The prohibitive force of newsroom tech
Behind the bleakness of our national political climate, some optimism has returned to the digital media conversation. Instead of collapsing, the industry is turning a profit, hiring journalists and building new brands.
But there’s a huge caveat to all this progress, beyond the usual asterisk that everything’s built on a digital advertising model that could fall apart at any moment. It’s one that makes me worry about the longterm future of the industry: The standard for success that we’re building now creates huge barriers for entry and inefficiencies down the road.
That’s because success in media isn’t built on quality content, but on costly tech and production. Take Vox Media, one of the hottest digital media companies right now. Its product team, the people who maintain proprietary advertising and content management tools for all the organization’s brands, lists 116 employees. That’s over twice as many people as are editors and reporters for The Verge, one of the company’s eight brands. This ratio makes sense: The product team drives the business forward and attracts investment, not the writing. After all, plenty of great journalism goes on without bringing in $300 million pf support. As the company’s CEO Jim Bankoff said, “I have a very deeply held belief that technology has to propel a media company.”
To be sure, technology improves media. Code makes the editorial process more efficient, opens up new reporting methods and increase the reach and impact of stories. But development is expensive and draws on the already-lacking resources of newsrooms. Adding onto this financial pressure, selling proprietary tools as a competitive advantage creates an unrealistic expectation for advertisers, leading media companies to feel like they need a set of tools that they can’t pay for. If every newsroom has to build a bespoke content management system to be taken seriously, many of them will cease to exist. In particular, local publications will get left behind without outside tech support.
And even the successful players rely on outside funding to maintain their tech ecosystems: Vox Media enjoys the support of ten venture capitalists and funds. The Washington Post is supported by Jeff Bezos. After nearly half a billion dollars in funding, BuzzFeed missed its revenue target for 2015 and reportedly cut its 2016 projections in half. Development is expensive, especially when companies want to create brand new systems from the ground up.
Technology and development have benefits in the newsroom, but every media company shouldn’t have to also be a tech company to succeed. No one can foot the bill in the race to have the best, newest, most proprietary newsroom tech stack, but they will keep trying as long as doing so brings investors in the door. Reinventing an entire backend for every media company is redundant and prohibitive. A better approach would be licensing a customizable backend from tech companies to newsrooms, or open sourcing some of the most successful proprietary tools. The media needs to focus on producing the best work it can, not reinventing the wheel.