Traditional News Media is Running Out of Time in the Race to Stay Relevant

Jim VandeHei, co-founder and former chief executive of Politico, says that “journalists are killing journalism.” (T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times)
Jim VandeHei, co-founder and former chief executive of Politico, says that “journalists are killing journalism.” (T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times)

Earlier this month, a couple of inventive young go-getters at BuzzFeed tied enough rubber bands around the center of a watermelon to make it explode. Nearly a million people watched the giant berry burst on Facebook Live. It racked up more than 10 million views in the days that followed.

Traditional journalists everywhere saw themselves as the seeds, flying out of the frame. How do we compete with that? And if that’s the future of news and information, what’s next for our democracy? President Kardashian?

Grandkids: It was not so long ago — oh, say, five, maybe six years — that traditional news organizations like this one could laugh at BuzzFeed’s gag along with everyone else, smugly secure. An exploding watermelon was just an exploding watermelon.

These days, however, news articles — be they about war, voting rights, the arts or immigration policy — increasingly inhabit social media feeds like thefrighteningly dominant one that Facebook runs. They are competing for attention against zany kitchen experiments; your friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah; and that wild video of a train whipping through a ridiculously narrow alleyway in India.

After watching the fruiticide, I noticed a Twitter post by the freelance journalist Erik Malinowski that read, “the watermelon … is us,” and sighed. Seemed about right.

The sense of dread was compounded a few hours later, when the websiteMashable, which first came to prominence covering Internet businesses and culture, appeared to pare back an ambitious effort to prove that serious world and political news could thrive alongside “Grumpy Cat.”

Mashable announced that as part of a reorganization it was shedding several highly regarded journalists, including its executive editor, Jim Roberts, a former assistant managing editor at The New York Times. Look out, White House, I thought, here comes Kimye.

Then, sweet relief (or was it?): The Financial Times reported that BuzzFeed — which is best known for hits like the watermelon video, though its news team wins awardsmissed its financial targets last year and was revising this year’s projections downward. BuzzFeed, which does not disclose its finances, denied the report, saying this year will meet expectations. But traditional newsrooms everywhere were reveling in the schadenfreude just the same. Aha! Perhaps random snapshots of callipygian Corgis do not a business model make; news as we know it is safe.

Well, not really. We may not yet be the watermelon. But executives who run news organizations almost universally say that we’d all better find our own watermelons — and find them yesterday.

It means big changes are coming fast in the way major news institutions present their journalism, what that journalism includes, and how decisions are made about what to include. The goal: to draw big, addicted audiences.

A lot of it is being done in the rushed panic that comes with the demands of quarterly earnings. And yet, given the highest calling of the news industry — hold politicians to account, unearth corruption — the importance to our political and civic life could not be greater.

A good way to understand the fast-evolving thinking is to check in on people who are trying to build a news and information business from scratch. I did that last week over breakfast with Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, and Mike Allen, one of the site’s best-known journalists. Both are also veterans of The Washington Post.

Mr. VandeHei, who stepped down last week as Politico’s chief executive, and Roy Schwartz, the company’s departing chief revenue officer, have been seeking potential investors and video and television partners. Mr. Allen is for the time being continuing to write his vital morning tip sheet at Politico, “Playbook,” seven days a week.

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SOURCE: JIM RUTENBERG  
The New York Times