2014 was the year that digital media got big and got optimistic. While that’s good news for the mobile-native winners, the new influx of money and scale is bad for the second and third tier.
How huge is the market now? Well, three years ago, for the sake of comparison, AOL bought the Huffington Post for $315 million, after the site posted 2010 revenues of $30.7 million. That was a huge deal, which cemented HuffPo’s top-dog status. Today, by contrast, both figures look downright modest.
Nick Denton, for instance, the founder and owner of Gawker Media, recently revealed that his company has $60 million in revenues. The man Denton considers his arch-rival, Jonah Peretti, has already seen his 2014 revenues surpass $100 million, and is giving each of his 700 employees an Apple Watch to celebrate. He can afford it: he raised $50 million in new venture capital this summer, from a single investor, at a valuation of $850 million.
And that’s just the start. Business Insider raised $12 million in March, at a $100 million valuation, after Mashable raised $13 million in January. Vox Media raised $46.5 million in November, at a valuation of $380 million. Automattic, the company which owns Wordpress.com, raised $160 million in May, valuing the company at $1.16 billion. And then, dwarfing all the others, Vice raised an eye-popping $500 million, in a deal which valued the company at $2.5 billion. What’s more, founder Shane Smith is now telling anybody who’ll listen that he’s going to have $1 billion in revenues in 2015, which makes the valuation almost seem modest.
Not all of these investments will end up being profitable, and not all of these valuations will end up seeming sensible with hindsight. But digital media has now clearly established itself as a rational asset class to invest in. The result is real problems for the owners of companies which shouldn’t aspire to massive scale. Chris Hughes, for instance, the owner of The New Republic, insists on referring to the losses that the magazine makes as the amount he’s “investing” in the company. And Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire owner of the troubled First Look Media, is having a lot of difficulty reconciling the tensions between founding a startup technology company, on the one hand, and subsidizing important journalism, on the other.
One problem, for such people, is that the table stakes, for anybody thinking of starting a digital media company, are getting seriously big. It’s still possible to make a large splash on a relatively small budget – PlayBuzz is a prime example, albeit one which appears to have zero interest in journalism – but as we enter 2015, there’s a relatively small number of large, highly ambitious, and lavishly capitalized companies, all of which are competing very, very hard for those precious minutes that under-30s, in particular, spend staring at their phones. It’s hard to match the money being put into those companies when you’re spending your own cash, even when you’re worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
To make matters worse, the generous nature of the old web, where linking to other people was a smart strategy, doesn’t help you in mobile. Web surfing on a phone is a clunky, unhappy experience, with the result that a whole generation is growing up preferring to get all of its information from inside one fast, slick app. (That app could easily be Snapchat: Vice claims that its Snapchat-based news show is the most-watched news show in America.)
The result of the 2014 new-money surge, then, is that the world of online publishing has become bifurcated. Either you aspire to become a “platform”, or else you simply join up with somebody else’s. (Take your choice, from WordPress, Tumblr, Medium, YouTube, or, of course, Facebook.) The small but self-sustaining general-news site of a few years ago is a thing of the past: if you’re not getting 20-30 million unique visitors every month, and don’t aspire to such heights, then you’re basically an economic irrelevance. Advertisers won’t touch you, you won’t make any money, and your remaining visitors will inexorably leach away as they move from their desktops to their phones.
Hence the turmoil within First Look Media and The New Republic. The core journalism being produced by these titles simply isn’t suited to a mass audience – yet we’re entering a world where niche publications are less viable than ever before. They might have found a way to make things work on the old World Wide Web, but they can’t even get their foot in the door of the new mobile-first digital universe.
The real problem is that the owners, especially when they’re technologists, worship at the altar of “scale." They naturally aspire to going big, and to building organizations which can support such ambitions. But what works, theoretically, at scale is often at odds with what works in practice when you're small. Only too late do the owners end up learning that trying to impose big-dream structures can crush the kind of journalistic enterprise which never aspired to going huge.