A song to read by: “Better Distractions,” by Faye Webster
What I’m reading: “Eat a Peach,” by David Chang
The goal of The Objective
In recent months, the journalism industry has publicly grappled with many of its most problematic precedents. The debates have dealt with both the literal and the ideological, often at the same time: Do we call these protests or riots? Is it a “police-involved” shooting or a murder? Can journalists donate to social causes? Who are publications designed to serve?
I have engaged with a handful of these questions, but the subject matter can be hard to navigate. It blends the ethical, technical, philosophical, and pragmatic, and rarely does any one person have the ability to speak on each of these issues fluently.
Gabe Schneider, an accomplished political journalist and the cofounder of the riveting, incisive Substack publication The Objective, is one of a handful of people capable of offering cogent criticism in each field.
Schneider has worked for a number of the most innovative publications in the country, including The Texas Tribune and now MinnPost. He started his own digital student newspaper while in college, and his latest project, The Objective, stems from the same driving ethos.
If something is wrong, or lacking, or sub-par, Schneider is interested in fixing it. It’s why he got into journalism, and it’s what compels him to work full-time as a journalist, run a burgeoning Substack at night, and read books about the journalism industry in his free time. He is driven, but not monomaniacal; he also cooks.
Speaking with Schneider was a pleasure, and I think that translates into the interview below. I would encourage you to subscribe to The Objective, which is doing the important work of loudly critiquing, as well as helping solve, the problems plaguing the media industry.
Name: Gabe Schneider
The Objective Twitter: @ObjectiveJrn
For the Minnesota Post, you report on the stuff happening in Washington D.C. that affects Minnesota — what does that look like?
It looks like covering the Minnesota delegation, which is a really interesting delegation. You have, obviously, Ilhan Omar and Amy Klobuchar, who are very visible politicians. You also have people like Tom Emmer, the chair of the NRCC, which is the House Republicans’ campaign arm.
There’s Collin Peterson, the most conservative Democrat in Congress, and Betty McCollum, who's very vocal when it comes to criticizing the current Israeli government. And you have Pete Stauber, up north, who's a former hockey player and cop. It's just a really fascinating collection of characters
You work for the Minn Post, which is a non-profit news publisher, and you’ve worked at The Texas Tribune, also a pioneering non-profit publisher. Do you prefer the non-profit model?
Oh, definitely. I don't think for-profit news is, or has ever been, healthy. I think the larger you get, the less healthy it becomes, because you become more driven by a need to make money than a need to inform people.
Actually, that's not always true: small for-profits can do well, and obviously there are historically black papers, or folks in communities that have started their own papers. That makes sense. But I think that non-profit papers are a really good way to go if you're trying to engage with the community and do something different.
I think the space, for a long time, has been very white, and in that way it sort of looks like a lot of journalism elsewhere, which is disappointing. But in an ideal world, it is a better space than for-profit news, for the most part.
It's also often very innovative, and I like that a lot of folks in nonprofit newsrooms are trying to push the envelope of what news looks like, how communities can be engaged, and why we're actually doing this work.
Speaking of innovation and asking “Why we’re doing this work,” you are the cofounder of a Substack newsletter called The Objective, which you launched in June.
I feel like in many ways it’s the embodiment of a lot of the conversations going on in newsrooms about race, diversity, objectivity, language, and methodology. How would you describe what you and your team are doing?
I think that American journalism has made this promise for the last few decades, where they’ve said, “We are going to tell you about all the sides, you can make your decision, and there isn't going to be any bias.”
I think that's a distorted version of what objectivity initially meant. I also think that journalists oftentimes seem so attached to the concept that it's become harmful.
A lot of narratives are driven by newsrooms that are mostly white, cis, male newsrooms, which don't tend to elevate the perspectives of people that have been marginalized in the history of American journalism. We're trying to call attention to that.
How did the newsletter come into being?
It came about because I was upset about a couple of pitch rejections that came down to people telling me, “Oh, we have enough diversity stories.” And I was like, “Well if that's true and you don't want this story, I'm just going to write it myself.”
Then one of the stories was read like 40,000 times on Medium, so Medium started asking if they could republish it and pay me. And I said, “Well, if this is going to be read 40,000+ times, I should just start a Substack and see if we can build a platform for ourselves and, eventually, pay freelancers.”
Then people just started pitching us. A lot of them are student journalists, which is really cool to see. The next step is being able to pay them and to pay other people so we can continue to push boundaries and figure out how bad things are.
So the plan is to eventually monetize The Objective. What’s y’all’s timeline for that?
We’re looking to hit 3,000 unpaid subscribers and then shift to a paid model, but we're doing that concurrently with a bunch of other things. Nieman Lab is going to be republishing our newsletter and giving us a bit of commission there, and we have a partnership with Poynter, where we're going to be republishing at least a column of theirs every month. Those are opportunities for us to start income-generation so that we can start paying people.
Even when we switch to a “paid” model, I don't think we're going to paywall anything. I do want to provide a space for people to give us money if they feel like giving us money. I'm hopeful that with that, we’ll be able to pay our freelancers, at least a small amount. If we can get grants and start paying folks more, all the better.
Do you ever worry that the articles that The Objective is writing should change how those at the tops of news organizations do things, but that the people in those positions of power don’t really want things to change? As in, you might be saying true things to an audience that doesn’t want to hear them?
Oh, not at all. I think that the people we want to reach are younger journalists, student journalists, journalists who've just started their careers — even mid-career, middle manager journalists, because those are the people that are going to define the future of the industry.
I think we have an opportunity to reshape journalism with Twitter and all of these vehicles that have emerged outside of the veil of traditional platforms.
I'm not trying to convince the editor of The New York Times that I'm right. I'm trying to convince the next editor after him, or two or three editors after him, or even the person that's starting the publication that will subsume The New York Times, or even someone that’s saying we don't need a publication like The New York Times.
I'm not trying to convince the people that are already in positions of power. I'm trying to convince their successors.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you convince every journalist alive that you’re right, and they all agree to change any practice that’s out of line with this new idea of objectivity.
What about the readers? Don’t you think you’d have to re-educate an entire readership about why journalists are moving away from the traditional notion of objectivity? Sometimes I worry that even if the industry course-corrected, it wouldn’t make a difference if readers didn’t understand the reasoning.
Journalists have been trying to evolve this conversation for years and years. A great book that looks at this is “The View from Somewhere,” by Lewis Raven Wallace. It’s a good history of how journalists have tried to evolve this conversation for decades, but with little success.
I do think there has to be more transparency with people, and I think we need to engage communities more thoughtfully and more intentionally. I don't think that a lot of mainstream papers are doing that in a cohesive way.
Generally, I think that non-profit papers tend to do that pretty well, or are at least trying to do it well. Look at The Oaklandside. It's a great example of a non-profit paper that just started up, that's trying to engage its community and ask, “What do you want to see in the news? How can we actually serve you?”
I think that sort of engagement and those sorts of conversations are critical if we want to be doing journalism that is actually impactful and useful to people.
These are some of my favorite things to talk about, but constantly having these high-level, “What purpose does journalism serve?” conversations can be exhausting. Do you ever get tired of it?
No, not at all. This is the thing I love to talk about. I didn't get into journalism to write — I love writing — I got into it to try to fix it, find other people that want to fix it, and work with them and support them. I never get tired of these conversations.