The “pivot to video” is not the death of words.
It’s not the death of journalism or a sign that people are abandoning everything that is right and good in the world.
What it is, however, isn’t much better.
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.
News broke on Thursday that Mic laid off 25 staffers and will turn its resources to producing more video. This has become a common move in the past couple years as digital media startups have found that pageviews just don’t translate into very much money (Mashable made just such a move in April 2016).
These events tend to elicit a certain collective smugness and schadenfreude from technorati and Media Twitter. “Pivot to video” is now used with snarkful glee as shorthand for failure.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. There is a growing acceptance that the internet is simply bad at supporting the written word. “Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet,” wrote Ev Williams in January to announce that his writing-focused startup Medium would lay off 50 people. The company had raised $130 million in funding in an effort to build the next great print media platform.
The ad-driven media, as Williams put it, is dominated by two companies: Facebook and Google. They soak up the majority of digital ad spending and almost all of every new dollar that moves online. Both companies are important to digital media upstarts, and they’re both hungry for video that they can show ads against—and grab a chunk of the $70 billion spent on TV ads.
Consumers don’t necessarily want this video. Even millennials prefer reading their news, and websites trying to cram as much video as possible onto webpages has resulted in a terrible user experience—including the dreaded autoplay.
Backing up a few years, the reason for companies like Mic stems from a once-boundless optimism for new media companies. “I am more bullish about the future of the news industry over the next 20 years than almost anyone I know. You are going to see it grow 10X to 100X from where it is today,” wrote venture capitalist Marc Andreessen in a blog post.
He wasn’t alone. Millions of dollars poured into media startups that believed they could take advantage of people and ad dollars both moving to the internet. The smartphone explosion only made that seem even more of a gold rush.
Legacy media companies like the New York Times and Washington Post suddenly seemed vulnerable. Plenty of other media giants, worried about getting left behind, followed venture capitalists and plowed money into a growing number of startups. Newsrooms were built up, with even big-name journalists moving to online-only outlets. The calculus seemed to figure that even with Facebook and Google having already emerged as gatekeepers of both content and ad dollars, the market would figure it out.
Back to present day, the market didn’t figure it out. The Times and Post are flourishing not because they changed to become more like digital upstarts but because they have avoided the free-content assumption and convinced people that their content is worth paying for. Subscriptions still reign supreme—and those companies control those subscriptions without middlemen (though Facebook is working on a subscription product).
This is a good thing. The explosion of free stuff on the internet had led to a growing belief that everything on the internet would be free forever. It was not that long ago that both the Times and Post offered all of their work online for free. Words still have value that consumers are willing to pay for, especially when they carry serious weight.
Value for free words hasn’t translated. Display ads have not turned out to be lucrative enough to sustain these media upstarts, leaving no choice but to start feeding the video beast. This is what startups do when their initial thesis doesn’t work or the market changes—they adapt to the times.
The market didn’t figure it out
There’s plenty of skepticism about whether this strategy will work, but that’s not really the point. For now, Google and Facebook are pushing media startups in that direction. There is simply no option but to pivot to video for a company like Mic.
In its wake, however, are still plenty of words. Mashable had its own “pivot to video” moment, but this is still a print article, as are a lot of the things that appears on this website. Mic will still have words too.
“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.
And if it doesn’t, the words will still be around. There just might be a few less of them.