Harsh Truths

Earlier today, Erik Davis announced that he would be stepping down from Cinematical as editor-in-chief. Davis' departure comes at the tail end of a string of departures during the past few weeks, which includes former co-editor-in-chief Scott Weinberg and writer William Goss. Davis' announcement coincidentally (?) comes on the same day that Business Insider published a sketchily-sourced story about AOL firing all of its freelancers, under the new direction of the Huffington Post (here's a follow-up to that story).

Like former managing editor Kim Voynar, I feel like this is the "nail in the coffin" for Cinematical. The site was subsumed by Moviefone not too long ago, and has been fighting to stay alive as an independent entity ever since. Davis was one of the people that were on the front lines, trying to defend Cinematical as a purveyor of premium film enthusiast content (vs. the more mainstream-friendly fare of the broader Moviefone site). With him gone, I'd venture that the days of Cinematical being known as a major player in the movie blog vertical are numbered, if not already over.

I see this as a great loss and I know that several of my movie writer colleagues do as well. Cinematical was one of the first blogs to show that you could run a site about movies with a staff of knowledgeable, talented people and still be profitable and respected. For years, I looked up to Cinematical as a quality site, a place where I hoped to one day work and write. The idea that it may be on the verge of oblivion is a strange one to get used to.

In yet another coincidence, news of Davis' departure comes on the heels of news that former Engadget EIC Joshua Topolsky will be starting a brand new site over at SB Nation, along with a bunch of his previous colleagues. This story in the NYTimes explains how AOL bought Weblogs Inc., which came with premium sites such as Engadget, then failed to nurture them and allow them to flourish. The unfortunate side effect of this is that they've now ended up facilitating the creation of a major competitor to Engadget, one with a considerable following and built-in respect (I know, because I'm one of Topolsky's fans, and will definitely be following him over to the new site when it launches in the fall).

Ever since AOL's merger with the Huffington Post, the new corporate overlords have been killing off respected AOL brands left and right. The recent upheaval over there reminds me of some fundamental economic realities in relation to movie websites and blogs:

1) On a basic level, one cannot be a profitable website unless every dollar you're paying out is returning AT LEAST a dollar. For a website, this is usually done through advertising (other business models exist and they are for a different day and a different blog post). For example, this means that if you're receiving net $5 per thousand pageviews, and you're paying out $25 to your writers per post, you must receive 5,000 pageviews for that post to be profitable.

2) The movie enthusiast site vertical simply does not attract as many or as valuable pageviews as other blog verticals, such as technology, video gaming, or even automotive websites. To use my above example, most film websites do NOT get $5 per thousand page views, nor do their posts receive 5,000 hits each -- both of these numbers are usually considerably smaller. This means that they are either losing money per post, or they are paying significantly less than $25 per post.

3) As a result, movie websites have several choices in order to survive. They can either generate enough scale/pageviews to pay their writers a significant wage, or they can not pay their writers very much, if at all (or just not have any other writers). There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you are venture funded, or funded by a cash-rich company willing to sink money into you, then this rule does not apply (Example: Movieline). In addition, sites that reach a premium audience, which advertisers are willing to spend lavishly to reach, are also exempt from having to deal with these economic realities (Example: Hollywood-Elsewhere or Movie City News).

As an independent site, we at /Film have to go with some version of the first option. We have to make sure that a) what we're paying out is enough for our writers to be happy, and b) that our writers collectively produce enough revenue such that the site can be profitable. Many might think that balancing this equation is either a soul-crushing game of numbers or a soul-surrendering way of selling out. 

I actually find it quite intellectually stimulating. I do NOT subscribe to "The AOL Way." I do not think content exists solely to get search clicks and generate advertising. But I also don't feel that those things can be ignored either, and surely some happy medium can be found where both content and revenue are given their due attention. Right?

I would venture a guess that the editorial staff at website such as Cinematical didn't have to deal too much with the economic realities that I outlined above (I assume there was a healthy separation between editorial and business). But in a business where you want to produce great content for a comparatively small audience, these realities are increasingly difficult to ignore. In fact, I'd argue that any movie website operating as part of a larger media company which is spending more money than it's making is probably in danger of getting shut down at some point (although again, many exceptions exist). 

What has been absolutely remarkable and dumbfounding to me is my colleagues' absolute and categorical resistance to alternative business models, such as sponsored links (For the record, /Film no longer runs sponsored editorials). Technology sites such as Daring Fireball or Mashable, which are wildly profitable, have no qualms about running these types of advertisements. Even if they didn't run them, they would still be raking in the money hand over fist. it seems that movie writers (many of which work for websites that struggle to survive) collectively seem to prefer living a monastic existence rather than fighting to figure out a way to make their tiny audience slice profitable.

[All of the above necessitates a brief digression: What I've written implies that I think Cinematical's fate is a result of not being profitable enough. I don't know that I'd formulate it in quite that way, but I might argue that if Cinematical were hugely profitable, they would be in slightly less danger of being forced to let people go or do anything else undesirable.

Simultaneously, I have no doubt that Engadget was profitable, and yet that site drove out all its top writers. In Topolsky's post announcing his new gig at SB Nation, Topolsky writes: "[T]here’s another factor here that’s driving my decision. It’s that SB Nation believes in real, independent journalism and the potential for new media to serve as an answer and antidote to big publishing houses and SEO spam — a point we couldn’t be more aligned on." 

In other words, regardless of AOL's dealings with Engadget, there was undue pressure at the corporate level to put profit concerns above content concerns. For movie websites, which get a fraction of the pageviews of tech sites and whose audiences are considered much less valuable by advertisers, this type of pressure surely must have even more of an influence. But again, I think there has to be a balance between business and content. And what I see all around me in the blogosphere these days is people going to the extremes on both ends.]

One truth that's easy to grasp in the world of web publishing is that users are used to receiving content they love for free, but have almost no conception of how that content is paid for. The same could be said for many of the people producing the content. What's sad for me is that until there is more openness and frank discussion about these matters, we will continue to see hallowed brands and businesses such as Cinematical die off.

UPDATE: Erik Davis has confirmed via Twitter that most Moviefone freelance writers have been slated for termination. As a result, many of the staff have announced that they are quitting today.

1 comments :: Harsh Truths

  1. Well written and a very in-depth look at the death of said sites.

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