Traditional media organizations have been struggling to maintain their grip on the news and media landscape. This has happened for a number of reasons, one of which is that these are mediums that were traditionally focussed on print formats, which are declining in sales. For instance, in the UK, the Daily Mail & General Trust, owners of the Daily Mail, the second most popular print title in the country, had a 29% fall in profits in 2016 thanks to advertisers moving away from the title and readership declining by 13%. Then there is the consistent criticism of the existing press, with Donald Trump leading the cause by referring to stories that criticize him as 'fake news' and jumping on small mistakes to make larger assumptions about the trustworthiness of the media as a whole. Trump has even promised 'Fake New Awards' for those he particularly dislikes. It has caused huge polarization, with some people believing nothing from a left wing media outlet and others believing nothing from the right.
All this has led to desperate times for traditional media, who are finding that profits are declining, that their readers are spending more time looking at smaller more niche sites, or that readers are reading their sites but using ad-blockers, meaning they get no revenue from these visitors. So what can traditional media companies do to try and stem the tide?
One of the biggest challenges, as we alluded to above, is that media companies today are typically seen as falling on one side or the other. For instance, you are either MSNBC or Fox, the Daily Telegraph or the Guardian, The New York Post or The New York Times. There is very little crossover when it comes to the audiences in these things because they are typically so polarizing that even the idea of reading 'the other side' is beyond the realms of possibility for many people.
At the same time, if Fox suddenly took an anti-Trump position or if the New York Times suddenly said 'we need a wall on the border' the uproar from their readers would be so huge that it would do more harm than good. It means that these left and right polarized organizations are only likely to grow further apart, so in order to mitigate the damage this could do it is worth diversifying and giving a more varied approach. This could be anything from looking to create separate sites that take more moderate views or look to investigate non-political subjects.
A prime example of this is the Daily Mail, who have largely ditched the political stances that adorn their print newspaper in their online edition, which is the most read news site in the world. Headlines such as 'UK Muslims Helping Jihadis' or '4,000 Foreign Murderers And Rapists We Can't Throw Out' that appear on the front page of the print version are instead changed to clickbait like 'Is YOUR dog the nation's favourite breed? Poll set to reveal Britain's most beloved pooches' or celebrity gossip like 'Victoria Beckham appears NAKED in nude bodysuit'. The kind of disagreeable stories that turn most people off from their print version are largely hidden in their online presence and it is closer to being a gossip page rather than a traditional news site.
This has been hugely successful and has largely made up for the declining sales from their print title, so is this something that other media companies could try too?
Vice started life as an alternative lifestyle magazine popular mainly amongst teenagers and those who wanted to appear slightly edgy. They kept the magazine deliberately difficult to find, having only a limited number of stockists, it seemed that their aim was to stay small and specialist, to appear exclusive - something that is a very risky strategy when audiences today want to have everything available to them right away.
Naturally, Vice moved online and tried to continue with this same approach, taking unconventional approaches to subjects that regular media companies would not touch. For instance, just from the top articles on their website today they have 'I Tried Naked Yoga and Got Acquainted with All My Orifices', 'The Ramshackle Goals We Make to Play Football', and 'My Stupid, Sad Quest to Grow a Beard' - these are hardly the kind of titles you'd find on the NYT website. However, this authenticity and allowing their contributors to create basically whatever they want has paid dividends.
The company is now worth over $5.7 billion after a funding round in June 2017, yet it has managed to maintain the 'punk' image through the way it reports and disseminates its media. This has meant that advertisers often approach Vice to create content for them because, unlike the majority of advertising agencies, Vice can speak through their own voice and they already know exactly what their audience wants. This, combined with a huge readership, have seen advertisers flock to Vice and gives them this huge valuation and a claimed profit margin of between 35-50% of sales, which for a media company is very impressive.
One of the key elements to success in any modern company is using the data in front of you to make the best decisions for your company, and with the number of people who visit media sites and express preferences through their actions, the data they produce is incredibly valuable. For instance, Facebook and Twitter are now little more than media outlets, but rather than showing their own stories they show the stories created by others. Through utilizing this data they have created billion dollar businesses, and there is little reason why media companies cannot create this same kind of advertising infrastructure.
Data should also be used to create the kind of content that their readers want to see. For instance, there is no genuine editorial value in most of the stories that appear on the Daily Mail homepage, which on the day of writing contains the word 'glamorous' 14 times, 'plunging' 5 times, and the word 'naked' 5 times. The stories these headline represent are not driven by high-quality journalism, it is instead driven by data as these are the kinds of stories that their readership want to see. A lot of this goes against the journalistic principles that existed a decade ago, but with the threats to advertising revenue, is something that media companies are increasingly forced to do.
Ultimately, although this kind of clickbait or celebrity gossip may be seen to cheapen the work of these media outlets, they are becoming increasingly necessary to fund the more hard-hitting 'real' journalism that these media companies want to do.