Late-stage media may be upon us.
A few things to consider: it’s a system trying to get bigger audiences than ever, but it’s one that is more fragmented than ever while actually controlled by a relative few, as it employs less people, and arguably informs less, thereby meaning less. Waiting for some sort of stabilization seems futile at this point. Constant upheaval and “reinvention,” as executives like to put it, is the new normal.
Look no further than media’s year in 2019. Yet another 12 months of thousands of editorial layoffs (around 3,500 among strict editorial roles, according to Columbia Journalism Review), of financial instability, of scrambling to offer advertisers new services to keep them from spending their entire ad budgets with the as yet unstoppable Facebook and Google. Essentially all publishers are now pivoting their business to digital, but Facebook and Google, along with an emerging Amazon, combined are taking 60 percent of digital advertising in the U.S., a number that’s only expected to grow. It was also another year of consolidation, of independent and well-read outlets selling to another operation simply to stay afloat. Or on the flipside, larger operations trimming to a shadow of their former selves to stay upright.
Companies like Condé Nast and New York Magazine and Bustle and NBC and virtually all of their peers in their specific corners of media don’t necessarily want to close or sell magazines and verticals, fire people, or “restructure” on a rolling basis, but that’s been the reality of media in 2019, and for years before. It’s like the gig economy, an effect of the financial desperation and insecurity induced by late-stage capitalism — not many people want to be Task Rabbits or Uber drivers, but well-paying jobs are harder to come by and they do want to make ends meet.
So, what we have as of now is a very new, and frankly confusing, type of media landscape. The average media consumer likely does not know that Refinery29 is now owned by Vice Media, that New York Magazine is now owned by Vox, that Nylon magazine is now owned by Bustle Digital Group, that W magazine is no longer with Condé, that Sports Illustrated is owned by something called The Maven. So many people are unaware that Facebook owns Instagram after almost a decade that the company just embarked on a marketing campaign to make the connection between the two clear, part of a larger push into rebranding itself as “transparent,” rather than a black box of detailed user data being sold to the highest bidder. Or a propagator of false news, claims and videos.
“We’re in a totally different place,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, said in October at a Vanity Fair event. “In 2016, we didn’t know what this threat was.”
A general lack of foresight (or effective action) on the part of other media executives has largely led to the industry’s current predicament. This year, well into the digital media age, was also one of paywalls, or plans for paywalls, rolling out far and wide. But with so much free content on the Internet for so long, it remains to be seen if they’ll work out for anyone that is not a major news publisher. The New York Times is a success story on the digital subscription front, but it took several years to develop, same for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.
“I don’t think everyone will win in that space,” Heather Deitrich, chief executive officer of The Daily Beast, said earlier this year. “You have to have a relationship with the audience before you think about building [an online pay strategy] and you have to have content that they can’t get elsewhere, be it a particular voice, news content they can’t get elsewhere, opinions that are sharp and compelling to them. I would say not everyone has two of those things but a lot of people are jumping into the pool.”
One of the more surprising paywall announcements came from Condé, with Bob Sauerberg revealing early this year (by then a lame duck ceo, as Condé was searching for his successor) that all of its remaining publications would be going behind an online paywall by year’s end. He cited the success of pay strategies at The New Yorker, which started a digital subscription offering in 2014. Subscriptions are now a majority of that magazine’s revenue, having last year brought in $118 million, sources said. However, Condé’s new ceo Roger Lynch seems to have cooled on the idea of a company-wide rollout.
Lynch did not mention the idea of online paywalls during his first global meeting with staff. During an appearance at Recode’s annual media conference in November, he said each brand would need “a different strategy” if a paywall were to come through, but no announcement has come on that front. He also said “magazines are a minority of our business,” referring instead to Condé as a “content” company.
Others to unveil and enact a paywall strategy this past year were New York Magazine, which still had nearly all of its online free; Fortune magazine, which had done the same; Hearst’s Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar are experimenting, too, with certain content requiring a subscription, as is The Daily Beast.
With all of the changes to business models — away from advertising, toward consumer revenue through subscriptions or events — employees of many of these major media companies have been turning to unions, which contend that joining would give them more control over their employment.
This year even more employee unions popped up at digital plays like Refinery29, Slate, Vice and Buzzfeed, along with major companies NBC and Hearst Magazines. While BuzzFeed held off its employee union for months, Hearst appears to be digging in its heels and working hard to break up a union effort that includes a majority of staff from its 24 editorial brands.
Troy Young, Hearst’s digitally driven president, and other executives are said to be against the unionization effort and Hearst ceo Steven R. Swartz is said to be unhappy the union effort was allowed to flourish at all. So Swartz decided to bring back Young’s predecessor, David Carey. Although he largely left Hearst last year, remaining chairman of the magazines division for a stint that was only expected to last a transitional year, Carey is back at the company full time. He’s now senior vice president of public affairs and communications. Said to be well-liked among staff, some people see his return as directly linked to figuring out how to minimize the union.
But, like it or not, unions are here to stay. Editorial employees, the relative few who remain in the industry, have little recourse in a system operating on budgets so tight that cuts tend to come at the end of every fiscal year, at least. Newsrooms across the country, including TV and digital-only, have shrunk by a quarter in the last decade alone. Right now, expectations are that employment in the industry will only continue to shrink.