The Social Media Era of News is Over
Outlets are returning to some tried and tested tactics.
Banging on what now looks like an ancient laptop, the legendary New York Times media columnist David Carr is grilling some of the key figures at Vice News, including co-founder and CEO Shane Smith. Following a snarky comment from Smith about the legacy media, Carr hits back, reminding his subject how long his employer has had reporters on the ground in places around the world.
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It’s an iconic scene from “Page One: Inside The New York Times”. (The clip is not for the faint-hearted.)
I’ve mentioned this film, and probably this scene, in newsletters and podcasts before. It’s a must-watch for media nerds. And I’ve been thinking about it again recently as icons of the social media-driven age of news have collapsed.
Buzzfeed News is gone. Vice is reportedly filing for bankruptcy. Countless other digital media outlets are cutting significant numbers of staff. Upstart news sites relying on advertising and having their stories tailored for social media and SEO for maximum impact seemingly cannot survive. It feels like the end of an era.
Yes, it is undoubtedly true that the likes of Google and Facebook put significant strain on the advertising market, making it hard for such outlets to be sustainable in the long term. Equally, publications became far too dependent on them to spread their work, pivoting to accommodate any algorithmic tweaks. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but there could only ever be one winner.
What we’re seeing now is success built on direct relationships, namely, but not only, newsletters. I was at the Publisher Podcast Awards recently (as a judge, not an entrant). The discussion there made it clear that audiences love hearing their favourite journalists as much as they love reading them. Podcasts help form an intimate connection.
Whether it is a micro-operation like mine or a major one like the suite of newsletters offered by the Financial Times, a direct relationship with news consumers matters. And people are prepared to pay for reliability and quality. Just ask the New York Times.
But there is something else happening too. Semafor’s Max Tani described it in a recent newsletter/article as media going “back to the future”.
Homepage traffic, blogging, niche email newsletters. They were some of the foundational concepts of digital media in the early 2000s. And as the digital news media business turns again, they’re increasingly the ones media organizations are turning to.
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His boss, Ben Smith, who was the founding editor of Buzzfeed News before taking over the late Carr’s column and then founding Semafor, has written about this too. Like Tani, Smith noted that “as the social tide receded, HuffPost’s giant, old-fashioned front-page, has remained surprisingly vital.” He also spoke about much of this with me on this week’s podcast.
It would be easy, and entirely understandable, to be depressed about the hits taken by sites like Insider, Buzzfeed News and Vice News. It’s always miserable seeing good journalists laid off, and this is all before AI really takes hold. Clearly, social media still has a meaningful role in news too - look at the growing impact of TikTok - but things have changed significantly.
Maybe I am naive, but I actually felt quite positive on the back of reading Tani’s insights. They demonstrated to me both that a media business can still do well if it is built on good foundations and that there remains a place for niche outlets.
Some things are fads. Others are fundamental.
On the Blog
TikTok Removed my Evan Gershkovich Videos - Recently, I’ve been playing around with TikTok. Twice I posted videos that mentioned Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter being held in prison in Russia. Both were instantly removed, before being restored on appeal.
On The Podcast
Ben Smith on Tucker Carlson, the Dossier and the Dress - Smith has a book out, “Traffic”, explaining what he has seen and learnt over the course of his career to date