Digital media’s management woes


When the media industry stumbles, journalism itself often gets the blame: We’re losing money because people won’t pay for news, because banner ads don’t work, because people would rather watch videos on Facebook than read investigative reporting. These are all ways to externalize fault. They pin media’s financial woes on uncontrollable outside forces, with the subtext that the businesses themselves are operating smoothly.

But that’s often not the case. Many times, the companies producing journalism are shooting themselves in the foot, killing their financial potential with management and culture problems. A perfect example: The turmoil at Good and Upworthy, reported by Digiday, which laid off 31 employees earlier this month.

The merger of Good and Upworthy started as a recognition of the potential of complementary, socially-aware publishing brands. From Digiday’s story:

“Upworthy always had the audience while Good had been doing more boutique, bespoke and magazine work,” one former executive said. “That was the logic behind the merger.”

At first the logic appeared sound, with the companies’ “happy marriage” turning a profit amidst a couple consecutive quarters of rising revenue. Earlier this year, that success started buckling.

A merger requires strong leadership to push groups of people with different backgrounds, expectations and priorities together toward a new, common goal. In Good/Upworthy’s case, direction was never clear. From the Digiday article:

Goldhirsh and Schorr also changed their priorities constantly, typically in pursuit of short-term gains, former employees said. Executives would be promised resources at one scale, then receive a budget that was far smaller. “I was told, ‘You’re going to be able to do X-Y-Z,’ then given a budget that was like one-tenth that,” one former executive said. “It was insulting.”

Without the ability to count on a budget or even the promise that the direction of the company wouldn’t change from one day to the next, employees couldn’t focus on building up the company for the long run. Instead, they were busy fixing today’s emergencies: preparing reports, sitting in meetings and coming up with priorities in line with the latest fad. Business approaches got glued together and left to sort themselves out. Fights broke out without resolution. Rather than pushing everyone forward in a new, unified mission, leadership let its employees settle back into their old camps.

All this led to a highly unstable situation. As long as outside conditions remain predictable, a company can weather some internal incoherence. But media isn’t predictable, and traffic suffered thanks to Facebook’s deranking of news publishers. A more stable company might have been able to handle the shock, but the internal systems weren’t in place to deal with external pressure. The result: sudden layoffs and bad press.

It’s not just Good/Upworthy. DNAInfo and Gothamist were abruptly shut down by their owner. Univision is in the process of restructuring to cope with $8 billionof debt. Vice Media and BuzzFeed missed earnings to the tune of millions of dollars, sparking cuts. Media is in a constant state of distraction, one pressing in on the value of journalism from all sides with bad business bets.

In the midst of all the change and soul-searching digital media is supposedly going through right now, there’s one thing we’ve seen very little of: Letting a media company run its own course. Not loading it with debt, not pivoting it to video, not trying to make it reach every person on the planet. Just letting the business exist in stability, free to figure out how to make money from its core competency of producing journalism. There was a time when the media industry seemed ripe for disruption. Maybe the key now is a little less disruption and a little more stability.

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