It’s a Friday evening in January. Here in London, the sun has been set for several hours. It threatened to snow all day but didn’t. And to add to all this meteorological gloom, my Twitter has been alert all day to the tinkling sound of journalists being laid-off across the world.
Buzzfeed and HuffPost are the latest digital content makers to wield the axe, with the former laying off 15% of its staff. HuffPost will face a similar number of exits, with their parent company aiming to cut 800 jobs. Vice, meanwhile, also want to slim their roster by that magic 15% figure, but will do it through a hiring freeze and natural staff churn. Other digital publications like Mic and Shortlist have gone bust, while even The Pool is facing huge financial struggles. It is a bad time to be in digital publishing, apparently.
All of these companies could be unified as online-only (with the exception of Shortlist) but also by being politically progressive and aimed at a younger demographic. It is hard to see how they are going to survive in the current media landscape for much longer (certainly in their current form), which leaves something of a vacuum in our political discourse. There is a lazy acceptance of the fact that the New York Times, Washington Post and The Guardian will always be there, heritage media brands picking up the slack when the crazy kids who struck out into choppy digital waters run aground. It is lazy because the point of progress is a forward motion; a world where we simply blow bubbles will always revert to outdated norms. And if brands like Buzzfeed and Vice, which in many ways define a generation’s social, cultural and political conversation tone, can’t hack it, who or what can?
On top of that — and I’m tellingly writing this on a Friday evening after a long week — traditional media is cementing itself. There’s so much noise and bluster about job cuts in newsrooms but, at the end of the day, the international conservative press will continue to publish. They don’t have venture capitalists breathing down their necks, they’ve paid off their mortgages. They might wheeze a bit, but they’re here to stay. They don’t need to wash their faces because the establishment wants and needs them here. It doesn’t matter how much more progressive the world becomes, how many teenagers become adults and rail against the injustices of the last century of inequality, because more than half our newsstands won’t reflect that. And all these tech(ish) companies that expanded so rapidly, not because they were early to strike their flag in the great www.landgrab but because VCs threw money at them because they looked tech(ish) are, it turns out, more ish than tech. Just as WeWork was tellingly overvalued as a real estate company because it looked tech(ish), so too have all these normal, traditional journalism outfits expanded with unrealistic, unsustainable backing because they have a hint of the Facebook, the Amazon, about them.
15 million people watch streaming on Twitch every day. 5 billion YouTube videos are watched every day. 458,487, at most generous estimate, read The Telegraph. 635,000 people recently watched Fortnite streamer Ninja, at one time. Am I going crazy? (and yes, it has been a long week).
Podcasts, which, after all, is what I make, will never be more than a compromise. They are a bridge between two sets of media carnivores: an older, more traditional demographic, and a younger set of digital natives. They do not quite satisfy either — they are too fiddly, too dependent on technology for the former, and too simple, unshowy for the latter — but they are probably the best middle-ground we have at the moment. At the same time, so much money is being spent, and energy exerted, trying to find ways of appealing to traditionalist and what we might term a transitional demographic, who are comfortable with text-based journalism, but might not want to buy a paper every day. Newspapers and magazines are desperate to convert these people to print readers because, let’s face it, the money’s better and more stable there, but at the same time they have to cater to that digital transition. It is a spinning plates act that has its eyes on the wrong place.
Tortoise, a new media start-up here in the UK, recently broke Kickstarter records as the most funded journalism project ever. In reality they were only using Kickstarter to sell memberships to what was already a handsomely funded project (it’s been reported that they have funding for 3-years of loss-making operations, a claim that was not refuted by their editor when he spoke on one of my podcasts this week). Their pitch is slow, long-form journalism with the quirk of having open editorial meetings so that members can travel to the offices here in London and inform their commissioning. It is an admirable and experienced project, but one that could scarcely be more traditional. It wants to make journalism more tangible, more flesh and blood, when all common sense says it is heading in the opposite direction. It almost aches with yearning for the good old days of Fleet Street; Cnut railing against the streamers.
I’m lucky enough to make a little bit of money writing about video games, and I’m doubly lucky to be writing for an audience pretty much exclusively of adults who have little interest in video games. Writing about video games otherwise would be much like dancing about the weather. It would be hard for a teenager to compute the logic of writing about a medium so visual, so aural, so interactive. This is pretty much a consensus position now: there is a space for good written video game criticism, but it is not even part of the conversation when it comes to actual video games discourse.
Why don’t we see the rest of journalism the same way? It is easy to dismiss the video games corner of the internet because it is i) so unfamiliar to most of the people working in the media, ii) so obviously the refuge of digital natives, and iii) relatively self-contained and codified by its own unique rules. So what if 15 million people watch video game streaming on Twitch every day? Those are video game obsessives, not consumers of journalism.
The reality is, of course, that they are manic consumers of journalism. They consume live news on a level that no-one else does. They consume reviews more compulsively than the biggest music fans or cinephiles. And they spend money in droves — recent reports state that video games make up more than half the revenue for the entire UK entertainment sector, far more than any other medium. They’re rich, they’re spendthrift, they’re engaged, and they’re being ignored.
To most of the teenagers who spend their days in and around the video game sphere, podcasts are old hat. They probably don’t even remember the iPod, which has become retrotech so quickly (it’s probably almost cool again). Podcasts are a compromise, and probably a compromise too far for this huge untapped part of the media landscape, but they are a demographic stepping stone. Get people comfortable with digital subscriptions, with on-the-hoof content, with low journalistic overheads. Then maybe, at some point in the future, traditionalists and transitionalists can be migrated to a new digital frontier.
And it’s important that this happens. The progressive narrative is losing its carriers. They are being slowly but steadily eroded by the very inequality that they are built to fight. We are hearing so much about the ‘youthquake’ around the world, about young people waking up to a generation of mismanaged politics, but so little about what the new media landscape looks like. It is too uncreative to assume that it will look the same — it will look as different from now as Medium does from a 1980 edition of the Chicago Sun Times. That small corner of the internet marked ‘gaming’ is just the start; it will soon colonise all the media, and we best get prepared.
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