Bryan Goldberg, the founder and CEO of US-based publisher of Bustle BDG, is a good person to ask about declining audiences for online news sites. Back in February he was forced to close Gawker, the snarky online gossip brand that pioneered the intermingling of news and opinion via “hot takes” — and the viral traffic that went with it — from the early 2000s to 2016.
I put it to him that maybe the problem was the underlying current-events cycle: The Trump Administration coupled with the Covid pandemic was a giant wave that came to an end with the arrival of the more boring Biden Administration and its equally dull UK counterpart.
Following that tornado of traffic, I suggest that perhaps now we are seeing a reversion to the mean.
Goldberg disagrees. The declining audience for news is in large part a technology cycle, he argues. People are reading less because phones are pushing video via Tiktok, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
At the same time, he believes Google is referring less traffic, and those publishers that cannot adapt will be crushed. “They should get crushed!” he says, perhaps too gleefully, from a hotel room in Paris.
But let’s back up. Why are audiences turning away from news?
“I don’t think it’s because human beings have suddenly decided they no longer enjoy reading. I think it’s because our phones are pushing videos upon us much more frequently than they are pushing written content upon us.
“And I think most consumers are simply consuming what’s put in front of them. And today, that is much more likely to be a short video than a written article. So that’s one of the first things that’s going on and that’s being driven by Tiktok and Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat,” he says.
Consumers are driving it too. “Every person has a high-quality video camera in their pocket. Every person now has mobile apps that allow them to edit and annotate video in really clever ways.”
“So the quality of user-generated content has increased while the quantity of user-generated content has dramatically increased. And the platforms are pushing people away from written content. All of those things are happening at once and that is having a negative impact on the publishing houses,” he says
‘The world doesn’t need random blogger hot takes anymore’
Goldberg is particularly negative on political opinion content. “So the need for [Huff]Post or … the Daily Beast, or Salon.com or Mic.com — the world doesn’t need random blogger hot takes anymore.”
He’s right. Facebook has dialled down news to just 3% of its feed and only 22% of people now say they get their news directly from news sites or apps, according to Reuters Institute.
Google is just as bad, Goldberg says.
“They’re scraping content and keeping it on Google. So they’re keeping people on Google, they’re preventing people from clicking out,” he says.
“It used to be somebody would Google a question about a celebrity and they would get ten links, one of which might be Bustle. Today, they’re getting the answer directly on Google and have no need to click out to the open web. … it’s been a slow decline with Google over the course of four or five years.”
Most news organisations still create and publish their sites on CMS platforms designed during the era of the desktop web reader — pre-2007. But most news readers today aren’t on laptops; they’re on their phones and they are using apps rather than web browsers that can view the web.
“It’s been a dramatic reduction in traffic to the open web. The truth is nobody will admit it,” Goldberg says.
“The truth is that Google, Meta, and the major platforms are slowly but surely destroying the open web. Young consumers spend very little of their time on the world wide web compared to our internet usage ten years ago.”
‘The publishing houses that didn’t evolve over the last five or six years are getting crushed’
Despite the headwinds, Goldberg has driven BDG to north of $150 million in revenue, often through acquisitions. BDG now owns 11 different brands: Bustle, NYLON, W Magazine, Elite Daily, Mic, The Zoe Report, Inverse, Scary Mommy, Romper, Fatherly and The Dad. It claims to have the largest Gen Z and millennial audience of any publisher in the US.
Those brands carry their fair share of news, but BDG’s editors are not simply trying to game the duopoly’s algorithms for clicks. Instead, BDG is looking for audiences and revenue in places where Google and Facebook cannot compete.
Case-in-point, BDG has five million email subscriptions and some titles claim open rates above 40%.
“That’s distribution that we own, that does not go through a platform. … that is going to be a big growth area from a revenue standpoint,” says Goldberg.
Another area is events, which now form 20% of BDG’s revenue. NYLON and W Magazine already stage tentpole events at the Oscars, Art Basel and fashion weeks, and Goldberg believes that event-tied revenue will hit 30% in the years to come.
“When we throw the NYLON magazine Art Basel party, that’s attended by thousands of influencers who each individually reach, in some cases, millions of fans. So their amplification on top of 2,000 attendees can push the event to tens of millions, or hundreds of millions, of social media consumers.”
Goldberg also believes that many advertisers no longer want to have their brands next to political controversies.
“Advertisers don’t want to be next to that content. Tools that help remove quality ads from being adjacent to controversial content have increased and have improved dramatically,” he says, referring to companies like Moat and Double Verify.
“Advertisers are keeping their advertisements away from controversial or ‘hot-take’ or opinionated content. So it’s a double blow to [Huff]Post and Business Insider and Buzzfeed News, and folks like that. I would not want to be in that business. … I don’t think it’s a great business.”
“The publishing houses that didn’t evolve over the last five or six years are getting crushed. That’s fine. They should get crushed! Anyone who refuses to evolve over five or six years and refuses to change their business is going to get crushed.”
So, what’s the solution?
According to Goldberg, it’s focusing on smaller, more valuable niches where a brand has a direct relationship with its audience. BDG is focused mostly on young women who have disposable income for luxury, fashion, beauty and parenting purchases.
“In the heady days of 2016, Buzzfeed and Vice and Bustle and Refinery and Business Insider could brag about reaching 80 million people — you don’t need to reach 80 million people to have a great publishing business. If you can reach 20 or 30 million of the right people, that can still power a massive business.”
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