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We cannot afford to misinterpret the failure of Buzzfeed and Vice

Karlin Lillington: As advertising migrated online, the traditional print model shrivelled

After I graduated from high school in the late 1970s, I tentatively applied for a summer job at one of the two local newspapers in our California central valley town of 34,000.

To my surprise, the managing editor of one, the Daily Democrat, gave me a part-time job – not the writing job teen-me had hoped for, but delivering display advertising cut-sheets, the scissored-out full page on which an ad had appeared, to whatever small local business had placed it in the previous day’s paper.

That was how newspapers worked. A business ordered and paid for an ad, the ad department designed it, and after it ran, I made the cut-sheets, put them in large brown envelopes, and cycled around town in the summer heat, dropping them to the appropriate business.

That direct-advertising model supported the existence of two dailies in a small town, each with reporting, editing and advertising teams and, of course, the paper boys who hurled the day’s edition on to the doorsteps of subscribers.


Two decades later, the internet changed everything. By then, I was covering technology for some of the smart new online US publications, plus a range of recently-launched tech-business oriented magazines, as well as mainstream publications such as The Irish Times and the Guardian.

The magazines and online publications paid extremely well, and the newspapers weren’t bad either. But all were on the cusp of a bewildering transformation in both readership and advertising. From a writer’s perspective it seemed like – it was – a boom time.

The online publications and the magazines wanted long pieces on per-word contracts. Online readership was exploding, as was eager interest in emerging personal and business technologies, and in the business of technology.

Briefly, the old ad model pertained. Publications took in orders for online or print ads, and were paid directly by clients.

Then came Google and other online middlemen, digital ad companies that could use the personal data increasingly gathered by websites and place digital ads across the internet on websites including those of media organisations, targeting not just vague types of users (people in Dublin) but specific, narrow subgroups (25-30 year-old renters in Dublin 7 who like craft beers and buy graphic novels).

Google flipped from being a benign online ‘”no evil” search facility to the personal data-gathering front end of a staggeringly lucrative ad business.

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Print publications began to struggle as advertising, both display and classifieds, went digital. Then came social media, a new form of data harvesting platform that began to control access to, and profit from, ad revenue for content that the platforms didn’t even produce, the news written by traditional and digital media.

The result? Within years, most of the once-hot print and digital properties I wrote for were gone, or much diminished. Even as readership ballooned, ad income, controlled by third parties, shrivelled.

Yet even as this vicious cycle rolled on, even as many news organisations were collapsing, even as mis- and disinformation expanded, somehow within the past decade, an astonishing amount of venture capital went into establishing more online news sites, including the recently collapsed Vice and Buzzfeed News.

As if some new paying proposition had been magicked up for even more non-paywalled news in a digital advertising landscape that fails to benefit media producers.

Part of the problem was surely an overabundance of venture capital in the past decade, seeking places to go. Add in a willing blindness to the lack of viable business models for more online news, too often seen as a tech, not media, investment.

And another conundrum of the digital age has been ridiculously short memories, where ideas that have already failed get funded to fail again in much the same conditions in which they failed the first time around. And here we remain.

The actual producers of news struggle, while the intermediaries profit by controlling the doorways to news content and the bulk of the advertising stream. And we don’t yet understand how the rise of online AIs will further distort this situation, as they most certainly will.

Add to this that survey after survey, nationally and internationally, show a disturbing continued decline in interest or trust in news by the under 35s, who get most news online, from the same platforms riddled with artful disinformation. In Ireland, 18-24 year olds are the least interested in news and the most likely, along with 24-34 year olds, to actually avoid news.

Yet if news is ignored, or only of interest as tiny-bite headlines or brief video clips, designed to grab attention by algorithms that adore outrage and polarisation, then the ability to assess, question, weigh nuance, or interpret, continuously self-limits.

The fast-fade of Vice and Buzzfeed News, both seen as ways to engage younger adults in news and issues, is hardly surprising in this context. But we cannot afford to misinterpret such failures, and the challenges all media organisations face, as mere business issues.

They’re deep-seated, challenging societal issues, eating away at democracy, and likely to worsen if younger generations continue to drift away.