Peak content: The collapse of the attention economy

For a long time, we’ve been creating too much content, so much so that I think that we’ve already reached Peak Content, the point at which this glut of things to read, watch and listen to becomes completely unsustainable. There hasn’t been enough ad revenue to sustain it for years and, with 2015 ending with a rush of acquisitions, consolidations and funding rounds with eye-watering valuations, 2016 will mark the beginning of a shake out.

Market crashes are the tsunamis that sink, if not all, then a lot of boats, and it’s time to take strategic action.

One of the few workable business models in this age of digital disruption has been to produce as much content as cheaply as possible. But flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media. 

In 2010, Dean Starkman looked at the flood of content that news organisations were creating in a Columbia Journalism Review article that made waves at the time. He wrote: 

“According to a CJR tally using the Factiva database owned by the paper’s parent, News Corp., the Journal’s staff a decade or so ago produced stories at a rate of about 22,000 a year, all while doing epic, and shareholder-value-creating, work, like bringing the tobacco industry to heel. This year, the Journal staff produced almost as many stories—21,000—in the first six months.”

Many newsrooms pushed fewer staff to produce an ever increasing amount of content, and that trend accelerated during the Great Recession. 

In 2013, Digiday looked at who was winning the volume game in publishing. It’s ancient history in terms of digital media, but back then, the New York Times and its 1,100 strong newsroom was pumping out 350 pieces of content per day whilst the Huffington Post’s 500-plus staffers were flooding the internet with 1,200 pieces of content per day, not to mention the 400 blog posts per day from their network of low paid or unpaid bloggers.

Of course, journalists are not the only ones creating content. By July 2015, 400 hours of video were being uploaded to YouTube every minute, the platform’s CEO Susan Wojcicki revealed. Add the literally billions of pieces of content shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine and Snapchat updates over any given day, an ocean of content marketing, and your favourite TV series and movie franchises ready to binge, and that leaves most people very little time to sleep, eat or do anything else.

The market abhors super-abundance

Erica Berger, who has worked for The Economist and Storyful, made many of these same observations in early December, saying in a Medium post titled Peak Content, “Basically, we’ve created an atmosphere in newsrooms where editorial literally cannot create more content with the teams they have now.”

Even if they could, they couldn’t even begin to compete with the overwhelming amount of content produced and shared by people chatting and sharing pictures and video on social media.

One of the reasons why Berger and I think that we’ve reached an inflection point is that we’re seeing another shift in advertising that will put additional pressure on traditional media organisations. Adam Levy at Motley Fool looked at a nearly 4 percent drop in advertising in the second quarter in the US. His key observation was that Kantar’s stats don’t include mobile advertising, and he believes it wasn’t a drop in overall advertising, but a shift to mobile. He wrote:

“Although it looks like video and mobile have grown enough over the last year to offset declines in other media, growth in U.S. advertising dollars remains sluggish any way you look at it. As a result, winning ad dollars is becoming more of a zero-sum game, and the winners appear to be the mobile-first digital advertisers like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.”

“The clear losers are television networks, which have taken to squeezing in more commercials to offset declines in ad prices. Additionally, print media continues to see a sharp decline in ad spend as more users get their news from Facebook and Twitter on their mobile devices.”

But it won’t just be the legacy institutions that feel the heat in 2016. VCs are ever impatient: They fund start-ups; they don’t finance ongoing operations. And many news startups are going to start feeling the pressure to produce returns. As 2015 saw acquisitions gain pace, legacy media groups with the resources bought or bid up high profile digital properties, a trend that will continue. There is no second place in this game, and there’s going to be a lot of failures as start-ups reach the end of their ramp without a buyer to save them. As the landscape consolidates through acquisition and deadpooling, the end of the market where scale reigns supreme will have named its winners. I suspect it has already. Now what?

The foreseeable future will be messy, even messier than the past decade during which the US newspaper industry has seen its print advertising take decline by more than 50 percent. To ride out this rough patch, I think that media companies need to do a few things to prepare for turbulence.

Improve strategic focus

Newspaper groups will need to decide whether they are local or national. In the US, local newspaper chains are engaging in one last convulsion of consolidation, and my former employer Gannett is selling itself as a “local-to-national” network under the USA Today brand. It is unclear what that means, and I believe that Gannett, and other chains, will have to choose. Are they national or local?

It makes sense to try to grow to huge national scale because that is increasingly the only way to get a look in from big national advertisers, but the problem with this strategy is that Google and Facebook aren’t carrying the cost of a local newspaper network.

These large newspaper groups should sell off their hyperlocal properties and use the funds to buy and invest, and I mean really invest, in a few tent-pole regional properties. Use those tent-pole properties to create a market-beating, truly national news network on a sustainable cost base.

Iterative agility

Media companies are not Tesla or Space X. They simply do not have the cash to do Google-style moonshot projects in which huge investments take years to pay off.

Instead of a handful of big bets, media companies should follow the advice of Jeff Sonderman, the deputy director at the American Press Institute, who said after the release of a report by the Institute on how to create an innovative culture in news organisations, “Instead of spending a long time and a lot of money in a big attempt at something new, you spend a little bit of money on a small-scale experiment, and you build in small steps.”

Use your properties to do A/B testing, measure the effectiveness of these experiments and then, most importantly, drive adoption of the most successful. Don’t adopt the Silicon Valley catchphrase of failing fast. Instead learn fast (or, so as not to draw the ire of sub-editors, learn quickly.) Constantly feed strategic intelligence back into the organisation, then refine the strategy and repeat.

Decide what you stop doing

In a review of formerGlobe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse’s book covering media disruption, Clive Thompson points out, “when the paper analyzed its online traffic, they found that fully 40 per cent of the paper is read by fewer than 1,000 people.” This leads me to this fundamental question: What do you stop doing in order to create space to go after new market opportunities?

This was one of the biggest challenges I had as an executive editor, figuring out what we could stop doing that would free up enough staff time to innovate in a way that could really move the dial.

This kind of review is essential. It. Must. Be. Done. A lot of news groups are so far past the point of doing less with less, it almost doesn’t bear mentioning. News staffs have to be given the room to innovate, and to do that, we have to be strategic and let things go.

Invest in media revenue innovation

As I was finishing this piece, a Nieman Lab end of the year piece by Amanda Hale, the VP of Talking Points Memo, had me shouting at my iPad in violent agreement. Hale is absolutely spot on when she says that we need to have a pipeline of business side leaders in the media industry. She writes:

“What if, inside of Columbia Journalism School, we built Columbia Publishing School? And what if we did the same at Missouri, Northwestern, and Berkeley? What if we decided to pipeline, train, and mentor future publishers, chief revenue officers, circulation directors, and sales chiefs alongside the future journalists we are teaching to code?”

For every editorial innovation, I’d invest in two on the commercial side. Seriously. We reach more people than we ever have with our content, but we have not found a way to sustainably monetise that attention. That’s the nut to crack.

As media leaders, you, no doubt, feel inundated with constant calls to invest in mobile, VR, immersive storytelling, podcasts and your new chat app strategy. In the coming post-Peak Content shakeout, the focus on monetisation will seize primacy from the blind rush for any form of audience attention and scale. In any market bubble, valuations become uncoupled from actual performance and focused simply on the belief that size is the only thing that matters.

But huge audiences don’t matter in the absence of a business model. 

By |2016-01-04T00:01:00+00:00January 4th, 2016|Analysis|Comments Off on Peak content: The collapse of the attention economy

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