If you work in media, criticism or any form of online based journalism, there are a few phrases guaranteed to send shudders down your spine. You’ll struggle to find a writer who doesn’t immediately scowl when the dreaded cry of ‘doing it for exposure’ comes up in lieu of pay discussions. Most of us will just laugh at accusations of vindictive criticism, and being told to cut out a couple of hundred words can be a good or bad thing depending on the subject, editor and general mood. Nowadays, there’s one particular phrase that just fills me with dread every time I see it, then leaves me spluttering in indignation over the sheer baffling nature of it.
Pivot to video.
A lot of really talented writers have been laid off over the past few months, which is sadly not a rarity in this volatile industry, but the justification for such massive numbers being sent out the door has been over various sites’ desire to focus more on video content. When MTV News essentially gutted out their stable of impeccable and crucial political and cultural reporting, the excuse was that their plans were to ‘shift[ing] resources into short-form video content more in line with young people’s media consumption habits.’ Later, Fox Sports made around 20 of their digital team redundant so they could use more takes from their TV line-up to create ‘premium video across all platforms.’ Then came Vocativ, who laid off their entire editorial staff to exact their ‘strategic shift to focus exclusively on video content that will be distributed via social media and other platforms.’
The newest site to join these ranks is Mic, who are laying off around 20 to 30 staffers as part of their own pivot to video. The phrase has become a parody that’s too painful to laugh at. This is a field where competition is tough and the people involved work constantly to make their work and their publications better places. I think of the exceptional talents who found a home at MTV News and made that site a must visit place online where you could read an article on police brutality then click to a review of Ariana Grande’s album - a site that took young people seriously. Seeing people like Ana Marie Cox and Inkoo Kang lose their jobs so MTV could pretend their focus was still youth oriented while simultaneously treating them like idiots was a step away from old men yelling at clouds.
The strategy, if we can even call it that, is obviously not really about the content. It’s about advertising revenue. We are all beholden to the clicks, and the simple reality of these economics do not bode well for the fate of long-form journalism. Advertisers are more willing to put their money into a video, believing it makes them harder for visitors to the site to ignore. That may be true: It’s beyond distracting to click on CNN or Newsweek to read a random article, only to have a video suddenly start playing above the piece or in the corner of the screen, forcing you to scramble for the mute button or just leave the page out of sheer frustration. There are some sites I don’t even visit anymore because the videos that play over everything have become insufferable.
I don’t necessarily blame sites for doing this. It’s a harsh business that actively punishes compassion for its consumers, and the internet as a whole is moving further towards video as the primary mode of communication (and marketing). Auto-play on Facebook is tiresome enough without the site rolling out a default mode where the sound is on. ‘Now it’s easier to enjoy video’, the pop-up notes almost unnervingly, as if anyone asked for this. You’ll struggle to find a publication that isn’t terrified of Facebook and the capabilities it has to just crush your traffic.
Justifications for the pivot have relied on some rather condescending assertions over how visitors to such sites enjoy their content. MTV News claimed young people want more video, and Sports Illustrated writer Andy Gray tweeted that ‘One thing I’ve learned is that nobody wants to read anything over 1,000 words. MTV is more proof.’ He was rightfully chewed out for that because it’s simply not true. As someone who seldom publishes anything shorter than 1200 words, I can easily point to the popularity of pieces on subjects ranging from Twin Peaks to Orlando Bloom to romance novels to Ivanka Trump. People read them, and from my experience, people hunger for substantive work online. It’s just harder for sites to make big bucks from that, so ‘pivot to video’ is their excuse for redundancies. MTV News’s layoffs were also mired with scandal over revelations that the site’s music criticism section were unable to maintain desired levels of journalistic integrity for fear of irritating musicians wishing to work with the brand. What are the odds an exclusively video focus won’t just repackage some fluffy ads for the companies they do business with? Wired and Business Insider have already faced such criticisms.
Video content can be satisfying and enriching. Vox have done wonders with their video division, and Vice, as easy to mock as it can be, have fine-tuned their brand via video to an impressively specific and popular degree. There are wonderful video essayists across the internet making wonderful pieces on an array of topics. Yet the chances are this isn’t the kind of video sites like MTV News or Mic want to pivot towards. That sort of work requires hours of research, writing, filming, editing and producing. Doing so efficiently would take a full team of people, including writers. Compare that to chopping up a news story into a 90 second clip, accompanied by stock photographs and subtitles, narrated by one beleaguered intern. Cheap, cheerful and Facebook friendly.
This pivot to video also ignores what publications end up pivoting away from, which is usually the desires of their audience. I’ve yet to meet a reader of my work who would prefer it to be video. It can be an inconvenient means to convey your message, ill-fitting with the tone you wish to strike, and it eats up a hell of a lot more bandwidth, not to mention mobile phone data. There seems to be little consumer preference for video, but to even centre them as your priority in this business is seen as an over-generous folly. One must chase the ad revenue, which can be as unpredictable as the weather, and it’s hard to ignore the inevitability of that bubble bursting. When pivot to video no longer works, if it ever did, what is there left to pivot to?
As a writer who loves her job and works hard at it, it’s hard to accept that your work is so consistently devalued by the system (capitalism in a nutshell). I’ve already seen a lot of websites I love shut down over the past couple of years, unable to keep the lights on. There are more publications switching to alternative means of revenue like Patreon. Unless generous billionaires buy us all out in the manner of Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post, we’ll live with the fear of pivot to video for a long time. The written word will be fine: Thousands of years of change couldn’t keep it down and neither will rock-headed executives trying to get down with the kids. There’s no reason both mediums can’t work together, because shockingly, people still like to read.