The Forced Pivot

As a largely simple-minded society, we are fascinated with the idea of an individual pivot. Someone forsaking their chosen path to venture unknown down a possibly related, possibly not other path baffles us. Why did Michael Jordan pivot from basketball to baseball? Why did Arnold Schwarzenegger pivot from acting to politics? The voluntary pivot defies life’s convention, and thus defies our self-contained perceptions of ourselves.

The forced pivot, however, makes sense, and it makes us angry. Layoffs, market changes, declining skills—all can force pivots in life where society sympathizes with the victim of the pivot and berates the perpetrator. Perhaps no profession is more used to the concept of the forced pivot than writers and journalists, but it never lessens the blow.

In the last two weeks, three media organizations have laid off large teams of writers as part of a forced pivot—from the written word to video content. Vocativ, Fox Sports, and most recently, MTV News has decided that in order to attract a younger audience, they need to ditch long-form, reported storytelling in favor of short-form, opinionated video.

The decision arises from a misguided market evaluation, creating a dangerous devaluation of writing and reporting that will only exacerbate the problems of “fake news” in this current partisan-controlled climate. The reasoning and the result of these pivots demonstrate first that the higher ups in media are woefully out of touch and second that the media feels no need to ethically service the public, only their bottom line.

On the reasoning, the given justification that short-form video attracts a younger audience is a) false and b) a distraction from the real motivation. The narrative that millennials have a shorter attention span and are unwilling to read anything more than 140 characters is played out. Millennials are attracted to quality—hence the rise in artisan products across the country. If the quality comes in the form of video, then so be it, but millennials will not flock to video simply because it is video. If anything, millennials carry more of an open mind when it comes to reading quality long-form work, or as laid-off MTV writer Brian Phillips said in two consecutive tweets: “I have no idea what kind of traffic my pieces did at MTV and I don’t care, but the responses I got were deep, committed and thoughtful and from young people who were willing to follow the work places where older people are sometimes like WAIT THIS ISN’T A NEW YORKER ARTICLE.”

The real motivation for the layoffs had nothing to do with attracting a different audience and everything to do with making money in spite of the audience. In an explanation of the phrase “pivot to video,” The Ringer’s writer-at-large Bryan Curtis said, “Why this is happening is simple: The web has a surplus of copy versus advertising. Companies have decided that sticking an ad at the front of a video makes it less ignorable than putting a similar ad next to an article. It doesn’t matter what the video is.” Writing is a revenue-starved industry dependent on advertisers for its lifeblood, so if advertisers wish for more video, then a forced pivot to video will follow.

The result of such a revenue-fueled pivot is a loss of quality to be sure, but also a loss of balance. Just as blog posts tend to lose much of the nuance that longer form pieces can cultivate, videos exchange thoughtful argument and presentation of the facts for personality.

In this current era of “fake news,” exchanging reporting for hot takes can only serve to exacerbate an already partisan-controlled climate. Decreasing funding for well-researched articles that can truly dive into every facet of an issue reduces accountability and understanding. The written word is important because it is impersonal, there is no face attached to the sentiments. Broadcast journalism and video immediately become more opinionated and personalized to the detriment of informing anyone already biased against the personality.

While extrapolating layoffs at Vocativ, Fox Sports, and MTV News to a total breakdown in the reporting industry is certainly premature—none of the three were particularly gunning for their Watergate moment—the trend still represents a disturbing possibility.

The New York Times also announced layoffs recently, cutting about half of their copy desk. For those who do not know what a copy desk is, the layoffs are akin to a hospital cutting its nursing staff, or a restaurant its line cooks. Copy editors do not have the most glamorous job at a newspaper, but they are any publication’s lifeblood. Without copy editors, there is no newspaper.

So why would the Times cut off its own head so to speak? Because the higher ups in media are woefully out of touch. Diana Moskovitz put it best in her article “The New York Times is Killing Its Soul” on Deadspin, writing “Newspaper after newspaper guts desk after desk while keeping boatloads of superfluous administration and then wonders, “Why don’t readers like us anymore? … Newspapers are wonderful, but they’re also corporate businesses and inclined to the same bad habits as corporate America—lay off the people who do the work, keep everyone else.”

Maybe I am biased as a writer myself, but for Vocativ, Fox Sports, and MTV to cut writers in favor of personalities proves that the media industry’s priorities are money first, information and understanding second. Eventually, after enough journalists and writers are forced to pivot, there will not be reporting anymore. There will not be nuance and investigation. There will just be opinion, bloviating, and “fake news.” Hopefully, that will be enough for a forced pivot back to words. Hopefully, it will not be too late.