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The future of the news business deeply murky once again

For a while Buzzfeed and Vice looked like they were successfully reimagining the business model for news media in the digital age. Not so much any more.

Buzzfeed’s announcement that it’s laying off 15% of it workforce is the second round of job cuts there in just over a year, and late last year Vice started cut its headcount by a similar proportion following Disney’s massive $150m write down of its stake in the company. Verizon, parent of HuffPost, AOL and Yahoo among others has also just announced major layoffs.

The ills of Buzzfeed and Vice in particular are very depressing as each in their own way brought new and very original thinking to the question of how to create a successful news organisation in a post-paper media world. Buzzfeed through its mastery of native advertising and social media algorithms, Vice through its combination of writing, video, agency work and much else. Both were very publicly devising potential new ways of funding news and journalism that were allowing them produce a great deal of seriously good and essential reporting and writing.

As the old print-based business models continue to fall apart (declining turnover and profits for the Sun and The Times in the UK last year being a recent high profile example) the question of what could replace those models has loomed over the media business for years now without any clear answers emerging.

Some organisations are thriving, but lessons are difficult to identify. The New York Times and the FT have never done better with their heavy investment in digital. Likewise The Economist, which is the UK’s top selling news magazine and is increasing sales as it steadily develops its digital side. However the second best selling news magazine in the UK is Private Eye which has no digital footprint at all. Elsewhere The Guardian are rightly proud of their reader-supported commercial model while the Washington Post and The Atlantic are benefiting from the protective cover of their new(ish) wealthy owners.

Plenty of digital-only publishers, such as Vox, Slate, Recode and many more, are still going strongly, and Buzzfeed and Vice are still producing excellent journalism, but in too many cases, today’s successful commercial models for news feel like unique circumstances that can only apply to the organisations in particular while many many other news companies continue to lose revenue, profits and staff.

Be the New York Times, be The Economist or find a rich benefactor isn’t really very helpful advice for most news organisations trying to build a sustainable commercial model. But at the moment, what’s going to work in the long term is no clearer than it was before.

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