Digital media companies are going out of business

2023-05-19 05:53:00 +07:00 by Mark Smith

There's been a bit of a collective retrospective happening the past few weeks, brought about in part by the publishing of a new book that details the goings on during what is being called "the golden era of digital media". I feel like it's a bit hype, but since that period was quite formative in my introduction to the online world, I've been somewhat swept away with the whole story. It's been fun reading and learning more about what was happening, from folks that were closer to the eye of the storm.

Brian McCullough has an interesting recent podcast episode interviewing the author Ben Smith.

This was the period, starting around 2003, where people were using the web to redefine journalism and reporting. News sites such as Gawker, GigaOm, ReadWrite Web, Huffington Post, Politico, Digg, Buzzfeed, The Verge, Fark and Drudge appeared and brought with them a refreshing approach to news making that was more direct and unnencumbured by main stream media conventions, but also that specifically aimed to have online as the target medium.

It was more interactive than mainstream media, with the audience often influencing the coverage as it unfolded via web forums and comment sections. It also incorporated meme sites such as cheezeburger and an endless supply of gifs. It was the era that social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Stumble Upon, Pinterest, Snap, and Tumblr were gaining promenance. It was the era of APIs and web2.0. New tech, new people, and fresh ideas, all being experimented with to create new culture.

For me that whole period was characterised by the rise of videoblogging, with shows such as Rocketboom, Ze Frank and The Idea Channel. I was also getting into tech, programming and open source with podcasts like the Gilmore Gang, IT Conversations and of course the Daily Source Code. It felt like we were finally breaking free from mainstream media, like we were finding a new, more authentic way, building the path as we went along it. For the first time it felt like a "We", rather than just passively consuming what we were being fed by the media makers. It felt like anyone could participate.

The retrospective has also been brought to the fore by the bankruptcies, closing downs and re-structurings of several digital media companies that were once hailed as the next big thing in online news, politics and culture.

Again some good coverage on the Techmeme Ride Home:

Motherboard, the tech vertical from Vice has declared bankruptcy, and will sell assets for $225 million. At it’s peak Vice was valued at $5.6 billion, the money faucets were wide open.

Buzzfeed News was shutdown, with the reporters there publishing the Definitive oral history of BuzzFeed News 2012–2023 as they walked out the doors, which makes for interesting reading.

One of my favorite quotes is from Tom Warren, investigative reporter:

Despite the warnings of more experienced journalists that I would be mad to work at BuzzFeed, I applied as soon as they opened an investigations unit. All we wanted to do was blow the fucking doors off…and guess what happens when you give a group of twentysomethings unlimited resources to chase stories? They go batshit crazy. Absolutely fucking bananas.

We flew round the world chasing tips, conducted surveillance ops on money launderers, took sources out for mindblowingly expensive meals in the hope of getting leaked documents, rode through rainforests on the back of motorbikes, and engaged in a host of other wild adventures, not all of which are fit to print. There were wild parties, lots of them. One week you would be at a warehouse rave in Brooklyn, and two weeks later you would be flying into Istanbul for security training and heading for a night out with whichever members of the press corps were in town. We had the wind at our backs and had a beast of a fucking time. It was majestic.

Which paints a very fear and loathing in las vegas, Anthony Bourdain-esque picture. I didn't realise things were so crazy there.

These were part of a small set of digital media companies that were going to be the next big thing as they catered for millennial audiences. Now that attempt at building the future of media seems to be wrecked and washing up onto the beach in small pieces. Honestly I feel a bit sad about the whole thing.

I'm left wondering what's going to happen next? Is it the end of an era, or the beginning of something even better?

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