There is nothing that the public (you, and me, inclusive) loves to do more than to complain about the cheap, unserious nature of the media, while also being the cause of that. “The press should be writing about serious issues—not this celebrity garbage and lifestyle fluff and ginned-up controversies,” the public often says. Then you look at the numbers. Nobody reads the serious stories and everyone reads the fluff. The most you can hope for is that publications will be enlightened enough to use the garbage to enable the good reporting. And indeed, that’s how it is. The Iraq bureau is paid for by the Styles section. The public, generally speaking, gets what it wants, even if they don’t admit it.
There are nuances to this though. Sometimes, the public wants something—local news, for example—but they can’t have it because the economic model that delivered it is broken, and nobody has come up with a new one that works yet. When every newspaper amounted to a local advertising monopoly with huge profit margins, as was the case for most of the 20th century, there was a lot of local news coverage, because the publications in each city were rich. Then the internet came around and huge tech platforms diverted most of the ad money into their own pockets and local newspapers saw their revenue dry up and now, there is little local news. It’s a journalism problem, and a civic problem, caused by an economic problem. (The solution to this is to either tax tech companies to fund journalism or just have the government fund journalism directly. That is not exactly the subject of this post, though.)
Ever since the internet smashed print media and Google and Facebook et al smashed the economic model for online media, we’ve all been caught in a period of casting-about. Entrepreneurs and media thinkers cast about for ideas of how to fix the broken model, and then they cast about for funders to give them the money to try it. The production of journalism in America depends to a remarkable degree on fooling rich people into thinking it’s a good idea to fund some publication, and then feverishly publishing as much stuff as possible before the rich person figures out that journalism is not a good investment.
An unfortunate consequence of this, though, is the profusion of publications designed from the ground up to appeal to the demographic of “business people who incorrectly imagine themselves to be ideas people.” That’s who the funders are, and to get the funding the funders need to like the pitch. This sort of publication can hire great journalists and can do good reporting, but its reporting must be forced into an execrable Powerpoint-style package in order to catch the eye of media investors whose brains, after years of abuse by capital, are unable to process anything more languorous than a pitch deck. Say what you will about Gawker (dead) and Buzzfeed (dying) and Vice (bankrupt), but the era of online media defined by those companies was full of all types of whimsy and radicalism that was the downstream effect of a wave of money that fueled the hiring of thousands of young writers and gave them unprecedented freedom. (The freedom was purely due to the fact that tons of content had to be produced to fill the maw of the internet. Any socially redeeming qualities were a side benefit.)
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That ain’t the case any more. There’s no money in whimsy now. The defining publication of the appeal-to-the-funder-type era is Axios, which did not invent the form I’m talking about, but which has certainly refined it to its highest/ lowest form. To make fun of the Axios house style is hardly original, but it is worth understanding it as the embodiment of a broken economic system in the journalism industry that relies purely on seducing people who don’t read:
Bold. This makes things look important whether they are or not.
Bullet points are the baby food of language. Busy executives must have their brain food mashed up and put on tiny bite-sized spoons.
Here’s another bite. Open up!
On the other hand: The false equivalency of “both-sidesism” has long been one of the plagues of journalism, causing good and bad ideas to be presented as equally meaningful, as a quick and dirty way to achieve the veneer of impartiality. Instead of eradicating this harmful tendency, imagine if you boiled it down into a thick, black concentrate, and then used that goo to write bold bullet points. Business people fucking love that shit. “Much to consider,” they nod.
Number. Statistics lend the appearance of validity to arguments regardless of their provenance.
The American Enterprise Institute found that 63% of business guys aren’t maximizing their productivity.
Much to consider.
Go deeper. Axios’s financial success in a hard media environment has attracted notice. Now there is also Semafor, which raised a ton of money to make what is in essence “Global cosmopolitan Axios.” What these publications (both of which employ many fine journalists) have in common is that their structures are what happens when journalism is unable to exist unless it can appeal to the sliver of humans whose Platonic ideal of news is “ChatGPT summarizes the Financial Times in 200 words.”
There’s more: Axios and Semafor, which are both to some degree “actual journalists do stories and then try to package them for incurious business people,” are only one possible outcome of the chase-the-funders media world. The other is something like the newly launched and richly funded publication The Messenger, which falls into the category of “rich person thinks the reason the media industry isn’t great right now is ‘bias’ and so burns an enormous amount of money to build a media outlet whose defining characteristic is that it is not interesting in any way.” These sorts of things pop up fairly regularly and almost always fail (because the real reason the media industry isn’t great is because tech platforms took all the money out. It’s not all the bullshit about partisan bias blah blah blah. The thesis is wrong).
My oh my, you have done a great job reading this, sir.
And I bet you could write a great essay on LinkedIn now that you understand this knotty issue!
What gets lost when the media ecosystem is forced to organize itself around the world’s most incurious demographic? Fun, nuance, weirdness, depth, wonder, joy, surprise… all the things that make journalism worthwhile in the first place. This dynamic is not just “we must flatter people with money.” That just produces goofy luxury publications, which have been around forever and can be safely ignored by most of us. This is more insidious— it’s “we must flatter people with money into believing that they have the best ideas about journalism itself.”
What do you know? The future of media turns out to be exactly the sort of dead-eyed PowerPoint stuff you look at all day, sir! Another coup for the dear leaders of the funding world! Towards a shining future of news suitable for humans and robots alike—Huzzah!
What is to be done?
You’re doing it right now. Support independent media. With your dollars, if possible, but with your attention, regardless. Writers will either thrive out here with your support or we will all start shaping our resumes into bullet points.
Speaking of that, here is an extremely ponderous essay by the publisher of the New York Times in which he defines the New York Times as “independent media.” That is not what the term means! They’re doing fine.
No disrespect to the writers at any of these sites, who are trying to make a living like all of us. Semafor has not unionized yet, but they should before the money wave starts to die down. Email me if you want to speak to an organizer.
Martha's Vineyard, where I live, has 2 quality weekly newspapers (Vineyard Gazette; MV Times) full of quality writing, the occasional long-term 'investigative' piece, and LOTS of local coverage. Town meetings, school boards, select boards, school sports, etc. Reporting on issues like the nitrogen that's threatening all of our ponds & lagoons, ocean health & strees in the fishing industry, Coast Guard futures, the impact of a wave of immigrants on the school system, etc. For an island with a year-round population of ~20,000.
I think part of the reason for this kind of unusual success is that many off-island ("summer") people with a strong connection to the island have paid subscriptions. Local advertisers support both papers, of course. The Times used to be freely distributed to local mailbox holders, but went to a subscription-only model a few years ago. Both papers sell for a dollar a copy and you can find them for sale all over the place.
This perfectly articulated the oddity of Axios. Every time I see one of their articles, I keep waiting for the actual piece to start. In DC, at least, they are doing a lot of local coverage albeit in their weird bullet points style, and their reporters are popping up in lots of local podcasts, which is cool.