Why ‘news for millennials’ media plays never panned out

Once upon a time, news needed to be remade for millennials.

The 21st century’s second decade was new, and a perfect storm was brewing: Publishers, particularly digital-native ones, were hunting for scale; Facebook, fresh off an IPO, was hungry for content that would attract more user attention; and venture capitalists, watching geysers of free money shoot out of the federal reserve, were looking for new investment opportunities.

Suddenly, news needed to be quicker, video-and image-heavy and optimized for sharing (and mobile phone screens). It could live on a platform instead of a publisher’s website. It could be monetized, well, some way or other (that would be figured out later), and a whole new crop of millennial news purveyors was born.

In a dizzying four-year stretch, upstarts like Mic, Mashable, and Ozy raised tens of millions of dollars in funding; legacy media brands including Univision and Disney launched competitors of their own, and almost everybody who had bought into this strategy pivoted to video.

Today, the effects of these new brands’ efforts can be seen across the publishing landscape. But the layoffs, sales and revenue misses of 2018 exposed the fact that “news for millennials” was, for the most part, just a bit of marketing opportunism that didn’t work out. Without a firehose of cheap referral traffic or brands that engendered loyalty in audiences, the great changing of the news guard has yet to come.

“I don’t think you can target a demo,” media analyst Bernard Gershon said. “I think you have to create a high-quality product, and then figure out ways to monetize that.”

Take a look at the reach of news sites among 25-34-year-old internet users, and only three millennial-focused publishers crack the top 50. Just one – Insider Inc. – cracks the top 10. The next “millennial news” entry on the list, Mic, clocks in at 36, and it reaches just 2.6 percent of that age cohort, according to Comscore data.

Some of that is because the distribution mechanism these publishers rode at first stopped working for them. In 2014, the year Mic raised a $17 million Series B round of funding, Facebook accounted for 70 percent of the site’s traffic. NowThis, the video-focused news publisher that is now part of Group Nine Media, took the distributed news approach to an extreme conclusion by famously eschewing a website (a strategy it abandoned earlier this year).

But those days are over. After years of surging referral traffic, Google has since reclaimed the title of top referrer among publishers. “[These publishers] didn’t diversify how they were getting their audiences,” said Sachin Kamdar, the CEO of Parse.ly, a tool that monitors internet referral traffic.

Building to maximize reach, rather than community, proved another key problem. While engagement metrics and direct relationships are en vogue today, many millennial news publishers were born in an era where scale was prized, and they developed accordingly.

“There was a core misunderstanding of what makes for successful millennial journalism products,” said Raju Narisetti, former CEO of Gizmodo Media Group and director of the Knight-Bagehot fellowship in economics and business journalism at Columbia University. “There was no place to create a community.”

The most successful millennial products, publisher or not, nurture conversations, Narisetti said, rather than blast information out at a passive audience. And while platforms like Facebook theoretically offered users a chance to connect with one another, those connections were harder for the publishers to capitalize on. “You can’t build a community on Snapchat or on Facebook,” Narisetti added. “That’s Facebook’s community.”

These execution errors obscured a lot of fine work by young reporters that were attracted by the opportunity. BuzzFeed News has amassed multiple Pulitzer Prize citations; Mic was nominated for an Emmy; NowThis secured exclusive interviews with politicians including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

And if millennial news sites didn’t succeed in supplanting the old guard, they do deserve credit for spurring them to modernize their advertising and distribution operations. “They pulled the whole industry forward,” Mediaradar CEO Todd Krizelman said. “All these guys paved the road that every publisher is going down now.”

And not everybody has soured on the idea that millennials deserve their own style of news. But the publishers that believe in it are more pragmatic about the economics of content creation and social distribution.

Brut., a global video news publisher that launched in France two years ago, is betting that short-form, scaled news video can easily be translated and syndicated across numerous platforms and markets. It currently ranks as a top-five new publisher on Facebook, according to Tubular Labs data.

“At least 60, 70 percent of the videos we produce are global,” said Guillaume Lacroix, Brut’s CEO, who added that by the middle of next year, each video Brut’s global team produces will be available in 14 markets, across an average of eight different platforms.

“When you have 112 videos for the production cost of one, I think you are in a position where you can navigate a very complex world where you have a 50 percent cut of ad platform,” Lacroix said. “If you don’t have that scale, it becomes very hard to navigate that cut.”


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