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  • Writer's pictureChris Mads

The digital wobble and return of the experts

The start of the year was not a good time for online media outlets - but their woes could herald worse news for those who looked to emulate them.

In January and February, Buzzfeed and Vice both announced staff layoffs across their digital media teams. This, in itself, would come as no surprise to members of the media and journalism society. Redundancies are a way of life, indeed it was one of the things which my journalism tutor predicted would be a certainty for all of us - correctly in my case, it turned out.

But the established and print media organisations were quick to react to the news of a chink in the armour of the digital juggernaut. I can tell you from experience that all sort of newsrooms are fighting hard to work out how they can compete with the like of Buzzfeed in the digital and social media realm. This battle comes with a tinge of bitterness as the "clikbait" approach many accuse new online news outlets of taking. This charge is enhanced with talk of "dumbing down" the news agenda and stifling discussion to provide bitesize news quickly and manageable for today's voracious, but fast-moving consumer.

Some of the established and heritage print brands, which have suffered accusations of seeming stagnant in the face of these rapid digital challengers positively revelled in the misfortunes of others. The Spectator's Will Lloyd accused the online giants of being unable "to cut their umbilical, traffic-driving cord with Facebook and Google" and hiring journalists who are "frankly, not very good at their jobs".

The second part of that charge is sweepingly unfair in the case of many of the larger digital news outlets. Journalists in top positions for brands such as Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post are excellent at their craft. But the internet is saturated with sites churning out quick content courtesy of cheap writers lacking in expertise.

And this was always going to happen. The internet is a free market and the ultimate leveller. An expert with 20 years' experience in a field can publish and article on the same topic as a novice in a bedroom, with no guarantee they will reach more people or be given more clout by readers. The market has become saturated, digital new outlets have become the norm and - as they always will - the consumers are starting to turn a questioning eye on these outlets.

This approach from readers has led to, what GQ Editor Dylan Jones in his editorial for the July edition (which I heartily suggest you all read) labelled "a renewed faith in expertise". He argues that the vice of fake news has led customers to question what they are reading, to the detriment of brands which do not have "the halo effect of proven journalistic success".

But what of those brands which did, but have squandered it in a scramble to keep up?

The power of digital has touched every marked it has entered, leaving the existing players fighting to keep their ground. In news, as in fashion and most other markets, many of the established heritage brands have doubled down on their traditional offer while building their digital provision.

That is easier for the likes of Jones' GQ, which has the multi-billion dollar Condé Nast powerhouse behind it and impressive name recognition. But smaller brands have taken a more drastic approach. Across the industry we have seen journalist numbers slashed and print output tumbling as outlets shift to a sleeker, cheaper, more digital-first approach.

It seemed like the best way. It probably was. But at what cost?

Many of those brands have gutted the infrastructure, knowledge and legacy which might have lent them the "halo effect" Jones described. As the market begins to look back towards the opinions of experts, some will start to dust themselves off and rebuild, but many have cut too much too fast. Some of these brands have thrown away their ability and name value in the scramble to keep up with digital. But if they have done so at the cost of their brand, where does that leave them?

As the market's experts start to pick themselves up and the digital giants adjust (and they will) to the slowed growth, spare a thought for those who, in an attempt to keep up, damaged what they already had - perhaps irrevocably.


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