Discover more from The Honest Broker
Judgment Day Has Arrived for the Journalism Business
From Upworthy to Buzzfeed, all the click chasing gimmicks have failed—but there is one sure option left
I was going to call this story the “tragedy of American journalism.” But when you dig into the details, it’s more a farce.
Let’s start with act one of this comedy. I could almost begin anywhere, but I picked an especially ridiculous case study—just wait until you learn the reason why.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Did that catch your attention?
It was supposed to. And I learned that from a now (mostly) forgotten website called Upworthy.
“Upworthy is known for its use of data to drive growth, testing up to 16 different headlines for a single story,” enthused that bright-eyed reporter for Fast Company. The end result was headlines so irresistible, millions of people clicked on them.
Here are some examples:
You get the idea. The headline is in two parts—and it’s just a come-on. You have no idea what the article is about until you click on the link.
That was the whole point. But just wait until you learn the problem with this.
Facebook and other social media sites eventually discovered that people clicked on these links, but didn’t spent much time with the Upworthy articles—and rarely gave them likes and shares.
The stories just weren’t very good—and certainly not as interesting as the headlines. So the algorithms started to punish clickbait articles of this sort.
The Upworthy empire collapsed as quickly as it had risen.
In retrospect, the problem with this gimmicky strategy is obvious. If you trick people into clicking on garbage, your metrics are impressive for a few months. But eventually people can smell the garbage without even clicking on it.
There’s also a deeper reason for this collapse—which I’ll get to in a moment. And it helps us understand the current problems with journalism. But first we need to look at a couple more case studies.
So let’s move on to act two of our farce.
Even as Upworthy went flaming downwardly, another journalism gimmick was buzzing off into the stratosphere.
The new darling of the media landscape was called BuzzFeed. It built its empire on a simple concept—namely that readers like lists.
The company had been churning out these lists since 2006, but things really took off after the Upworthy debacle.
In 2016, the company morphed into the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group—and embarked on an ambitious plan to build a “cross-platform media company.” The management team launched international editions in 9 countries. They hired 1,700 employees. They started working on motion pictures and television series.
BuzzFeed was the ‘future of journalism’ (where have I heard that before?). Those idiotic lists were the “envy of the media world” according to Fast Company (again!) And BuzzFeed, they assured us, was more than just a passing trend. These journalism geniuses were building a “100 year media company.”
Alas, it didn’t even last 100 months.
The company soon became a joke among serious journalists. It didn’t help that after a humor website published parodies of BuzzFeed headlines, the company actually turned some of them into real articles.
Anybody with a few functioning neurons in their brain could see this buzz wouldn’t last. And, sure enough, the layoffs started a few months after the gushing praise in Fast Company.
More firings followed. But nothing could fix this dying purveyor of clickbait. A few days ago, BuzzFeed News shut down completely—and I could give you a long listicle of reasons why. But the main problem was the same iceberg that sank Upworthy—the company tried to maximize clicks with shallow gimmicks, when it should have been worrying about the articles themselves.
Then I’ll share some good news and even some cheery predictions (finally!).
Consider the sad story of the infamous pivot to video—when countless journalism outfits filled their articles with annoying videos that started playing the moment you hit the link.
I hated it, and you probably did too. But that didn’t matter. Everybody wanted to pivot to video.
Vanity Fair was doing it. Sports Illustrated was doing it. Mashable was doing it. Vice was doing it. Washington Post was doing it. Vox was doing it. And, of course, BuzzFeed was doing it.
I kept hearing it was the future of journalism. Until it wasn’t.
Nobody talks about pivoting to video anymore—unless they’re making a joke or (like me) poking around in the cemetery of failed media strategies.
Each of these strategies was declared a winner. But every one of them failed—and very quickly.
The answer is so simple, but the smart people running these media businesses never figured it out. They were too busy chasing clicks.
They assumed that clicks were their goal. What else is media about?
They assumed that because their business model is built on selling advertising. And advertisers pay for clicks. Hence, their job was to deliver those clicks.
There are a hundred reasons why this is stupid.
First, there aren’t enough clicks in the universe to support this business model. Google has already swallowed most of them. It’s like Pac Man on steroids, gobbling them down as soon as they appear.
I’m reminded of the old sugarcane cutting song along the Brazos River in Texas. When the work was winding down, the cutters would sing:
Ain't no more cane on this Brazos.
It's all been ground down to molasses.
If we ever need a work song for click-chasing journalists, I’d suggest this variant:
Ain’t no more clicks on this Internet.
’Cause they already been swallowed by Alphabet.
By the way, it’s no coincidence that the most successful ad-based media strategy for a freelancer right now is to partner with Google—most notably by launching channels on the company’s YouTube platform. You’re allowed to win only because you’re working for the click-swallowing giant.
In contrast, if you compete against Google, those clicks are a lot harder to find. But every newspaper in the world tried to do it anyway.
How’s that working out for them? Not very well—in the US alone, more than 2,500 newspapers have shut down since 2005.
They kept chasing clicks until the day they died. But while they were doing this, something unexpected happened.
The subscription model came back to life.
Ever since the rise of the Internet, experts have insisted that nobody will pay for content (ugh!). But, suddenly, the huge success stories in media are charging for subscriptions—relying less on advertising—and readers are paying.
The New York Times is growing in a dying industry—by selling subscriptions. The newspaper added 1 million digital subscribers last year. It now has almost 10 million paying subscribers. That doesn’t even include the additional million subscribers it gained by acquiring The Athletic in February 2022.
Subscriptions now contribute more than $400 million in revenue at the Times, and keep growing each year. Ad revenue, in contrast, is stuck at $179 million and is flatlining.
This is not an isolated case.
During the pandemic, 6 of the 8 largest city newspapers in the US enjoyed a sizable increase in subscribers—and only one shrank. Even after the lockdowns ended, subscription numbers continued to rise.
But the biggest innovator in subscription media is the platform you’re on right now. When Substack launched in 2017, the subscription model was ignored by the same experts who praised Upworthy and Buzzfeed and Vice. But even as ad-based journalism collapsed, Substack grew rapidly—despite the pandemic, a dicey economy, inflation, and all the other problems facing businesses right now.
Make no mistake, selling subscriptions is hard work, with few shortcuts. It’s not a glamorous story—so don’t expect to read about it in Fast Company. For the most part, clickbait gimmicks don’t work in the subscription business model—unlike the examples above. Substack writers make no money from clicks. They need people to pay for the writing, not just visit a link because of a deceptive headline.
But that’s exactly why this strategy is sustainable. Readers want good writing—that was true a century ago, and will still be true a hundred years from today. The subscription model is the right foundation for this strategy, because the economic model rewards good writing. The writers who live in the subscription world know it, they feel it in their bones.
Here’s another benefit: There’s no pressure from advertisers in this model—at least in the pure form that exists on Substack. (Hybrid models are a different story.) That increases reader trust in the writing.
I don’t get called into an office by a business manager, who screams at me for criticizing the malevolent mega-corporations that rely on my articles to deliver advertising pitches. And I don’t need to worry about some billionaire who gives hundreds of millions of dollars to media outlets and then (magically!) gets treated with kid gloves despite all the scandals.
The subscription model is neat and clean and transparent. And it’s growing, because readers like that transparency too.
For me, it’s great—because I get to focus on the writing, which is what I like best. But shouldn’t all print journalists get to do that?
But there’s one huge point I still need to make. It may be the most important point in the article.
I said above that we have arrived at judgment day in journalism. In other words, there’s one final act that’s playing out right now. And it involves the latest hot gimmick in media.
I’m talking about AI.
Media outlets are already taking the plunge. They are pivoting to AI. They like the idea of bypassing the writers, and getting bots to churn out articles.
The articles aren’t very good. But that hardly matters on an advertising-based platform which makes money by the click. They love AI because it can deliver hundreds—or thousands or tens of thousands—of articles in just a few minutes.
What you lose in quality, you make up for in quantity. You just need to keep generating content (ugh!), and pushing all that journalistic sludge out there. The clicks will add up, even if each individual article is a graceless as a dancing robot.
I’m here to tell you that this latest gimmick won’t work.
It will fail for the same reason that Upworthy and Buzzfeed and all the previous click-chasing gimmicks failed. There simply aren’t enough clicks to go around.
Remember that song about cane on the Brazos? Google wants all those clicks for itself. And the few clicks that remain out on the free range will gravitate to something better than AI sludge.
So let me summarize all this:
Media outlets based on advertising need clicks to sell.
But clicks are in short supply, and a few huge web platforms (especially Google) control most of them
This forces journalism platforms to embrace gimmicky clickbait strategies that are doomed to failure—and are unlikely to deliver quality writing.
That’s because gimmicks are just that—and they eventually get exposed. But as one clickbait strategy dies, another one replaces it—in an unending cycle.
The latest (and probably the final act) in this farce is the AI-generated article, which reduces the cost of clickbait articles to almost zero. This is the endgame—the most brutal trick of them all.
It will lead to a proliferation of garbage articles like you’ve never seen before. Media platforms will churn them out as fast as they can to grab those last remaining clicks from easily deceived readers.
But this is a fool’s game. Meanwhile, there’s a better strategy in town—namely the subscription model for quality journalism.
All the success stories in media right now are funded by subscriptions. The business model changed while the experts weren’t looking, and went back to basics. We don’t need to worry about gimmicks—we’ve returned to selling writing, not ads.
As final proof of this, note how many of these success stories (especially on Substack, but elsewhere too) are built on individual writers, not media brands. This alone tells you how central writing has now become in the growing sector of American journalism.
So this judgment day is a fair and honorable one. The jury—that’s you, by the way—delivered a just verdict.
If you care about good writing, you should be happy to see this judgment day arrive And if you really, really care about good writing, you ought to be subscribing to some writers you trust. That’s true for the simple fact that, in a subscription-driven world, the writer and readers work together, and have shared goals.
I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t think you would either.