Goodbye, trashy clickbait. Hello, paid content?
Jim VandeHei, the former founder, president and CEO of Politico, is advising a site called The Information. He’s part of a “group of advisors” to the 3-year-old publication that covers “deeply reported” stories about the tech industry.
In a punchy piece published Tuesday, he laid out what parts of journalism are dying and where we’re headed. (He won’t yet disclose where he and his BFF Mike Allen are headed, but that’s another matter and supposedly the new mystery media venture won’t compete directly with Politico.)
Despite extensively laying out everything BuzzFeed does and hailing these things as the worst journalism has to offer — “stupid web tricks, clicky headlines, feel-good lists, sexy photos and exploding watermelons” he says the site is fine and will grow revenues by 50 percent in 2016.
“Here’s the good news,” VandeHei wrote. “This era is getting flushed away. Some companies feel self-conscious about the trash they are producing. Many others realize it’s simply not a good business model.”
Self-conscious? Surely he can’t be trash talking BuzzFeed. Some of today’s headlines are: “18 Ways To Eat Eggs Around The World” and “Please Watch This Journalist Scream At A Man About His Nipple.”
Three days ago, VandeHei turned up in another story about the dreadful clickbait of our time. This time it was NYT‘s media writer Jim Rutenberg crying about BuzzFeed‘s exploding watermelon — or, as he put it, a “fruiticide” — that received a startling 10 million views. He quoted VandeHei saying that “journalists are killing journalism.” VandeHei doesn’t name names — but the head of that watermelon explosion was BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who formerly worked for VandeHei at Politico.
That mystery media company VandeHei is starting with Allen, author of the town’s famed Politico Playbook and outgoing Chief Revenue Officer Roy Schwartz, sounds like it’s headed in a vastly new direction — but what could it be? VandeHei says the industry is headed toward “higher-quality content” that will attract “loyal audiences” that will pay up.
Really — has no one thought of this before?
Media observers have noticed that the quality of Politico has actually gone down with the onset of Politico Europe and the departures of VandeHei and Harris from their traditional newsroom roles where they kicked their reporters asses into making journalism great again (to borrow a phrase). VandeHei became President and CEO; John Harris oversaw the Europe project. Rumors swirled about the state of their relationship and whether or not either would still be there through the 2016 presidential election. VandeHei is out, but Harris is returning to a Politico newsroom that looked nothing like it did even a year ago as it lost gobs of employees to outlets like CNN and in Mike Elk‘s case, a jail cell in Chattanooga.
On VandeHei’s dead list: Print journalism, state and local newspapers and TV, Time and Newsweek Mags, Gawker, Ozy and Mashable.
His prose in The Information story sounded like a forlorn note to a lover who no longer meets your needs. Unfortunately it also reads like a dangerously boring power point presentation while he subtly (if this is possible) defecates on his former franchise.
“I helped create Politico a decade ago—and it still has a newspaper, a magazine and awesome desktop presentation. This continues to have huge value. But, as we think through a new media company or where the puck will be in five years, our focus is only on mobile, social and whatever else is next. …This shift toward mobile and social will force media companies focused on writing and pictures to find ways to get more people to pay for their content. Politico does this with high-end subscription content for professionals. We call it Politico Pro.”
VandeHei’s futuristic view of journalism sounds somewhat rude and intrusive.
“In all likelihood, the revolutions in video and digital will merge into one: with a new generation of media companies producing content we watch at home, listen to in our car and read wherever on the go. And thanks to technology, all your devices will know what you want, where you are and how to serve up content the way you want to consume it at that very moment.”
In Rutenberg’s story, VandeHei and Allen share the view that “big, important work will prove more valuable than fun stunts that may or may not draw big online audiences.”
VandeHei’s appetite for web traffic is officially dead. In the beginning it was all about “winning the morning” — a phrase that reverberated in newsrooms around town as more of a joke than anything else. But by 2013, he was singing a wildly different tune — traffic no longer matters.
“High traffic is way overrated,” VandeHei told Digiday in 2013, which The Mirror reported in this 2015 analysis piece. “It works if you are truly a traffic hose, like BuzzFeed. But, for speciality sites, it is all about the right readers. The advertisers we want are the knowing ones seeking to influence a very attractive and hard-to-reach set of readers. If we deliver those readers, the traffic numbers will mean little.”
In October, 2014, a Politico source — likely VandeHei — pounded that belief to WaPo and declared it a “post-traffic publication.”
Rutenberg warns journalists like VandeHei and Allen to be careful.
“All I’m asking is that we be careful not to lose too many core values on our way to the future,” he wrote. “Otherwise, it’s watermelon flambé at the Kardashian inauguration, and yes, we’re the watermelon.”