As soon as news broke last week that media companies BuzzFeed, HuffPost, AOL, Yahoo News!, and Gannett would be cutting their workforces by a combined 1,000 employees, people started gloating.
Trump, whose preferred source of news is a late night chat with Sean Hannity, blamed the layoffs on "one-sided Fake Media coverage" and “bad journalism.” This may be a strange response to Americans losing their jobs, especially from the U.S. president, but people—mostly, but not entirely, on the political right—were practically salivating at the thought of 1,000 members of the press finding themselves out of work. When journalists announced they'd been laid off, perhaps the most common response on Twitter was to gleefully tell the newly unemployed to "learn to code," a meme that apparently sprung from either Twitter or 4Chan.
If sympathy was what these newly out-of-work journalists were expecting, outside of other reporters and media professionals, it’s not what they got. Echoing Donald Trump, the comic, speaker, and YouTube host Dave Rubin, for instance, was one of the many voices loudly proclaiming that the cause of the layoffs was simply a low-quality product. Reporters got laid off, according to Rubin, because they just plain aren't good at it.
In fact, Rubin got the formula precisely backwards. In the digital media model, viral, clickable, low-quality content does far better, traffic-wise, than slow, nuanced reporting. Let me repeat that: Low-quality content does better, not worse, than high-quality work. In fact, according to estimated monthly traffic rankings, Yahoo News!, which is primarily a news aggregator, gets 100 million more page visits each month than the New York Times. HuffPo, best known for hits like "15 Salads Even A ‘Manly’ Man Could Eat," reportedly gets 40 million more visits than the Times does each month. Is this because HuffPo creates a higher quality product than the Times? No, it’s because they focus more on viral content. Take BuzzFeed, which laid off 15 percent of its workforce last week, including its entire national desk and its national security desk. The low-quality, shareable content—posts like “25 Ways To Tell You’re A Kid Of The ‘90s” and “Which Soup Are You?”—kept BuzzFeed News afloat, not the other way around. Or, at least, it did until last week.
Talk to anyone who writes online for a living, and the fact that inherent worth has nothing to do with readership will be immediately obvious. My own inflammatory—though genuinely held—argument that French bulldogs should be bred out of existence will get 20 times more traffic than any deeply reported piece about city hall or the state legislature. Why? Because that's what readers want: simple, stupid, easily digested conclusions they can read on the toilet.
On Twitter, Rubin argued that “bad journalism led to change in economics of the business.” In fact, it’s the reverse, starting with media consolidation in the last century. As Jill Lepore pointed out in a recent New Yorker article about the decline of the new business, every major city and most small towns used to have a daily newspaper; many had more than one. In 1920, there were over 2,000 daily papers in the U.S., most of them locally and independently owned. By 2000, there were less than 1,500 dailies left, and a mere 350 of those papers were independent. The rest had been bought up by massive media conglomerates like Gannett, Tribune, and McClatchy, which scooped up local papers, cut staff, and closed bureaus in order to bring the biggest value to shareholders. And even after making cuts, legacy media companies weren’t able to compete with free online news sources like HuffPo, which isn't only free to read, until 2018, they barely paid their own contributors.
The consolidation of media companies—which was aided by federal deregulation—and subsequent closure of local papers has had an impact on the next generation of writers and reporters as well. Local dailies used to be training grounds for ambitious young reporters, who would work a beat at a daily or weekly for a few years, learn the trade, and then maybe move on to a regional or national publication. When those local papers closed up, so did their farm teams. Now, the ambitious young journalist may go directly from college to a website like BuzzFeed or Vice, where they won’t be covering school board meetings or city council races. Instead, the writer is encouraged to develop his or her own "brand" and is rewarded by being big, voicey, and outlandish. Those, after all, are the kinds of stories that actually generate readership.
Unfortunately, even if you have a huge readership, the economics don't really work out. Today, Google and Facebook have scooped up an estimated 80 percent of digital advertising dollars. And not only are these two corporations dominating the advertising market, instead of being paid to host ads, digital media companies now have to pay Facebook and Google to feed people their stories as social media and search traffic have replaced the homepage.
Plenty of digital outlets have gone full-in on Facebook, expecting the platform to deliver eyeballs, but Facebook doesn’t answer to publishers. In 2017, for instance, digital media companies like MTV News, Mashable, Vice Sports, and others infamously “pivoted to video” in order to appeal to Facebook, which, at the time, was prioritizing video over text. These outlets laid off their old-fashioned writers of sentences and paragraphs and dumped money into video, which is far more expensive to create. Then, when it turned out that people didn't actually watch Facebook videos and Facebook’s promise of big returns was allegedly based on a fraud, these outlets were shit out of luck. As Lepore wrote in her piece, “If journalism has been reinvented during the past two decade, it has, in the main, been reinvented not by reporters and editors but by tech companies.”
Rubin, however, isn't interested in economics. For him, the layoffs at BuzzFeed and others are proof that the product is bad because the media is biased—which, coincidentally, also happens to be his pet grievance.
On Monday, Rubin tweeted that the media is guilty of “destroying lives, manipulating the truth, making up sources, using anonymous Twitter accounts and buying clicks.” He doesn’t specify what outlet he’s talking about in particular, but it’s not hard to imagine because Rubin clearly hates the left-leaning press. He never tweets anything negative about right-wing, agenda-driven outlets like Breitbart, Fox News, or the Daily Caller, but he regularly lambasts CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other outlets he sees as biased against the right. And while I agree with Rubin that all of these outlets have biases—they are staffed by humans, and humans have biases—that’s not why BuzzFeed was forced to lay off their staff. If bias were the issue, then Fox News, Brietbart, and the Daily Caller would also be facing layoffs.
In reality, the reason BuzzFeed laid off staff was simply that the business model is flawed. After Google and Facebook claimed the majority of online ad revenue, there wasn't enough left for everyone else. And it’s not hard to see why advertisers would flee traditional forms of advertising: Facebook and Google can precisely target ads based on the users’ interests, location, friends, etc. News organizations just don’t have that sort of data. (This was compounded by the fact that classifieds, which also used to be some 40 percent of media revenue, moved online to free sites like Craigslist in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.) The returns on banner ads were so low that BuzzFeed gave up on that model entirely, relying instead on native advertising, which is essentially ads designed to look like articles.
This doesn’t mean management should be let off the hook. Some new media companies tend to run their business less like newsrooms than they do startups. BuzzFeed, for instance, received over $500 million in venture capital by 2018. Half a billion dollars would keep local papers in business for eons, but BuzzFeed choose to locate their offices in the most expensive real estate markets in the country. This wasn’t necessary—nor were the free snacks and lunches—but it was a part of the brand. And it worked for a while. But the thing about taking venture capital is that venture capitalists want some return on their investment. When they don’t get it, lay offs commence.
There are, of course, alternate revenue streams. You can sell subscriptions, like the New York Times, have wealthy backers, like Breitbart has in the past, or you can ask your audience for donations, like Dave Rubin. This latter tactic has worked for public media for years, and Rubin, along with independent creators Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, rake in donations from their audience. This works especially well if you are one creator, not an entire organization that needs funding.
Still, there are problems with this model too. If Rubin, for instance, says the wrong thing or has the wrong guest or somehow pisses off his donors, they can end their support just like that. This means that the creator—in this case, Rubin—is just as beholden to his viewers and their whims and bias as any other media outlet. Perhaps he’s even more beholden, because the firewall that traditionally exists between business development and editorial content in media organizations doesn't exist in his case. You would never, for instance, see an NPR host shilling for a free-market think-tank like Prager U, but Dave Rubin frequently does just that.
Now, like Rubin, I do think there are plenty of problems in publishing. In the rush to be first, much of the media botched, for instance, the story of Covington High, which I've personally been critical of as well. And, to be sure, there is plenty of gossip and ideology posted online and disguised as reporting. But at the same time, there are tons of reporters and outlets are doing fantastic work—and that includes, yes, BuzzFeed News and Yahoo and even the Huffington Post.
Since Trump’s inauguration, both old and new media have uncovered endless stories of graft, corruption, and just plain bad public policy, from Scott Pruitt’s $43,000 taxpayer-funded phone booth to separating parents and kids at the border. These—not listicles and quizzes or even hot takes—are the kind of stories that matter, but they take time and expertise and money, all of which have become increasingly rare in the current media ecosystem.
Before the rise of the internet, a reporter might have one deadline a week; now, many of us have one (or more) every day. We have to feed the content machines, and some writers and reporters do file quickly and ask questions later, if they ask questions at all. Convington certainly showed us that. But that’s not because the reporters are bad; it’s because the marketplace rewards fast over slow and outrage over nuance. And 1,000 people losing their jobs isn’t going to make reporting any better, no matter how much Dave Rubin or Donald Trump gloat.