An old-fashioned journalist succumbs to despair.

Media’s no good, very bad week

More proof that VC funding and journalism are poor bedfellows — and that you should never trust a social media platform.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Christ, that was a week, wasn’t it?

I’ve no interest in picking over the specifics of any of these. There’s plenty of good work already happening in that space, like Charlie Warzel’s piece contextualising Buzzfeed News. Check out MediaGazer for plenty more.

But I do think it’s worth highlighting two key principles that this week’s news has underlined.

1. Never trust a platform

It doesn’t matter how much you like a platform. It’s irrelevant how much effort they put in courting you, or building platform teams, or even giving you grants. Fundamentally, you can never trust a platform because their goals are their own. And they can change with a shift in ownership, or with a shift in economic conditions.

Look, I lecture and train in the use of social media. It’s been at the heart of my career for 17 years. So, I’m not advocating abandoning social media. But, for goodness’ sake, listen to an old hand at this: you can never trust them.

The past 15 years are just the “Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown” gag, repeated again and again. And, trust me, the media are not Lucy in this metaphor. C'mon, she's even wearing Facebook's colours…

For sure, use platforms. Take advantage of them to build relationships, and attract new audiences. But never, ever become dependent on them. That’s why I can’t share others’ enthusiasm for Substack Notes, for example. I see the potential — but also the dangers.

2. Don’t build with other people’s cash

You probably couldn’t find two more different media start-ups than Gal-Dem and Buzzfeed News. But the pair of them have two things in common. They were both built on other people’s money. And they are both dead.

The funding sources were slightly different: Gal-Dem was built on grants as well as a little bit of VC money from Backstage Capital, and Buzzfeed News almost entirely on venture capital. But unless you have the discipline to focus on turning your enterprise into a profitable one as soon as humanely possible, you’re going to be left horribly exposed when the economic tide goes out.

Now, Buzzfeed as a whole isn’t going away — but news clearly doesn’t pay its way to a degree that keeps VCs happy. Semafor, take note.

The future of media start-ups is probably going to be starting small, growing with revenue, and building with a constant eye on sustainability. The news that the Manchester Mill group is expanding its team again makes me more excited than dozens of VC-funded journalism hires because they feel more sustainable.

As for those VC-backed players? Well, I think Diana Moskovitz captured it beautifully for Defector:

Show me a news startup, and I'll show you another salesman who swears they have unlocked the secret code for getting fabulously rich off the news. That code is still a secret, but a salesman has got to dream. As always, it will be the journalists who pay the price when the salesman's promises turn out to be empty. The salesman is usually gone by then.

Or, as John Gruber put it:

BuzzFeed News did great work and employed some terrific reporters, but they never had a plan to turn a profit that made any more sense than that of the underwear-collecting gnomes on South Park.

Don’t let an AI do your SEO

This feels like a terrible idea:

Meanwhile, other publishers like Ingenio, Team Whistle, BuzzFeed and Gannett are experimenting with how generative AI technology can support their SEO strategies, including using it to optimize headlines and keywords for search and to find new topics to create content around to drive traffic.

The art of editorial SEO is thinking your way into the head of your readers, and producing the sort of content that they’re actually looking for. For all its cleverness, the large language models behind generative AI lack empathy and insight.

This strategy will only last for a short while. All too quickly, everyone will be producing the same sorts of pieces, and you’ll be turning back to human insight to differentiate yourself.

Quote of the day

Charles Arthur:

If you’ve never hired a writer better than ChatGPT, you’ve really been hiring some terrible writers.


Jolly Green Job

Editor - climateXchange
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Have a good weekend all. I intend to…

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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.