There’s a Digital Media Crash. But No One Will Say It

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Yesterday I appeared on a panel about digital publishers who are ‘pivoting to video’. I’ve written about this before. But in case you’re new to it, there have been numerous cases over the last six months to a year in which digital publishers have announced either major job cuts or in some cases literally fired their entire editorial teams in order to ‘pivot to video.’ The phrase has almost become a punchline since, as I’ve argued, there is basically no publisher in existence involved in any sort of news or political news coverage who says to themselves, my readers are demanding more of their news on video as opposed to text. Not a single one. The move to video is driven entirely by advertiser demand.

What crystallized for me from this and other discussions I had yesterday is that we’re actually in the midst of a digital news media crash, only no one is willing to say it. I’ve noted before that digital news media in the midst of a monetization crisis. But it’s more than that. It’s a full blown crash.

Here’s why.

You have three different factors coming together at once: two primary ones and one secondary but critical one.

First, digital publishing has always been ruled by a basic structural reality: there are too many publications. Now, how can there be too many publications? The more information the better. Well, it’s like this: There are too many publications relative to the funding available to support them, given that it has been almost universally assumed that the funding comes from advertising. That creates the furious competition for clicks and the ever growing intrusiveness of ads. The advertisers have all the power. So rates are always going down.

This has been a fact for more than two decades. It is driven by the extremely low costs of entry in digital publishing which makes it very difficult to set up the kinds of de facto monopolies that existed for big city newspapers for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Then came the platform monopolies: Google, Facebook and a few others. Over the last five years or so but accelerating rapidly in the last 24 months, they’ve gobbled up almost all of the growth in advertising revenue and begun to engross a substantial amount of the existing advertising revenue as well.

Let’s try a very simple visualization of what I’m describing. Remember, there are too many publications relative to advertising revenue. So let’s imagine there are 30 publications and 25 revenue seats. The publications fight like hell to secure one of the seats. Then the platform monopolies came along and sat down in maybe 5 or 10 of the 25 seats. You can see the problem. The competition of 30 publications competing for 15 seats gets insane. A bunch of the publications are going to die or be forced to find another way to fund themselves.

Now, here’s the too little discussed part of the equation. A huge, huge, huge amount of digital media is funded by venture capital. That’s not just to say they had investors at the start but in effect a key revenue stream of many digital publications has been on-going infusions of new investment.

Much of that investment has been premised on the assumption that scale – being huge – would allow publications to create stable and defensible business models. There are a lot of moving parts to the strategies. But it essentially comes down to this idea: get big enough and you can solve the chronic problem of over-supply of publications in your favor through sales at volume and being able to command stable, premium advertising rates. But that hasn’t happened. Just as one fact point, The Wall Street Journal reported today that Buzzfeed is going to miss its revenue target this year by as much as 20%. That’s a lot.

Now, this doesn’t mean Buzzfeed’s about to go under. I don’t know all the details of their internal business operations. And in any case, this isn’t really about Buzzfeed. That’s just a number I saw today. But it does probably mean BuzzFeed likely won’t do an IPO in 2018 – which means their investors aren’t going to be able to get their exit any time soon. Indeed, they may never be able to get it at the level they expected. The point is that investors are realizing that scale cannot replicate the kind of business model lock-in, price premiums and revenue stability people thought it would. Another way of putting that is that the future that VCs and other investors were investing hundreds of millions of dollars in probably doesn’t exist. That means that they’re much less likely to invest more money at anything like the valuations these companies have been claiming.

The big picture is that Problem #1 (too many publications) and Problem #2 (platform monopolies) have catalyzed together to create Problem #3 (investors realize they were investing in a mirage and don’t want to invest any more). Each is compounding each other and leading to something like the crash effect you see in other bubbles.

Let’s go back to our chair analogy.

We had our 30 publications and 25 chairs. The platform monopolies came along and took 10 chairs for themselves. Now it’s 30 publications fighting over 15 chairs. But wait, how can 30 publications compete for 15 chairs? That means 15 have no place to sit? Well, the hidden part is that a lot of them are surviving on on-going infusions of venture capital. Once that disappears, it’s something like a crash. Because everyone really needs a seat. And there’s more! Maybe 5 of those chairs weren’t advertising at all. They were on-going investment too. So really there’s 30 publications competing for 10 chairs. Or maybe it’s 7.

To be clear, I’m taking these precise numbers – 10, 30, 7 – as broad guesses. But the general picture is painfully accurate. And as you can see, the real trap door is the withdrawal of on-going re-investment which has created what amounts to a phantom revenue stream. Problems #1 and #2 are either chronic or relatively slowly growing. Problem #3 is rapid and possibly total.

Like I said, it’s a crash. It’s largely because scale hasn’t worked in most cases. But it’s definitely a crash. Just no one’s willing to say so yet.

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Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.
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