Co-founder of Vox media explains why old media are dying

Joshua Topolsky founded Vox Media to compete with existing mainstream media.

He writes about how media are always looking for the next “new thing” to save their moribund industry and, in the process, deliver ever worsening standards of media.

The media industry now largely thinks its only working business model is to reach as many people as possible, and sell — usually programmatically, but sometimes not — as many advertisements against that audience as it can. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying.

They are also wrong, I believe, in the long run.

And every few months — or let’s say annually — a technology, or idea, or person comes along and the very stupid and slow media industry thinks that New Thing will fix everything. Get them back to the good times. Make those pennies into actual dollars. One year it might be the iPad, the next it might be an “amateur journalist” network, maybe last year it’s You Won’t Believe What Happens Next, maybe next year it’s video (or live video?), maybe it’s bots. Maybe it’s Instant Articles. Maybe it’s your new app.

Certainly it could be a little bit of all of those things. But actually it’s not any of them. You can always get some runway out of the New Thing. You can always get a quick hit that looks like success from the New Thing. But rarely — almost never — is the New Thing what fixes your problem.

Currently it is “integrated news desks” in New Zealand. Unfortunately, it isn’t working. And here is why:

Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected, and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they will go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.

The truth is that the best and most important things the media (let’s say specifically the news media) has ever made were not made to reach the most people — they were made to reach the right people. Because human beings exist, and we are not content consumption machines. What will save the media industry — or at least the part worth saving — is when we start making Real Things for people again, instead of programming for algorithms or New Things.

The NZ Herald reportedly spent more than $3 million developing their paywall solution that was going to solve all their problems. It is ready for deployment but they are too chicken to do it.

So what will matter in the next age of media?

Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media. Thinking of your platform as an actual platform, not a delivery method. Knowing you’re more than just your words. Thinking of your business as a product and storytelling business, not a headline and body-copy business. Thinking of your audience as finite and building a sustainable business model around that audience — that’s going to matter. Thinking about your 10 year plan and not a billion dollar valuation — that’s going to matter.

I’m glad they aren’t thinking along those lines. It creates disruption…and in disruption there is opportunity.

But before we realign around all those Real Things, it will be very bloody. Bloody, and violent, and depressing. Content makers will die. They’ll be bought up. They’ll be split apart. Their TV networks will fail. Their partnerships will end. In fact, this is already happening.

We’ll have to learn a thousand hard lessons, most of them centered around the idea that if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making it great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone. A lot of people, but not every person.

I tend to be a glass half full person. I actually think this is an incredible opportunity for the smart people in media. We can unfuck ourselves. We can build new things. We can start over, however we want.

At the risk of sounding self-promotional, that’s what I’ve been working on for the better part of a year. I’m only interested in making interesting things for interested people. Want to support it or be part of it? Ping me. I love talking.

Or ping me and Regan; we love talking too.

 – Medium


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  • Justme

    When I read something, I want to learn about a topic. If it is sports, I want to know who won, or what the score was. If it is the weather, tell me what it is going to do. Tell me something I do not know.
    I am finding, with increasing regularity, that the articles being produced, tell me nothing, or what they do tell me, is wrong. And the opinion based articles are that of children who haven’t grown up yet. Where are the sage’s, those who have seen more than one economic/weather/social cycle?
    What happened to the mythical cigar chewing editor yelling, “Get me the truth!!”?

    If I catch a taxi, it is because I want to go somewhere. The current taxi that is the media, has two flat tyres, is out of petrol, and they want the flag to fall as soon as I open the door to get in.

    • OneTrack

      And the media taxi wants to take you were they want you to go.

  • LabTested

    2 good news sites that give a world view (in english) from a German perspective.

    A free mobile app that covers the world headlines Flipboard – a good way to wake up in the morning & check what has happened.

    • Mark156

      Flipboard looks worthwhile thanks

  • cows4me

    Maybe if the media spent less time manufacturing the news and more time just reporting the news their outlook would not be so grim.

  • shykiwibloke

    On my way to work each morning I see the Horrid’s front page at my coffee shop. They continue to shock with the silly stories they pick and depths they plumb. (This mornings pic of the PM for instance). I wouldn’t read it if they paid ME.
    Perhaps that will be next years big thing – a reverse paywall where viewers share in the ad revenue….

    • Boondecker

      i have to admit i only read Herald articles through their Facebook page posts. It’s way more fun than reading a hard copy because you can immediately rip the proverbial out of them in the comments section. Not that changes anything, but at least you get some satisfaction out of the process.

      More and more of the online readership are catching on. I only go for the comments now. It’s hilarious to see what they pump out as journalism these days. Not many are being taken in by though going by what’s in those comments.

  • Korau

    “Content makers will die. They’ll be bought up. They’ll be split apart.
    Their TV networks will fail. Their partnerships will end. In fact, this
    is already happening.”

    Tuesday April 26, 2016,Cash-crunched Quickflix appoints administrator.

    The video streaming pioneer has struggled with a number of failed
    capital raising and partnership attempts over the past year as it has
    been hit by new competition.

    The immediate cause of today’s announcement was $11.7 million in
    redeemable preference shares (that is, shares that must be bought back
    by the company at an agreed date and for an agreed price), which Quickflix
    can’t pay.

    The redeemable preference shares were once owned by (now departed)
    founding investor HBO and bought by Fairfax-Nine Entertainment joint
    venture Stan for an undisclosed sum.

    So, Quickflix is in trouble, and it’s going to likely cost Fairfax as well.

  • Oarsum

    This video contends that USAmericans are really only interested in the spectacle; they want distraction. Old style news with facts seems no longer desirable.

    {Picked up as link from last night’s video analysing Steely Dan’s Deacon Blue; the title of Is Trump the end of philosophy, is like click bait – not that relevant}

  • Jafarma

    Much, or maybe even most, of the offerings served up by MSM these days are about as useful as what still left in Dick Smith stores – nobody wants it.