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There has already been one big mass extinction event in the media world, and now it looks like there could soon be another. The first mass extinction event occurred about a decade ago, and it was directly precipitated by the rise of blogging platforms and the appearance of new social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The second mass extinction event – as evidenced by the recent demise of Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, and Gawker – seems to be wiping out the very same special media publishers that emerged to replace traditional publishers.
The new social media dinosaurs
At one time, these upstart media names mocked the big, traditional publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. After all, they were first-to-market with new social media advertising models that emphasized algorithms, and they quickly surpassed the online reach of legacy media publishers with the help of Facebook and Twitter. Their stories and news updates were being shared far and wide, while those of legacy media seemed to go nowhere. Armed with new tactics designed to make each story go viral – such as relentless testing of new headline types designed to get people to click – they quickly replaced the old media dinosaurs as the go-to place for news.
Adding insult to injury, these new Web 2.0 publishers were often much smaller operations, and were often based in hipster locales like Brooklyn rather than midtown Manhattan. That meant they didn’t come with all the expensive overhead of the big, traditional publishers. Often, they had very small teams relentlessly pumping out viral news stories, all in very close quarters. When advertising went fully digital, they raked in the dollars as their older, larger competitors just couldn’t keep up.
So that’s why the recent bout of layoffs at Vice, BuzzFeed, Vox, and Gawker is so fascinating if you’re a student of history. The same type of extinction-level event that took out the original bloated media dinosaurs now seems to be coming for them. In short, they are the new social media dinosaurs. Just as the traditional publishers were way too dependent on print advertising to make the numbers work, the new social media publishers are way too dependent on digital advertising and social media partnerships to make the numbers work.
The end of the Web 2.0 business model
Of course, like any company that is in the process of being disrupted, these Web 2.0 media companies really can’t understand what is happening to them. Some of them think that, if they just tweak their algorithms a bit more, things will work out for them. Others think that, if they just find some new digital advertising format that works, they can save the day. Still others blame Facebook and Twitter. They claim that these social media platforms are no longer promoting news stories, and that they are forcing them into bad advertising deals.
The reality, though, is that most digital advertising these days really is awful. Full-page takeovers that make it impossible to finish the article you’re reading is just a bad user experience. So are all the pop-ups reminding you to subscribe, all of the advertising masquerading as “sponsored content,” and all the “guest posts” written by advertisers. It’s all awful. So are all the clickbait headlines, the low IQ content clearly designed to go viral, and all the extreme sensationalism that’s designed to trigger readers into liking, commenting, and subscribing. There’s very little original news reporting. It’s all opinion, and it’s all polarizing.
What comes next?
So what comes next after BuzzFeed? One suggestion has been that the emphasis will now shift from advertising dollars to subscription fees. This seems to be a successful strategy used by podcasters and new platforms like Substack (which is attracting a good number of media veterans laid off these days). Another suggestion is that there will be a greater emphasis placed on content from niche communities such as Discord and Reddit, and that the next great media company will arise there.
But you know what? I’m not buying that. These seem like small, incremental changes, rather than big, disruptive changes. If we’re talking about big extinction-level events, then we should be talking about a radical new type of media company. The original dinosaurs wiped off the face of the Earth weren’t replaced by a new generation of smaller, tinier dinosaurs, were they?
The answer might come from – you guessed it – Elon Musk. He’s been ahead of the curve on so many innovations, and he’s been pushing the concept of the “X Corporation” – the company that does it all, from finance to media to online commerce. It’s a model based on what’s happening in China right now, where platforms like WeChat and Weibo are all-in-one “X” companies. In short, Elon Musk’s new X Corp. might be the new “X Factor” publishers are looking for.