Buzzfeed Lays off 100 and Ad-funded Online Journalism Takes its Lumps

There’s a group of 20 or so journalists in the UK suddenly available for hire. No, they weren’t laid off from a struggling print newspaper. Rather, they’ve been cut from the editorial staff at Buzzfeed, part of a purge of more than 100 worldwide, reports Gideon Spanier in Campaign.

“Vice Media and Mashable are among the other digital media owners that have slashed staff and costs in a tough ad market,” Spanier notes. “For many players, scale in online news publishing has not translated into digital ad revenue as virtually all the growth has flowed to Google and Facebook,” Spanier continues.

The news is leading many to ask if the ad-funded online journalism model is still viable. For Sean Hargrave in MediaPost, the question isn’t if it’s still viable, but if it really ever was in the first place.

“I’m left wondering whether there was ever a time that a quality journalism site was funded by advertising. When you think of a decent online-only publication The Huffington Post springs to mind. But they have a bad name for not paying guest writers,” he explains.

“I’d like to suggest right here and now that there is not a national or local paper that wouldn’t bite their arm off to be given free content,” Hargrave continues. “It’s hard not to make money from something you get for free, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile, he sees three factors at play in the recent cuts, that makes him think the digital ad-funded model is under siege. In the first place, millennials are big ad blocking users; up to one in three males of that demographic use ad blocking. “So if that’s your audience,” Hargrave notes, “a third have turned off advertising.”

Secondly, it’s really expensive to create the kind of long-form quality content that truly holds people’s attention. While Buzzfeed did take a stab at investigative journalism, it’s hard to maintain this when the eyeballs are going to the funny cat videos and crazy quizzes.

Finally, he believes there is a craving, indeed a flight, to quality, and readers are willing to pay for it. He cites recent subscription figures from The Guardian as evidence that readers are gravitating toward a paid content model.

Can quality online journalism still be paid for just by digital advertising? Was it ever?

“Any new publisher that tries to go from lighthearted virals to long-form quality journalism funded mostly by advertising will always struggle, particularly if their core audience is where most ad blocking takes place,” Hargrave notes.

From here it looks like more evidence that the tide is turning back toward print ads, as publishers get a bit tired of the Facebook / Google duopoly. Of course, traditional news media is having its own struggles with advertising revenue; that’s certainly not an entirely rosy scenario. For online journalism sites that rely solely on digital ads, though, things are looking dicey indeed.