The “Pivot” to Video: While We’re Waiting

Journalism Word Bubble

When Grantland shut down two years ago, many (including this site) paid very close attention to where their core writers and editors would land. Many were pried away by Bill Simmons to work under Sean Fennessey at The Ringer, a site that would have a little Grantland in its genes, but strived to do more in the way of multimedia be it video or podcasts. Bill was teaming up with HBO to work on some long-form video content1 while Fennessey and Chris Ryan and Mallory Rubin (all masthead members at Grantland) would work on the writing, eventually rolling out their own network of podcasts. The rest of the core Grantland folks would be announced as being new acquisitions of MTV News, a writing-based platform that would work in tandem with the longstanding music video company, covering all things politics and culture.

Roughly a week ago, that MTV News segment announced the layoffs of that entire unit. Much like FOX Sports before it, the moves are being collectively billed as “pivots” to short-form video. What press releases will tout is a change in the way we as consumers are absorbing our content. Younger generations, especially the 18-35 demographic, are becoming more inclined to watch a quick video on a topic than they are to read a story on it. The generation below that is even more inclined, so this is seen as a way to get ahead of the curve, so to speak. When we discuss these changes on Twitter, we’ll see a ton of “I don’t watch video” talk, which is probably true, but it’s also the first sign that whomever is saying that is no longer the target audience for whichever outlet they’re referencing. Websites were established to provide a compliment to the television-based networks, but they were loss leaders. As television demographics get older and older, networks are climbing mountains to make sure their core viewers don’t die off, ultimately leaving them without anyone watching. As it turns out, those mountains aren’t made of rock as much as they are the flesh of those who were brought on to provide written content at some point in the last few years.

The layoffs at FOX Sports were especially troubling as several individuals who were close to WFNY were impacted, but also as they served as a way to further prop up their debate-based television personalities. When Ken Rosenthal tweeted that his heavily reported words were no longer going to welcomed on those pages, and he would report MLB stories on his Facebook page (for free, mind you) instead, it served as a huge wake-up call. This wasn’t just the New Yor Times getting out of blogging, or AOL’s FanHouse getting shut down because of absurd bureaucracy. This was much, much worse. As Brian Curtis said best, “it’s one thing to think of a video replacing a writer; it’s another when the writer is Brian Phillips.”

Many of you may have noticed additional videos at the top of posts over the last few months. Some of you have voiced some displeasure in this, some of which was rooted in the evil notion of change while others have fallen victim to clicking too close to the video themselves, triggering the sound. It could be worse. Nevertheless, we’ve always strived to be ahead of trends throughout the years, be it in layout, the makeup of our team, the way we cover our topics, or the addition of various production elements. If you recall, one of the reasons we were so excited about last summer’s move was because of the help on the video side. We knew this was the way thing were heading, but didn’t have the infrastructure to jump aboard. What I never saw coming, however, was the extremes in which this direction was going to go. For two major outlets in the world of sports and culture to ditch quality writing for video-only pieces… I mean, I can’t fathom a world in which the written word is no longer valued.

I can’t remember if was 60 minutes or 20/20 or one of the other news shows2 but there was a short segment on how mobile phones were tipping dominoes, changing the way we communicate in what appeared to be irrevocable ways. It wasn’t just emailing or the sending of text messages as it was the way sentences were rife with acronyms and letters replacing words (i.e. how r u?). This was well beyond no longer teaching or needing cursive handwriting; this was a shift in how those words would even be written. And now I can’t help but think of these shifts, or pivots, as another domino in that line.

The difference will be, as it always is, in monetization. The landscapes stubborn inability to earn dollars in a non-click-based environment was frustrating at first, but is now changing the lives of countless individuals. The Grantland model of having sponsorships was the closest we had to an outlet that didn’t have to rely on “traffic” to pay their writers.3 Smaller, more niche outlets who are fortunate enough to have a core readership can leverage things like The Athletic uses subscriptions or we use Patreon4 to help provide things that otherwise could not have been afforded. Unfortunately for the larger platforms who were unable to create a sustainable business model, it appears to be too late. As younger generations are becoming more and more in tune with short-form video vignettes, advertisers are now putting their dollars in a place where they can be assured viewers will see their products before getting to see the content they yearn to view.

There’s incorporating video as a visual aid or additional element to the content therein, and there’s completely abandoning said content. When newspapers fell victim to their own horrible decisions, the web was to serve as the future of housing the written word in a way that would serve as a library of sorts, where we could go back and draw up any piece we wanted to read when we wanted it. On Demand David Foster Wallace or Hunter S. Thompson is an incredible thing. Factor in the writers of today, and what could go wrong? Fast forward to 2017 and any time we hear about new players in the media space (a la Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, or Amazon) it is entirely rooted in video and the broadcasting of sports and their various highlights. It wasn’t that long ago when MTV News was looked at as a beacon of hope, a white knight in the world of journalism. Now, they’re simply the latest to cave in to very, very troubling times.

This Week in #ActualSportswriting:

This Week in #ActualNonsportswriting:

This Week in Announcements:

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  1. An Andre the Giant documentary is set to release. []
  2. See? Video isn’t that memorable. []
  3. They simply had too many of them making industry-leading salaries, but that’s another discussion. []
  4. THANK YOU!! []
  5. So well done with various forms of media. Anyone with children who play sports will appreciate this one. []
  6. Reading stories like this one do nothing but make me angry about the outlets that are moving to “all video”. This is so, so well done and a story that needed to be told. []
  7. Incredibly researched, extremely well-written. Due to all the discussion it has created, Wallace-Wells has already published an annotated version of the story. []
  8. Using the same methodology in used to track disease in order to find out how garbage “news” gets disseminated. []