Digital media appears to be crumbling. Vice has filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors, BuzzFeed News has shut down, Paper Magazine has closed operations and numerous other media companies have recently laid off employees. Twitter — the social media platform inextricably linked with digital media — has become a toxic space where it’s now difficult to verify who is a credible journalist. It’s a bleak time for online news.
Perhaps bleaker is to reflect on how we got here. The digital media landscape we’re familiar with arose in the mid-aughts, a time when male media entrepreneurs like Vice’s Shane Smith, Gawker’s Nick Denton and BuzzFeed News’ Jonah Peretti and Ben Smith were the conquerors of clicks. What Facebook and Twitter demanded, these traffic kings rose to the occasion, attracting readers and revenue in return. But when those platforms took a hit in recent years, so did the digital media empire built upon them.
In a dearth of digital news outlets, the few fresh sites coming up are being led by familiar players — Ben Smith with Semafor, The Hill’s former owner Jimmy Finkelstein with The Messenger. The latter, however, had been barely up for a week before editors started quitting amid complaints of the site’s “rapacious and blind desperate chasing of traffic.” It begs the question: Will anything be done differently this time?
Women leaders in digital media say there are lessons to be learned to avoid the same mistakes.
“One of the hardest things with the venture capitals and the start-ups is that it’s too easy to manipulate the identity,” said Slate Editor in Chief Hillary Frey, who has been in digital media since its boom, working in leadership positions at HuffPost, Politico, Yahoo, Fusion and NBC News. “You come out with an idea, but then it’s like, ‘No, pivot, pivot. Now, you do video. No, now you do audio.’ People haven’t been given the room to make something to last.”
Here’s how Frey and other female visionaries of digital media lay out how online news could rebuild better — and smaller.
Don’t shift your mission on the whims of traffic
Anna Holmes, who launched Jezebel for Gawker Media in 2007, is one of the most influential people in digital media. The site was disruptive to the traditional idea of what women’s media had to be — content that skimmed the surface on relationships, lifestyle and beauty — instead offering to pay readers $10,000 to send in a pre-airbrushed photo of a magazine cover to drive home how ridiculous and harsh the industry is on women. By becoming not just the antithesis of shallow girly how-to’s, but actively antagonistic toward such an approach, Jezebel quickly built an identity and an audience.
Even when people on Gawker’s team didn’t think feminism would sell, Holmes remained committed to her vision — not just because she was confident in her readers’ interests but because she wasn’t willing to compromise what her mission was. That conviction, Holmes says, is what can be missing when you focus only on getting views and clicks.
”I don’t think that people in digital media should be led around only by what readers want,” Holmes told NBCU Academy. “I think that they should make sure that their publication or their media brand has a point of view, and that they stick to that point of view. Only following what readers want is a surefire way to rob your publication of creativity and surprise.”
A common factor in many of the recent media shutdowns is the relentless pursuit of virality and traffic, which is hard to turn into revenue and thus create longevity and stability. It’s a sympathetic situation — digital media is a saturated market, so you need to stand out. But constantly pivoting to trends and being beholden to the principles of clickbait doesn’t make for a sustainable business.
Frey suggests that building a site that attracts traffic without compromising identity means focusing on maintaining your audience — not just growing it. “Make sure there’s a good feedback loop between you and your most loyal readers, “she said. “Respond to what resonates with them, and then think about something a little extra you can do for them.”
At Slate, Frey’s team holds Zoom events where subscribers can meet a reporter or talk to an editor about a story. “Just do something a little bit outside the norm that brings your audience closer to you as people,” Frey said.
“In terms of growth, which is always tough, the most important thing is to make sure that you’re differentiating yourself and making your work kind of special.” Frey says that uniqueness can be the outlet’s perspective (like what The Root does for Black communities), voice (like Jezebel’s unmistakable sharpness) or format (what Axios does with digestible news).
Steer away from the exponential growth mindset
Something many of the male digital titans had in common was an exponential growth at all costs mindset, according to Frey.
For Frey, her early career in digital media was mostly working for men, until she went to HuffPost in 2017. She said she didn’t have a lot of women bosses or mentors. It became clear to her that there was a gendered difference in how CEOs thought about responsible growth. “I worked [at] a number of places where the higher-ups were men who were kind of not operating in the reality of the newsroom, but playing with venture capital money and investment money and Facebook money,” she said. “They were just sort of wanting to chase the cool thing and not thinking about our core audiences or responsible growth.”
As she gradually got to know other women in digital media, she noticed a stark difference in thinking. “It felt like we were not just focused on ourselves and our own careers, but trying to create environments and newsrooms that could help people grow and help the site be sustainable and keep people in their jobs,” she said.
While digital newsrooms in the 2010s grew more diverse, not just in terms of gender but also race, this was not necessarily a directive initiated from the top. “It was clear to me that there was a real drive for change around internal culture and inclusivity,” Frey said. “And a lot of that drive came from the journalists of color working inside these organizations.”
But diversity initiatives should not be just for people outside of leadership to handle, Frey said. “In my experience as a leader, when problems came to me, they were mine to solve.”
Start small, stick to your identity
The reality remains that journalism’s reliance on traffic is still the reality. Views and clicks pay the bills, keeping people employed and able to write great news. How should news outlets straddle the line?
For Holmes, the answer to preserving a news site’s mission lies in sticking to it and hoping that the algorithm will align with the passion. “I don’t know the answer about how to combat metrics-driven journalism except to … try and do things that feel fresh and new and reflect your interests and values,” she said. “But I don’t know that anyone can have a digital media company that is dismissive of those metrics.”
Frey says it’s not easy to make a digital media company work. “It’s a crowded world, and there’s a lot of news saturation,” she said. “The problem is that the day comes when it’s like, ‘Our vision isn’t working. You need to publish more. Go get those clicks, go write those headlines on Facebook, drive up the numbers’ … And then your mission is diluted.”
One reason she said she went to Slate is because it’s been around for almost 30 years. “It’s got a really strong identity, it has a paying membership program and it knows who it is,” she said.
Frey says it’s best to start small when building a digital media site. “There are really interesting opportunities for people starting newsletters, figuring out how to monetize that, maybe growing them into smaller businesses if they want to,” she said.
Many journalists who already had built a strong following based on their voice and specialized beat — Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Roxane Gay — have found success with their own Substack newsletters in recent years. While some can offer insight and earn money that they couldn’t in traditional media (former BuzzFeed News culture writer Anne Helen Petersen has “tens of thousands” of paid subscribers, at $50 a year), others have found it hard to sustain.
“It’s a tough environment to start something totally fresh,” Frey said. “So if I were starting something new, I would start very small. It might even just be me.”