A Letter from the Editor—Meeting the Future of Digital Media Head On

Marina Cashdan
Jul 8, 2016 4:50PM

Installation view of the Italian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Photo by Alex John Beck for Artsy.

It’s a precarious time for online publishers.

Facebook, the lifeblood for most online publications, has made several changes to its algorithm this year, most recently announcing an update to how posts are displayed in the news feeds of its users, prioritizing posts made by users’ friends and family over those from publishers’ pages. Digital advertising dollars have turned into pennies as readers respond to increasingly-intrusive online ads by implementing adblockers, and increasingly consume content on their mobile devices.

Online media companies who only last year were seen as industry darlings—including Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and Mashable—have missed revenue targets and laid off staff due to this perfect storm of diminishing Facebook-driven virality and lower revenues from each click. A course change is under way in the industry. Yet there isn’t a single person in digital publishing who feels 100 percent certain of what the next decade, or even the next few years, will look like.

There is a bright note to this relative chaos: Quality content is rising to the top again. Engaging articles and genuine audience development are becoming the name of the game; misleading stories and bought audiences are becoming a thing of the past. Publishers who are staying afloat and, in some cases, even soaring during this period of upheaval have done a few things consistently. They have remained focused on quality and not relied wholly on a single traffic channel. They have diversified the metrics used to measure success, focusing as much on engagement as reach. They have identified varying audiences and behavior and have listened to those audiences to guide them in what to write next.

Artsy has been able to grow considerably during this period of uncertainty. We have developed an independent voice and an active and loyal audience, with content that pushes the conversation forward and that touches the global art community. The last quarter is a testament to that. We continued to tell the stories that few, if any of our competitors would consider, but that our readers responded to: We went to Ghana, where writer Ariela Gittlen explored the blossoming art scene in the country’s capital and the influence of the arts on Ghanaian culture at large; to Detroit, where Artsy’s Isaac Kaplan was embedded in the New Museum’s Ideas City initiative, exploring whether artists could present creative solutions to the city’s many issues; we were in Iceland, where Artsy’s Casey Lesser shed light on Reykjavík’s close-knit gallery scene despite limited funding to the arts in the country; and writer David Kaye took readers into the unsettling cultural landscape in Vietnam. We covered more than two dozen art fairs in four continents. And we published pieces that take art history and contemporary trends as jumping off points for exploring gender barriers in art, such as our piece on female Abstract Expressionists and contemporary female figurative painters.

But while we are in a position that many online publishers are not fortunate enough to be in—free from meeting the demands of advertisers—we still need to incur the cost of producing high quality, highly visual stories. We’ve been very fortunate to continue our partnership with UBS, a partner who has helped us produce a variety of ambitious editorial projects. Last May, we released our video coverage of the 56th Venice Biennale and the opportunity was ripe to bring what is one of the most important but also inaccessible art events to a broader audience; the video series was viewed over 800,000 times.

We continued our relationship with UBS for our 2015 Year in Art with the same mission in mind. And this May, we collaborated on a series of short documentary films, exploring another aspect of the art world: the art market. Directed by Oscar Boyson (who also directed our short history of the Venice Biennale last spring), the series cracked open the opaque but highly publicized sphere, exploring four of the most critical pieces of the art market—AuctionsGalleriesPatrons, and Art Fairs. So far, the series’ films have been viewed over one million times.

Meanwhile, we continue to refine and grow an audience for our podcast, which took on subjects such as the state of museums in the current economic landscape and the pros and cons of labeling artists. Looking ahead to the second half of 2016, we will continue to explore art from all ends, while remaining focused on our readers and the quality of content we are delivering to them. As Joshua Topolsky, cofounder of The Verge and Vox Media, predicts in his own piece on the shifting media business, “Compelling voices and stories, real and raw talent, new ideas that actually serve or delight an audience, brands that have meaning and ballast; these are things that matter in the next age of media.” At Artsy, we’re prepared and excited to meet that future.

Marina Cashdan