How Vice became the poster child for the Facebook media bubble
PLUS: You're not doing enough to repurpose your content
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How Vice became the poster child for the Facebook media bubble
If you had any doubt that Vice has found itself in a precarious financial position in recent years, look no further than this paragraph from a Wall Street Journal article about it securing $30 million in debt financing:
Vice, which is trying to sell itself, owes millions of dollars to vendors and advisers, some of whom haven’t been paid for more than six months, according to people familiar with the matter. Some vendors have resorted to collections agencies to retrieve payments, some of the people said.
The mid 2010s was such a peculiar era for journalism that I think it’ll continue to be referenced decades from now — in the same way that we still discuss the emergence of “yellow journalism” or Walter Cronkite’s TV reign.
While there are many defining aspects of this more recent era, nearly all stem back to the same triggering event: Facebook’s rapid consolidation of internet audiences and its subsequent unleashing of those audiences on digital publishers that optimized their content for its algorithm.
The ensuing hockey stick traffic charts enabled those publishers to convince VCs to open up their money spigots and flood the industry with billions of dollars. That money was then used to rapidly scale up operations to the extent that thousands of newly-employed 20-somethings were churning out listicles and reblogging the previous night’s Daily Show clips.
Then came the fallout: Facebook pivoted away from news, that traffic dried up, VCs turned the money spigot off, and then publishers were forced to sink or swim. Some just outright shut down — Mic, Little Things — while most others hemorrhaged huge portions of their workforces with round after round of layoffs.
But which outlet will become the poster child for this era — remembered in the same way we reference Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, Bob Hope’s radio reign, or the debut of The Tonight Show?
I think many people would point to BuzzFeed. It did, after all, pioneer so many of the digital media tactics that dominated the mid-2010s internet — the clickbait headlines, the listicles, the viral quizzes. And its disastrous IPO serves as a distinct benchmark by which to assess its miscalculations.
But I actually think Vice serves as the better candidate. Under the auspices of its co-founder Shane Smith, no other company raised more money at a higher valuation — $5.7 billion at its apogee — and no company has fallen so precipitously once investors wised up.
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about and observing Vice over the years, through both its highs and lows, and it seems clear that it was built on a mountain of bullshit. I remember one profile of Smith detailed how he would actively mislead advertisers by flooding the Vice offices with fake workers to make it seem like a much bigger company than it actually was.
Vice also consistently exploited its workforce, leveraging its counterculture vibe to lure 20-somethings to work for egregiously-low salaries. Of course, that counterculture branding was revealed to be a complete lie when a fired editor released emails showing that he was required to get approval anytime he wrote about a Vice advertiser. Later, the company was exposed for its culture of sexual harassment and unsafe working conditions.
During all this, Smith — backed up by those hockey stick traffic charts — portrayed Vice as the next Disney. By now you’ve probably seen the famous scene in the documentary Page One where the late David Carr calls Smith on his bullshit, but unfortunately the VCs he courted weren’t as incredulous. According to Crunchbase, the company ultimately raised over $1.6 billion — more than twice as much as Buzzfeed.
And now Vice is on the chopping block, likely to be sold off in pieces. While it produced some great content over the years, it was never greater than the sum of its parts. It will forever serve as a cautionary tale for why high web traffic doesn’t necessarily translate into a dedicated, monetizable audience.
What do you think?
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Ernie Smith, founder of Tedium, a newsletter that’s been featured on NPR’s Planet Money and Vice
Randy Cassingham, founder of This is True, which may be the oldest continuously-running email newsletter
Patrick Trousdale, creator of The Daily Upside, a finance newsletter with over 500,000 subscribers
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Why The Financial Times launched an inexpensive mobile app
When it comes to distinctive newspaper designs, the print edition of The Financial Times stands out. The 135-year-old publication is instantly recognizable for its salmon pink paper, and it’s become a status symbol for London’s monied elite.
The newspaper’s web presence is extremely successful as well. In early 2022, it announced it surpassed 1 million digital subscribers, an especially impressive feat given its hefty price tag of over $400 a year.
So given this success, why did the FT launch a mobile app last year that only costs around £5 a month?
To answer this question, I turned to Malcolm Moore, a longtime Financial Times editor who was put in charge of FT Edit, which is the name for the new mobile app. We discussed why he was chosen to lead the initiative, what the app has to offer that differs from the main newspaper, and who the audience is for the product.
Watch our discussion in the video embedded below:
If video embeds don’t work in your inbox, then you can find it over here.
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Many of you aren’t doing enough to repurpose your content
I really enjoyed reading this Inbox Collective interview with a creator who took a recurring segment of his newsletter and adapted it into a self-published book. Here’s his explanation for how he came up with the idea:
This book was based on the “Final Word” section that was created at the very beginning of my newsletter, Bulletin. I think that a good newsletter should always end with a nice little takeaway for the readers. This section has always been easy to write and set up. Each week, I dissect a foreign word that does not have an equivalent in the French language. As the editions went on, I realized that people were really interested in discovering these words. Half of the messages I received were related to this. And many asked me to make a book out of it.
He went the self-publishing route and mostly sold copies to his own newsletter audience. To date, he’s generated $64,500 in sales. While it required some work and expense to design and print the book, it consisted entirely of already-published, free content.
This case study hits upon a theme I return to over and over again in this newsletter: the importance of repurposing your own content.
It’s just too common for publishers and creators alike to produce a piece of content and then move on to the next project without considering all the ways that the original article, podcast, or video can be adapted into more mediums. Not only are you depriving yourself of potential audience growth, but you also may be missing out on additional revenue models.
Every company needs to operate as a media company
With traditional marketing channels losing their effectiveness, it’s never been more important to own your audience, and the best way to do that is through the creation of blog posts, podcasts, videos, newsletters, and other kinds of high-quality digital content.
I now work with a team of media veterans who can develop a content strategy for your brand, ensure that this content reaches the target demographics within your industry, and help you deepen client relationships and remain top of mind.
Check out our full list of services over here.
New York Magazine profiles one of the most influential mercenaries in crisis PR. [New York]
Why are newspaper digital circulation numbers so misleading? [What Works]
Rumble isn't nearly as popular as YouTube and certainly doesn't bring in anywhere near as much revenue, but it does have the distinction of being one of the only conservative social platforms to develop a large user base. [New York]
Onlyfans keeps trying to pivot to safe-for-work content, but it's just not catching on. [Insider]
A few years ago, I'd actually listen to host-read podcast ads because they were short and there'd only be one or two of them. These days, I have my finger poised and ready to skip through a bunch of programmatic ads at the beginning of each podcast. [Digiday]
ICYMI: How a college student launched one of the most influential B2B sports media companies
Adam White explains how Front Office Sports grew from a college project into a media powerhouse.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.
Buzzfeed captures it for me, b/c of all the optimism surrounding it compared to Vice's more dour tones. Pair that with Upworthy and their curiosity headlines. What a time!
I'm in the SEO world and I could never figure out for the life of me why Buzzfeed didn't invest more in search. They would be the comprehensive "Friends" or "Harry Potter" culture site and could easily compete with Wikipedia for traffic on certain topics. I think it's a missed opportunity for a lot of media co's
Simon I feel like this newsletter has turned a corner in the best sense. I look forward to it. Congrats.