This Pizza Is Killing Journalism

Facebook lit up late Friday over a Brooklyn pizzeria’s seemingly brilliant idea. Vinnie’s Pizzeria in Williamsburg gained national attention when they unveiled a pizza box not only containing a pizza but made entirely of pizza.

The invention solves that erstwhile problem of many a bachelor too lazy to haul some cardboard to a trash can by making the box edible and loaded with cholesterol. While technically little more than a glorified calzone, Vinnie’s development might actually be a more prescient reminder of the desperate value attention now has in a media landscape which reeks of death,

Shortly after posting an image of the concoction, Vinnie’s tweet was catalogued at Mashable where it collected over 1,000 shares across Facebook and Twitter. This is fairly meager by Mashable’s standards — the company is famously social-focused as a news entity. In an early sign of what The New York Times called “a borderline panic” among digital publishers, Mashable dismissed huge chunks of their editorial team at the beginning of the month, severely limiting its “News” section and completely scrapping its Politics team and putting new resources behind video.

Alex Magnin, publisher at Thought Catalog, termed the Mashable slaughter “a harbinger of what’s to come for venture-backed publishers.” Buzzfeed — which largely invented the media-as-tech-company model — has found itself following in Mashable’s footsteps. The site began its 2016 with a fresh round of editorial layoffs and recently sent shivers down many a spine when its 2015 revenues fell wildly short of its targets. This forced the company to reduce its own internal earnings expectations by half, a staggering development from the most recognizable name in the Millennial media business.

Buzzfeed chairman Ken Lerer has disputed the report of its earnings and described right now as “a terrific time” to be in the digital media business. As Re/code reports, several Buzzfeed investors point some of the chaos to the site’s switch from developing content on its own site to emphasis on using other platforms, such as the company’s absurdly popular Facebook livestream of a watermelon being squeezed by rubber bands. While one reporter described it “they purposefully disrupted themselves,” another told Re/code it was more like “they’re driving in the dark at 60 miles an hour, without headlights.”

The latter does sound like a more accurate summation of a company who’s most high-profile success of late was an exploding piece of fruit. But that watermelon is no joke — 800,000 people watched Buzzfeed’s livestream, making it the most popular usage by far of the new Facebook service. Livestreaming became a major part of the media landscape during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, MO and New York City against the respective decisions by grand juries to not charge two separate officers responsible for killing two separate black men. Since then, the rise of apps like Meerkat and Periscope — not to mention the $1 billion acquisition by Amazon of game-streaming site Twitch — are hoping to make live events big business.

For TV, this has been the case for some time. An era of “peak TV’ means it’s harder and harder to create buzz around any one project. Certain shows, like Game of Thrones or Beyonce’s “visual album” Lemonade (both hosted by HBO) have proven themselves able to synthesize the public’s misfiring attention into a singular event. Otherwise, however, networks are dependent upon live events to force people into the same cultural experience. Hence the return of live, star-studded musicals to television and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’ adamant vow to never, ever, ever (although maybe at some point) enter the live event business. Twitter has no such loyalty to its old media partners.

Media companies are beginning to talk about livestreaming the way they talked about digital media as a whole a decade ago — it’s the new platform! It’s going to save the business! As Buzzfeed and Mashable have already done, companies should be switching to development of video content that engages users, grows their brand, and tons of other Jarvisian jargon.

Which brings us back to pizza boxes made out of pizza. Content is dumb. Articles are dumb. Listicles are dumb. Armchair analysis of the media industry crafted by a know-nothing after an hour or so of googling is dumb. But people want to know and read and look at dumb things all of the time, as Buzzfeed and FOX and PT Barnum can attest to. If you’re a movie studio, this is great — You can fund and produce and distribute dumb stuff all you like and make oodles of money doing so.

Media companies, however, are far more (self-)important than that. They’ve somewhat recklessly decided to save the civic necessity that is journalism by tying it inseparably to dumb things like cat videos and exploding watermelons and pizza boxes that are made out of pizza — which, and I cannot say this enough, is just a giant ravioli. The ability of any media company to fund and deliver actual reporting of actual information is dependent on two things: Either the media can provide people with what they want (read: dumb things) or they can convince people that smart, necessary things are actually those fun and delightful dumb things. They can take one of those options, or the people writing about pizza boxes made of pizza might end up eating pizza boxes just made of pizza boxes.

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