The millennial-aimed Mic has represented just about every digital media trend since it started seven years ago, distributing as far and wide on platforms as possible by chasing viral hits and then video views with its woke brand of social justice journalism, fueled by $60 million in venture funding. But now, with platforms left and right disappointing publishers with failures to deliver reliable traffic and monetization, Mic is preaching the new gospel of “deliberate distribution.”
The shift has taken a few forms. Cory Haik, Mic’s publisher, said she’s taken a more systematic approach to platforms, working with evp of revenue Sarah Iooss, who joined Mic last August from Viacom, to evaluate how much effort to spend on them. Haik, who published a manifesto a couple years ago pronouncing the rise of visual journalism, said she’s banned use of the term “growth hacker” and has a new term for her mantra of the moment: “deliberate distribution.” By the end of the year, all Mic’s distributed content will be paid for, said Chris Altchek, Mic co-founder and CEO, recently on the Digiday Podcast.
“Before, we would have said to a platform, ‘What do we need to do?’ Now, we’ll experiment, but less so,” Haik said in an interview at Mic’s offices on the 82nd floor of One World Trade, surrounded by eye-popping views.
The numbers speak for themselves. Mic publishes half as much on Facebook as it did a year ago, according to Facebook-owned CrowdTangle; it’s also stopped doing partner swaps with other publishers, Haik said. It once had a 10-person Instagram team to go after specific interest groups; it’s pulled back from that Facebook-owned social app, too, and those people have been reassigned to other roles in the newsroom, Mic said. Instead, Mic is paying more attention to Apple News and Twitter. In the case of Apple News, Mic sees the potential to reach a big audience with the kind of videos it does best. Twitter is delivering some monetization.
Haik is quick to say Mic still considers Facebook a very important channel, given its huge audience base and importance to Mic’s big branded content distribution business. Mic is still in the early stages of forging a brand. It doesn’t have a subscription business. “Mic would not exist if Facebook were not here,” Haik said. But as Facebook has deprioritized publishers, Mic has had to do the same for Facebook.
The newsroom has evolved accordingly. Once there were editorial teams dedicated to cranking out viral hits for search engine optimization and trending stories for social media; they have been disbanded, and reporters are now organized around beats. When Haik joined Mic two years ago, it was publishing as many as 75 articles a day, mostly with an eye toward Facebook. Now, it publishes around 25 a day. Mic recently started measuring editorial content based on time spent rather than view counts.
Mic joined other publishers in the pivot to video, and its video output remains steady, but it’s shifted from undifferentiated clips seeking virality to videos lasting several minutes that are narrated and shot in the field. The company couldn’t immediately provide numbers to show if time spent overall has gone up, but pointed to some successes along the way: Mic, with Time, recently won a coveted American Society of Magazine Editors award for video for an 18-minute mini-doc on the opioid crisis, “Life After Addiction.” The doc racked up 118,000 hours of time spent in November, making it a top video in time spent that month. Another example of the push to viewing time is a three-minute video on an unwarranted arrest that had only 2.2 million views but 30,000 hours of time spent.
“There’s been a hard shift from undifferentiated work,” Haik said.
It might seem like this change is a reaction to the January bombshell that Facebook dropped when it said it would deprioritize publishers’ content. That progression has actually been happening for more than a year, and Haik began the changes in editorial strategy over that same time period. Publishers have seen the writing on the wall as platforms have become sometimes fickle partners. Young publishers especially realize that to endure, they need to establish a brand people value enough to visit directly, not just on Facebook or Instagram. Facebook isn’t the place to build a loyal audience, Altchek said.
The open question is whether the move by Mic and others to time spent will lead to more revenue and a more direct relationship with readers. Mic’s strategy has impacted traffic to its site, which has plummeted to 5 million uniques in March from 17 million a year ago, per comScore, which is still a key barometer of a publisher’s health. Mic has said this decline reflected its focus on video over text posts and did not capture the increased reach the publisher was getting on social platforms.
The assumption is that the longer people watch videos, the more they can be monetized with pre-roll ads. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the ad message will stick. Publishers that have optimized for audience scale for years also have to do the work of reprogramming their click-addicted staffs.
Haik was part of creating that culture. In her old job as head of emerging news products at The Washington Post, Haik was an evangelist for distributing its news as widely as possible, a message the legacy publisher needed to hear. “I was a cheerleader for it in the biggest way.” But times have changed, and her message today is all about impact and “earning the view” from the gleaming office tower.
“We’ve had to change the fundamental groundwork of Mic,” she said. “The moral is, we have to build our journalistic brand.”
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