Video can’t solve the news industry’s problems

How about a pivot away from Facebook?

For lovers of print, perhaps the most poignant media news of the week was that the Village Voice would stop publishing its paper edition.

That is certainly sad, but also sadly unsurprising. News organizations have been shutting down the presses for years now. What should be more concerning to media watchers is news of Mic’s “pivot to visual journalism” and the attendant layoffs. Mic is arguably one of the few new-media success stories of recent years. The New York-based start-up dared to establish a big-vision media company at a time when the news business was anything but a hot venture commodity, and when almost all the incumbents were firing writers. That the company is now doing its own layoffs is just sad.

Mic found early success by publishing socially minded stories—often with clickbait headlines—for millennials. Its two founders, 23 years old when they started the company, have raised $59.5 million over the last five years, which is at least testament to their ability to persuade a generally skeptical finance community that the media has a future worth betting on. It has hired quality editors and writers, built out a series of verticals focused on feminism, social justice, and politics, and, in 2015, it scored a big interview with President Obama.

So why is it changing course?

The optimistic spin is that it believes it’s close to a breakthrough in visual journalism, and specifically a new form of “tap-through” mobile storytelling appropriate for the Snapchat era. The CEO has claimed that visual journalism accounts for three quarters of the time that Mic’s audience spends on the site. He also sees tap-through stories as a new market, so the company’s going to pour its resources into that.

The less optimistic spin is that even a well-funded, well-staffed, well-executed publication with zero legacy problems, oodles of tech savvy, and an audience as desirable as mobile-first millennials finds it hard to survive in a media landscape dominated by advertising, which is in turn utterly, irrevocably, increasingly dominated by Facebook and Google. Mic’s problem—as is the case for dozens of its contemporaries—is that it depends on traffic from the same companies that hold duopoly power over the digital ad market from which it is supposed to justify its valuation, now in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A story published on Tuesday in The Outline laid its problems bare. Mic is fixated on traffic and peddles “outrage journalism” to keep its social media clickthroughs high, according to former employees quoted (anonymously) in the article. When Facebook was really working for Mic, some stories were attracting millions of readers. But in August 2015, the Facebook party ended and Mic’s traffic plummeted. One of its responses was to juice search engine rankings. The company hired an executive who built a team focused exclusively on producing stories laden with popular search terms—“Watch Trump’s speech live,” “How to pick up women”—in an effort to diversify the effective traffic taxes it pays to the big platforms.

None of this was popular with its young, idealistic staff writers, who had joined the company with the hope that their work wouldn’t have to be poisoned by the mundane profit imperatives of a modern corporate media entity. And so, The Outline was able to take its pick from an abundant smorgasbord of articulate disgruntlement that, more than anything, underscores a fundamental business problem in the industry: it’s increasingly difficult to build a viable news business that offers its content for free. Mic knows it. The Village Voice knows it.

So were Mic’s founders wrong to persuade those venture capitalists that the media has a future worth betting on? As we’ve said before, not at all. But, even as ad-first media companies rush to pivot to video, one thing remains true: putting good journalists at the mercy of Facebook and Google is a model to go out of business.