Further digital media chaos as Vice files for bankruptcy

As another digital content pioneer fights for its life, the future of the sector seems more uncertain than ever.

Vice Media, a cutting-edge digital media group once valued at $5.7 billion, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy ahead of a presumed sale to some of its lenders. This marks just the latest reverse for digital publishing, following the closure of Buzzfeed News last month, indicating severe challenges for any business that relies on major digital distribution platforms such as Google and Facebook.

The reasons for this are many, but a dysfunctional relationship with the major platforms, which also dominate the digital advertising market, would appear to be at the core. Many traditional media are now moving to a subscriber model to protect themselves from this, but it seems likely that only the biggest brands can convince large numbers of people to pay for them.

Demand for quality content seems to be as high as ever, but the market is very competitive and it’s often unclear what the best model is to best monetise that content. Last week US star newscaster Tucker Carlson announced he was going to broadcast direct to Twitter, which presumably he thinks offers good monetisation options. Soon after Twitter owner Elon Musk revealed the appointment of a legacy media advertising exec as CEO of the platform.

The telecoms world has flirted liberally with digital media over the past decade or so, identifying synergies that never materialised and eventually giving up on the whole misguided strategy at enormous expense to their shareholders. The most dramatic of these was AT&T’s Time Warner fail, the retreat from which allowed BT to also extricate itself from content misadventure. Fellow US telecoms giant Verizon also dabbled in the space through the acquisition of AOL, with similar results.

Nobody doubts that having a large audience is a very powerful and potentially lucrative thing, but the mechanisms for monetising it seem more convoluted and elusive than ever. A year ago CNN thought the best way to address its declining audience would be to charge more for the same stuff, an experiment abandoned after less than a month.

Meanwhile Light Reading reports that the US pay TV industry lost a record 2.3 million subscribers in the first quarter of 2023. It seems the subscription video on demand (SVOD) channel is increasingly viewed as a superior alternative, but that hasn’t stopped traditional cable networks from raising their prices.

How all this digital media chaos will resolve itself is the billion dollar question. The battle for subscriber revenue will continue, and in the case of current affairs content people seem likely to prefer personal brands over corporate ones. Perhaps the demise of Vice and Buzzfeed signifies a polarisation of digital media revenue between the biggest companies and a long tail of individuals, with mid-sized organisations falling by the wayside.


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