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The Deep Frustration of Digital Media
Moguls and their money
Less than a week after I wrote about my discontent with Gawkerspeak—the style of internet writing pioneered by the first version of Gawker—the wealthy media executive who owns the Bustle Digital Group decided to shut down Gawker 2.0. This angered me. I don’t want to see anyone lose their jobs and I hate when individual executives make these kinds of capricious choices. I had actually come to enjoy what the second itineration of Gawker had to offer—a number of thoughtful essays were published there—and I hope the writers can find a full-time employment soon. If anything, the revived Gawker was doing the work of punching out of the shadow of its infamous predecessor, becoming more than a mere repository for snark. I will miss it.
Bryan Goldberg, the BDG CEO, said “Q1” of 2023 had been “surprisingly difficult” and he had to focus on “our better monetized sites.” Speaking with Axios, Goldberg said Gawker was “essentially an early-stage startup within our company” and “now just isn’t the moment to push millions of dollars into a pre-monetization product.” With digital media, this is how it’s been for a decade now: boom and bust, with expansion periods followed by brutal contractions. Part of the problem is that people like Goldberg do treat these enterprises like start-ups, infusing them with the same fanciful logical that eventually dooms them to failure. Most start-ups exist under the premise that they’ll lose money now to somehow make it later. “Later” usually does not arrive. Some start-ups are allowed to lose money indefinitely until they become hegemonic. Uber has never turned a profit.
There are three ways for a digital media outlet—or any media outlet, really—to sustain itself. The first way is to find a very rich person who doesn’t mind losing money and enjoys, for the sheer nobility or vanity of it, floating the work of journalists and writers. This is how, for example, the New York Post survives. The second way is to receive private grants (the nonprofit route) or some sort of public subsidy. I’ve argued, repeatedly, the federal government could bail out the news industry tomorrow for a relatively small amount of money and make our body politic much healthier. Several European nations do this and they’re better off for it. The third way, finally, is to make your readers pay. Impose a partial or hard paywall. Hold fundraisers. Hold events where money is collected. Treat funding your organization, for a while at least, like a campaign.
What you can’t do is depend on digital ads or “native” ads or VC cash. You can’t be like BuzzFeed or Bryan Goldberg, who apparently owns Napoleon’s hat. There is no future in it. The money won’t magically materialize with enough clicks or through a digital ad market that offers diminishing returns. Online media organizations made the decade-long mistake of believing a very successful twentieth century business model—paid advertising—could be replicated in the twenty-first century. It can’t. That world is gone and it will never return. Businesses advertised in print newspapers because they had to, because there were few other viable ways to announce a holiday sale on new Chevrolets or tout a particular brand of bubble-gum. Landlords needed a place to advertise vacant apartments for rent. Employers had to find somewhere to post jobs. The internet does all of these things now. The Gawker writers could band together the way the ex-Gothamist/WNYC staff have done to form the excellent HellGate or try, similarly, to create their own worker-owned version of Gawker, as the former Deadspin staffers did with Defector. It’s a tough road—lining up enough paid subscriptions to support a staff is a challenge—but at least, if successful, it frees you from Goldberg and his ilk.
The future of digital media will, I hope, have fewer Goldbergs. A website dedicated to the written word is not a get-rich-quick scheme. There is no real money in it—but there is sustainability, if done correctly. Web traffic is worth only as much as it can procure paying subscriptions. I still have unsettling flashbacks to my New York Observer days and the $50 “traffic bonuses,” the desperation with which we sent out blog posts to Matt Drudge’s AOL account in the hopes he’d post a link on the Drudge Report and send us a fleeting spike of traffic. None of this interest would carry over to the next post; the right-wing enthusiasts wanting to read about whatever odd utterance Rudy Giuliani made on WABC weren’t showing up again for the rest of the stuff we published. The business of the newspaper and its website didn’t grow with these new clicks. The digital ad market was already drying up, most of it absorbed by Facebook and Google, and the Observers of the world were chasing crumbs. We’ve grown wiser since the mid-2010s and this model, with enough time, will go away. What comes next is more straightforward: produce good work and get people to pay for it. Absent a bailout from the federal government or a benevolent billionaire—an oxymoron, in most contexts—that’s all we got.
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