Pivoting to nowhere: How Mic ran out of radical makeovers
In 2016, the video team at millennial-focused news site Mic was forced to float a bunch of crazy ideas in meetings.
Facebook Live video was just entering the media world’s consciousness, and BuzzFeed’s infamous exploding watermelon video had turned Mic executives green with envy. Suddenly, the publisher’s video team was asked what its live video strategy was. When it didn’t have one, its members found themselves scrambling to come up with ideas for a stunt of its own, eventually landing on a widely ridiculed video where it tried to lift a small toy house out of Central Park using balloons.
That scramble wound up being emblematic of Mic, which through its nearly seven years of existence embodied the digital media pivot, changing focus and strategy a startling number of times in order to serve the whims of platforms, advertisers and investors. At various stages, Mic has been all about politics, millennials, verticals, Facebook video and streaming programming. Mic ran out of pivots this week, facing dire financial straits that led to a fire sale to Bustle Media Group in a deal pegged at less than $5 million — a fraction of the “hundreds of millions” that Mic’s co-founder, Chris Altchek, claimed the site was worth just one year ago, after it raised a $21 million Series C round of funding. The vast majority of its staff — some 60-70 people — have been laid off, with only members of the site’s branded content operation and a handful of product staffers, headed to Bustle Media Group.
As 2018 nears its close, Mic joins former high-flying publishers like Mashable, Little Things and Upworthy in meeting a rough end. In most instances, Facebook has been a contributing factor. But in all cases, blaming Facebook is too easy, obscuring strategic errors that came back to haunt these publishers.
The art of the pivot
Mic has pivoting in its roots. Founded in 2012 as Policy Mic, a progressive policy site dedicated to making wonky governmental matters palatable to young people, the company dropped the Policy in 2014 and expanded its mission to be the “premier news and media company for young people” — one of a handful companies looking to corner the purported “millennial media” market.
Like many publishers, Mic benefited from the Facebook traffic wave. At its height, the millennial-focused news publisher, which ultimately raised $60 million in venture capital over several rounds, was attracting 65 million monthly unique users across platforms, and had at various junctures positioned itself as a Facebook success story, a stable of sub-brands aimed at millennials, and, most recently, a developer of high-end video series that it would sell to platforms including Facebook and Netflix.
Today, things look very different. Mic drew 5.5 million unique users in October 2018, its second-highest monthly total in 2018, and a fraction of the nearly 18 million unique users that visited in November 2016, according to Comscore. Its Facebook video views, another one-time linchpin, are down more than 90 percent over the past 12 months, according to CrowdTangle data.
“If you live by the sword you die by the sword. @facebook drove our ascent, when they started to prioritize outside links and later video, and also our decline, when they changed their feed algorithms,” tweeted Mic investor Jeremy Liew.
Mic’s many pivots also contorted the brand into something that couldn’t easily distinguish itself from its competition, which made the site harder to monetize and advertisers harder to attract, according to multiple ad agency sources.
“It’s a huge bummer,” one former editorial staffer said. “But people have been fearing this day for a long time.”
Pivot One: Facebook-first
Mic’s early success was fueled by Facebook distribution. By focusing on social justice issues in addition to national affairs and politics, the millennial-focused news publisher grew quickly in its early years. By 2015, the year it raised $17 million through its Series B round of funding, Mic was attracting 30 million unique users per month, more than 70 percent of whom were coming from Facebook.
That growth, combined with an earnest focus on issues including racism, LGBTQ rights and other social justice issues, put it on the media radar screen and earned it a substantial degree of early credibility. The site even snagged a video interview with President Barack Obama, which focused on topics including the United States’ relationship with Iran.
But Mic’s success, and the systems put in place to replicate it, also created tension within its editorial ranks. The site’s reliance on headline and article formats it had found effective in the past, for example, called “frameworks,” frustrated writers who felt like they were churning out clickbait rather than covering sensitive issues with appropriate nuance. “We trafficked in outrage culture,” a source told The Outline last year.
Pivot Two: Searching
Eventually, that upward surge began to slow down. A Facebook news feed update made in 2015, designed to punish clickbait, began to affect referral traffic, which prompted Mic to lean into search traffic instead to shore up the losses.
Before long, keyword-stuffed, search-focused stories, which were mostly kept off the site’s homepage and the publisher’s Facebook pages, comprised the bulk of Mic’s editorial output. By 2017, SEO-focused content comprised over 90 percent of the publisher’s daily output, according to a second former editorial staffer.
Mic made an attempt to own this strategy, when it broke the site into verticals, such as Slay, focused on beauty, or The Payoff, which focused on personal finance, and expanded its coverage out past its original areas of focus; shortly after raising a $21 million Series C round of funding, it launched a new vertical dedicated to video games, a topic that was already delivering more than a third of its monthly visits.
But that strategy didn’t stick, either. On Aug. 17, 2017, the site laid off 20 staffers, most of them from the SEO team, and formally announced a new plan: to become a leader in visual journalism.
Pivot Three: Video
Though the phrase “pivot to video” became infamous in 2017, Mic was years into it, as of the first publishers to capitalize on Facebook’s interest in it. Series like “Flip the Script,” hosted by Elizabeth Plank, were early success stories, piling up tens of millions of views back in 2015.
In 2017, Mic cut staffers devoted to text and declared its future lay in video. By that year, Mic was gathering hundreds of millions of video views per month, and it had stood up a branded newsroom that it used to generate short-form video content for advertisers, which saw the newsy coverage of topics important to brands as highly differentiated at the beginning of that year, according to a source at one advertiser that executed a six-figure deal with Mic’s branded newsroom.
But Facebook’s changing taste in video proved tough to navigate. Facebook’s decisions to deprioritize publisher content and focus on longer videos crushed the reach of Mic’s videos. Between December 2017 and October 2018, Mic’s monthly Facebook video views had dropped more than 90 percent, according to Crowdtangle data. “Short-form video just died,” one former video editor said.
Pivot Four: Dispatched
To respond, Facebook sought to work on a longer show for Facebook Watch. The final big Facebook bet Mic made was on a news show, Mic Dispatch, which Facebook reportedly paid $5 million for a year’s worth of coverage, part of a bigger investment Facebook made in weekly news shows this past spring. Mic hired multiple staffers to work on the show, amidst a hiring freeze on the writing side of the business.
The staffers that worked on Dispatch were inspired, and they worked hard at it. According to one staffer that worked on Dispatch, its cameramen would often spend more than a week at a time on the road, flying from shoot to shoot, as a team of over three dozen people worked to meet Facebook’s content demands of 30-40 minutes of content per week.
The show amassed a decent audience, pulling around 100,000 viewers per episode, that staffer said. But Facebook wanted more than that. In a meeting between Mic and Facebook, representatives of the platform told Mic that it was looking for an average view count closer to 500,000 views per episode, that staffer said.
Months later, Facebook told Mic it would not be renewing Dispatch, cutting off a valuable lifeline of revenue.
Pivot Five: IP
In the first half of 2018, co-founder Chris Altchek went on a charm offensive, visiting with media and tech press to talk about how it had moved on from an obsession with Facebook News Feed, and had instead committed to premium video. Mic had launched a new outfit, Mic Productions, a five-person team that would conceive and pitch new shows to platforms like Netflix or Hulu. It produced dozens of sizzle reel-type pitches, which it sent out to companies, a source familiar with the matter said.
But Mic staffers weren’t producing those sizzle reels. While Mic had sold a show to Netflix and had produced pitches for channels including Comedy Central, it was farming out most of the production work to outside companies, a move that unnerved many staffers on the video team.
“The business model was, we create the intellectual property,” one former video staffer said. “But all the people on our video teams were wondering, ‘Then where does that does leave us?’”
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