Writing had a beginning just a few thousand years ago. You might see its end within your lifetime.
That’s what some tech leaders are suggesting amid a wave of “Pivot to Video” layoffs and reorganizations.
Last summer, Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s VP of Europe and MENA, told a conference audience that within five years, Facebook “will be probably all video…. The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video.” Perhaps in an attempt to quell the panic of writers in the room, she added, “You’ll have to write for the video.”
Looking at graphs of declines in reading generally, she suggested that video and audio will be the primary (perhaps the only) channels for online communications in the very near future. The hyperbolic headline for the article about her comments read, “Facebook is Predicting the End of the Written Word.”
How the End Began
While that remains to be seen, there’s no question that a host of publishers in the past year have resolved to pivot to video and away from written content. That has sent shockwaves throughout the world of online publishing.
Mashable completed their pivot in 2016. This year, Vocativ laid off its entire editorial staff. Writers for Mic famously announced their layoffs on Twitter, leading to a spike in searches for the term “pivot to video.”
Around the same time, MTV News followed suit, cutting deeply into to their writing bench. One telling detail about this story is that many of those same MTV writers had been hired just a year earlier when the company decided to pivot to long-form written content.
The Opposition View
Not all major publishers agree that video is our only hope, however. The counter-argument in favor of text was summed up by Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld, who wrote, “The trouble is that while video is a useful format for coverage of visual spectacles like political hearings, as well as shareable viral stunts, it’s a terrible replacement for deep criticism or investigative reporting.”
That view is backed up by some compelling evidence. Video may be preferred by advertisers, but not by the general public, at least not yet. A study by Oxford University and Reuters concluded that “Across all markets, over two-thirds (71 percent) say they mostly consume news in text, with 14 percent using text and video equally…there are no significant age differences; young people also overwhelmingly prefer text.”Across all markets, over two-thirds (71 percent) say they mostly consume news in text Click To Tweet
Exhibit No. 1 in this case is the pivot to video by Fox Sports in June. Following the lead of companies like ESPN and Vice Sports, Fox laid off web content writers and moved to a video-only format. Traffic to their site immediately plummeted from 143.9 million to 16.7 million monthly viewers. That’s pretty shocking at a time of year when football and baseball are both in full swing.
At the heart of it all is the need for online publishers to find a business model that works. If they can’t gate content and charge for it — many continue to work the subscriptions angle, but none successfully so far — they default to ad-supported models. That means that ad rates are tied to views, and video is pulling a great deal of data in terms of time spent on page, repeat viewings and easily measurable ad views.
Following the Money
What Fox Sports and every other publisher wants is the same deal as Vice Media. After reorganizing their content around video, they earned a $450 million investment and a valuation of $5.7 billion, moving them up to two times the value of the New York Times.
As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo tweeted, “No site is ‘pivoting to video’ because of audience demand. They are pivoting to video because the industry is in the midst of a monetization crisis.”
Jason Abbruzzese at Mashable, which kicked off the current round of pivots, argued their case in his (written, not video) piece, “No, ‘pivot to video’ isn’t the death of words.”
He said that it doesn’t matter whether companies want to pivot or not. Facebook, Google and the rest of the advertising industry are pushing everyone else in that direction. Companies like Vox can afford to maintain both a healthy video and a writing staff, but smaller publishers like Mic can’t. Abbruzzese concluded that whether it’s a trend or a fad, the pivot to video “isn’t the death of words, but is the end of venture capital-funded words that hoped to eventually find a supportive ad market.”
It’s clear that we can’t go back because the old ways don’t work anymore. Subscription-based publishing dates back to the 1600s and the first newspaper ad was sold by Benjamin Franklin. What professional writers need most now is a new business model for a new global economy — one built for a world of crowdfunding, distributed ledgers and AI arbitrage.
Writers will just have to come up with something, as they always have and always will, even if it means they have to prove their worth all over again in a faster, more visual, more distracting world.