Let’s start with a meme.
I laughed. The post came from Clickhole, a satire site that often focuses on the enshittification of online media. A friend sent it to me and asked, “ha ha or too on the nose?”
I dunno, we call our farm Escape Collective and you should join? Sign up and make sure we can keep Iain Treloar’s stable stocked with raw oats?
The sheer volume of breathless copy about the state of the media industry this week isn’t surprising, both because writers like to talk about themselves and because this was truly a monumentally bad few weeks, even in the context of about two decades of Bad Media Times. To wit: Sports Illustrated is basically dead; Pitchfork, the venerable music title now owned by Condé Nast, has been cut off at the knees and its head is probably next; The LA Times, owned by a billionaire, laid off 115 journalists. The middle of the media ecosystem — basically everything in between the solo bloggers on Substack and the New York Times — is being hollowed out.
Why? Because we lost. Media’s revenue generally comes from ads, and in the ad market of 2024, the tech platforms won. Well, they won a long time ago, but they let us think we could keep playing our little games for a while. We are now under no such illusions.
For years, Facebook sent lots of traffic; Google did too. Millions and millions of people hit our sites who never would have otherwise. It caused audience metric inflation, in the economic sense of the term. Instead of a 100,000 print circulation making for a strong, profitable magazine, suddenly web traffic figures below seven figures weren’t even worth talking about. As those numbers rose, the revenue that came from each person who read your work dropped. And dropped. And dropped. And then, in the last year or two, the platforms stopped sending those big audiences. So ad prices dropped and traffic dropped. You can do the math on those two things converging.
So we lost. Buzzfeed News, the king of gaming those algorithms for eyeballs, died. Fine, it was Buzzfeed, but they also did Pulitzer-winning work over there, and now it’s wall-to-wall “14 celebs who successfully slid into another famous person’s DMs, and 8 who crashed and burned.” 🤮
Into this already-bad state of affairs comes AI and the “tsunami of shit.” I heard this week of a company that owns a collection of websites in the UK publishing a human-written story on one of its sites and then using AI to rewrite and repost it on the rest of its network, so that each piece of human-made content turns into half a dozen AI derivatives. Six for the price of one. Do you think the company that decides to do that will keep the price of one when it becomes an option to get rid of that last person?
Whew, this got dark, didn’t it? But it’s pretty dark out there.
The result of all of this is that the middle of the media industry is collapsing. At the very small end, there is real hope, as journalists start Substacks and sometimes make a decent living at it. They write interesting and important things but they are just single voices, with one perspective. At the top end, the New York Times competes not just in New York but in Houston, LA, and Paris and has the resources to sue OpenAI for copyright infringement. They’re doing fine.
What’s missing is the middle. The groups of 10 or 15 or 20 journalists who can provide breadth and depth. As Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote this week, the middle is where investigative journalism happens, it’s where experimentation happens. “The middle is where a lot of great journalists are found and trained,” he wrote. “The middle is where local reporting happens and where culture is made rather than discovered.”
The middle needs to be rebuilt. But it can’t be rebuilt with the same approach as before. No more building businesses on the algorithmic whims of tech platforms. No more chasing an endless increase in story count and pageviews, stuck in a doom loop with no off-ramp. I’m not saying we have all the answers, far from it. I just believe that trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
Remember the bit about ad revenue per user dropping? When that price is set by somebody else, and keeps going down, the drive for more traffic is unstoppable. If users are only worth their click and brief moment of attention, revenue per user is a tiny figure. A couple cents. Our revenue per member is over $100 USD. This fundamental change means we don’t need millions of people to click, we need thousands to love what we do.
The Clickhole post is funny because it’s true and sad because it’s true. A 4,000-word essay is a classic “not for everyone; it’s for you” piece that only makes sense when pageviews aren’t the ultimate arbiter of success. It’s something we do that you’re not going to find much of in other cycling media outlets. But such writing is also a luxury. We have to build a financially stable and strong business built on good content so we don’t have to replicate crappy stories with AI and layer them with autoplay vids in a futile attempt to backfill the ad revenue that’s disappearing into the tech sinkhole.
The only way to fight back, as I see it, is to stop playing the tech platforms’ game. Stop playing on a field they designed under rules that change at their whim. Build an audience that cares, build a business that isn’t reliant on somebody else’s algorithm. When we choose not to optimize our content for the algorithms we give up on a certain type of growth. We made that decision because content optimized for the algorithms actually sucks.
So, we started our farm. We grow deeply rooted pieces about toolboxes full of tools you can’t even use anymore. We have organic certified, oat-fueled Treloar Tangents and zero-SEO-value 4500-word interviews with guys who ride cargo bikes really far. We’re different because you want us to be; our reporters are smart, informed, and can take their time when the topic demands it. Nourishing, locally typed, algorithm-absent curation. That’s what we cultivate here at EC. Here’s to many good harvests to come.
What did you think of this story?