Live, laugh, leak with scoop savant Maxwell Tani
8 min read

Live, laugh, leak with scoop savant Maxwell Tani

The Daily Beast media reporter talks impact points and newsroom drama.
Live, laugh, leak with scoop savant Maxwell Tani

A song to read by: "Cheers," by Faye Webster

What I’m reading: "In defense of degrowth," by Giogos Kallis

Editor's note: Due to a problem with my email provider, I was unable to share this interview widely last week. Then, this week, I moved to New York, so I had no time to write a new article. The email problem has since been fixed, so I figured I would just share this "again," but really for the first time. Next week everything should be back to normal. Thanks for understanding!

Feeding the beast

If you are in the business of circulating sensitive internal documents, the name Maxwell Tani should unnerve you.

The Daily Beast media reporter has made leaking documents something of his calling card, a signature move that he has had ample opportunity to flex in recent months.

Just weeks ago, Tani posted a screenshot of an internal memo sent by Insider management to its staff, which prompted a salvo of dunks, takes, and analyses throughout the media world, including one from yours truly.

The Insider document, while fresh in recent memory, is just the latest in a series of exposes that the Brooklyn-based journalist has become known for. Tani has covered a breadth of issues, but he seems to specialize in publisher discord, a subject that has received plenty of attention in hyper-politicized newsrooms across the country.

Tani himself is cool, charming, and level-headed, a nearly diametrical opposite of the kind of interpersonal entropy he's developed a reputation for chronicling. After our paths crossed briefly thanks to the Insider debacle, I spoke with Tani to hear his thoughts on the infamous "impact point" system, as well as some of the larger trends shaping the industry.

Name: Max Tani

Title: Media reporter at The Daily Beast

So, impact points: When you first saw the memo that called out you, in particular, as an example of someone whose social media sharing would not count as an impact point, what went through your head?

I have the conspiracy brain of a reporter, so I was of two minds. First, I thought that Jim Edwards knew that this was something that might leak, so he might have done it to troll me.

Then, on the other hand, I do promote a lot of Insider stuff that probably doesn’t lead to a lot of traffic, so maybe I am just truly an example of somebody whose promotions don’t matter in terms of contributing to traffic or driving subscriptions.

Or, maybe it’s just that I tweet a lot and Jim sees my tweets, I don’t know. I was certainly entertained by it. I found it to be pretty amusing.

Now, following the unionization of Insider and this piece from Digiday’s Kayleigh Barber on the internal strife caused by its metric system, we know that the fallout over the leaked memo was indicative of a larger discontent.

But at the time, it seemed like part of the issue was just a failure to communicate effectively on the part of Insider management. Jack Crosbie at Discourse Blog summed up that theory well.

What do you think: Do journalists just really hate metrics, or was it a communications fiasco?

A lot of people in journalism — maybe even most people — would prefer that there be no metric measuring the worth of their stories other than: Do I think this is good and worthwhile?

Journalism is not a math equation, and a lot of journalists, I think rightfully, feel uneasy with the idea that just because a story doesn’t get as much traffic, lead to a subscription, or start a civil war on Twitter, that it’s meaningless.

So there's a natural tendency, among people who put a lot of time and effort into writing, to say, “What the fuck? Why is this email saying that if some random Twitter account with a million followers doesn’t retweet this, then the story isn't making an impact?” People are sensitive to that.

But, I think another part of it is that Business Insider editors sometimes have a different way of thinking about certain things that maybe other publications feel, but they won’t describe in that particular way.

Most publications keep track, in some way, of how stories and writers are performing; it would be naive to say otherwise.

But I think that the willingness to come out and say, “If you get a retweet from this guy, that's a big deal and great. If you don't, then this is not worth anything.” I think people understandably chafe at the lack of nuance there.

As a media reporter, what do you think is the most pressing story in the media industry right now? You certainly have a lot to choose from.

I think the number one story is the continued consolidation of the industry and the collapse of smaller news outlets.

The story, in many ways, hasn't really changed over the past 15 years: Local media, as it used to exist, doesn't really exist anymore.

As a result, journalism will continue to be an industry where people who come from fairly privileged backgrounds can thrive because they know, if times are tough, they have a safety net. Combined, these things are not identical, but they are certainly connected.

Also, personally, as someone from Southern California, the continued financial struggles of regional papers, like the Los Angeles Times, has been really disheartening for me. The fact that this newspaper, that covers almost the entire state and does great work, is struggling, really depresses me. Newspapers in general are still struggling to create long-term sustainable business models, and I hope that places like the Los Angeles Times can figure it out.

There are some reasons for optimism, though. Recent reports that there might be a digital advertising boom on the horizon are encouraging. The growth of editorial unions is certainly beneficial for the industry.

And the growth of independent media, whether it’s podcasts or Substack — controversial or not, independent journalists finding success is still big.

Another big story in the media industry centers around race and representation in newsrooms. The world of media criticism, in particular, is very homogenous. Why do you think that is, and what do you think we can do to fix it?

First, I should clarify that I’m half Japanese and I’m half white, just in the interest of transparency. In general, I think the issue comes down to a few factors. First, there aren’t that many people who cover media, so it’s a pretty limited beat. So part of the issue is that it’s just a small sample size.

At the same time, I think that it reveals the priorities of the industry. It reflects the type of media coverage that the people who are in the position of hiring want to see.

Finally, I think it's a reflection of the fact that a lot of people in top leadership positions, the ones who hire media reporters, are — to be completely honest — old white guys. So whether it's conscious or not, the types of things that they value, the types of media stories they value, might attract them to a certain type of candidate.

I also think that a lot of times, reporters can reflect the people they cover a little bit. I think there is a natural tendency for people who are in positions of power to talk to people who they think they can relate to.

What publications do you find yourself gravitating to?

In the past year my reading habits have changed so much, mostly in that much of what I consume nowadays comes from independent writers. I think they’re doing the most interesting stuff right now.

I’m a big fan of the “Time to Say Goodbye” podcast with Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim, and Andy Liu, and I also subscribe to Defector.

I think there’s been a mini-boom in  hyper-niche media, and it’s really cool and interesting. It's really nice to see that people can take the audience that they already have and find a way to make a living off of it

Even things like this newsletter: It's cool that there is a lot of stuff out there like it, because for a while, post-blogs but pre-Substack, pre-Patreon, pre-independent podcasts, the internet and independent media was getting kind of boring. It's cool to see people strike out on their own and find some success doing it.

You’ve broken a lot of great scoops. What stories of yours really stand out in your mind?

I did a series of stories last year about media companies, and some non-media companies, that were bringing people back to work during the pandemic in ways that were just completely unnecessary and unsafe.

There was a newspaper in South Carolina that brought staff back, and there were positive cases of Covid. I did a story about Dish, and I did one about — this is not a media story — the American Kennel Club, the dog show place. The same thing was happening there.

I was happy about doing those stories because I was glad that I could expose those things, have an impact, and help, in some cases, make them a little safer.

One media story we see play out in variations on a theme is Internal Conflict at Pedigreed Journalistic Institution. There have been a lot of theories that try to explain the acrimony that seems to bubble underneath some of these newsrooms. What do you think is the cause?

I think it's obvious that some of this stuff is generational. Our generation has had different experiences that have shaped our ways of viewing the world.

But some of it can be attributed to the experience of journalism under Trump, which is to say covering the political success of a person who openly espoused racist, sexist views.

The techniques that he used to get media attention to propel himself to the presidency provoked some soul-searching within media organizations.

I think that introspection helped shape the views of a lot of journalists about the ways that we think about objectivity and truth, and I think that laid the groundwork for people to think about what we could be doing differently.

Personally, I think it's all a good thing. It provokes an internal debate that keeps journalism honest and rigorous, to continually remind yourself, “Hey, by me quoting this person, I give their ideas some tiny bit of credence.”

You don't want to be in a situation where you have a homogenous newsroom that only has one opinion on things. We need to have people in our newsrooms who have different experiences and backgrounds, even if just for the sake of making sure that we don't step on a rake every once in a while.

And we’re not going to come to the same conclusion every time, and that does mean conflict from time to time. I think that's good for us as news consumers, and I think that it's good for me, personally, as a media reporter.

Some good readin’

— A piece I published last week for Adweek about the rise in monetization tools for small newsletters. (Adweek)

— Reading about vibes in the New Yorker. Who would've thunk! (New Yorker)

— Is thrifting problematic? Mostly no, a little yes. (Vox)

— Just found out about Brandon Taylor's Substack, and it is wonderful! (Sweater Weather)