Digital Transformation Future of Media Third Party Cookie shutters & BuzzFeed sells Complex – what explains the death of millennial media?


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

February 26, 2024 | 12 min read

Another one bites the dust. And in the estimation of some media experts, “there will be more blood-letting” across media in the coming months.

Vice building with cracking glass image overlain

Vice announced late last week that it will shutter its news operation and lay off staffers / Adobe Stock / Kendra Barnett

The millennial bastions of culture that helped catalyze the digital media revolution in the early 2000s and the 2010s are heaving their last breaths.

Vice Media announced Thursday, less than a year after filing for bankruptcy, that it is shuttering its news operations and its flagship site, The organization, which was once valued at nearly double The New York Times, plans to lay off hundreds of staffers and transform its business into a ‘studio model’ through which it will sell content to other publishers.

The news came just one day after BuzzFeed, which pulled the plug on BuzzFeed News last spring, announced the sale of its streetwear and culture publication Complex to livestream shopping platform Ntwrk for $108.6m – 63% less than the $294m that BuzzFeed shelled out to acquire the brand in 2021. The media company also announced that it’s cutting 16% of its remaining staff.

Both BuzzFeed and Vice, major publishers hailed in their heyday as the future of digital media, have seen their valuation drop drastically in recent years.

What explains the downfall of these cultural outposts, media experts say, is a shift in consumer attention – and ad dollars – toward more fragmented and diversified content offerings and, ultimately, a failure to adapt.

The ironic risk of building a brand on niche interests

In the early days of web 2.0, media platforms could rise to the top by carving out a strong niche and producing consistently high-quality content that won over the loyalty of both readers and advertisers.

“Both investors and advertisers [historically] like big, simple things,” says Ben Essen, chief strategy officer at digital marketing agency Iris, which counts Samsung, Adidas, Bentley and Pizza Hut among its clientele. “They much prefer finding one or two platforms to back rather than a messy plethora of micro-bets.“

Investors and media buyers may have seen a broad appeal or a ”big, simple thing” in publishers like BuzzFeed News and Vice, Essen says, but they were mistaken. These media organizations were designed to feed readers’ demand for focused, millennial lifestyle and pop culture content. “They massively overvalued what were only ever niche platforms,” he says.

And these publishers were feeding a demand that was growing. But eventually, this demand would outgrow what traditional news publishers could offer.

BuzzFeed News and Vice “were early evidence of media’s great transformation towards more diverse, fragmented, authentic content designed around specific communities of interest,” says Essen. “But given the natural result of this trajectory, we ended up with an ever larger number of smaller media businesses.”

Accelerating this fragmentation was the boom of social media in the 2010s. Users discovered they could consume content they love across new, engaging formats – and connect with flourishing communities that share their interests.

An increasing demand for niche, interest-based content and communities – something that publishers like Vice and Complex had once mastered – may have, ironically, been part of the reason for these platforms’ demise.

Vice, BuzzFeed and others were soon forced to compete with the Instagrams, TikToks and Reddits of the world. They soon found that the loyalty they’d worked so hard to build proved less durable than they had hoped it would be.

And where eyeballs go, ad dollars go.

And that was social platforms, where user-generated content offers an abundance of media inventory at scale – and creators and communities feed consumer desire for interest-based content.

“Look at the continued rise of influencers and community-based advertising – good content will always win, and the platform is a mechanism of delivering what consumers want,” says Ivy Escopete, senior strategy consultant at creative agency Cheil UK.

News publishers’ addressability problem

But social media platforms offer another crucial benefit for advertisers in particular: greater targeting and measurement precision. In short, they promise more effective advertising and greater returns on investment.

“Advertising dollars migrated to social media … despite the low quality of user-generated content. Why? Social provides enhanced performance due to its logged-in and addressable nature. [It’s] the secret behind why social media advertising can be targeted, measured and optimized,” says Adam Berkowitz, chief of staff and senior vice-president of corporate communications and industry relations at email marketing platform LiveIntent.

Amid the widespread deprecation of cross-site tracking tools like third-party cookies, traditional publishers often lack these logged-in experiences rich with first-party data. So at the end of the day, they’re caught on their back foot, especially if their subscription businesses are not especially robust.

Digital publishers need to invest in alternatives to third-party cookies, Berkowitz argues, and specifically look to link their readers to user-level identifiers like email addresses. These kinds of signals can offer publishers insights into user behavior across sites that advertisers find especially useful.

“There may be a silver lining for truly quality publishers who invest in ensuring their readers give them first-party data,” he says. “The publishers who can map their readers to a durable identifier that works across the ecosystem are the publishers in the best shape for this coming era.”

Everything is an ad network

Unfortunately, while many publishers adapted to the pressure by diversifying their business models to include both ads and subscriptions – while also introducing multimedia and non-news content (like games and lifestyle coverage) that keep readers coming back for more – the problem has only multiplied.

It’s no longer just social media platforms offering an abundance of eyeballs and first-party targeting and measurement capabilities. In the last few years, content supply has sprung up in every corner of the digital ecosystem and, as a result, everything has become an ad network.

Retailers like Walmart, Target, Kroger and eBay have launched retail media networks that promise to bring advertisers closer to the point of sale. At the same time, Amazon’s e-commerce dominance has helped it expand into entertainment and media in new ways.

Connected TV (CTV), meanwhile, has witnessed an explosion of video streaming platforms – and the subsequent convergence of many such platforms under the umbrellas of entertainment titans like Disney and Warner Bros Discovery. Audio streaming, too, is booming, bringing in more advertiser investment year after year.

“News is good, but community is better. Events are better. Subscriptions are better. Bundles are better. Combining these revenue models into a more robust offering extracts more value from readers,” says Robert Brill, chief executive officer at media buying agency Brill Media.

“A single news site,” Brill says, “is now competing with so many well-funded and robust platforms, including Walmart, TikTok, Reddit, Amazon, Instacart and Spotify. It’s not a fair playing field.”

All the while, the Meta-Google duopoly – which encompasses major content machines and advertising networks including Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and more – will continue to win the lion’s share of ad spend. For perspective, the tech titans ate up 49% of total digital ad spend in 2022.

Plus, so many of these new media networks – spanning video, audio, social and e-commerce – are built around logged-in environments, reinforcing for publishers the challenge of competing on first-party data and granular ad targeting.

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“We’re seeing the inevitable outcome for news properties, which is that walled gardens serve as the de facto tollbooth for media consumption,” Brill says. “When platforms including Meta and X throttle activity to news sites, the action results in even more strained economics for news publishers.”

In essence, social platforms, streaming services and retail media networks are driving eyeballs – and ad spend – away from legacy digital media. And publishers’ first-party data woes only complicate their plight. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for these companies to monetize their content in the way they once did.

Ultimately, Brill takes a pessimistic view of the future of digital news media. “I don’t think the business of news is sustainable because advertisers are seeing better opportunities on platforms instead of sites.”

Adapting to the new norms of a fragmented media ecosystem

Some media experts believe that traditional digital publishers could still have a bright future ahead.

They suggest that publishers will still be able to compete in this more complex media landscape if they lean into the shift and meet consumer and advertiser demands.

“A positive development,” says Mark McShane, owner of digital PR agency Cupid PR, “would be moving away from fairly unstable financial bases rooted in digital ads towards more diverse models involving subscriptions, membership and branded content.”

Bundling services in this way, à la premium social media and CTV offerings, is a stronger approach than relying solely on monetizing news content via ads, Brill agrees. “There either needs to be a singular ad network for news publishers, or they need to get into the business of bundles, combining multiple revenue models.”

In Essen’s telling, the path forward for publishers “starts with recognizing the new truth that content doesn’t make money.” Engaging content on its own is rarely enough to drive revenue for a site, he says – but publishers can develop commercial offerings within their content to create new opportunities for advertisers.

Another key to unlocking value from advertisers is solving for advertisers’ demand for data-based targeting. While traditional digital publishers will have to bid adieu to third-party cookies, they still have opportunities to build up their stores of first-party data through subscription-based business models and privacy-safe ID solutions.

“What publishers need is parity” with social media platforms and other ad networks, says Berkowitz. “They must create logged-in type experiences for advertisers because all things being equal, advertisers would choose the higher-quality publisher content every time.”

But time is ticking, as Chrome’s third-party cookies are slated for full deprecation in the latter half of this year.

And Berkowitz, for his part, believes that the gutting of Vice and BuzzFeed are signs of more digital media carnage ahead. “No doubt there will be more blood-letting in the media ecosystem,” he says. “It’s tragic because we need reporting more than ever. But publishers need to take seriously what the coming post-third party cookie era will bring, and put themselves in as strong a position as possible to thrive after its demise.”

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