Some Thoughts on the Modern Media Landscape

I’ve been thinking a lot about media as an industry for the last few months, especially how it has changed since my time at Mashable and where the new generation of media entrepreneurs are missing the mark.

We’ve seen a lot of would-be media empires either collapse or run for the escape hatch. Circa, a mobile media company started by two entrepreneurs I respect (Matt Galligan, Ben Huh) but with a flawed premise recently shut down. In better news, Re/code made the smart decision and joined Vox Media. The fall of GigaOm was sad for reasons not related at all to its industry or core business (eContent Magazine recently interviewed me on the subject). Pando recently changed its business model, and so we will have to wait and see whether or not its quasi-paywall will work. And finally, my thoughts on Fusion.net and its ups and downs are going to require a separate blog post.

At the same time, Buzzfeed, Vice, Maker Studios, Business Insider, Politico, Vox Media and a slew of others have become huge companies or made stellar exits. These companies have attracted hundreds of millions of eyeballs and have (mostly) built sustainable businesses in a hyper-competitive ad market. They are slowly taking the baton from the old guard. In a few years, Buzzfeed WILL be worth more than The New York Times. I’m looking forward to the Internet shitstorm that rain down on that day.

At first glance, the common thread between these winners seem to be their content generation engines. Specifically — just how much they can produce and how much attention they’re able to garner for things like The Dress. Joshua Topolsky lamented on the rise of content generation engines in his farewell letter from Bloomberg:

“The reality in media right now is that there is an enormous amount of noise. There are countless outlets (both old and new) vying for your attention, desperate not just to capture some audience, but all the audience. And in doing that, it feels like there’s a tremendous watering down of the quality and uniqueness of what is being made. Everything looks the same, reads the same, and seems to be competing for the same eyeballs.”

Topolsky’s complaint about the “watering down” of the quality and uniqueness of content is a common complaint I hear from my friends both inside and outside of journalism. I find this complaint to be tiresome and shortsighted People have always complained about how things are changing for centuries, from newspapers to magazines to blogs. The only reason Business Insider writes pieces about how to get a boob job in Thailand is because the public wants it.

But cats and boobs are not the only thing the world’s consumers of content want, though. Buzzfeed’s excellent news division has grown significantly with in-depth features (the prisoners fighting California’s wildfires is fascinating) and Business Insider’s “inside” pieces are both top quality and massive pageview generators.

The mix between entertainment content and informed content has aways been a part of how readers consume content on the Internet. Buzzfeed didn’t invent it. I played that game for years at Mashable, mixing up lists and evergreen content with long form opinion pieces. There’s more video content, and people read more on their phones, but the game is still fundamentally the same.

The lesson here is that, when you’re a media company, you can’t create something only you want — you need to create something the public wants. Too often journalists write for themselves at the expense of the audience. Circa had a hunch about the future of content, and unfortunately its hunch was wrong. Jonah Peretti and his team had a hunch and created a smarter content engine, and they were rewarded.

I get it — writing is a deeply personal experience. But you cannot expect to build a billion-dollar media company writing for yourself. If you want to build a small business only writing what you want to read, do what Jessica Lessin did with The Information.

Journalism isn’t dead. Lists and entertaining content are good things. Video content is a major piece of the future. Write for your audience if you want to build a big business. And finally, stop complaining about the state of journalism, because you sound like an old man yelling at the neighbor’s kids to get off the lawn.