Recent layoffs at Medium have opened a discussion around how media properties can successfully survive and monetize. In a recent blog post, Medium founder, Ev Williams questioned the ability to build a successful publication supported by advertising. He said, “Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people.”
Jessica Levin of The Information went even further by saying “[media] businesses still define success as a few big advertisers, or event sponsors, agreeing to pay a lot of money. And that means reporters and writers are motivated by the same old goals: keeping those advertisers happy and the traffic numbers high. Being somewhat rational, they chase the trivial and the easy, which doesn’t serve readers. It’s how we end up with 50 takes on the same silly article.”
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What’s the real problem? No one seems to agree on what defines the success of a media company. Is it maximizing the number of unique views (Buzzfeed)? Is it being purchased for nearly half a billion dollars (Business Insider)? Is it meeting the needs of a niche (The Information)?
The Role of Venture Capitalists
In Silicon Valley, success is often viewed through the lens of massive scale and massive valuation. So media companies get viewed by the same standards as a startup. Get VC funding, massively scale, become a unicorn, sell/go public and live happily ever after. VC success is judged on the valuation of the relatively short life of their portfolio. They are not interested in building anything that does not have the potential to massively scale and eventually monetize.
The VC model works for many types of companies. Media may not be one of them. As PR professionals, we work closely with members of the media. They are our heroes, and we root for their success more than anyone. We see firsthand the need for media outlets that can educate and enlighten their readers. Therefore, credible publications need to outlive a VC portfolio life span.
The Future of Media
If we step outside the VC version of success, we can see there is room for small- and medium-sized publications that may not be big enough to support an advertising model. That will mean looking at different models to monetize such as subscriptions, events, micropayments, etc. Media is a tough and fragmented market. Running a publication that provides great information alongside ROI that offers writers and owners a good living is a worthy goal. Even if they never approach unicorn status, that is success and we should recognize it.
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