Are publishing companies thinking twice about news?

Yet after a period of ongoing expansion the last few months have been more turbulent for Mashable. The company laid off as many 30 staff in early April, and have also let its Executive Editor Jim Roberts and Chief Revenue Officer Seth Robin go.

Several media sources also ran the story that Mashable would no longer be focusing on hard news, and instead returning to its core social media and technology niches.

The new content officer Gregory Gittrich, then did a round of interviews stating that in no way was Mashable ditching news. It was just changing its focus.

He told Nieman Lab “We’re definitely still covering news. We decided to move away from general interest news and broad coverage of the world. The reason we did that is we really want to focus on where our strengths and expertise are and where we can stand out. The reality is that there’s no shortage of content being created and filling up the feed.”

“In terms of politics or other big breaking stories in news, we definitely plan to cover those but through the lens of these other sections.”

However the issues that Mashable faces are ones that are focusing the minds of many in publishing at the moment not just startups – though whether a company that is over 10 years old can be described as a startup is a moot point – but also legacy magazine publishers. 

Scale or niches?

By evolving into a more generalised news site Mashable certainly grew its traffic base. It has unique user figures of around 50 million per month. Yet it does beg the question – is all that traffic really worth having? 

Like everyone else in the publishing industry Mashable is having to deal with reduced display advertising revenue caused by both ad blocking and falling CPMs. 

So even if it is attracting huge numbers of readers it may not be monetising them in quite the way it would hope.

And then there is the issue of whether Mashable can actually compete in a hugely crowded news marketplace. News is so commoditised with big stories invariably breaking on Twitter and then news organisations jostling to be first to get the bare bones of the story live. 

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect that, for example, in the instance of celebrity deaths, most readers wait until the story has been validated by an old school established new organisation like the BBC, New York Times, Bild etc. So the real opportunity for publishers is not in reporting the news, but in the stories surrounding the news – angles, obituaries, opinion pieces etc. Why bother then to prioritise news? 

Mashable ironically, has broken stories on Twitter and social channels and then not followed up with news articles – as Gregory Gittrich told Nieman Lab, “I think that realtime team is perhaps best positioned to innovate around how we cover big developing stories. In some cases, that could mean creating content, creating stories that are designed to live entirely on social platforms. We’re going to look at whether we always need to use a live blog, how we use video, animation, and illustration both alone and together to tell stories in unique ways.”

Ultimately moving away from general news brings Mashable back to its core. That is a very healthy niche of tech, social and entertainment which attracts a young, affluent and intelligent audience. 

The importance of video/social platforms

Might Mashable also be re-distributing its resources? Given its heritage as a key reporter of social channels, the company is not surprisingly investing heavily in social options like Facebook’s Instant Articles (and possibly soon Facebook Live) and Snapchat’s Discover. 

There are already reasonable revenue generating possibilities in these platforms and, as analyst Ralf Kaumanns told the DI Summit in Berlin, the really juicy money ads may be on their way soon. “The big money from content distribution is not in the articles themselves, but outside of them,” he said citing potential of Facebook’s Canvas ad format.

Mashable, like everyone else in the publishing industry is also having to massively increase its video output – hence the US$15m investment it recently received from Turner. Video is absolutely crucial to the future of Mashable and if it needs to redistribute its resources to focus more on video production surely this makes sense from a revenue generation and traffic perspective.

The growing pains of Mashable and maybe BuzzFeed which is wrestling with similar issues too, underline once again that scale almost certainly isn’t the most important factor in digital publishing. The key is developing a loyal and engaged audience that can be monetised in a  number of ways and both companies are sure to be focusing on getting that right.

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