Media Companies Chased Shiny Objects, Now It’s Time for Sober Heads

Three recent stories nicely encapsulate the state of the media industry in various ways.

The first is an excellent piece by Heidi Moore at CJR that catches everyone up on how all those “pivot to video” strategies are turning out. Unsurprisingly, it’s not well. Pageviews are dropping like a rock as publishers take a three-page story and replace it with one video, put that video on Facebook and make it indistinguishable from the other 15 videos you see there each day. They not only aren’t creating unique, engaging videos but those they aren’t creating any brand loyalty, aren’t bringing in ad revenue (while costing more money because achieving reach takes advertising spending) and aren’t being measured accurately, if at all.

Second, BBC Labs covers most, if not all, the media formats that are now available for publishers to choose from. Everything from short-form video to live blogs to data visualization to chatbots is included here, along with examples of how to use those formats effectively. It’s a practical-minded list but it also serves to show how thin publishers have to spread themselves and how much internal knowledge they need to have in order to accommodate even a quarter of these options. Also unstated but implicit is that each format (and platform) has its own set of metrics that are completely unique, making the final judgment of what worked and what didn’t a frustrating experience.

Finally, Ricardo Bilton at Nieman Labs analyzes the differences between how stories posted using Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages and Facebook’s Instant Articles perform. Basically, have those platforms lived up to the sales pitch? AMP articles have a longer lifespan (likely because they’re found via search) and spend more time on the story and both load significantly faster than the average mobile story. But what’s unclear is how any of that is translating into revenue.

Panic In the Streets

There’s been so much change in the media world over the last several years it’s no wonder publishers are spinning wildly, grasping at any possible solution that’s offered to them. That’s why so many have been more than happy to agree to whatever terms and whims Facebook has presented, why so many have suddenly added teams of dozens of people solely to create Snapchat Stories and more.

As Moore points out in her story at the top, though, a reckoning is coming. All of these shifts and changes and pivots haven’t stopped the bleeding, at least not to any substantial degree. Google and Facebook combine to eat up 77% of the online advertising market, leaving less than a quarter to be split among other social networks/tech companies, publishers, and other players. That’s not a big piece of the pie and one that’s not enough to maintain quality journalism for very long.

Which is why some of the biggest newspapers have been focusing on driving digital subscriptions. They know print is fast becoming a niche market and so want people to embrace digital reading. The Washington Post recently made headlines with the news it had topped 1 million digital subscribers, double the amount they had at the beginning of the year, though still behind The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

That strategy at least seems sustainable. While WaPo and the others have used or experimented with many of these new formats to some extent, they are focused on growing their own brand and building an audience loyal to that brand. Platforms will come and go and the preferences expressed by those platforms will shift to reinforce their own self-interest. Owning your platform, on the other hand, future-proofs you against tying your own fate to the whims of others.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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