As Media Companies Pivot to Video, Will They Actually Make It Work?

Digital Media Video - H - 2016
Lars Leetaru

MTV News, Fox Sports and many digital brands are shedding text-based jobs in favor of more lucrative video gigs.

You're not imagining it: There's been a noticeable uptick in media companies making staff cuts and shifts attributed at least in part to a desire to focus more time and money on video, often using some variation of the phrase "pivot to video." As companies shed text-based writer, reporter, and editor positions, they're hiring more employees to focus on video production and promotion.

Vice, in July, shed about 60 employees, including some editorial staffers. The organization has long been video-first but is further ramping up video production around the world and expanding into scripted programming. Freeing up resources allows the company to prioritize video, though Vice — which in June raised $450 million from TPG at a valuation of $5.7 billion — is normally not short on resources. There's also some speculation that the company could be looking to stay lean in advance of a potential IPO, something CEO Shane Smith has frequently mentioned as a possibility.

Fox Sports recently took the video-only route on its website, laying off writers and editors and leaving veteran journalists like Ken Rosenthal without a place to write. A sports journalist who has worked across the digital media industry (including Vice) appraised the new, video-first Fox Sports web offering this way to The Hollywood Reporter: "It's just endless, scrolling Jason Whitlock in a hat talking about Colin Kaepernick. Nobody wants to see these f---ing things."

Others that have made similar cuts include four-year-old media startup Vocativ, which in June disbanded its entire editorial team as part of an effort to focus on video. "As the industry evolves, we are undertaking a strategic shift to focus exclusively on video content that will be distributed via social media and other platforms," a spokesperson said at the time. MTV News has also re-structured in the name of video, largely abandoning a year-and-a-half-old effort at long-form, prestige journalism in favor of "short-form video content more in line with young people's media consumption habits," per a spokesperson.

There are editorial reasons for sites to become more video-heavy — videos, after all, are fun to watch and can spice up dry subjects and keep valuable eyeballs glued to company content. Generally, though, going all-in on video is a business decision. Right now, two companies, Facebook and Google, suck up the lion's share of digital advertising money, leaving a large number of digital media companies to chase the remaining slice of the pie.

Video advertising is generally more lucrative than traditional display (or "banner") ads, so shifting from a strategy focused on interspersing banner ads around text stories to one prioritizing ads that run before and during videos is a savvy business play. Video-based platforms like YouTube also provide a big chunk of digital advertising revenue for prominent publishers.

"We've been seeing this trend for quite some time now, and the reason is really simple: The demand from the marketers exceeds the supply of premium video inventory to sell against," said M. Scott Havens, Bloomberg Media's global head of digital. As a result of this market shortage, ads on video are more expensive, hence the demand to churn out videos.

"I don’t have enough high-quality, well-produced video out there to buy currently," said Shenan Reed, president of digital in North America for media planning agency MEC. "Consumers are watching it — the ad units are effective and can be engaging. Video gives us a great platform to tell a story.”

Publishers are also responding to the preferences of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, which all favor video. “It’s an incredibly interesting time to be one of the content creators building for these platforms — it’s similar to what you saw with the rise of cable television,” said Ben Lerer, CEO of Thrillist and NowThis parent company Group Nine Media.

Lerer noted that video makes up more than half of Group Nine’s business today, though editorial brands like Thrillist will always value premium editorial content, too. Other smaller media brands, like Mic, which said three-quarters of its monthly views come from video, similarly plan on offering a mix of video and editorial content.

But longtime media observer Ken Doctor said there's a risk of overdoing it. "Readers, especially younger ones, often prefer text to video," he said. "Clearly, for audience purposes, sites should use appropriate storytelling techniques — video, text, audio, interactive — and not force video down audiences' throats."

The aforementioned sports journalist said video "is just the easiest place to capitulate to advertisers."

But marketers might be lukewarm to video that's created solely out of a desire to attract advertising, said Havens, who expressed concern about an industry-wide flight to video. With major brands looking to trim budgets, they aren't likely to pony up big dollars to advertise around a haphazardly put-together video that won't attract a big enough audience to matter.

"I worry about this as an industry if everyone drops what they're doing and moves to this expecting the money to flow," said Havens, who also ran digital for Time Inc. "Whenever we see everyone drop something and run toward this new thing, it almost never ends well.” 

Natalie Jarvey contributed to this report.