The US online publisher Buzzfeed has announced that it is cutting its newsroom in Britain almost in half, making good hacks redundant in the process. Although in the context of the wider economy seventeen job losses is a small number, these cutbacks will get considerable attention in “medialand” because the industry has been going through a tough adjustment for more than a decade and at one point the rise of these new digital outlets such as Buzzfeed was supposed to signal a fightback.
For the talented journalists involved this is a terrible, traumatic day. Being “whacked” is not a pleasant experience, as I can testify, and the last thing they need is an old-timer like me saying that in the end a career setback is positive because it forces you to reevaluate and look for new challenges. There is no hiding the short-term impact of being booted. It is a financially disruptive destroyer of confidence and shredder of professional self-esteem. But, after a strong drink and a holiday, hopefully you find out who your real friends are and set about finding ways to get back to doing what you do.
If I have sympathy for the journalists at Buzzfeed, I have little sympathy for the management that knowingly attracted VC funding on the basis of a model that is simply not going to work. Google and Facebook control global advertising and mainstream media in the new dispensation cannot make enough purely from running adverts. Publishers new and old need other sources of revenue.
It has been very obvious for several years that the digital advertising model is dying. Defenders of the Buzzfeed model (no paywall and huge social media presence to attract clicks) say that they have grown substantial amounts of revenue and are at breakeven in the UK. It is only because the investors want such a large payback that these cuts have to be made, runs the argument.
Sure, but that’s how this works. The investor put in the money and promises were made about targets, revenues, and margins. That’s the basis on which the money was raised. Fall short, even if the numbers in isolation look viable, and the model is non-viable. In a previous project I’ve seen a little of that world and thank goodness, more by luck than anything else, somehow managed to avoid being sucked into it.
Perhaps you’re wondering what any of this has to do with you the reader. It is the latest reminder, I’m afraid, that if you want there to be quality journalism – news, commentary, features and much else – then there is only one certain way it can be financed and produced. If readers want quality they have to pay.
Of course I’d like you to subscribe to Reaction, the site I launched in 2016 dedicated to commentary and analysis. We took a different approach. We are a small team and we deliberately didn’t raise lots of money. We have grown organically with the support of writers and supporters who attend the events we put on. Annual subscription costs only £52.
Or you can try Agate, the innovative pay per article initiative of which Reaction is a part.
But I do suggest subscribing to a range of outlets if you want to tap into the great writing and thinking out there.
I’m biased when it comes to The Times (I write a weekly column) but it really is showing how high quality journalism at scale can flourish in the digital age.