Last week, reports broke that digital media outlet Vice was headed for bankruptcy. The news follows hot on the heels of news that BuzzFeed was to close its news operations after founders admitted the business was no longer financially sustainable.
The demise of both outlets is an Icarus-like story: a couple of post dot-com media companies that completely disrupted how news was reported and consumed, but which were ultimately unable to maintain the cultural cache and readers they had once attracted in droves.
Both companies rose to prominence in the mid-to-late 2000s, at the very advent of online and social media, tapping into a large number of younger audiences who didn’t feel served or represented by many of the more established media titles. The result birthed new forms of reporting and content with sub-culture, engagement and shareability at their core (who didn’t love a good GIF-laden listicle?) as well as some award-winning investigative reporting. Both outlets also actively encouraged their journalists to build a large number of personal followers through newsletters and social media and become ambassadors for their brands. Meanwhile advertisers and investors continued to pile in.
The popularity saw established news brands copying these tactics in a bid to keep pace, adopting shorter, more attention-grabbing headlines and content formats to appeal to younger audiences – one only needs to look at the Mail Online to see its enduring influence.
Fast forward twenty years, Vice and Buzzfeed became have become victims of two major trends – the substantial loss of digital brand advertising to Google and Facebook, while also failing to keep pace and relevance with increasingly fragmented and fickle audiences, many of whom have abandoned individual news outlets in favour of news feeds and individual content creators on social media. Without the cushion of an established and loyal readership base of their peers, coupled with declining traffic and revenues, these outlets have sadly come to the end of the road.
For media and brands alike, the fortunes of Vice and Buzzfeed News are not just a sign of the times but a warning; a continual reminder of the need to adapt or die. Today, it is vital that organisations know their audiences, and importantly what their audiences want from them, and not try to provide everything to everyone, instead focusing on engaging in specific and important conversations as part of a community, rather always the main focal point – and if they can do that through the medium of a listicle, that is no bad thing.