MTV News—and Other Sites—Are Frantically Pivoting to Video. It Won’t Work

There’s a video at the top of this article.

I know. I’m sorry. It’s probably set to autoplay too, which means it’ll scream at you whether you want it to or not. (The answer, I’m assuming, is “not.”)

I didn’t make this decision. My employer says the video has to be there, because video advertising is central to this company’s revenue model, along with every other digital media company’s revenue model. Banner ads don’t work anymore, and the solution, handed down by frantic media executives, is video. More video. Lots of video. A chicken in every pot and a video in every tab.

The trend isn’t unique to Newsweek, and lately journalists have gotten a brutal glimpse of what the industry-wide “pivot to video” means for their jobs. On June 14, the web news site Vocativ laid off its entire editorial team as part of a “strategic shift to focus exclusively on video content.” (Strangely, the post announcing this drastic change did not include any videos.) Two weeks later, on Wednesday, MTV News laid off an enviably brilliant roster of culture and politics writers, most of whom had come on board only a year and a half ago as part of a deep push into longform. The new strategy, of course, prizes “short-form video content.” Remember how you used to whine that MTV no longer plays videos? Well, you got your dumb wish.

The “We’re pivoting to video!” strategy isn’t really new. (Mashable made a similar move in 2016.) But in an already demoralized media landscape, the MTV shakeup seemed particularly distressing, probably because of the caliber of the writing talent being thrown to the curb—people like Ana Marie Cox, Hanif Abdurraqib and Sasha Geffen. (As the editor Jordan Ginsberg tweeted, “MTV News put together one of the very best teams this idiot industry has seen, what a disgraceful failure of imagination this is.”) There’s also the whiplash of this sudden strategic reversal. Swinging wildly from prestige longform to short video reflects an impulse of operating in absolutes. It is also doomed to fail.

Related: Why did so many good pop culture sites die in 2015?

Videos are like raisins. Raisins are fine. They’re fine! They’re a great snack when you’re in the mood and want something small to nibble. But when you bite into a chocolate chip cookie expecting to taste chocolate and realize it was an oatmeal raisin cookie all along, it’s a revolting experience. You’ve been tricked! It feels like that when you click a link expecting an article and it’s a video instead. Also, if your doctor told you he was switching you to an all-raisin diet, you might have concerns.

In other industries, like retail, the cliché is that “the customer is always right.” But in digital journalism, the customer (that’s you) is regarded as being demonstrably wrong, because the customer is seldom willing to pay to read internet journalism, and certainly not cultural criticism. Despite how the MTV brass justified the abrupt shift—a spokesperson said “short-form video” is “more in line with young people's media consumption habits”—survey data reveal that news consumers of all ages tend to prefer text. “Across all markets over two-thirds (71 percent) say they mostly consume news in text, with 14 percent using text and video equally,” stated a recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “Importantly, there are no significant age differences; young people also overwhelmingly prefer text.” In an average week, fewer than a third of the survey respondents watched online news videos.

On Wednesday, writers across the industry came out in support of the written word, which is a weird sentence to type. It’s like saying “Chefs across the country came out in support of consuming food.” But the push to video isn’t meant to serve writers. It’s not really meant to serve readers either. It’s a gamble meant to placate advertisers, because banner ads don’t pay the bills anymore. Video ads are more lucrative, which means media companies are hustling to pump out more video content to pair with ads, which means media companies are de-emphasizing text content and the writers who write it. And there’s another incentive: Facebook’s algorithm tends to favor video as well. For media brands, the hope is that readers (er, viewers) will go along with it whether they like it or not. The trouble is that while video is a useful format for coverage of visual spectacles like political hearings, as well as shareable viral stunts, it’s a terrible replacement for deep criticism or investigative reporting.

Josh Marshall, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Talking Points Memo, has been outspoken and skeptical of this shift for a while. He says the trend is symptomatic of a monetization crisis in the news industry. The problem is “too many publications chasing too few dollars—a long-term problem and, with social platforms engrossing all the new ad dollars, a relatively new and accelerating problem,” Marshall tells Newsweek via email. “Every ad-supported publication routinely bids and proposes itself for major high-margin ad campaigns. The high-margin campaigns increasingly want to be running against video rather than text, video rather than banners. The incentives are overwhelming. Having done this for more than 15 years and with relationships with many other publishers, I can say with great confidence that basically no publishers are saying, ‘Damn, we’ve always operated in text, but our readers are demanding we move to video.’ But they're under huge pressure to get their audience to consume video because they need video audience at scale to access the one seemingly full bucket of ad dollars.”

Poltergeist Your favorite news brands are jumping into video. Poltergeist/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The MTV experiment was a curious, noble one while it lasted: accomplished writers and ambitious, diverse content paired with a flailing corporate brand and a desire to court young audiences without condescending to them. The site published everything from election-themed road trip diaries to queer readings of Carly Rae Jepsen and a collection of essays about dystopias. (There was some more straightforward music criticism too, which was on occasion deleted from the site when artists got pissed.) The bleakest thing about MTV’s failure is that it didn’t really fail at all. The writing left an impact. Readers—young and otherwise—responded. The traffic figures were respectable, if not enormous. But winning over readers and producing admirable work (and, yes, courting industry prestige) is apparently no longer enough to survive. It wasn’t enough for Grantland either, or The Toast. What's frightening is that valuing readers over advertisers is increasingly regarded as foolish.

The forecast is grim. “Pivoting to video” won’t solve long-term media business woes in 2017, just as Facebook Live didn’t solve them in 2016 and quizzes didn’t solve them in 2014 and curiosity-gap headlines didn’t solve them in 2013 and listicles didn’t solve them in 2012 and blogs or whatever didn’t solve them in 2007. Eventually, algorithms change and ad models collapse and executives panic and money flows apace into Facebook and YouTube and other distribution channels. Flashy, short-sighted solutions don’t really solve existential crises. Or, as Mother Jones editor-in-chief Clara Jeffery‏ phrased it on Twitter: “Pivots, more often than not, aren’t led by real audience strategy. It’s chasing an ad demo, or dream of a demo, like a cat chases a laser.”

The written word will probably survive, as it has for 5,000 years. But some of your favorite websites won’t. In 2017, some of the most thriving news brands are the ones that aren’t desperate for cash because they’re owned by billionaires who already have a lot of it: people like Jeff Bezos (The Washington Post) and Michael Bloomberg (Bloomberg Businessweek). I don’t know, maybe someone should launch a hookup app that pairs ambitious journalists with eccentric billionaire sugar daddies. But if you do create this app, make sure it has a good launch video. And set it to autoplay.

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