This week saw another massive wave of media layoffs. Vice is cutting 10 percent. McClatchy offered buyouts to 450 employees. And Machinima is shutting down entirely. In all, it’s estimated that over 2,100 people lost their media jobs in the past two weeks.
There are many possible explanations for why digital media is experiencing its moment of reckoning. It’s now a business that is past its growth period and already in retrenchment. Some people blame the big tech companies, which have absorbed the overwhelmingly vast majority of growth in the ad business. Others think it’s the fact that a huge portion of digital media outfits today were launched using venture capital. Still others think it’s vulture capitalists. Most likely it’s some combination of these things. Add into the mix that supply of “things for our eyeballs to look at” has dramatically eclipsed demand and it’s clear that the forces conspiring against digital media are formidable.
Whatever got us here, in a column for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that the layoffs at Buzzfeed are “devastating for democracy,” writing:
Consider: We are in the midst of a persistent global information war. We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice us up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism — a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumor and mendacity. […]
The need for journalism has never been greater, but the economics surrounding it have never been more brutal. For awhile it seemed like folks like Buzzfeed could lead the way, but now that it’s clear that they’re just trying to figure it out too. Manjoo continues:
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.
I once dreamed of a career in digital media. The idea of being able to write about what you love and make money doing it is an intoxicating one. But at this moment, it’s looking like the only people who are able to successfully make a living at it will be, more or less, the people who are currently making a living at it. The barriers to entry are growing ever greater and the entry points are shrinking. Margaret Sullivan wrote about this phenomenon awhile back, when another digital media company was announcing layoffs:
With the tragic demise of local newspapers, places like Mic have become the entry point into the craft for a lot of young journalists. What’s more, their newsrooms have been admirably diverse, a diversity that their journalism has admirably reflected. As they go under, such entry points disappear. And the journalists who have been through this ugly process — sometimes more than once — burn out.
As a society, I hope we’re able to figure out how to make this work. We need the accountability.
- For more reading on this topic, I’d recommend Edmund Lee’s short-form piece on what went wrong at Buzzfeed, and Jill Lepore’s long-form piece on whether journalism has a future.
- After losing their jobs, many journalists were told to “Le*rn to code.” Talia Lavin explains how this trolling meme began and how it received attention from mainstream media.
- On YouTube this week, I explained why the Fast and Furious movies are really prequels for the Cars films. I also described why Serenity is one of the most…unconventional movies I’ve seen in recent memory.
- If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check out Nightline’s post-mortem of Theranos.
- Indy Mogul explained how to make a documentary in one day.
- Facebook did a bad thing. Facebook Research used their enterprise certificate to entice teens to install an app that would monitor all their activities. When this was discovered, Apple revoked the certificate, creating chaos inside the company. Yes, Facebook grossly stepped out of bounds and Apple is well within their rights to punish them. But I’ve also found a lot of the coverage around this to be pretty patronizing, as though young people were incapable of making these kinds of decisions for themselves. Regulation of our digital rights may be necessary, but as this Slate investigation shows, a lot of the people in the program understood exactly what they were getting into.