Vice, Buzzfeed, and why it does not signal the end of digital media – for you

The collapse of Buzzfeed News and Vice Media has provoked a temptation to schadenfreude in the news industry. However, it is crucial to learn from this time of change. Trusting Facebook is not a strategy for success, and building an authentic subscriber base and communities is essential. The CPM model is broken, and it’s time to consider one’s own site as the main destination.

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So when the fall of Buzzfeed News was announced, and we learned that Vice Media had filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, not only were the doomsayers quick to declare the end of Web 2.0, even (thank you CNN), the end of digital media itself.

There was also a perceptible whiff of satisfaction in the air.

The unbearable lightness of BuzzFeed –

Buzzfeed and Vice had been the sneering, cocky young kids on the block, making rude gestures at ‘old media’ and showing grandad how it was done. Grandad wasn’t impressed.  “More Jackass than journalism” was Dan Rather’s curt dismissal of Vice. 

Vice was at one point valued at 5.7 billion dollars. Buzzfeed News, home of the listicle and blatant click bait got more than twenty-eight million views in a day and to add insult to injury for traditional media it also won a Pulitzer prize.  

Murdoch bought into the hype, literally, and for a while the huge traffic numbers seemed to show that old journalism had had its day and the cocky kids were the future.

It’s true that  at the height of their powers the digital duo weren’t ashamed to criticize legacy media and declared big ambitions; “our goal is to be the largest network for young people in the world” [Vice]

Only grandad outlived them. In a grumpy way.
The End of Buzzfeed News Isn’t Very Surprising News, sniffed one headline, “private equity’s ill-fated bet on media’s future” concluded the Financial Times.

Digital Media’s Original Sin –

For those of us in the industry, however, schadenfreude, however tempting, is a smokescreen that brings the risk of missing the key take-outs from what are clearly changing times.

It’s easy to see the Vice/Buzzfeed digital media bubble as a failing of hype, backed by venture capitalism, and without strategy. But since we are all (grandad included) in the business of digital media, it’s important to put aside the sneering and focus on the learning.

The easiest take-out is that trusting Facebook is not a strategy for success. Buzzfeed was one of the first to work on the basis of huge audiences, built across social media platforms, with the seeming self-evident idea that reach like that would translate into advertising dollars.

Only the advertising dollars went to the platforms themselves and the trickle down failed to materialize not least because the tech platforms could see exactly where traffic came from, and what it cost, and could algorithmically turn it on or off at will.

You don’t have to be looking to be the next Buzzfeed to benefit from the lessons of switching from chasing audiences to building a subscriber base. Engagement, paid for content, and genuine community are proving ever more important. Chasing big audience numbers, if you don’t control the platform and its advertising, looks less like building a business model, and makes us look more like digital Don Quixotes furiously tilting at windmills.

“Digital-First does not mean Social Media-First”, concludes Juan Señor in the latest Innovation in Media report. “It is time to put this concept to bed once and for all. Platform journalism has not worked and will not work, and it is time to treat your site as the destination.” He goes on to add “The CPM (cost-per-thousand) model is broken — stop trying to fix it.”

To hear more from Juan Señor about the key to digital media success, tune in to the Upgrade Media podcast.

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