Digital media disruptions - learning from buyouts and blog reductions at the Times, WSJ, and MTV News

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 6, 2017
The media wires are full of stories of changing newsrooms, buyouts, and writer downsizing. Time for a special edition of digital media disruptions, with our usual focus on lessons for enterprise content producers.

I wasn't planning on another digital media disruptions column just yet. But recent buyouts, blog reductions, and controversies about "long form" blog posts versus video raise potent questions for enterprises in the content game to consider. If we're not careful, these stories could lead us to the wrong conclusions.

The Wall Street Journal closes down eight blogs - why?

Let's start with the Wall Street Journal, which, as per Niemen Labs, recently shut down eight longstanding blogs (The Wall Street Journal shutters eight blogs: “The tools for telling” stories have changed). This shakeup is a blow to old school blog culture given that some of the kiboshed blogs have deep history, such as the "Law Blog," which dates back to January 2006.

The topics span everything from the Chinese economy to arts, culture, and entertainment. The Wall Street Journal noted that these topics are not being abandoned. It's how the content will be presented to audiences that is shifting.

No surprises here: people are visiting blogs less, at least in the classic "bookmark or RSS" sense. Instead, the Wall Street Journal will feature this content in today's trendier spots. Nieman Labs quotes Wall Street Journal South Asia deputy bureau chief Eric Bellman, who made some revealing comments about the end of the Real Time India blog:

India Real Time started in 2010 as the first attempt by a global newspaper to offer a news product for Indian readers through the internet. Seven years and crores of clicks later, The Wall Street Journal is winding down the successful blog. We will continue to offer the content Indian readers want through the more popular paths of distribution: WSJ subscriptions, apps and social media.

The Wall Street Journal will maintain the blog archives for the eight blogs affected, and the social media accounts associated with those blogs will remain active. On, Christine Schmidt pointed out the similarities in rationale the New York Times used in 2015 when the City Room blog was shut down:

“If it were 100 years ago, this would have lasted for 50 years, but the way technology changes and the way reader nature changes every five years now, its lifespan was just so much shorter,” New York Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson said at the time. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important bridge, but it’s a different industry than it was when City Room launched. It’s truly the post-blog era, and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”

The New York Times announces editing overhaul, copy editors impacted

Not to be outdone, the New York Times managed to inflame its own writers and editors with reported buyouts, a pending editorial reorg, and the plan to reduce the copy editor count by about half, from 100 to 50 or 55 (New York Times newsroom walks out as editors, reporters decry direction of paper). The Times has framed these moves in the context of re-imagining the editing process, "reducing layers of editors," and getting more reporters out in the field. As per a note from Executive Editors Dean Baquet and Joe Kahn:

Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before. Our future depends on stories like the one about Bill O’Reilly’s payouts to settle sexual harassment claims, as well the daily drumbeat of exclusives from the White House, our investigative and explanatory videos, the climate and graphics team’s Antarctica blockbuster, Metro’s powerful dissection of the city’s jails, the deep look into the dysfunction at Uber, our chart-topping podcast The Daily, and the visual-first storytelling that has become a regular feature of our International report.

That lofty language contrasts with the vigorous response of Times reporters and editors, and reports of all-time-low morale amongst those teams. The context, of course, is the Times' attempted digital transitions, as they try to head off declining print advertising revenues.

MTV News - Long-form reporting cutbacks, doubling down on video

The MTV News writer cutbacks added another angle, with MTV publicly stating a shift from "long form" reporting to a video emphasis (MTV News cuts Grantland alums and other top writers, axes longform, emphasized video).

As Billboard‘s Andy Gensler reported:

Sources tell Billboard the new restructuring will include a stronger emphasis on video rather than a focus on reporting and long-form. “With MTV News, we’re doubling down on where we’ve seen our biggest successes in youth culture, music and entertainment,” an MTV spokesperson said in a statement provided to Billboard. “While we’re proud of the longform editorial work from the past two years, we’re returning the editorial operation to its roots of amplifying the audiences’ voices and shifting resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Gray poured kerosene with his tweet that "Nobody wants to read more than 1,000 words," which in turn prompted rebuttals from other writers at SI and elsewhere. The most potent rebukes cited data:

My take - enterprise lessons

The danger is to focus on superficial takeaways like "blogging is dead" and "video is the key to engagement now." These decisions are typically provoked by:

  • The pressure on big media to monetize, typically with a digital advertising model at the center which prizes volume over any other metric
  • The need to publish content that lures the most traffic, and, in MTV News' case, might go "pop culture viral" like some videos do, but long form rarely does
  • Tightening content focus around the core brand audience
  • Changing content consumption styles, including apps, social link referrals, and subscriptions (either app-based or email based)

In my digital media disruptions series, I argue that enterprises are not burdened with same pressure to monetize content. Most, particularly on the B2B side, are honing in on an influential subset of readers. Data on that audience must be deeper than traffic patterns or volume clicks. Indeed, content consumption is audience-specific, often with complex variations within that audience. That's what provokes the epic quest to personalize content for individuals.

Ben Hoffman of the New York Times drove this point home during the long-form debate:

Stats that help us understand readers impact these decisions. The Wall Street Journal didn't shut down all of its blogs. Some, like Real Time Economics and and Money Beat, will continue. The WSJ's analytics are clearly telling it something, and it's not that blogging is a dead medium. Perhaps those blogs perform better in keyword search, or convert more subscribers given that economics/finance topics are core to the WSJ's appeal.

On the MTV News side, it's easy to see how a mass media site targeting youth culture would double down on video. But it's not just the medium, it's the focus - away from broader cultural topics and returning to "youth culture, music and entertainment."

As for the New York Times, it's clear - and perhaps reassuring - that in-depth reporting is still a differentiator for them. Maybe there are editing layers that can be reduced for higher ROI. One has to question whether reducing copy editors, however, should be part of that plan. If the Times is truly facing a tradeoff between story accuracy and story quality, it's grim times for publishing indeed.

Narrowing content is one lesson enterprise publishers can absolutely use. Video is another. Barb Mosher Zinck wrote about why it's time to stop procrastinating on video marketing. I've already written about the surprising effectiveness of long-form and how brands like First Round Review are getting huge mileage out of long-form posts. It's really about making content easy to consume on mobile.

Scrolling through one piece versus four isn't a big deal for readers, as long as you deliver what they want, in a mobile-friendly format. Story length is almost always subservient to UX quality. (Why UX has fundamentally changed content's winners and losers).

It's all about the audience you are trying to reach, and hopefully earn attention from. Data will be invaluable in showing what works and what doesn't, but you won't want to rely on brute force traffic metrics. Who is consuming your content, and how it affects brand perception and purchasing is the kind of data enterprises needed.

Enterprises don't have the same pressure to monetize content as pure media companies, but that doesn't mean we can take content investments lightly. These headlines are worth a careful ponder.

These pieces were picked from my curated channel, enterprise media disruptions. You can also view the entire digital media disruptions series.

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