by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Despite the title, Television Is the New Television, Wolff devotes a lot of space to dissecting digital publishing and its doomed economics. Digital media like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post are living on borrowed time (and money), even as television fortifies its business model and profits. There has been no shortage of journalistic navel-gazing on the topic, but Wolff offers a compelling narrative, even if it’s light on outside sourcing and heavy on personal opinion. He adroitly explains why digital ads pay pennies on the dollar versus their print counterparts.
Wolff saves his sharpest critique for BuzzFeed, the much-hyped site that draws 200 million monthly visitors and has been valued at $850 million based on its venture-capital fund raising.
“Other than its continuing promotion, it had yet to boost itself above the revenue model of a single-title magazine,” he writes of BuzzFeed, as of 2014. “At $50 million [in revenue] a year, it was the size of New York magazine, which had a circulation of 400,000.”
The disconnect between hype and revenue remains part of the digital-media narrative. Early in the Internet life span—when newspaper publishers decided disastrously to make their Websites free—the assumption was that online-ad rates would equal print rates, with far lower production and distribution costs. But that was wishful thinking. The problem, now seemingly obvious, is a structural feature of the Web: a limitless inventory of ads. “The Web became a rare form of auction in which, by the math of unlimited supply, prices reliably went down instead of up,” Wolff explains.
There is also a question about the efficacy of Web ads. In one of his best metaphors, the author writes, “On the Web, you had an audience that was as though in the middle of a busy street, its attention caught by sudden random movements, loud noises, screeching cars, ugly or comely passersby.”