The Rundown: Publisher ranks brace for a rocky year ahead

It’s been a difficult year for those in digital publishing, and as we hurtle toward 2019, things don’t look like they’re about to get any easier.

As I wrote in The Rundown back in May, panic had begun sweeping through the ranks at various publishers in the wake of Facebook’s algorithm changes earlier this year, with staffers bemoaning a lack of direction and strategy beyond “video,” and complaining that “diversification” efforts were little more than a smokescreen for “throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.”

Fast-forward seven months, and it’s fair to say the concerns among many senior and mid-level publishing execs have intensified. For all the talk of new initiatives and pivots to new businesses like subscriptions, commerce and licensing, most are under no illusions that the road ahead is looking treacherous.

For many, the sudden layoffs and subsequent fire sale of Mic last month have in some ways confirmed their fears. The site was bought for $5 million by Bustle Media Group — a far cry from the “mid-hundreds of millions” of dollars valuation that it was pegged at previously.

As the year draws to a close, collapses like these are fueling the fires of uncertainty at publishers evermore aggressively. But there is somewhat of a silver lining. Some staffers inside digital publishing say such events have prompted a level of introspection.

“Everyone’s thinking more carefully about what it is we’re doing here and why,” said one mid-level staffer at a digital publisher, reflecting on a turbulent 2018.

“Layoffs are coming. We’re just trying to figure out when and who,” said a salesperson at a different, video-focused brand.

But it’s not just those at small, scrappier publishers that are concerned. Staffers at well-capitalized, well-established brands are starting to get uneasy. Verizon wrote down the value of its Oath division by $4.5 billion this week, for example, as it preps deep cuts and the closure of some of its media properties.

And employees at BuzzFeed say they aren’t exactly filled with confidence by their CEO Jonah Peretti’s implication that the only way publishers can survive in the platform era is by rolling many of them into one.

“It’s hard to know what you’re supposed to think when your CEO is out there in The New York Times floating the idea of a mega-merger,” one BuzzFeed staffer said.

At this point, it’s news to nobody in media that 2019 could be the year the music stops for many publishers. But as many scrap to uncover new revenue streams — or simply to keep to the lights on — they can expect to face more difficult questions internally as well as externally as the year progresses.

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