For about a decade now, tension over the economics of journalism and the business model that will sustain the industry in the digital age has been high. Industry watchers have seen heritage newspapers fold, digital media startups go from unknown names to major power players in just a few years, and countless publishers scramble for a new model amidst the fast past decline in ad and subscription revenue. The future, at best, has been uncertain.
Recently, the phrase “pivot to video” has been reverberating around media Twitter so much that it’s become something of a meme. After mass editorial layoffs at several major media companies—including MTV and, more recently, Mic—came alongside the news that those companies were “pivoting to video” instead, the phrase became a harbinger of doom. As one Tweeter put it, “At this point, if you’re in media, ‘pivot’ is a trigger word.” Jokes aside, many in the industry are claiming that the internet consumer’s obsession with watching content rather than reading it will be the final nail in the coffin of the printed word.
Quoted in Business Insider, Mic’s founder said that “We made these tough decisions because we believe deeply in our vision to make Mic the leader in visual journalism and we need to focus the company to deliver on our mission.” Business Insider added that: “Altchek said visual journalism makes up “75% of the time our audience spends with Mic,” and said that the new strategy would realign resources behind the new market of ‘tap stories,’ which he hopes will distinguish Mic from competitors.”
While many people claim that the pivot to video is a necessary evil in an internet landscape where attention spans are short, others say the claim isn’t quite that simplistic. Data shows that contrary to the assumption that younger demographics don’t like to read, they do in fact read a lot more than we think. As Contently reported, “According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of adults aged 18 to 29 prefer reading the news, compared to 38 percent who prefer watching it and 19 percent who prefer listening to it.”
Perhaps the more nuanced assessment is that it’s not the whims of internet consumers that are driving media upstarts to video, but rather, the whims of big tech. As Mashable put it: “The “pivot to video” is the product of an internet that is run by Google, Facebook, and an advertising market with little regard for anything that isn’t video. They’re setting the rules, and media companies—especially startups—have to play the game.”
The reason why startups have been especially dependent on the video beast is because they lack something that existing legacy media has: reputation. Indeed, publishers like the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Washington Post quickly learned that giving away all their reported words for free was not a business model that would work, as advertising for words doesn’t garner the same cash as for video. But once they realized people will pay for their words—because those words come with a reputation and reportorial infrastructure that media startups can’t challenge yet—they started charging.
Startups don’t have that luxury, so they are having to innovate around video. As Mashable went on to say: ““Pivot to video” isn’t the death of words, but is the end of venture capital-funded words that hoped to eventually find a supportive ad market. In its place, venture capital-funded video is the new hope. Whether the ad market (or maybe even subscription market) materializes is anyone’s guess.”