The Trend That Realigned the Media Industry Is Over

The rise of the internet, and then, right behind it, smartphones, led to a sweeping transformation in how Americans spend their time. Once, we stared up at television screens and down at magazines and newspapers. Now the screens and magazines and newspapers are in our pockets, sucking up ever more of our attention.

But people’s eyes moved faster than advertisers’ dollars. A gap opened between the time spent on devices and the dollars spent on digital advertising. And there, hope sprung! If one could divert just a tiny rivulet of the flood of dollars sure to enter digital advertising, then one could build a big business. Money had to move out of print and television to new media. A digital-journalism outfit could be on the right side of the technological momentum.

The internet analyst Mary Meeker, who made a name for herself as a partner at the venture-capital heavyweight Kleiner Perkins, is a crucial recorder and amplifier of this observation, through her annual “Internet Trends Report,” a kind of yearbook for the internet industry. Year after year, Meeker has included a slide detailing the magnitude of the gap. In 2010, for example, the “global opportunity,” as Meeker vaguely defined it, was $50 billion.

This is the chart that launched a thousand digital-media PowerPoints.

Mary Meeker’s time/ad-spend chart from 2010 (Mary Meeker)

The chart also reflected the stark reality for print publications, especially newspapers. From 2008 to 2017, newspapers laid off 32,000 people, 45 percent of their workforce. It was a nasty downward spiral. Fewer reporters meant fewer stories to compel subscribers. Fewer subscribers meant less advertising, and on and on.

Perhaps, though, new digital-media companies could help fill this hole in the news landscape. Traditional media companies such as Disney and NBC invested in upstarts such as Vice, Fusion, and BuzzFeed. Venture-backed start-ups such as Mic, Vocativ, and Ozy proliferated. Beginning in 2014, Facebook began to plow traffic into media sites. Growth was easy, even if finding revenue to match the audience growth was not. Investors and media companies trusted the gap, though: If you had an audience, the money would eventually follow. In retrospect, the peak came in September 2015, when Business Insider sold to Axel Springer for $442 million.

This was around when the “pivot to video” began, as media companies raced to build more valuable advertising inventory. Then came the 2016 election. After that, Facebook began its long pullback. Traffic from Facebook to some sites fell by almost 90 percent. Audiences stopping growing, or collapsed entirely.

Thus far this year, there have been at least 1,000 layoffs by digital-media companies, including at even the most successful operations, such as BuzzFeed. And Disney acknowledged that its $400 million investment in Vice was worthless.

This week, Meeker, who has founded her own investment firm, Bond, released her 2019 “Internet Trends Report.” It shows that the gap between time spent and ad dollars has been closed. The realignment is complete and yet … not all those journalism jobs came back. Not even close.

Who snatched that huge “global opportunity”? Facebook and Google, mostly. In 2016, 90 percent of digital-ad growth was eaten up by Google and Facebook.

A slide from Mary Meeker’s 2019 report (Mary Meeker)

So now most media companies have embarked on a difficult journey: figuring out how to get paid by audiences rather than advertisers. The subscriber strategy has worked for national newspapers such as The New York Times and niche business publications such as The Information, but no one knows how many companies can follow their lead.

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