Digital media brands are failing for the same reason as old media brands: they don't understand the attention economy

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The last few weeks have made it plain that digital media is stumbling. Buzzfeed UK is cutting back – hard. Mashable has been flogged off a what is a knock-down price compared to its valuation a few years ago, and is laying off staff. Great swathes of the traditional media are trying to conceal their glee at this, and are feeling an — entirely unearned — sense of relief.

Let’s be honest: much of success in a new and growing market is luck. Many of the founders of successful digital media businesses just had a good idea at the right time, when there was an opportunity to do something different. That same idea might well have failed six months earlier or two years later. That’s no guarantee that they can repeat – or even sustain – that feat. Luck is fickle. If you want an example of that, back at LeWeb in 2007, Kevin Rose (best known for Digg at the time — remember that?) claimed that the fellow startup founders of his generation would be along with an even bigger second act shortly. A decade on, only Stewart Butterfield of Slack (and Flickr before it) has come close to fulfilling that prediction. Many of the others have faded into obscurity.

Charlie Beckett of Polis at the LSE wrote one of the best analyses of the news, hitting the underlying problem:

[…] we still have too much duplicated journalism. Or too much journalism full-stop. Yes, there are gaping voids, especially at local level. Yes, you might still have to work hard as a consumer to find the right diet of content to suit your needs. Aggregation or curation is still pretty crude. But that, rather than yet another start-up with a handful of earnest writers seeking to produce more long-form interactive articles about international affairs or identity politics is probably what our information-saturated world needs.

This is absolutely spot on. The biggest misconception I come across — and which I keep coming across — is that there’s not enough good journalism out there. In mainstream reporting, that’s simply not true. We’re already over-supplied. What we’ve got will only become sustainable once there’s a consolidation of the many over-lapping international news outlets.

In other words, how many article variations on the implications of the latest Trump announcement (tweet?) or Brexit moves do we really need? Certainly not the several dozen being produced right now. The internet has multiplied competition by making overseas news organisations available to us. Our national newspapers don’t just compete with each other, they compete with the Washington Post and the New York Times – and the BBC, too. Never in the entirely of human history have we had so much access to journalism. Therein lies the problem.

We have more of it than we can handle.

The pivot to mainstream news

In light of this, Mashable pivot to mainstream news, away from the niche it once owned, is probably far more central in its fall than the much-maligned pivot to video. (That’s become something of a bogeyman amongst writing-centric journalists, and has been over-sold. It is just a rebalancing.)

As DigiDay reported:

“It came from Pete [Cashmore] on down — ‘What’s going to be our version of Ben Smith?’” a former insider said. “’They got Ben Smith, so we need someone,’” said another, describing the philosophy. “’They started BuzzFeed Studios; let’s start Mashable Studios.’ I’m surprised they didn’t call it ‘MashFeed’ at some point.” But as an ex-editorial staffer said, the pivot to general news made Mashable a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Everyone was aware BuzzFeed was beating us on stuff, and the tech pubs didn’t take us seriously.”

General news: saturated.

Tech news: saturated.

They pivoted away from a commoditising content type, to two that were already commoditised. It’s a wonder they lasted as long as they did.

The pivot to niche

Where there is a shortage — and quite a dramatic shortage — is in some niches, local news amongst thm. Admittedly, there are niches are already saturated; look at how Condé Nast is reshaping itself. That is, at least in part, a response to the saturation of the online fashion space by more fashion bloggers and “influencers” than you can possibly count.

Our industry still derives its prestige from the big national/international titles, and everyone aspires to that — including many digital upstarts, it seems. That seems like a fundamental mismatch with people’s actual needs, though. I care more about stories in my professional niches than I do on the world stage right now, because they have more impact on my day-to-day existence. I can name between one and three important national news stories per day, normally, but there’s often a dozen I want to read around journalism and online media, plus many more about my hobbies and interests.

Small, niche reporting businesses don’t get the accolades, the aspiration and the adulation. But they do get readers and, if the overheads are managed correctly, a sustainable business, with diverse revenue streams available from niche and therefore targetable markets.

The attention markets

Underlying all this is a simple idea that I’ve been banging on about for half a decade at least, and which has been floating around since 2001 (and, arguably, 1971): when information becomes abundant, attention becomes scarce. It’s the idea of the attention economy.

The core concept is really, really simple to grasp: people are over-whelmed with information, and (consciously or not) seek coping and filtering strategies. Facebook is one of those strategies; it filters information through your friends, with all the benefits and problems that brings. The “flight to niche” is another: with over-whelming information available, you narrow down on tighter and tighter niches of relevance, the particular subset of information of most relevance to you.

And how are we, as an industry responding to this?

We produce ever greater volumes of content.

It’s insane. Until we get a handle on that, we’re only going to hear more bad news about digital media.

unsplash-logoMatthew Guay

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.