During the last years of my run on The New York Times, it seemed possible that digital news startups like Vice and BuzzFeed would eclipse old, outdated news organizations like us. The Gray Lady looked as old as her age and she stumbled into the age of social media. From its origins as a Montreal punk magazine, Vice, with a slew of YouTube channels, suddenly had a production deal with HBO, operated at least one cable channel, and won Peabodys for news. The valuation was at one point touted as close to $6 billion. built a top-notch investigative reporting unit on the back of the usual fare — exploding watermelons and viral sensations like “What colors is this dress?” Both companies had large and dedicated younger audiences, manna for advertisers. Digital newcomers in the news threatened to eat our lunch.
Reversals of fortune are nothing unusual in the news world, but in recent weeks it has been mind-boggling to see Vice go bankrupt and BuzzFeed shut down its news division. Time, Meanwhile, it hit its goal of 10 million paying subscribers a year ago and is aiming to have 15 million by the end of 2027 – more than enough to support its major newsgathering operations. The Atlantic Ocean (in 2009), predicted that it would be the Time that would soon go bankrupt.
As it turned out, advertising was a bad bet. With the change of an algorithm, Facebook and Google narrowed down the huge audiences of Vice and BuzzFeed and sucked up most of the digital advertising. Without massive traffic, advertisers would turn away and no longer pay millions for the tailored brand advertising that was the lifeblood of Vice and BuzzFeed. Their young, hip followers were unwilling to pay for their period scoops. Gathering news turned out to be much more expensive than Shane Smith And Jonah Peretti, co-founders of Vice and BuzzFeed, respectively (Howell Raines, the former editor-in-chief of The New York Times, often said that if the Time went away, no one could ever rebuild it.)
The depth and width of the Time The news story remains unique in quality, and readership revenue is now the cornerstone of the company’s financial security. Vice and BuzzFeed never had that secure footing and without it they faltered. They had taken a lot of money from investors: 21st Century Fox put $70 million into Vice, with James Murdoch later bought a minority stake; NBCUniversal pumped $400 million into BuzzFeed. It’s almost unbelievable that Disney ever considered acquiring any of them. Bankruptcy may be Vice’s only option as no good bidders have turned up for a takeover. Buzz Feed’s stock, issued during a failed IPO, is virtually worthless.
But fickle economic winds don’t paint the full picture.
Despite being thrown off course initially during the digital transition, the Time had the confidence and will to hold on to its core strength – the news – even through the years when the company was saddled with heavy debt and shareholder revolts flared. It never succumbed to Wall Street’s short-term demands or enacted crippling budget cuts Editors. The Time remained stubbornly true to its news story and expanded worldwide. The board remained loyal to the Sulzberger family who owned the Time since 1896.
In retrospect, all of this may seem like a good idea, but during the roughest times of the digital transition and the financial crisis, everyone inside had their doubts. I was ringside as editor-in-chief and editor-in-chief of the Time“I spearheaded the merger of what had previously been separate and duplicated digital and print newsrooms, which the culture of the newspaper opposed. We were still lagging behind when I asked in 2012 Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, then a talented reporter and editor, to create an Innovation Committee. The commission’s first mandate was to develop a range of new products that would generate new revenue quickly. But after a few months, Sulzberger, now publisher of the Time and chairman of the New York Times Company, asked me to change the committee’s focus. “We have to grow from the core,” he told me, meaning our future would depend on building from our core strength, the news report said. the Timefuture by growing digital subscriptions and leveraging our cooking strengths (the Time owned thousands of fantastic recipes) and games (like his venerable crossword puzzle).
Neither Vice nor BuzzFeed could have pulled off this kind of strategy. The core of Vice has always been sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and even as it branched out into video and sent journalists to war zones and global hotspots, the most popular shows were serials. like it F*ck, that’s delicious, presented by Action Bronson, the rapper and road food gourmand. At the core of BuzzFeed were the lists, quizzes, and light celebrity news, popular but probably failing to attract the paying customers needed to attract and retain great journalists. Meanwhile, building serious journalistic muscle was priceless. Just like retaining talent. Time would eventually poach a number of BuzzFeed journalists, along with talent from upstarts like Vox.
The lesson from all this is not that aging news organizations were destined to win (most were not) or that digital newcomers failed precisely because they were new. Some digital news organizations, such as Politico, are successes and profitable. TimePolitico grew out of a strong core. It covers politics and policy in a more detailed way than anyone else. Political junkies couldn’t live without it; companies with a vested interest in law would pay dearly for their policy-focused Pro subscriptions. references and other live events are logical and profitable extensions Meanwhile, Talking Points Memo was created and run by Josh Marshallhas held its own since 2000 as a smart, original political site.
Propublica, an NPROFIT, has a solid core of investigative journalism that has retained and won publicists. There is a group of local non-profits, such as T HE Texas Tribune and Mississippi Today, that are producing quality journalism, have a growing base of contributors and readers, and are beginning to fill the vacuum left by the closing of so many local newspapers. And Substack, a platform hosting writers across the ideological spectrum who create subscription-based newsletters, has emerged as another potential destination for quality online journalism. And there are other interesting experiments in news rising from the ashes.
No one should dance on the graves of Vice or BuzzFeed News. Competition makes everyone, including the Time, better. Journalism, a foundation of democracy, thrives when diverse voices and informed audiences are heard. With abysmal public confidence numbers, anyone working in the news is on shaky ground. Watching the landscape shrink even further is stressful for journalists – and the public they serve.