A song to read by: “He Would Have Laughed,” by Deerhunter
What I’m reading: “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn
A K-shaped publishing industry
For the vast majority of media companies, the last year has been nothing short of apocalyptic. Publications reliant on advertising dollars saw their revenues disappear in the first months of the pandemic, and the money has failed to re-materialize in the months since. Alt-weeklies, like the Chicago Reader, are still furloughing employees in an effort to avoid layoffs. At Vox, union employees have been told that promotions and pay raises have been halted.
Other newsrooms have shrunk, shedding staff in an effort to cut costs. Mother Jones recently profiled a reporter in a suburb north of Atlanta who, after being laid off and launching her own one-woman publication, single handedly covered the area’s critical voting drama.
Many talented journalists who lost their jobs, Josh Sternberg writes, have been unable to find their way back into the working world. Similarly, early-career journalists looking for entry points into the industry have had to settle for internship after internship, if they’re even able to get one of these now incredibly competitive positions. In short, much like the rest of the country, the world of journalism has largely failed to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Looking at recent media coverage, however, you might never guess it.
The big get bigger, while the bigger get biggest
The journalism world was atwitter with excitement when news broke last week that BuzzFeed was acquiring HuffPost, a marriage of two new media darlings. On its own, the merger looks like nothing more than good business, as BuzzFeed acquires a larger, older audience to market to, and HuffPost gets a lifeline to survive. Taken in a broader context, however, the deal is part of a more concerning trend of major media firms consolidating during an inflection point in the industry’s history.
“The deal between BuzzFeed and HuffPost marks the fourth significant merger among name-brand digital publishers, following the combination of Vox Media and New York Magazine, Vice Media’s acquisition of Refinery29, and Group Nine’s merger with PopSugar. Digital journalism needs size to survive — and even these deals may not be enough to sustain their operations.”
While The Times does a great job of pantomiming concern over these moves, the Grey Lady is itself the phenomenon’s worst perpetrator. The Times has stopped short of swallowing entire media properties whole, but it has routinely done the next best thing: poach their top talent.
As noted in Vanity Fair this May, The Times has treated BuzzFeed as something of a “farm team” in recent years, poaching Charlie Warzel, Davey Alba, Sheera Frenkel, Sapna Maheshwari, Jane Bradley, Roxanne Emadi, and Reggie Ugwu. It also raided Politico’s pantry prior to that, hiring away Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin, Ken Vogel, Annie Karni, Glenn Thrush, and others.
The paper of record has snatched some even higher-profile journalists recently, Pied Pipering away Ben Smith to become its chief media reporter, Kara Swisher to run its tech coverage, and, as of earlier this week, Vox’s Ezra Klein. The former cofounder is leaving the publication he helped create seven years ago to launch a podcast with The Times, as well as to become a regular columnist covering policymaking.
On the one hand, it feels downright un-American to question The Times’ prerogatives; the publication was on the brink of collapse in the early 2010s, having found itself woefully unprepared for the digital transition. In response, its leadership battle-planned, invested in reporters, and innovated. Now, almost a decade later, the Grey Lady is eating everyone’s lunch, whisking away talent from their beleaguered hideouts with the promise of a juicy check and a growing subscriber base — 7 million, at last count.
The same goes for every other major publication that has made use of its God-given right to merge and acquire. When Vox Media and New York Magazine, Vice Media and Refinery29, and Group Nine and PopSugar joined forces, they did so with an eye toward competitive viability. BuzzFeed and HuffPost are no different, as the digital landscape practically forces their hand in scaling upward or dying.
To paraphrase Woody Allen, “Digital media companies are like sharks: They have to keep merging with each other constantly or their VC funders don’t get their anticipated ROI.”
Locked in lock-in
As these companies balloon in readership by forming and reforming with each other like Cell in “Dragon Ball Z,” readers have lodged nary a complaint. And why would they? As these publications combine, they gain access to more resources, financial and technological, which allow them to improve their product offerings.
As I’ve written about before, Matthew Hindman’s 2018 book “The Internet Trap” captures this self-perpetuating cycle in all its slow-motion-car-crash banality. In short, more money leads to better product, which leads to more eyeballs and subscribers, which leads to more money and more data, which leads to a better product, ad infinitum. On top of this, “lock-in” encourages readers to develop habits with these publications, and their repeat visits give the sites a better understanding of reader behavior, which helps them create products that better serve their needs.
You and I are not immune to these charms. No doubt, at some point in the last few months, in search of the latest information on Covid-19, you have turned to The New York Times, with its brilliant mapping and charting of the pandemic and its spread. I know I have. The publication’s resources allow it to devote entire legions of data journalists and computer scientists to chronicle the issue, and their coverage of the pandemic has been unrivaled.
But while The New York Times might do a good job portraying the spread of the disease in your state, or maybe even your city, it is of little help when it comes to learning about a local election, a misuse of public funds by your comptroller, or the opening of a new restaurant. Yes, I am back to beating that old, familiar drum: Local news serves a highly specific purpose that can never be replaced by a national publication.
The problem is: Your eyeballs and your data cannot serve two masters. Most readers will agree that these media behemoths, while valuable, do not replace their local newspapers and alt-weeklies. But what many overlook is that you cannot only support local publications in theory; every time you choose to visit a premiere digital publication over your city’s newspaper, you give your money and user information to one instead of the other.
When millions of people do this, multiple times a day, no amount of goodwill and heartfelt intention can obscure the unfortunate reality: that the media conglomerates thrive at the expense of their local counterparts.
The increasingly common tragedy of the commons
The “tragedy of the commons” refers to the phenomenon in which individuals, acting in their own self-interest, end up harming themselves as a collective. On the internet, when you decide to visit the new HuffBuzz for your news, that decision affects your local newspaper. One gets your money and data over the other.
So, while your decision to get your Covid-19 information from The New York Times makes sense in the short term, in the long term it slowly destroys local media. And when local media is gone, The Times will not be taking over its coverage of local education policy — that just goes away. Hence the tragedy part.
While I’ve been preaching individual internet literacy since I started Medialyte, I have no illusion that news-consumers really care. Why would you willingly patronize a worse resource for your news? Outside of this kind of long-term thinking that I’m advocating, or an impulse to support grassroots businesses over monopolies — both good impulses! — there are few convincing arguments that will get you to continually refresh the laggy load screen of your city’s news site when The Wall Street Journal has yet another sexy visualization of the labor market.
So if news-consumers cannot be trusted to protect the future of the media ecosystem, who can? The answer might actually be pretty obvious: the people calling the shots at The Times, The Journal, The Post, BuzzFeed, Vice, Refinery29, New York Magazine, HuffPost, and others.
They’re the ones who see the shifts in traffic month over month, knowing full well that their rising numbers come from someone else’s falling ones; whose subscriber counts swell as local institutions crumble; whose bottom lines grow healthier as alt-weeklies wither; and whose reporting staffs balloon as journalists in rural counties launch one-woman publications to get citizens information about vote tallies.
One of the richer notes of irony in this shoe-on-the-other-foot feast is that many of these top-tier publications routinely cover the monopolization of other industries. As has been borne out in the world of tech, when purchasing power and market share coalesce into the hands of the few, consumers will eventually pay the price. Everyone loves Amazon until all the small businesses disappear, and everyone will love The New York Times until all the local newspapers disappear.
It would be nice to think that maybe media companies, who strive to serve the interests of the public and report on the ills of big business and big government, would be able to recognize the implications of these mass consolidations. Many reporters at The Times, Post, Journal, and elsewhere came from small newspapers; they know better than most how important these institutions are.
Perhaps, then, instead of replicating the mistakes they call out in other industries, the leaders of the free press might employ an ounce of prescience and consider how their ten-year plans impact the one-year plans of the local weeklies that are going dark.
This is a Big Ask, I understand, because most journalism is a for-profit exercise, and asking publicly traded or VC-backed companies to pump the brakes on their plans for world domination is in sharp contrast to their fiduciary obligations.
But who, in this hypothetical, is more to blame: The industry that unwittingly finds itself in an anti-competitive landscape, or the industry that routinely covers anti-competitive landscapes and yet still finds its way into a winner-takes-all situation that benefits only a privileged few?
Indeed, I would hope that present-day media monoliths consider themselves as part of a broader ecosystem of news-providers and make decisions with that awareness in mind.
If their growth comes at the expense of smaller institutions’ survival, will they replace the critical services they are disrupting after all the local publications have disappeared? And if not, then who are they really serving? A world with a handful of shiny, globe-spanning publications but no one to report on what’s going on in readers’ backyards is not one built with the needs of the average person in mind.
Some good readin’
— As an Inbox 0 acolyte, this was painful to read. (The New Yorker)
— I wrote about the burgeoning psychedelics industry, which involved speaking with pioneers in the space who resented the idea that it was an “industry” at all. (Business Insider)
— The inimitable Hunter Harris has left Vulture for … where else? (Hung Up)
— Ben Thompson using the technology-adoption-cycle framework to analyze how we adopt ideas, then using Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein as examples of how we assign value accordingly? *chef’s kiss* (Stratechery)
— This review of “The Queen’s Gambit” was infuriating because it is right, but I don’t want to think deeply about “The Queen’s Gambit.” (Los Angeles Review of Books)
Cover image: “Still Life — Vase with Roses,” by Vincent Van Gogh