Homepage traffic, blogging, niche email newsletters. They were some of the foundational concepts of digital media in the early 2000s. And as the digital news media business turns again, they’re increasingly the ones media organizations are turning to.
For the last decade, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter were the virtual front pages of the internet, delivering a mix of viral news and whatever articles and videos social algorithms thought you wanted. Digital publications popped up to take advantage of the eyeballs, and money followed, hoping the cat listicle website or the Brooklyn guide for do’s and don’ts could really be this generation’s New York Times or MTV.
But Facebook’s sharp turn away from news and the mercy-killing of “blue check” Twitter, along with BuzzFeed News’s shutdown, cuts at Insider (the first official mass layoffs in the company’s history), and Vice’s increasing desperation for a sale are another indication that the social web that defined the 2010s is over for news consumers.
And the new era, strangely, resembles an earlier one, suggesting that “the 2010s were a detour, not the new path forward,” as Slate editor-in-chief Hillary Frey put it last week.
Just as streaming services start to look a lot like television, news too has turned back to the future. Across the board, many news publishers have noticed that readers aren’t finding their articles on Facebook or Twitter. They’re coming straight to them, loading up the webpages on their phones or desktop.
The case of HuffPost — left for dead by Verizon, and now BuzzFeed’s lone surviving news operation — is instructive. Peretti told remaining staff that he was encouraged by the traffic to the homepage of HuffPost, one of the original link aggregators and blogs. Slimmed down by cuts, the liberal site is once again profitable on the back of dedicated homepage readership and advertisers’ willingness to support some of its safer content, which includes lifestyle and identity coverage.
“We are going to concentrate our news efforts in HuffPost,” Peretti told remaining BuzzFeed staffers on Friday. “HuffPost is a brand that is profitable with a highly engaged, loyal audience that’s less dependent on social platforms. And as we see the challenges of Facebook and Twitter, the HuffPost homepage will be increasingly valuable to people trying to figure out what’s going on in the world and make sense of the world.”
HuffPost isn’t alone. Fox News executives may not be pleased with the $787 million they’ll be forking over to Dominion Voting Systems in last week’s settlement. But they can take some solace in the fact that the outlet’s website, always one of the most trafficked in the US, has experienced a serious bump in traffic in recent months, particularly to the site’s homepage. According to Similarweb stats shared with Semafor by Howard Polskin, president of TheRighting, more than 70% of the site’s visitors last month came directly to the Fox News homepage, with a small chunk from search, and a tiny trickle from social media.
For digital media OGs like Josh Marshall, today’s media landscape looks awfully familiar.
The site Marshall founded, Talking Points Memo, was one of the earliest political blogs, and cultivated a small but dedicated following in the 2000s with reporting and analysis. But during the social boom, TPM was dwarfed by giants like BuzzFeed and Vice, which gobbled up the small amount of advertising revenue there was for digital publishers. TPM survived the tumult by remaining lean, building an early subscription business by cultivating a medium-sized audience of liberal readers, and refusing to chase scale (Marshall described this to me as “a bit of being smart and a bit of being lucky and a lot of being unwilling to give up the control that I needed to to get the resources to scale in a serious way”).
The TPM founder said that in some ways, he has been encouraged by the death of the social web, which drove publishers to chase virality at all costs and sometimes made the relationships between readers and publishers an afterthought.
“It’s again made scale not the be all and end all and has made a dedicated relationship between a site and its audience the best hope of survival,” he said. “To me those are all good trends and they generally play to our strengths.”