The media industry has been in an unstable state of transformation for decades. But in the mid-2000s something dramatic happened: New digital publishers built for the internet’s emerging distribution systems—first search-engine optimization through Google, then social-media optimization through Facebook—grew rapidly to threaten and in some cases displace traditional publishers, both with audiences and with advertisers. Yet today the financial future of the digital disruptors looks precarious. Seeking to shore up its business through acquisition, the digital-publishing titan BuzzFeed acquired its former rival HuffPost earlier this year, recently imposing drastic layoffs. What happened?

According to Tom Davidson, who has worked over decades on both the editorial and business sides of the news industry and now teaches the business of journalism at the University of Maryland, the fundamental problem for digital publishers has been a business model driven by advertising, not direct audience revenue. For Davidson, this model is deeply in doubt. He notes that the rise of online ad networks undermined the revenue potential of digital publishing, and publishers’ use of social media to distribute content handed extraordinary power to companies like Facebook. “The only thing that could happen that would significantly revitalize the advertising economy in favor of publishers,” Davidson says, “is significant antitrust action that breaks up Facebook and Google’s control over the data.” Without that, he believes digital publishers will have to look to “majority audience revenue” models and try to build consumer followings loyal and committed enough to directly support their work.

Graham Vyse: Outside media, there’s a pervasive if vague awareness of turmoil in the industry, with closures, downsizing, and layoffs now fairly common news. But these are only parts of the picture. What news and current-affairs properties are succeeding and why?

Tom Davidson: I’m going to quote William Gibson: “The future is already here—it's just not very evenly distributed.” There are organizations clearly succeeding at more future-proof revenue models—getting revenue directly from the audience and supplementing that primary revenue stream with revenue from advertisers. The New York Times over the last 10 years has made a brilliant shift to really being the leading organization, arguably in the world, at generating audience revenue. The Washington Post isn’t far behind.

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