There's a couple ways to look at the recent spate of news on the difficulties multi-million dollar digital media companies — Buzzfeed, Mashable, Salon, and Gawker Media to name a few — are currently having. The most popular way, it seems, is to conclude that we're reaching a bust period; that Facebook's (and Google's) ubiquity is so pervasive that both advertisers and audiences are choosing to spend resources there instead of on these platforms.
This month, Mashable, a site that had just raised $15 million, laid off 30 people. Salon, a web publishing pioneer, announced a new round of budget cuts and layoffs. And BuzzFeed, which has been held up as a success story, was forced to bat back questions about its revenue — but not before founders at other start-up media companies received calls from anxious investors.
“It is a very dangerous time,” said Om Malik, an investor at True Ventures whose tech news site, Gigaom, collapsed suddenly in 2015, portending the flurry of contractions.
The trouble, the publishers say, is twofold. The web advertising business, always unpredictable, became more treacherous. And website traffic plateaued at many large sites, in some cases falling — a new and troubling experience after a decade of exuberant growth.
Online publishers have faced numerous financial challenges in recent years, including automated advertising and ad-blocking tools. But now, there is a realization that something more profound has happened: The transition from an Internet of websites to an Internet of mobile apps and social platforms, and Facebook in particular, is no longer coming — it is here.
While this news should seem troubling to someone like me — a founder of a digital media platform and a contributor to several others — it's not. For one simple reason: VSB is not struggling. From 2014 to 2015, our traffic tripled. And if you compare the first three months of 2015 to the first three months of 2016, we've increased 400%.
Granted, comparing VSB to a Buzzfeed is like comparing an extremely popular food truck to the Cheesecake Factory. We have a considerably lower overhead. For instance, earlier today we ran a piece from Dara Mathis. I first learned about this piece after (1) going through our email account and finding her pitch. Then (2) I vetted the pitch, and (3) responded directly to Dara. And then she sent me her piece, which (4) I read, (5) copy edited and (6) line edited. Since she's a new contributor, I needed a bio and picture from her to create her profile, so I received that and (7) created it. Then I (8) inserted her piece into the CMS and published it. But not before (9) finding, screenshotting, and cropping an appropriate picture. And then I (10) shared her piece on Twitter and Facebook. And, along with writing this, I'm (11) moderating the comments on VSB.
I included numbers in that paragraph because each one represents a different job. While some of these jobs have natural and intuitive overlaps, there are publications that may have as many as 11 different people for each. And we haven't even gotten into the business/publisher aspect of running a media company or even all that far into the creative end.
While VSB is the shit, we're not particularly unique in this regard. I'm sure of you polled the staffs at The Root, Madame Noire, Black Voices, and many of the larger media companies ran by and targeted towards Black people, you'd find similar instances of multiple people regularly doing multiple jobs. But, like VSB, each of the sites I mentioned grew in traffic from 2014 to 2015.
Which brings me to the second way of looking at the news of the digital media company struggles. Maybe these investors — the ones anxious about pouring millions more on top of the millions they've already poured into these companies — are investing in the wrong platforms. Or perhaps they should be less exclusive. Maybe its time that the Black news and media companies who've been able to maintain growth during this bust period actually receive these types of opportunities; the chance to grow and perhaps even fail spectacularly. Maybe instead of "here's another $50 million for you, Buzzfeed" it's "here's $30 million for you, Buzzfeed, but we're going to give $10 million to The Grio, five to VSB and five to Blavity."
Now, to be fair, I know The Root was acquired by Univision last year, I know Blavity was able to raise a substantial amount of money, and we've had a few separate entities in the last year approach VSB about investments, partnerships, and even possible acquisitions. So it's not like Black spaces are outright ignored.
But, let me just say this. Imagine what a company with 400% growth in the last year — growth with one person working full-time, one working part-time, and various occasional contributors — could do with an infusion of that type of capital.
And then imagine how much more attractive that number would be if we were White.