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Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to go Viral by Ben Smith

Penguin Press, 2023


Why?

Amidst speculation that BuzzFeed will finally collapse in 2024 - following in the footsteps of its fellow naughties / 2010s "new media" companies such as HuffPost, Gawker and Vice, who were once expected to put an end to legacy media - it's worth contextualising the landscape and drawing some conclusions.


This account of the quest for traffic at the expense of content which characterised first two decades of the twenty-first century, by former BuzzFeed News founding editor-in-chief Ben Smith, helps to do just that.


Enjoyment factor

When the likes of Gawker, HuffPost and BuzzFeed burst onto the scene laden with VC dollars, the assumption was that news media would change forever. This insider account offers a roller-coaster ride of the iterations of the business model - and, of course, the personalities involved.


It left me thinking ...

The theory behind early online media was that eyeballs = advertising spend, kicking off a frantic, venture-backed race to attract clicks regardless of content.


At the same time, legacy news media was beginning to realise its mistake in putting its world-class content online for free. The nascent internet of the 'nineties was turning into a gigantic, fast-paced marketplace, and it was becoming clear that revered publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and The Times were not going to be able to survive unless they drastically changed their business model.


What actually happened was that, by 2020, the tide turned and legacy media began to triumph. Smith's conclusion is that the main problem with digital media is that it unleashed "social energy" around identity politics - he uses the Trump campaign as the over-riding example - which was then impossible to control, and that now we must seek to control it.


Smith is undeniably right in that digital media has given a platform to vocal factions, but whilst mass politicised polarisation is unattractive to advertisers, digital media's wider ability to target special interest groups is surely the point.


The epitome of legacy media's bounceback has to be Mark Thompson's spectacular turnaround at the New York Times - firstly, by charging for trusted journalism aimed at a specific audience, and secondly, by acquiring and creating a series of apps aimed at special interest groups, ranging from sports to cooking.


What's also become clear in recent years is that, where advertising dollars are concerned, engagement trumps audience size every time - from brand partnerships on social media, to podcast host reads, to traditional advertising in print media.


In an increasingly automated world, top journalism, original stories and expert talent will increase hugely in value for their ability to engage their audience. It's helpful to put the last couple of decades in context - and hugely exciting for media executives everywhere to consider next steps.

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