It's the end of an era. The biggest names in youth news media, with their cutting-edge reporting techniques and laser-like attention to young people, have greatly impacted an entire generation. They integrated pop culture with current affairs, provided platforms for real, diverse voices, elevated underrepresented perspectives, and worked to address pressing social and political concerns in novel, approachable ways.
They were once the beloved digital media disruptors of the new millennium but are now being disrupted by the all-consuming power of today's social media giants. Vice Media cited a weakened ad business as one of the main reasons behind its filing for bankruptcy. It's an outcome that seems destined to repeat as popular social platforms continue their monopoly and eat up all competition in the current advertising ecosystem.
"Advertiser dollars are following where attention is going—and these are platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram," says Marc Langenfeld, head of media, VaynerMedia APAC. "This shift in attention to social platforms has highlighted the revenue challenges faced by more traditional media publications, and advertisers evidently have and must continue to focus on where their audiences’ attention lies, and respectively shift their advertising dollars there."
Tony Chan, regional strategy director at Assembly, APAC, says that the loss of these youth news platforms represents no real big miss to advertisers.
"Platforms like Buzzfeed News and Vice Media depend highly on social media for traffic. Hence it represents no big miss to advertisers who are already investing in social media platforms in the first place. Based on their algorithm, their ads will now be distributed to other popular channels accordingly."
All in all, the closure of these youth news platforms will have a negligible impact on the overall advertising market.
"These media companies’ primary audiences are the very definition of digital natives so reaching them across other environments isn’t going to present a huge challenge for advertisers or agencies," says Justin Arlt, head of partnerships, Melbourne, Initiative Australia.
A reflection of the changing landscape
One might argue that the reason advertising dollars are going into social channels and not traditional digital media publications is that the latter has failed to evolve enough to keep audiences engaged.
As Vice Media put it themselves, their move is a response to new market realities and in alignment with how audiences are engaging with content today.
"I don’t think the shutdowns are a sign of decline in youth media. Instead it’s a result of the change we have seen in how youth consume media," says Sally Lawrence, group director of media at Enigma. "The accelerated growth of TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels has continued to push youth audiences into these video-led platforms, and as the popularity of these platforms have increased, so has youth’s preference to consume content via both short-form and long-form video."
TikTok is certainly going to be a key beneficiary from the decline of Vice and Buzzfeed news, but there are other alternatives where advertisers might park their media dollars.
"New and unexpected partnership platforms are springing up," says Chan. "There is a growing shift of admired but out-of-work digital journalists branching out to create solo content on popular social media such as TikTok and YouTube. They have more flexibility and agility in producing more relevant content for their viewers. Such journalists are open to ad partnerships to obtain income in exchange for quality content, and advertisers can approach them to create/amplify content for their audiences."
Indeed, platforms like Substack, which allow writers to send digital newsletters directly to subscribers, have flourished in recent times and report a doubling of paid subscribers every year. But will new and alternative channels be able to offer the type of credibility and quality control that Vice, Buzzfeed and MTV once offered?
"I would argue that social platforms today have gained a certain level of credibility, given moves such as the introduction of stricter guidelines and policies to stop the spread of misinformation and fake news," says VaynerMedia's Lagenfeld. "Additionally, they have also made substantial investments in developing AI systems to effectively detect and remove harmful content such as hate speech, harassment, and spam."
While Vice's loss might be TikTok's gain, all the traffic moving to social channels might not result in the best outcome, particularly for advertisers.
"As advertisers going after youth continue to flock to social channels, the ability to cut through and stand out in the crowd will become increasingly challenging," says Enigma's group director of media, Sally Lawrence. "There is only so much you can do on TikTok, Instagram, etc, and the reality is you are competing incredibly hard for attention."
Lawrence adds that the likes of BuzzFeed and Vice gave advertisers the ability to leverage the publisher’s credibility and ingrain themselves into youth culture through bespoke campaigns that work hard at the top of the funnel. Whilst social can play a full-funnel role, there is great value in diversifying channels and formats, particularly at the prospecting level.
"This is especially true when going after younger audiences as you are competing for a very finite amount of attention," says Lawrence.
One rises, another falls
As digital news platforms struggle, social channels continue their meteoric rise. There's no question that the rise and popularity of social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have made it harder for more traditional youth platforms like Buzzfeed, Vice and MTV to compete for advertising dollars. But will social channels gain even more audience share, ultimately make them oversaturated and reduce their effectiveness for advertisers?
"The meteoric rise of TikTok certainly had an impact, but there are a few different angles to look at," says Initiative Australia's Justin Arlt.
"We know how crucial Facebook is to driving traffic to digital news sites and with more and more younger audiences migrating off Facebook, this has a flow-on effect with lower traffic for Vice/Buzzfeed/MTV which in turn impacts their ability to sell packages to advertisers."
"TikTok and IG Reels have also done a great job capitalising on the alarming declines in attention spans whereas traditional players are confined to longer form written content which is no longer the currency of the realm for younger audiences."
Assembly's Tony Chan says that the popularity and dominance of social channels are not the only factors behind why more traditional youth media fail to compete.
"The delivery of the news content and the spirit of the content itself plays a part as well," says Chan. "A key reason younger audiences avoid news is their feeling worn out and downcast by the negativity of news. TikTok's videos—which are more upbeat and positive, think cute cat videos, cooking videos, prank videos, etc., resonate better with the youth. Advertisers can explore riding on the type/mood of news content rather than popular content to engage."
Can we expect to see traditional youth media platforms like Vice or MTV mount a comeback? Or do the social media giants now hold an impenetrable hold on youth audiences?
"When comparing cost and reach, it is hard to compete against social platforms, and in a tough market, these things are so important," says Lawrence. "What traditional youth platforms need to do is show advertisers the value. How can they reach the hard-to-reach in interesting and innovative ways and deliver cost efficiencies to their media buy? Broadly these traditional platforms are faced with the challenge of delivering content in a way that resonates with young audiences. Unfortunately, I don’t think long-form written content will cut it, and things must change."