If you’re a fan of the 90s sitcom “Friends,” you probably remember the scene where Chandler and Rachel are helping Ross move a couch up a flight of stairs. Of course, the couch is too big to go up the staircase, but no worries, Ross has drawn up a sketch of how they’re going to move the piece of furniture. But as the three of them climb up the stairs with the couch, it becomes obvious Ross’s plan isn’t going to work. Yet Ross screams “Pivot! Pivot! Pivot!” to his friends, which Chandler screams back “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
I think many of us in the industry can currently relate to Chandler’s response, especially when it comes to how media companies are handling the way they’re announcing their restructuring. They didn’t fall short; they didn’t make mistakes. They simply pivoted. For example, when Mic announced in August the company was laying off 25 employees, it was because they were shifting their focus to video and other forms of visual journalism. They joined other news sites like Mashable, Vocativ, and Vice who had also pivoted to video.
“The much-lamented and much-snarked-about phrase ‘pivot to video’ is, if I’m being honest, somewhat warranted—video advertising is becoming central to every digital media company’s revenue model. But along with the effects on advertising, we’re also massively misunderstanding a pretty critical shift in journalism itself,” Mic’s publisher Cory Haik wrote in a piece published on recode.
Haik, who served as executive director of emerging news products at the Washington Post before joining Mic, explained, “That video that is currently soaring across social media—maybe it’s a text-heavy explainer with dynamic motion graphics, or a video-driven news story with sharply concise captions—is less an evolution of video itself and more of an evolution of the hundreds and thousands of pieces of text-based journalism that are produced and consumed digitally.”
It’s true; text isn’t going away, but the way readers are consuming their news and media is changing. So, to “pivot” could be another way to say to “evolve.”
In a New York Times Magazine article, “In Our Cynical Age, No One Fails Anymore—Everybody ‘Pivots,’” author Jacob Silverman put it like this: “With its sheen of management-speak, pivoting is well suited to our moment. And like any act of public relations, pivoting is also a performance. A key part of the act is acknowledging that you are doing it while trying to recast the effort as something larger, more sophisticated, highly planned. The pivot, though it arises from desperation, is nevertheless supposed to appear methodical.”
Was it methodical when Tronc abruptly announced a “pivot” in late August when it showed Los Angeles Times publisher and editor Davan Maharaj the door along with three other senior editors? Perhaps it was since Tronc already had successors in place: Ross Levinsohn, who served as a past interm CEO at Yahoo, was named publisher and CEO while former Chicago Sun-Times editor and publisher Jim Kirk was named the paper’s interim executive editor. Although Levinsohn has plenty of experience in the digital space, he has none with newspapers. What does this “pivot” hold for the future for the Times, a paper that has seen five publishers in the past 10 years? And how will it affect Tronc? It’s a company that has seen its fair share of pivots recently, including a rebrand and a merger deal with Gannett that fell through.
Back to Ross, Chandler and Rachel: When the couch ends up getting stuck in the stairwell, Ross finally confesses, “I don’t think it’s going to pivot anymore.” There will be a time when publishers might have to utter that same statement (let’s hope the other Ross mentioned here doesn’t have to admit that one day). Because when you can no longer pivot, what will you do then?