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Video was never the answer
Disclaimer: Below I discuss the pivot to video, Facebook, and the controversy around its video view measurement miscalculations. During the period in question, my employer (and I, in my capacity as an employee) worked directly with Facebook on display and video advertising measurement.
Every year or so, someone in media obliquely references the infamous 'pivot to video' and sets off a wave of journalists and technologists misremembering everything about it.
This last week's edition of collective amnesia was no different. In a Nieman Lab story last Friday about The Atlantic's recent layoffs, Laura Hazard Owen glancingly noted:
If there was any doubt, it’s now gone: Video and events will not save us...A couple years ago, publishers raced to bulk up their video departments, guided in part by Facebook’s now-extremely-suspect-seeming guidance that it was really, actually what news consumers wanted. It turns out they do not.
That was all it took for a small pile-on. Digital Content Next's Jason Kint tweeted: "As the industry and publishers chased Facebook’s news, learning only later they may have been fraudently deceived, it was one of the long list of reasons not to trust Facebook."
Talking Points Memo's Josh Marshall retweeted this, adding: "wow, golden oldie, the time @Facebook lied about its numbers and got half the journalism industry to run off a cliff and everyone lost their job."
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same Twitter phenomenon took hold last October, right after Hollywood Reporter published a piece about Facebook settling a lawsuit around their inflated video metrics:
Adam Conover, host of Adam Ruins Everything: "In order to beat YouTube, Facebook faked incredible viewership numbers, so [CollegeHumor] pivoted to FB. So did Funny or Die, many others. The result: A once-thriving online comedy industry was decimated. A $40m fine is laughable; shut Facebook down."
NYU Stern professor Scott Galloway: "Whole companies shifted their strategy to video. Companies going bankrupt, people losing jobs, FB gets away with 0.18% of annual income ($40M / $22B), a slap on the wrist."
Gavin Purcell, Vox Media's former Head of Video: "Six months or so after I left, the above all continued and they did a round of layoffs primarily around social video hires."
And these takes, in turn, echoed those from one year earlier, in October 2018, when a lawsuit was unsealed alleging that Facebook had known about their incorrectly calculated metrics before they disclosed it to advertisers:
Chris Conroy, senior editor at DC Comics: "If you missed it: today it was confirmed that Facebook massively & knowingly inflated its video-view statistics, which had the DIRECT consequence of 90% of media orgs firing writers in favor of expensive video producers, who also got fired when it turned out video was worthless. Careers were devastated. A large chunk of Facebook’s staff should go to prison for this."
Movie writer Bob Chipman: "*Everyone* in media overnight basically tore down a century of text journalism infrastructure, destroying millions of careers, to "pivot to video" because Facebook told them (essentially) Millennials only clicked on vids."
Writer Benjamin Bailey: "A lot of friends lost their jobs over this bullshit. Facebook outright lied and pushed this whole 'pivot to video' narrative. It's all a big house of cards."
These takes are wrong. Facebook didn't cause the layoffs from the pivot to video: publisher leadership teams did.
Let's revisit the facts. First, what was the pivot to video? In short, it was the ill-fated decision many publications made, mostly in 2016 and 2017, as memorably summarized by journalist Heidi Moore:
lay off most of your writers, who produce stories fast and cheaply for your own website
produce more video, which is vastly more expensive and time-consuming and which only finds an audience on other platforms, like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube
Step 4, needless to say, never happened. And media types have been blaming Facebook ever since.
Specifically, they've been blaming Facebook for repeatedly insisting video was the future, relentlessly pushing their video-centric products like Facebook Live, and touting this strategy based on two years' worth of video ad metrics that, it turns out, were massively inflated.
Facebook did indeed screw up its metrics (not just video ad views, but many others as well). But there are glaring logical flaws with its critics' accusations that these errors were directly responsible for the pivot to video and resulting layoffs. And these problems starkly illustrate the news industry's chronic inability to turn the spotlight inward and examine its own strategic failings.
There's a line connecting this collective denialism with, say, The New York Times' preternatural skill for pretending its 2016 election coverage never happened, or Buzzfeed insisting they were right to report that Trump directed Cohen to lie. For an industry devoted to holding others accountable, the pivot to video represents a gigantic void of publisher accountability. All of which means this will happen again, the next time a platform dangles a carrot in front of publishers' faces.
So then: the logical problems.
First, and most damagingly to the commentary quoted above, the pivot to video continued long after Facebook admitted, in September 2016, that they had miscalculated video view data. MTV and FOX Sports and Vocativ all pivoted to video in June 2017 alone. Vice Media pivoted in July. Mic.com pivoted in August. Ad industry mainstay Digiday was still writing articles in August and September covering publishers "going all-in on video." (In December, a full fifteen months after Facebook's miscalculations came to light, Digiday reported: "The video bubble hasn’t burst quite yet, but it sure has deflated for video makers looking to sell short-form content to streaming platforms.") Indeed, pivoting to video was so common in 2017 that New York Magazine's Brian Feldman called it "a kind of cliché — a slick way to describe something else: layoffs."
Second, overstating its video ads' effectiveness did harm some Facebook clients. But the clients it directly screwed were advertisers, not publishers. To the extent that the world was incorrectly led to believe that Facebook videos performed better than they actually did, this would have had the temporary effect of increasing news publishers' ability to monetize videos, not decreasing it.
Third, the notion that a strategy as short-lived and specific as the pivot to video is the cause of journalism's recent problems is akin to Trump taking credit for the U.S.'s long economic expansion that significantly pre-dated his presidency:
That is, if there was anything close to an ironclad rule of the prior decade-plus of news history, it's that advertising revenue was in near-unrelenting decline:
Can you spot the pivot to video anywhere in there? Me neither.
Fourth, and by far most importantly, the sheer folly of publishers piggybacking off Facebook to produce a business model for news out of thin air, instead of investing in the long, hard slog to build something sustainable and user-friendly in-house was not -- contrary to all those angry tweets -- unforeseeable.
I know this because many people foresaw it.
In June 2016, three months before anyone outside of Facebook had an inkling their video ad metrics were wildly off, the very same Josh Marshall tweeted: "The reality is that news consumers don't want video...The entire industry push is because advertisers want to duplicate the familiarity and perhaps the effectiveness of television advertising on the web."
Aram Zucker-Scharff tweeted similarly in January 2017: "Just watch literally any user of your site to determine that video is less effective than its endless boosters keep saying." Brian Feldman wrote about the broader strategic implications in June of that same year: "Profit-seeking start-ups and enormous publicly traded conglomerates...are poor patrons of ambitious, sophisticated, politically driven journalism." Heidi Moore concluded in September 2017 that "the biggest problem with the pivot to video is that it’s not well-considered strategy."
TIME's Zach Schonfeld took note of the endless procession of carrots proffered by platforms to eager publishers, explaining in June 2017:
"Pivoting to video" won't solve long-term media business woes in 2017, just as Facebook Live didn't solve them in 2016 and quizzes didn't solve them in 2014 and curiosity-gap headlines didn't solve them in 2013 and listicles didn't solve them in 2012 and blogs or whatever didn't solve them in 2007. Eventually, algorithms change and ad models collapse and executives panic and money flows apace into Facebook and YouTube and other distribution channels. Flashy, short-sighted solutions don't really solve existential crises.
Hell, even I saw it coming. Way back in June 2016, I wrote a post called "Video is not your savior:"*
TL;DR: Video, like text before it, is about to explode in supply, and prices are eventually going to drop because much of that video inventory is going to be terrible. We will exaggerate that supply with metrics that aren’t real, which will obscure the fact that the ones that are real aren’t rising as quickly as we’d expected or declining as quickly as we’d hoped. Best of all, we’ll make room for our mediocre new video supply – as we already are – by reducing the supply of text content: you know, that thing that was the Future of News a few months ago.
One can only hope that, by the time the video market has plateaued, the news media will have found the next future of news monetization. They’re going to need it.
That’s not the fault of Facebook: it’s only a problem for journalists. Here’s the unfortunate truth about good journalism: it’s inherently non-scalable. The principles that work so well in tech companies – especially ones like Facebook that operate in two-sided markets and that benefit enormously from network effects – are worth very little to journalism, at least in immediate terms. Producing 2,000 AI-assisted videos will contribute virtually nothing to the corpus of quality content, while doing much to dilute the market for everyone who’s actually creating some.
One of my favorite writers on tech and media, Ben Thompson, appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast in April. During the episode, Klein asked him how he was able to successfully find and keep a (paying) audience online. Although he raised other factors too, Thompson summarized his approach thusly: “You just have to produce stuff that’s really good.”
That’s the whole secret. It may not be the answer journalists want, but it’s the only one they’ve got.
A year and a half later, Susie Banikarim penned a eulogy -- titled, literally, "R.I.P. Pivot to Video (2017 - 2017)" -- which concludes with a near-identical analysis:
That’s why publishers who made the pivot are now pivoting away again, looking for the next thing that may “save” them. But that’s an endless cycle of restrategizing and layoffs. There is no easy answer, no one thing that’s going to magically make audiences find and connect to your work. The secret to success in journalism isn’t a secret at all: Make very good things that people actually want to read and watch. That’s it. That’s all. That’s everything.
You get the picture.
Now, none of this is to say that the Internet-enabled superstar economy -- in which a couple large tech platforms prey, vulture-like, on infinite user-generated content and starve all other forms of media of meaningful revenue streams -- is not a problem. It is! Indeed, for journalism, it may well be an existential one. And solving it will likely require antitrust actions, or forceful regulation, or both.
But much like video, antitrust or regulation won't save news organizations from themselves. (In this newsletter, I'm focusing primarily on the leadership teams at national news and/or politics publications, not local news sites, who face similar challenges but have scarce resources or scale to do anything about them.)
I have no idea how journalism will be saved. But I do know that publishers who blame Facebook for their own short-termist thinking undermine their case for continued existence. Cries of "but we're the fourth estate!" won't cut it. Candidly, no one else cares. If you think journalism is special, you need to prove it to your constituents -- that is, your readers, not the advertisers -- over and over, just like any other business does with its customers.
Among other things, this requires innovation. I'll give just one small example. Every day, the desktop home page layouts of our national newspapers share striking similarities with the designs of their print editions.
Here's The Wall Street Journal (L - the web site home page, R - Saturday's print edition):
Now why, well over twenty years after newspapers first began migrating online, has so little changed in the way they present their most prominent content? (And some of these sites' mobile apps represent yet another publishing medium with a striking lack of native feature sets or differentiators. They seem to exist just for the sake of having an app.) It's a bit like all those anecdotes about early TV ads, which were essentially radio ads read by someone on-camera. The message hadn't yet caught up to the medium.
But newspapers don't have the excuse of newbie-ism anymore: it's been too long. Again, this is a minor example, but it's illustrative of a larger mindset in which, somehow, journalism can just carry on as before because it stands on its own.
The thing is, it doesn't. I am certainly not as caustic or dogmatic as, say, Stratechery writer Ben Thompson, who recently declared: "It is just assumed [by NYT columnist Ben Smith] that Google and Facebook ought to be paying publishers for their content, but any sort of rational evaluation would suggest that money should flow in the opposite direction." But journalists should nevertheless confront the reality that their continued employment is not a concern for most people. (Take it from a guy who works in advertising for a company not named Google or Facebook. Literally no one cares about our continued employment either, and they shouldn't.)
To be clear, everyone and everything is fair game for criticism. My point is most certainly not to tell the media to pull punches against Facebook and Google, or ad tech generally. But like any other industry in seemingly endless decline, the news can either lament the status quo or try to change it. As Thompson writes, "Media organizations have to be honest with themselves about why they are struggling."
It's not a fix. But it's a start.
* In that same piece, I mentioned Facebook's Instant Articles program, which had just opened up to all content creators, as yet another red herring publishers needlessly fell for: "In short, for the cost of building out storage and a few servers to host all that new content, Facebook gained access to news organizations’ output as well as a cut of their ad revenue. (They’re smart, those guys.) It is unclear what news organizations received in return."
Ten months later, The Verge's Casey Newton would write: "And after two years of experimenting with Instant Articles, many outlets appear to have had enough. The New York Times, which had been a launch partner for Instant Articles, abandoned the platform last fall. Vice News, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Hearst publications are among the large publishers who have joined it in leaving."