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Are we facing the end of online media as we know it?

And some tips for adapting to change

Are we facing the end of online media as we know it? And some tips for adapting to change

Just a few days ago, news of Vice's possible bankruptcy roused the world of online media from its slumber, disturbing a sleep that has certainly not been peaceful of late. Vice, once valued at over $5 billion, is just the latest company in a long list of digital media outlets forced to downsize or, in the worst case, close. In January, Vox Media announced the layoff of 130 employees, or 7% of its workforce, while Catapult shut down its website and writing programs a few weeks later. On 20 April, BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti said: «The company cannot continue to support BuzzFeed News', announcing the closure of the news division with a 15% cut in the total workforce.» Peretti cited the struggling economy, changing audience habits, and, of course, the weight of the pandemic as reasons for this decision, suggesting that there may not be a sustainable way of doing business for a website that wants to provide quality online news. Similarly, Vice went from being the object of desire for Disney and Fox (who had previously considered a takeover of the company) to desperately seeking a buyer to avoid ending up in the hands of creditors. they promised to be the future, that they could appeal to millennials as well as a younger audience. «That newspapers were dying and the press was dying. They sold that promise, but as we can see, they could not grow fast enough to keep it» commented Elahe Izadi of the Washington Post at the Yahoo Finance microphone.

Both Vice and Vox, which laid off 7% of its staff in January, found themselves unable to attract an audience that increasingly shifted to video platforms, first YouTube and then TikTok, after the success of the 10s and the subsequent revamp of online media. «they relied on companies like Google and Facebook, but as you know, an algorithm can change and that can completely disrupt your business model» Izadi added. There is a sense that the players in this story, who was at the center of disproportionate and often uncontrolled growth in their heyday, are no longer able to replicate what they have done in the past while readers (and consequently their needs) have changed. «Traffic cannot be considered just a mechanical matter. As Jonah was among the first to discover, traffic is also human emotion, psychology, desire, curiosity, humor» writes former Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith in his book Traffic, highlighting how websites' pursuit of traffic has gradually become an obsession. To an "insatiable monster", as Valerio Bassan wrote in his newsletter, so much so that it eventually devours them.

While the reasons for the bankruptcy of Vice and Buzzfeed are now clear, the situation of PAPER magazine seems to be different. On 27 April, in fact, the title fired its entire editorial team of about 30 people with immediate effect. 'It was a surprise, but I had already warned that something was going on,' former editor Jade Gomez told Resident Advisor. According to publisher Tom Florio, who acquired PAPER in 2017 with his ENTtech Media Group, the decision was prompted by a drop in advertising revenue last year. Although only editor-in-chief Justin Moran has remained active to complete projects already underway, Florio has no plans to close the magazine but is looking at alternative ways to cut costs and keep the title alive. How he plans to do that remains perhaps one of the most interesting aspects, especially given what seems to have become the job and role of an online journalist today. «What I want to see is journalists with experience whose work and credentials I trust making video content and putting it out on Tiktok because that’s where the audience is» Isaac Hindin-Miller, who wrote for the New York Times and Business of Fashion between 2012 and 2014 and is now a creator with over 200,000 followers on TikTok, told us. 

«The role of the journalist hasn’t changed, but the mode of communication has. People don’t read as much anymore, but they consume hours of short-form videos every day. So tell the stories on camera, not paper.» Hindin-Miller added. If we have witnessed the transition from paper to digital in the past, we are now facing another renewal of information that is as natural as it is potentially destructive in its scale. While many media have long since run for cover and adapted to the change, others seem unprepared for what promises to be a phase of evolution (or regression) of online media as we know it. Let us hope we can foresee the end.