The Columbia Spectator, The Blue & White, and the Columbia InterPublications Association hosted the Columbia Media Conference last weekend. The daylong event consisted of four panels covering mostly future of media industry issues with an impressive roster of panelists (keynote speakers included Mother Jones founder Jeffrey Klein and ProPublica president, CEO, and editor in chief Paul Steiger; New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan; ESPN The Magazine senior editor Megan Greenwell; Guardian US finance and economics editor Heidi Moore; and NYT’s Brian Stelter). The conference was the first in what organizers hope will be an annual event.
Most of the conference was the usual discussion of how hard yet rewarding it is to get a job in journalism, how to recreate the medium for the Internet and make it sustainable, and the role of social media in reporting and individual brand-building.
But in the middle of all this talk about the future, Buzzfeed president and COO Jon Steinberg, speaking on the modern media revenue strategies panel, seemed absolutely certain that the best — and possibly only — revenue strategy was actually from the past. He asserted multiple times that innovative branded content or native advertising — basically, ads disguised as editorial content — is how media will make money in the digital age.
It will look a lot like this:
Everything old is new again! For sites built on social sharing, such as Buzzfeed, content must be free and shared as easily as possible; making content viral is part of the value Buzzfeed adds to its stories. Paywalls and subscriptions are barriers to that. No one likes banner ads. The trend now is to have advertisers “sponsor” content. We’ve seen this on several sites — Quartz, for example, is funded entirely by four sponsors whose “bulletins” (press releases, from what I can tell) appear alongside Quartz’s editorial features. Buzzfeed’s ad sales page boasts of an “unrivaled SuperSharing engine,” and “custom content” Buzzfeed can “help” advertisers “create.” Even the Obama campaign bought into it. By the way: GE, one of the big sponsors of early television programs, is also one of Buzzfeed’s newest partners.
Steinberg stressed that there’s a wall between editorial and branded content at Buzzfeed, so readers won’t confuse the two, and that they shouldn’t worry about editorial strategy being dictated by sponsor demands. I remain skeptical; the old argument, “If your entire revenue is based on a sponsor, will you write stories that are critical of that sponsor and risk losing that source of revenue?” still applies. But if you’re a journalist wanting to create branded content or who doesn’t mind marrying your writing to what an advertiser might want, then, Steinberg says, there are plenty of opportunities out there for you and you’ll be an attractive hire almost anywhere. When, as Margaret Sullivan pointed out in an earlier panel, there are half as many jobs in journalism out there as there were 10 years ago, it’s definitely something to consider.
Buzzfeed is still subsidized by venture capital ($15.5 million last January), though, according to a July memo from CEO Jonah Peretti, its revenue is “on pace” to be three times what it was in 2011 and its “recent growth is driven more by revenue than VC funding.” Yet Buzzfeed’s investment in actual news reporting and original content, beginning with the late 2011 hire of Ben Smith as its editor in chief, is relatively new. Buzzfeed’s most-shared, most-viewed content is still dominated by lists and ’90s nostalgia rather than its original reporting. I think we need a little more time before we decide that longer content is as shareable as the cat photos for which Buzzfeed remains known. The site is certainly trying — it recently hired Steve Kandell as its new longform section editor. The question now is, will Buzzfeed’s advertisers want to sponsor longform content the same way they’ve done for Buzzfeed’s shorter fare?
Surely Harper’s will be watching Buzzfeed closely — Steinberg’s fellow panelist, Harper’s vice president of public relations Jason Chupick, seemed defeated and lost as he described how the digital transition has been “really, really hard” for the 162-year-old magazine. Chupick believes that tablets are the future of longform journalism, but admitted that Harper’s is still stuck with a “stop-gap” of pdf versions of its print content. “We have to find a way to sell it better,” he said. Meanwhile, Steinberg praised the individual journalist/entrepreneurs who have successfully branded and “sold” themselves: people like Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith and Nate Silver. “I don’t know what these guys do,” he admitted; “but I know that it’s extraordinary.”