Browse the homepage at VICE or Vox, and it’s hard to remember where web media stood just five years ago (some of us may have chosen to block it out completely). Online content is on as steep a slope as we’ve seen, driven by quality-conscious platforms putting users above clicks. And these platforms are capturing real attention. With VSCO, Medium, Vox, VICE and Buzzfeed, today’s digital natives are embracing a slate of media brands that didn’t exist even a few years ago.
These startups are showing that authentic creators, and strong production value, can capably lift content above the noise and clutter historically found on the web. And to no one’s surprise, they’re quickly building the audience to prove it.
Watching the arc of these new media brands over the past 12-18 months has been fascinating. For one, it’s never been a better time to be a consumer. Quality media is ubiquitous; content is becoming deep, satisfying and contextual. We’re being exposed to a global army of creative voices who are producing great long form content, inspiring photography, crisp news analyses or just damn good television. Unlike the click-centered view of their predecessors, these startups are taking a decidedly user-centric view of the world — building a content-media ecology that spans channels, devices and media types. Today’s consumers have an ocean of great stuff at their fingertips.
It’s also been a great time to be an investor in media: $100s of billions in incumbent media value is just beginning to shake loose (sometimes in the literal sense). From Ezra Klein to Chris Hamby, every week we hear of media personalities leave for the independence and agility of a web or mobile startup – taking loyal readers with them. VICE, a once-NSFW website, has evolved into an important global news source, challenging incumbent news authorities by leading the narratives on ISIS and Middle East terrorism. VSCO is arming a legion of digital citizens with the tools and services to capture the raw on-the-ground account of some of our most stirring current events, like the march on Ferguson. Vox is grabbing the torch to combine provocative rich media with gritty journalism to help pragmatically explain the news, replacing click-bait punditry in favor a clear “so what”. At this year’s Golden Globes, shows from Amazon and Netflix won major awards while the “Big Four” networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) were shut out.
Change is happening. Rapidly.
Impressively, the economic models behind new media startups are quickly bearing fruit as well. In an age of data drivenness, brands are tuning budget towards quality design, authentic engagement, retention and measurable ROI – holding agencies and channels to a higher standard. That’s great news for the aforementioned companies, who can translate higher engagement products into meaningful, recurring brand campaigns. Ads needn’t disrupt the content experience, they can actually become a part of it (some campaigns are just as good as the content itself). With native advertising, this new media model is challenging the conventions of traditional advertising by (again) putting users front and center. And brands are lining up in droves to be a part of this movement.
Simply, it’s been an awesome couple of years for online media. Startups are rebuilding content experiences from the ground up, resetting our expectations around quality and value while delivering an end-to-end product for a web-mobile paradigm. But perhaps more importantly, they’re reimagining the standing and authority of some very tenured brands like CNN/Time Warner, Hearst, WSJ/News Corp and Viacom — which for decades have shaped and influenced the way we relate to the world.
We’re still in the early innings. But if successful, companies like VICE, Netflix, VSCO, Vox and Buzzfeed may not merely become important companies… Like the incumbents they’re disrupting, they have a chance to become important institutions in the fabric of our social, political and economic systems.
If there’s one truism in media old or new: where attention flows, value is quick to follow.