Layoffs At Vox

Vox today announced a round of layoffs, joining a seemingly endless list of digital media companies that have laid off staff in recent months. First, this is not “Vox”, the political news / explainer site, which you may be most familiar with. It’s the parent company, Vox Media – which owned Curbed, Racked SB Nation, Polygon, The Verge, etc. The latter owns Vox and maybe ten other sites, many of which are big or dominant players in their respective spaces. Vox Media is laying off 50 employees.

I’ve written about this meta-topic a lot in recent months – what amounts to a crash in digital media. Vox is laying off 50 employees, what they say is roughly 5% of their staff, a comparatively small number in percentage terms relative to other recent blood letting. What I wanted to flag your attention to is what seems to be getting cut.

The big target is “social video.”

From The Hollywood Reporter

Bankoff said that initiatives around native social video, while “growing successfully and surpassing audience growth goals, “won’t be viable audience or revenue growth drivers for us relative to other investments we are making.” He cited “industry changes over the past few months and our long term budgeting process” as contributing factors.

What’s ‘social video’? I cannot tell you how central a preoccupation this has been in digital media business circles in recent years. It’s basically this: producing short, shareable videos you can distribute on Facebook. Full stop.

You might also see them on the site which produced them. But it’s really meant to be trafficked on social media. And in this case that overwhelmingly means Facebook. In part it’s the ‘pivot to video’, which we’ve discussed – an effort to retool editorial sites to get access to what looks like the last big pot of ad money around. It also represents the belief that media salvation means partnering with Facebook. Because it was in the Facebook ecosystem that you could find the massive audience numbers – or rather, ‘views’ which would make the whole thing work, particularly video.

The video pot of gold was always largely chimerical. Over recent months Facebook has once again shown that it is more than happy to let ‘partner’ companies invest huge amounts of money into Facebook-driven business models and then shift plans and leave those ‘partners’ in the dust and in many cases bankrupt. Even among the big tech/platform monopolies, Facebook has shown itself to be a uniquely unreliable partner. As much as this is a negative verdict on video, it’s a realization and reckoning about Facebook and its chronically predatory business practices.

One caveat: whenever I criticize the “pivot to video” and publishers’ general refusal to recognize the critical importance of actual audience as opposed to distribution channels, I hear from people pointing out all the great video that is being made, that if you invest in producing quality video, it will find an audience. Absolutely. I am not in any way anti-video. I do think it has a limited audience in the digital news space. But a limited audience isn’t no audience and many other publishing areas have much more demand. I am not anti-video. What I am anti- is this: you have a basic, structural monetization crisis in the digital news space. Lots of publishers think – or thought – that the solution was to ‘pivot to video’. It’s not. It just leads to gutting editorial operations to no purpose, destroying what existing value they had for a financial salvation that didn’t exist.

It is also another example of Facebook’s terribly damaging influence on the publishing industry general. Video was never going to change the basic structural challenges facing digital media publishers. If you went into a VC with a financing pitch for a digital media venture any time in the last few years, one of the first things you’d hear was what you could do in “social video”. It was always a fool’s errand.

Vox Media’s decision to dramatically cut back their commitment to “social video” only confirms this point.

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