“The future of media is visual,” Mark Thompson said recently. The New York Times CEO was presenting the blue-chip news organization’s slate of video series at the NewFronts at the time, obviously banking that ramping up expansion of the Gray Lady’s digital offerings would eventually offset tumbling print revenues.
One can’t fault the Times for sinking more money into video efforts with an ambitious slate that builds on its strength in advertiser-friendly coverage, including a variety of series focused on fashion, travel, sports and the arts. Some of the notables in the slate included “The Fine Line—Olympics: Rio de Janeiro 2016,” a subject matter that seemed to borrow from the ESPN playbook. An outer space show dubbed “Out There: News From the Other Side,” sounded like something that might find a home on Discovery, PBS or the midnight show at the Hayden Planetarium.
But as the “products made for TV” commercials always promise: Wait — there’s more. Thompson and company touted some virtual reality series that will debut in the fall, including one called “The Creators,” putting the spotlight on various artists at work. The other, called “Secret Cities, “ with a travel/fashion focus helmed by marquee directors, is slated to coincide with Fashion Week.
The day after the Times presentation, I was at DLD NYC 2016, the Big Apple iteration of the technology and ideas forum that meets in various places around the world. Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith, who turned around Atlantic Media and has been attempting to do likewise at Bloomberg, was on stage being interviewed by the newly minted Times op-ed editor James Bennet. (The duo had worked together for years in the trenches at The Atlantic.) The forum was fittingly called “Building Brands: The Changing Media Industry and Platform Integration.”
Bennet quizzed Smith about video, and the Bloomberg Media boss didn’t seem convinced that it would be the secret sauce to cure all the woes of legacy media companies—or cutting-edge ones, for that matter. Still, it’s regarded as an essential part of a multiplatform approach to profitability. If you’re a relatively new player, say a BuzzFeed or Vox, you have to push big into video to keep your investors happy and hold on to “your bubbly valuation.”
And yes, Smith believes—and I am sad to report—we are in a news “big bubble” that started when Silicon Valley got all dewy-eyed about investing in millennial-focused media organizations. Those same investors are, as we know, beginning to get restless about those funds, and relentlessly pushing media outlets to achieve scale.
Smith said “general news” outfits and those providing broad-based entertainment news were going to have a hard time moving forward. That “giant sucking sound” we might be hearing, he suggested, was the probability of a free-fall for a lot of broad-based news organizations, in the same boat as the Times.
However, Smith did allow that given the strength of the Times brand, it might be one of the few exceptions to the rule. Naturally, he offered his Bloomberg blueprint, which might spell success, provided you had global reach, strength in business niches and were strong across platforms from mobile, to the Web to TV. Key to all of it, Smith said, was to push for topnotch quality across those platforms. And he did allow that long-form video—well executed and part of such a multiplatform strategy—would be “a huge business.”
I think Smith wasn’t simply trying to assuage the fears of Bennett, his former Atlantic colleague, and was sincere about his evaluation of the Times prospects in a turbulent landscape.
As I said, you can’t blame Thompson and his Times video pals for trying. It was Joe Strummer of the Clash who wrote, “The future is unwritten.” As Strummer himself knew, video can also be a profitable way to tell the future’s story.