on fires in the Mission

Last week, I read a rather baffling piece in GQ by Jon Ronson (a writer I greatly look up to and author of books such as So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, as well as a screenwriter on Bong Joon-Ho’s Okja). Entitled “San Francisco Is Burning” and accompanied by a spectacular photo illustration of houses on fire, Ronson’s piece posed the question: “Are the city’s landlords using arson to drive out low-income tenants? And is this the deadly endgame of gentrification and tech-boom greed?”

These are good questions that bring up important issues, especially in an age where higher property costs are pushing out more and more middle-class folks. Problem is, the piece was a whole lot of smoke and not a lot of fire.

Ronson starts by interviewing an unnamed landlord — referred to as Gideon — who Ronson says “plotted to burn down the apartment building he owned.” But Ronson uncovers zero evidence that any such arsons actually occurred. Gideon only plotted to burn down his apartment building; he never actually went through with it. Ronson ends his piece with this wistful reflection:

I wonder how real estate agents are attracting buyers for all these new apartments. And so, posing as a prospective client, I arrange a viewing of a fancy condo. Not long ago, a real estate agent named Jennifer Rosdail blogged that the Mission should be re-christened as “The Quad, a newly defined meta-hood.” “Quadsters are young,” she wrote. “They like to hang in the sun with their friends. They work very hard—mostly in high tech—and make a lot of money.”

The man showing me the condo is less brash; in fact he’s very nice. So is the apartment, even if $2.6 million seems crazily excessive for 1,800 square feet. But it has a beautiful roof deck, which the two of us now stand on. It’s a lovely evening. A few streets away, I can see the empty space where Mauricio Orellana lost his life. I can also see Lazy Bear, a restaurant off Mission Street that does a 14-course tasting menu for $185, including foie gras and rabbit and sweet-pea custard.

“A new restaurant opens here every week,” the agent says. He pauses as we gaze out over the Mission’s rooftops. “It’s funny to think that a few years ago you wouldn’t be seen dead in this neighborhood.”

I wasn’t the only one who found the piece strange. San Francisco magazine’s Scott Lucas described this piece as a “massive troll with shoddy reporting.” (For some reason the site is down right now as I write this, but here’s the cached version). Firstly, Lucas quickly concludes that “Gideon” is actually a man named Richard Earl Singer, as many of Singer’s details match those of Gideons. But the apartment complex that Singer owned wasn’t even close to the Mission. It’s in Oakland.

Most damningly, Lucas drops some statistics and facts on us about some of these Mission fires:

Leaving Gideon—and Singer—aside, the article is marred by failing to take into account what Fire Department investigators have actually found regarding the Mission fires. Last year, in an article for Curbed, I put together a statistical analysis from public data that showed that, in fact, the Mission was burning at a slightly higher rate than would be expected from its population, but so were the Tenderloin, SoMA, the Financial District, and the Western Addition. Despite the popular narrative, there’s no fire cluster in the Mission.

What we do have in San Francisco, like many cities, is an unfortunate truth that older, poorly maintained buildings that often house poor people burn more often than others do. Arson just doesn’t seem to be the cause.

For example, KQED points out that the fire at the Graywood “was likely caused by a discarded cigarette or barbecue charcoals, according to a Fire Department investigation.” No evidence that the fire was deliberately set was found. A January 2015 fire that killed one person was found to be “unintentional.” When the dollar store at 2632 Mission Street went up in flames in April 2015, investigators found code violations—no smoke alarms or sprinklers—to be part of the problem, not arson. That was also the case in the March 2016 fire that killed two.

Ronson doesn’t cite any of that. Instead, he offers this: “As I stared at the charred walls, a passerby called out to me, ‘Was it arson or something? Then he shrugged and answered his own question: ‘I guess nobody knows.’”

Not good enough.

Really not sure what happened with Ronson’s piece but feels like he spent months trying to uncover something that never actually happened and had to crank something out to show for it.

The rise and fall of MTV News

Jordan Sargent has written what will probably be the definitive account of how MTV News’ experiment into serious journalism and commentary went awry. As I pointed out the other day, MTV News’ struggles are emblematic of deeper issues in online publishing.

Sargent’s piece tackles it as such, with a ton of choice quotes:

The dissolution of this micro-era of MTV News in just over a year and a half leaves us with several questions: Can a behemoth media company like MTV succeed in reinventing itself from within simply by creating a “prestige journalism” arm? Further, what kind of journalism does a company like Viacom—which is largely reliant on friendly artist relationships for its financial success—support and allow? And what even was the intended outcome? Fierman and Hopper both came to MTV News from publications—Grantland and Pitchfork’s longform print magazine, respectively—that had not been economically viable from the perspectives of various suits. Why would Viacom want to attempt it again? […]

Other issues faced by MTV News were also not particularly unique to the site. Hopper outlined a “dream world” in the press that may very well have been a fantasy, but editors overselling new sites in the hopes of drumming up excitement—and thus an audience—is part of the deal. Constant high-level turnover is also common across this tumultuous industry, with one executive hiring a group of editors and writers and then leaving them in the lap of another. New hires are often assured by their bosses that they will be given a certain period of time to see a new endeavor through, only to have it be cut short months early. Both Fierman and Hopper also came to MTV from places where prestige journalism projects were unable to be sustained—Fierman at Grantland, which was beloved and had readership in the millions, but was deemed no longer useful to ESPN once it jettisoned Bill Simmons; Hopper at Pitchfork, where she helmed the bulk of the issues of the Pitchfork Review, its boutique print magazine that stopped publishing soon after she left. In the context of MTV, too, this MTV News experiment met a routine and familiar death.

“There’s this cycle that happens, that I was a part of. Someone gets the idea that they want editorial, and then a couple editors who all know the other editors are like ‘Come here, the faucet is on’,” Suarez said of the state of the industry. “And everyone runs to that faucet and it attracts the attention of higher-ups who realize there’s too much money coming out and shut it down. Then somebody you bring to your faucet gets their own faucet, and so you run over there.”

Words can be forever

MTV News announced today that it would lay off a bunch of writing staff and freelancers, and pivot towards short-form video content. It joins many other media companies who’ve recently said they’d be doing the exact same thing, including Mashable, Vocativ, and Upworthy.

My heart goes out to those who’ve been laid off. But I’m also concerned about the state of online media, which seems to temporarily think video will bring in the CPM rates and revenues that it’s constantly in search of. The money behind online video is very frothy and enthusiastic right now, but that froth will give way to a couple of harsh realities: namely, that it’s costly to produce video at scale (arguably even more costly than writing), and that there aren’t enough people out there to consume all this video to make it worth it.

In a spectacular Twitter thread tonight, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz laid out an impassioned argument for the written word. Rather than embed all the tweets, I’m just going to reproduce the text here. It deserves to be read in its entirety in one flow (But Matt: if you’re reading this and want me to take this down in favor of the tweets, just hit me up):

I rarely watch videos instead of reading articles/summaries. Who is watching all the video that is supposedly such a gold mine? Every day I see a link that gets me interested, then I click over and see it’s video only, no text, and I don’t watch. I see how hard video teams work to produce sixty seconds of professional quality content. How are these economics going to create profit? I’ve written/edited/produced/narrated literally hundreds of hours of video content. That shit takes forever to do well. It’s really hard. Even when I’m partnered with an editor (usually @stevensantos) video is time consuming. And Steven works fast as hell. Hours to make 5 mins.

The new god video is a time suck. It’s as if we’ve been told that we should stop typing and start carving pictograms into stone tablets. Video content that is widely viewed and easily monetized tends to be shit somebody captured on their cell phone. Not slickly produced stuff. One of the reasons I’ve moved away from video and back toward the written word is, I reach more people and I get to have a life. People still quote/link to/argue about pieces I wrote 15, 20 years ago. With a few conspicuous exceptions, my videos have not endured.

That’s not to downplay the quality of the video essays. I know I did (or enabled) excellent work in that form. But there are other factors. Viewing software evolves. Platforms die off. Media outlets close without notification. Some of my best stuff won’t play anymore. Meanwhile, a PDF somebody made of my capsule review of SPHERE from 1998 has been read probably 100s of thousands of times.

All this is a big part of the reason I’ve focused so much on books. Whether they sell well or poorly, the books endure. They can be found. I’m thinking about writing some short chapbook-type paperbacks on various subjects, print-only. I don’t care how many copies they sell. I want to build an actual library of stuff that won’t be rendered unplayable/unlistenable/unlinkable by technological/economic shifts.

This is all the result of soul-searching, the upshot of which is, I’d rather be cherished by a few than skimmed/clicked by many. Fuck that. The digital-era iceberg is melting and eventually every critic, including me, will get pushed into the sea. Nobody can stop that, probably. At some point even legacy outlets might decide there’s no point paying writers. And I’ll be photocopying stuff at Staples and selling it.

My first publication was a comics newsletter that I edited and published myself, on my elementary school mimeograph machine. I know of at least 3 schoolmates who saved copies, plus copies of plays I wrote in 4th/5th grade that they acted it. This stuff MATTERS. If you are a writer you have stories like this. People save words that matter to them for whatever reason. Books. Printouts. Letters. Cards.

Obviously I am not an expert in the monetization of video content/branded content/sponsored etc, so take this with a grain of salt, but: It sickens me to see the entire online “content machine” treating words as they were nothing more than dirt accumulating on a video screen.

The word “content” sickens me. And “post.” Call your work articles, essays, reviews, stories. You are artists! Respect yourself. I’m about two Tweets away from wandering the neighborhood with a sandwich board ringing a bell, so that’s it for tonight. Peace.

I don’t agree with everything here (for instance, I don’t look down my nose at the concept/terminology of “content”) but I agree with the main thrust of Matt’s argument: “The digital-era iceberg is melting, and eventually every critic will get pushed into the sea.”

There is simply too much supply and not enough demand for media companies to be able to pay hundreds of people a living wage (plus benefits) to write movie reviews or TV recaps for a living. And when the economics stop making sense, how will your work endure? Seitz argues that physically printed books, or more longform material of some sort, are a good way to go. I’m inclined to agree.

I’d better get to work.

Leave Tom Cruise alone

The other day, director Dan Trachtenberg wondered on Twitter why some movies that are only okay get completely destroyed while others are bafflingly elevated by the critical community:

I’m not sure if he’s referring to anything specifically here, but The Mummy certainly falls into the latter category for me, a movie that is inoffensive at best, and comes off as a craven cash-grab at worst. In our podcast review of The Mummy, we weren’t huge fans, but I was a bit confused at why critics decided to take a huge dump all over this one, when other equally terrible films this year have not endured such harsh treatment.

I can’t speculate too much on when/why critics sense blood in the water and try to bury a film. But what’s indisputable is that this one certainly has created a lot of anti-Cruise sentiment.

Many observers (including me) think Cruise needs to change career trajectory. Here’s Chris Eggersten writing for The Hollywood Reporter:

It’s hard not to be disappointed by all of this. Cruise is undoubtedly one of the greatest stars of the modern era, and over the course of his long career he’s consistently championed original projects over release-date slot-fillers. Like him or not, his reputation as a star who cares deeply about the quality of the films he puts out is beyond refute. While his current trajectory doesn’t necessarily suggest he’s getting lazy (I honestly don’t think he has it in him), it is an indication that he’s finally been forced to concede to the demands of an industry that has left old-guard action stars like him scrambling to find their place.

Then, this week, Variety published a harsh and somewhat confusing hit piece on Cruise, seemingly built from sources inside the studio, Universal:

As Hollywood is playing the blame game on what went wrong on “The Mummy,” which had a measly domestic opening of just $32 million, many fingers are pointing to Cruise. In the same way that he commanded the stage at the film’s premiere, leaving his cast standing awkwardly by his side, several sources close to the production say that Cruise exerted nearly complete creative oversight on “The Mummy,” essentially wearing all the hats and dictating even the smallest decisions on the set. On stage, Cruise admitted his own perfectionist tendencies. “I don’t just make a movie. I give it everything I have and I expect it from everyone also.”

Universal, according to sources familiar with the matter, contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions. He also had a great deal of input on the film’s marketing and release strategy, these sources said, advocating for a June debut in a prime summer period.

I found this piece to be odd because I’d always just assumed that Cruise exerted significant creative control over most of his films, whereas this piece presents it as a revelation. Cruise is one of the biggest movie stars in the world and, for most of his career, he has understood what makes a good action film (he’s a producer on all the Mission Impossible films, which have grossed over $2 billion worldwide). I would’ve found it strange if Cruise hadn’t had a huge amount of veto power on The Mummy, which is presumably the studio’s first entry into their Dark Universe of films.

In a recent issue of The Ankler, Richard Rushfield takes aim at the absurdity of the Variety piece:

Will you just look at that!  A star throwing his weight around on a set and taking over everything! And just because Universal had, “contractually guaranteed Cruise control of most aspects of the project, from script approval to post-production decisions.”  It’s like he took that contractual guarantee literally!  When all Universal meant by it was as sort of a big cuddly bear hug.

But what’s a poor little studio to do when their star out of nowhere, with no warning at all that he can be a little controlling, suddenly wants to run the ship.

Anyway, good job, entertainment media. You actually made me feel bad for Tom Cruise and The Mummy this week. A high accomplishment.

[Note: The headline of this blog post is not meant to imply that Tom Cruise should be left alone for his complicity in Scientology’s abhorrent actions. Those he should still be held accountable for.]

The New York Times eliminates its public editor position

New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, in a memo to the staff:

The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.

To that end, we have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts. We are grateful to Liz Spayd, who has served in the role since last summer, for her tough, passionate work and for raising issues of critical importance to our newsroom. Liz will leave The Times on Friday as our last public editor.

This is distressing news on a variety of fronts. The position of public editor, founded in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, theoretically helped keep Times’ folks honest. The idea that Times’ commenters and tweets/Facebook posts directed at the Times are a sufficient substitute for a respected person inside the organization seeking comment and effecting change is laughable. And those who think outlets like the Times don’t need to work on self-improvement need look no further than its coverage of the 2016 election.

That being said, the most recent public editor, Liz Spayd, was an unfortunate note to go out on. Spayd wrote many columns of dubious quality and essentially embodied the worst version of what this position could be.

Will Oremus wrote a takedown of Spayd on Slate not too long ago:

Most of [Spayd’s] column ideas appear to spring directly from the public editor’s email inbox, which she and her assistant monitor vigilantly. She quotes from readers’ missives prolifically, and she presents their sundry beefs and prescriptions with a level of respect that verges on reverence. But if we’ve learned one big lesson from Spayd’s work so far, it’s this: Readers are quite often wrong. Of course the public editor should listen to them and take them seriously. The real challenge, though, is to distinguish between their wishes and their true interests, to understand not only where those overlap but where they diverge, and to recognize which should influence the paper’s editorial decisions and which should not.

At that difficult task, Spayd has repeatedly failed.