Sam Whitmore: Seismic Shift Occurring as News Media Enters ‘Era of First-Party Data’

For media businesses, the new year has opened to what The Guardian has called “the evisceration of journalism and media jobs.” They are referring to a wave of layoff announcements hammering the news media industry. While struggling news media businesses are not a new narrative, the accelerated wave of layoffs begs the question: How do publishers adapt to the changing advertising climate and compete with the rise of non-traditional media absorbing traffic and reader attention?

I recently caught up with Sam Whitmore, the founder and editor of Sam Whitmore Media Survey (mediasurvey.com), for his take. His SWMS platform specializes in media insights for tech PR teams as well as a growing number of in-house comms teams. Sam also spent more than two decades in the publishing business – for PCWeek (now eWeek) – holding numerous editorial titles, from reporter and editor-in-chief, to VP of integrated media. He launched SWMS in 1998 and it has since grown into a vital resource for comms professionals.

What follows is an edited version of our discussion.

Do the journalism layoffs of 2024 surprise you?

Absolutely not. They’re part of an ongoing trend over many decades, although the intensity surprises me. I have this bias to think that journalists are precious, because I am one. But the business of journalism is navigating the effects of the industry’s own ‘climate change’ going back 20 years. I came from the publishing business – leading PCWeek and dealing with profit-and-loss issues all the time. However, I had the luxury of leading that life when advertising was everywhere and there was no internet, no social media, no brand publishing.

The trend of publishers shrinking their payroll, that’s been going on for a long time.

What’s different about this climate? What’s evolved over the last few years?

There have been these strategic issues that made publishers coalesce and realize that they were overstaffed. They’re now gradually ratcheting stuff down.

Publications staffed their editorial teams based on their belief that all this traffic would come in from social and search, and to lesser extent banner advertising. The assumption five to 10 years ago was: We will have all this hunger – people going to Google/Bing, searching on this and that, or relying on social media to drive traffic. Search became a powerful top-of-funnel factor. The publications then hurried up, competed against each other, and overpaid staff in some cases.

Post-COVID and post-Trump, traffic also dipped again. It’s true that both phenomena were enormous traffic magnets and as they abated, traffic fell.

Plus, M&A deals and venture capital also got scarcer and scarcer; there was less energy in reporting on new technology markets. In fact, 2021 was the last big year in VC, and that’s three years ago.

<split-lines>"There have been these strategic issues that made publishers coalesce and realize that they were overstaffed. They’re now gradually ratcheting stuff down."<split-lines>

How will publishers navigate the ‘era of first-party data’?

Cookies were choked off by Google – meaning you can’t place them on someone and track them around the internet. This was a commercial force and used to drive advertising. It’s another ‘climate change’ scenario. It was deemed too invasive, so businesses banded together to stop the practice. However, advertisers are still demanding empirical information on audiences before they place advertising. So, publishers are trying to get people to come to their site – and once there, track them, see what their dwell time is, where they came from, etc.

TechTarget built its entire company on the premise of registration before it was common practice. If you look carefully at TechTarget’s self-description, it’s not really a publisher at all, they’re purveyors of insight into what buyers are going to buy. They have awesome data; writ large, that’s what everyone wants to do now: Get readers onto the site and get them to subscribe.

The publishing business has always been a data business, but never more so than today. Publishers create this fish bowl and watch what everyone has done within their world.

<split-lines>"The publishing business has always been a data business, but never more so than today. Publishers create this fish bowl and watch what everyone has done within their world."<split-lines>

Which tech media companies are best positioned to weather the storm and continue to grow?

Everyone is equally well-positioned. Technology is so infused into every aspect of society and business. Even things like biology, or ‘can you beat aging?’ There’s a technology angle for it. I see outlets like The Verge, a traditional tech-trend publication, going on indefinitely. It may be a tough one to pitch, but it has a strong audience (30-35 million uniques per month).

Then you have your TechRadars and PCMags of the world, which run the product evaluation model. Note, everyone is still going to want unpaid reviews about what’s good or what isn’t.

Still, I think the positioning of a publication is less of a bellwether than the competency of the sales and business sides. They have a big responsibility to stay profitable.

<split-lines>"The positioning of a publication is less of a bellwether than the competency of the sales and business sides. They have a big responsibility to stay profitable."<split-lines>

Is it fair to say media businesses are ailing because their content isn’t really of value to readers?

I’d consider this case by case. The thing that publishers really worry about is: ‘Are we publishing stories that make people want to subscribe to us and pay to read us?’ Not every story has to fit that description. But, over a 30-day period, they should crank out at least a dozen stories that make readers say: ‘I’m going to read X publication more.’

Publishers are also saying: ‘How do we retain people?’ The number one job in the newsroom is now parlaying first-party data to figure out how to shape stories that make people appreciate the publication. There’s certainly an opportunity for PR agencies to help feed the beast, because editors are looking for stories that say, ‘This is something only we can deliver.’

The best PR people understand this and aren’t afraid to communicate to journalists that they’ve developed a special story uniquely with their readership in mind.

<split-lines>"There’s certainly an opportunity for PR agencies to help feed the beast, because editors are looking for stories that say, ‘This is something only we can deliver.’"<split-lines>

Last topic: Tell us what kind of impact AI will have on news media.

That depends what year we’re talking about. Now, in 2024, that effect is practically nil. But GPT5 and Google Gemini, two to three releases down the road, will certainly have a direct impact. That time frame is roughly 2027-28.

In the meantime, what I’m hearing from journalists is that GenAI tools get them out of the  blank-page phase – they get organized, review notes or prompt the AI for social media headlines. That can happen today, and it does. But this is all really iterative, not disruptive. 

There’s less than meets the eye with GenAI and the newsroom, right now. I don’t think it’s that reliable. I also think unionization has helped here. That is, unions and social pressures drove newsrooms to avoid an all-in AI approach. That’s because it might be existential if it turns into the dark genie that everyone’s worried about.

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