Mic claims head start in multi-billion dollar market to serve millennials with news

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Mic founders Jake Horowitz and Chris Altchek

When Kim Kardashian last month engaged her legion of followers in the case of Alice Johnson, a grandmother who faces life in jail without parole for a non-violent offence, the reality TV star was responding to a video posted by Mic, the millennial-focused publisher.

For Mic, Kardashian’s instruction of her legal team to fight on behalf of a prisoner who has served 21 years behind bars in Alabama was a triumph for its new content strategy of serving young audiences with meaningful video journalism on social media.

Not only was it a powerful social justice story but it had aroused the interest of an icon of millennial culture who was one of 4 million people who viewed the video of the prisoner speaking emotionally to camera.

Mic has big backers. It has received $52m in venture capital funding, including a $21m injection this year from a consortium that includes Time Warner. And it aims to be “the most impactful video journalism publisher” and “the most relevant, purpose-driven news organisation for young people” in the United States, its chief executive and co-founder Chris Altchek tells The Drum.

Betting big on video

To achieve these lofty targets it must have unrivalled instincts for reacting to the fast-changing media habits of the under-35 audience which it serves. So Mic has poured resources into analysing its audience. As a consequence, it is betting heavily on visual journalism, to the point of laying off 25 of its team earlier this year to recruit more people with video skills.

This ‘pivot to video’ strategy by a young publisher that built its reputation on text articles aimed at “college-educated millennials” could have major significance for the future of news consumption on social media platforms. Questions are already being asked about whether the strategy is working. Altchek argues otherwise.

He says the difference in audience engagement between text stories and similarly-themed video content is now vast. “It just became abundantly clear to us that [video] was going to be how people consumed content on mobile devices, because you can do a great piece of journalism and reach 100,000 in an article or 10m people in a video.”

A good example of this is Mic journalist Xavier Harding’s story on how the faces of black actors have been illuminated by clever cinematography in the HBO series ‘Insecure’, a piece which was read by 242,000 in text, but watched in its 2 minute 16 seconds video version by 6.7 million people (5.2 million of them on Facebook).

Mic has had major video hits with opinion pieces. A three-minute film in which psychiatrist Kerry Sulkowicz analysed the “mental state” of president Donald Trump has been viewed 8.8m times. A monologue by American-Iranian religious scholar Reza Aslan, titled “God doesn’t hate gay people, You hate gay people”, racked up 4.8m views. Mic’s 18-minute documentary feature on America’s opiate crisis (part of an editorial collaboration with Time magazine) was watched over 4m times.

While many publishers are concerned that Facebook algorithms increasingly promote friends and family content over articles from third parties, Altchek is convinced there’s a viable future for video news on the platform. “[Facebook has] a long term commitment to winning in video,” he says. “Their advertising growth will depend on serving more video ads over the next five years and they will continue to invest heavily in promoting video content.”

He identifies two key drivers that pushed millennial audiences towards video and away from text: first, the preference for video messaging over text on the millennial-dominated social media platform Snapchat and, second, the introduction of video on Facebook.

It’s not just Facebook but all digital channels, from Instagram to Apple News, that are prioritising video, he says. “The analogy I use is the current of the ocean. The current has changed towards pushing video content and you can either swim against the current or swim with the current but it’s a very powerful force that’s not going away anytime soon.”

Indeed, Mic’s video-based approach looks beyond social platforms to the big streaming services that are taking a growing slice of America’s $70 billion television advertising market. Here is where big money and what Altchek describes as “really interesting opportunities” are found. “We have the explosive growth of Netflix and Amazon but neither have sports and news,” he says. “The cable (TV) bundle of the future will definitely need to include non-evergreen content and I think Mic is very well positioned to build a really relevant news format for this audience.”

Targeting 'changemakers' as well as millennials

To be in a position to clinch such deals Mic will first need to do more to demonstrate a unique relationship to a young and educated audience. This is a fierce media battleground which is already being fought over by the likes of Vice, BuzzFeed and Vox, and Mic has attracted its critics.

The New York Times, which claims to have had major success in attracting millennial readers to its web-based content, published a sneering piece last year that portrayed the Mic newsroom as privileged and shallow. In turn, Mic frequently criticises the Times’s content, recently calling out the great paper of record for its alleged “normalization” of neo-Nazis and coverage of anti-white bigotry. That’s about Mic saying that it’s doing something different from what’s gone before.

Mic has covered the rise of extremism in American politics in great detail through its senior reporter Jack Smith IV, who embedded with both ‘alt-Right’ and leftist ‘antifa’ groups. Smith was filmed at the recent disorder in Charlottesville identifying white supremacist leaders and neo-Nazi splinter groups for the Mic audience. Another of his videos, titled “Why do these Confederate monuments fall apart so easily”, revealed how many of these statues were cheaply mass-manufactured and erected at the start of the 20th Century and in the 1960s in protest against black civil rights. Hence they crumple when pulled down. Smith’s statue video has had 12m views on Facebook.

While Mic started out six years ago targeting liberal millennials (and still has an audience median age of 31), its analysis of what interests its users has shown that it also attracts older readers who share what the publisher calls a ‘changemaker’ mentality. “These are people that are focused on pursuing a life of challenge, always learning and creating discoveries,” says Altchek. “They are really confident and want to stand out in the crowd, they are interested in the arts and have a modern aesthetic. Most importantly they work towards the greater good.”

This realisation means that Mic now positions itself with advertisers as serving ‘changemakers’ rather than simply millennials. It has partnered with brands which are targeting this campaigning audience, notably in its Beyond Pride series, a pop-up content channel sponsored by Google and dedicated to documenting “the next frontier in LGBTQ rights”.

Altchek acknowledges these changemakers also consume many other news media brands but claims Mic serves this segment best of all. A year ago, it launched a series of vertical channels, ranging from The Movement (“From the Front Lines of Social Justice”) to feminist-oriented Slay (“News, Views and Ammunition for Strong Women”).

Precarious times for new media

Digital media site Digiday recently judged this year-old vertical channel strategy as having had “an uneven start”, highlighting a lack of articles published and limited followings on social media. Altchek responds by saying Mic should be measured by video views. “If they used our video growth numbers per channel they would have seen that we have grown each channel by over 100 per cent in the last year and some channels by well more than that.”

Mic’s “pivot to video” saw its comScore recorded audience plummet from 20m users to 6m. But again, Mic disputes the validity of this measurement, putting its monthly reach at 65m and questioning a metric which fails to recognise video views on Facebook and other social platforms.

Around 18 months ago, Altchek said Mic was preparing to set up an operation in Europe. Those plans have been put on hold to focus on the battle at home. “We realised that the market in the US was really compelling and that we have a head start here but we haven’t won yet,” he says. “So we focused on doubling down here.”

These are delicate times for new media. In recent weeks the viability of the whole new wave of digital-native news outlets has even been called into question after a succession of job cuts and financial set backs at BuzzFeed, Vocativ and Mashable.

Altchek acknowledges a problem in the sector but predicts it will pass. “At Mic we definitely recognise that there are medium-term headwinds in the industry; the display advertising market that many people talked about has stalled out, and the place where audience growth has really happened, in video in social, has not yet matured from a monetisation standpoint,” he says.

“But the long term opportunity of being the highly impactful publisher in video for younger audiences across digital platforms continues to be huge.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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