A recent round of layoffs raises grim questions about the future of digital media. Is the landscape changing or is this the same old corporate maneuvering?
There’s a new ritual in media. A Silicon Valley plot point becomes an actual, journalistic homicide becomes gallows humor on media Twitter. Over the last couple of weeks, this is what happened with the “pivot to video.”
On Wednesday, MTV announced it was trashing MTV News’ hub of political and cultural reporting and “shifting resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.” In the midst of the biggest political story of its readers’ young lives, MTV was going No Labels. Also, “short-form” seems like a deliberate troll.
Also last week, Fox Sports laid off about 20 digital writers and editors who were for-the-winning its website with written takes about the news of the day. Why? Fox wanted to extract more takes from its TV lineup — Skip, Shannon, Colin, et al. — to create “premium video across all platforms.” Writers like Bruce Feldman would have to take their words and podcasts elsewhere.
Less than two weeks before that, Vocativ got rid of roughly 20 staffers, including Tomás Ríos and Robert Silverman, as part of what the company called a “strategic shift to focus exclusively on video content.” Mindful of buzzwords, the company left open the possibility that some videos might be “longform.”
It’s grueling to write about this stuff. I have pals at all three places, including Grantland alums who were the founding mothers and fathers of the rebooted MTV News. It’s one thing to think of a video replacing a writer in theory. It’s another when the writer is Brian Phillips.
Moreover, any of us who attempt to write about the “pivot to video” do so from inside the same new-media vortex that swallowed our comrades. Last week, Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld published an article about the layoffs while sheepishly apologizing for the autoplay video he knew would sit atop his words. The video was called “Silicon Valley Can Help Save Journalism.”
Why this is happening is simple: The web has a surplus of copy versus advertising. Companies have decided that sticking an ad at the front of a video makes it less ignorable than putting a similar ad next to an article. It doesn’t matter what the video is. I often get a paragraph or two into a Sports Illustrated story only to find Madelyn Burke in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, giving me a summary of the sentences I’m already reading.
The new round of layoffs ignited a lousy ritual. “Hire these people!” we tweeted at … whom, exactly? A word-friendly publication that would promise to never, ever pivot to anything else? The contact information for Vocativ’s “free agents” was sent around on a spreadsheet.
Other writers tried to play media visionary and stepped in it. “I’ve been in digital media for 12 years,” Sports Illustrated’s Andy Gray tweeted last week. “One thing I’ve learned is that nobody wants to read anything over 1,000 words. MTV is more proof.” Never mind that Gray’s employer uses the motto “longform since 1954.”
On Twitter, Gray got the noogie he deserved. I enjoyed reading his replies. They proved that no occasion, not even an existential threat to the industry, will prevent a journalist from citing his old articles — and, in this case, also providing the word count. Why, my recent longform piece was actually quite popular!
Twitter rallied, as usual. But behind all gallows humor stands a gallows. As Select/All’s Brian Feldman pointed out, “pivoting to video” is just another way to say “layoff.” “It’s curious that a pivot into video involves firing everyone in the video department,” a former MTVer told Billboard.
Thus, a business that’s supposed to be anti-euphemism had added another one to its list. There was “buyout.” “Restructuring.” And, as The New York Times told the copy editors it’s offing, an invitation to reapply for your old job. Either way, you’re outta here.
You could write a depressing history of the American media through its dumb attempts at pivoting. Newspapers like The Wall Street Journal have periodically announced they were shortening articles and embracing USA Today–style “brights.” These efforts — usually abandoned — inspired wails about the future of reporting.
But the pivot to video feels both grislier and more soulless, like the fourth movie in a Blumhouse franchise. I have a few reasons about why I think that might be.
First, it widens a very old divide between writers and TV types. As any sportswriters who sat around a bar and mocked the local anchors would tell you, TV has long been considered a slighter and daffier form. To tell writers they’re being replaced by the TV anchors is all the more humiliating.
You can see this in the Fox Sports pivot, where, according to an article by Awful Announcing’s Ben Koo, bylined writers were shown a future where they could be aggregating the hot takes of their TV colleagues, or else ghostwriting their colleagues’ takes altogether. Instead of Dieter Kurtenbach, we’d get director’s commentary from Skip and Shannon.
Let’s imagine a pivot to video is genuine rather than just a scheme to give everyone a pink slip. Other than Vice and a few other shops, there’s almost no model for what a good web video job would be. Last week, Vanity Fair unveiled a profile of Serena Williams with beautiful photos from Annie Leibovitz and a story from Buzz Bissinger. But as The Awl’s Silvia Killingsworth wrote, a video that accompanied the article was just a collage of Leibovitz photos and pull quotes from the article. The article’s sentences were labored over; the pictures were composed; the video was an afterthought.
Some of this may just be timing. A decade ago, if a web publication said it was “pivoting to podcasting,” the news would have been greeted like the End Times. Now, getting tapped for a podcast is like earning a journalistic merit badge. In a few cases, writers have realized they could both write and pod. In others, writers realized that if a zippy conversation about the news of the week consumed the time they’d have otherwise spent crafting a memorable piece, well, that’s the price of success. It’s a lot easier to have the zippy conversation.
Finally, the pivot to video stokes a longstanding existential fear among print journalists: What if writing is now the most important, but third-most-lucrative thing you can do for your media company? What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?
Last week, I couldn’t help but think of the late New York Times media critic David Carr, who, during awards season, made a sidelight of standing in Times Square and asking people about movies. Carr seemed to enjoy the exercise. I was always depressed by it, as if writing a media column and holding the powerful to account wasn’t enough.
A “pivot” begs the question of not just what we in the digital media are pivoting to but away from. In the case of the recent layoff victims, the answer was good reporting, fun commentary — and a rapidly receding past where mere words were enough. I’d like to write a couple more elegiac sentences here, but the studio is calling and I need to get to makeup.