Almost a decade ago, while attending some “Future of News“ event, I listened to the founder of an independent news startup complain about how unattractive traditional news organizations were to venture capitalists. Their scale, growth (or lack thereof), infrastructure costs, and legacy financial obligations would never fly with venture capitalists.
Naturally, everyone was nodding along and chuckling over the fate of those doomed dinosaurs — which were, and are — in free fall. So I seemed to be alone that day in wondering: Why would newspapers want or need venture capital? Why would any news startup, for that matter?
I felt even more isolated as a wave of news startups raised tons of cash over the past decade. The more I scratched my head in amazement, the higher their valuations went. But the folly of this approach has finally become apparent in the last couple of years — perhaps never more so than when I read in the Wall Street Journal that BuzzFeed, which has raised almost $500 million in venture capital, was going to possibly start asking readers to “chip in” to help fund its newsroom:
The digital-media company on Monday plans to unveil a feature at the bottom of its news pages that allows readers to donate between $5 and $100. The donation feature asks readers to ‘help us report to you’ and calls upon them to join a community that will shape the future of BuzzFeed News.
Contributors will get timely updates on big investigations and new programming from BuzzFeed News, a person familiar with the program said. If successful, it could be a prelude to a membership program with more perks, the person said, noting that the company has no plans to charge its readers for content.
It’s not that I’m against paying for news. I personally subscribe to three major newspapers online. And the Wall Street Journal notes that in the U.K., the Guardian has “raised $130 million from reader revenues from April 2016 to March 2017.”
Of course, the Guardian is owned by a trust. BuzzFeed is seeking returns to justify runaway valuations placed on it by investors. The latter is not a big motivator for me to “chip in.”
Buzzfeed‘s move in this direction is understandable. The organization missed its revenue target last year and said it would lay off 100 people last November.
And it was hardly the only venture backed-news startup to hit a wall. In the summer of 2017, Vice announced layoffs after raising $450 million in venture capital. And Mashable was sold to Ziff Davis for $50 million, far below its $250 million valuation from a March 2016 investment round.
With so many of these startups chasing digital ad dollars, the backing by venture capital simply became unsustainable. Facebook and Google now have an effective duopoly on that game, and no amount of clickbait is going to change that. Worse, many of these companies are subject to the whims of these two giants, who regularly tinker with their feeds and algorithms.
The arc of venture capital investment in digital media startups reflects this sobering reality. In 2012, VCs pumped $210 million into digital media startups, according to CB Insights. That figure peaked in 2015 at $1.74 billion. Yes, billion. But in 2017 that figure had dropped to $123 million across 26 deals, according to CB Insights.
And so BuzzFeed is passing the hat. Paid memberships or subscriptions likely won’t be far behind, as the Wall Street Journal suggests.
Tragically, this flood of more than $5 billion in investment hasn’t really solved the fundamental problems facing the news industry.
Of course, it’s fair to point out that despite some exceptions, traditional news organizations generally continue to focus on cutting rather than finding ways to invest. Pew reported in July that one-third of the nation’s largest newspapers had undergone layoffs since the start of 2017. Just recently, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced it would stop publishing a printed version two days a week, making that city the largest in the U.S. without a daily printed newspaper.
But while corporate owners continue to fumble around in search of a solution, the reality is that venture capital was never going to be the answer for news outlets. VCs demand big returns that require bigger growth and soaring valuations. That‘s fine when you’re talking about things like social networking sites or a software or cloud service that might have big upfront costs but can clearly deliver sustainable profits once it reaches scale.
For all the wonderous digital tools available to media, the industry has been losing boots on the ground. The vast majority of the world’s information still exists in printed form, or in someone’s head. And no algorithm or feed or aggregator is going to extract sufficiently large amounts of that information to replace journalists. Having a human being talk to another human is still a far more efficient means of news gathering and storytelling.
Alas, the humans responsible for bringing readers the news don’t tend to scale. They are expensive and only become more so as they gain experience. I’m still hopeful that the digital success of the New York Times and the Washington Post can be adapted to re-invigorate local newsgathering. But for the moment, the crisis is real, and we have yet to arrive at a solution.
Still, the decision to seek salvation in the form of venture capital was a foolish one. We can at least take it as a lesson painfully learned. And now that the VC-funded news model has collapsed, we can give it a quiet burial and move ahead in search of real, sustainable solutions.