Thursday, February 15, 2018

Media: CJR—Billionaires gone wild

From the Columbia Journalism Review:

The American media landscape, like the rest of the country, is being reshaped by the whims of the ultra-rich 
In November, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, million-dollar Trump donor, and father of the governor of Nebraska, shuttered DNAinfo, the local news startup he founded, and Gothamist, the network of city blogs he’d purchased just a few months earlier, in a fit of pique, after editorial employees organized a union. Shuttering the company meant nothing to him—DNAinfo reportedly lost money and the Gothamist network was not profitable enough to make an appreciable difference to a man with a net worth estimated at over $2 billion—but to me it meant that there was no longer a reporter assigned to cover my neighborhood in Brooklyn and its Halloween Dog Parades, community board meetings about unsafe intersections, and new tiki-bar openings.

My loss, I’m aware, is small potatoes compared to that of the reporter herself, and her dozens of suddenly jobless colleagues. But I know a little bit about how it feels when a billionaire with inexplicable power over you takes your job away out of what seems like personal spite: I was the last editor of Gawker, before it went bankrupt and ceased publication, the result of years of legal warfare secretly funded by billionaire Facebook investor Peter Thiel.

It is one thing—an infuriating thing, granted—to lose your job because of “the market.” When your factory shuts down because labor is cheaper overseas or when your magazine folds because luxury watch companies shifted their marketing budgets to Instagram influencers, you may rage and despair, but you also probably saw it coming, in industry-wide economic trends that were impossible to ignore. But when your livelihood is disrupted because of the whims of one powerful person—when the invisible hand is replaced by one very visible and shockingly capricious one—it is a much more bewildering experience. And it is one more journalists can expect to experience in the near future, as the economic power of the 0.01 percent increases and the revenue models underpinning traditional news-gathering shops break down.

It’s rote at this point to observe that many of the ways the media landscape has been transformed in the 21st century have oddly caused it to more closely resemble the media landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the flourishing of a more openly partisan press to the erosion of the norms of “professionalism” that were built up in the era of post-war prosperity and supposed national consensus. Another throwback: The press baron. Not since the 19th century have so many individuals had so much power over the press.

It’s important to remember that Ricketts only had that power because no one else wanted to spend the money to do what he was doing (before he got mad and decided to stop). He thought he might eventually make money doing hyper-local reporting across the country, but he hadn’t yet, and no one else is trying on his scale. That is not meant to suggest he should be considered a heroic failure, it’s mainly to say that an industry that relies on the Joe Rickettses of the world to sustain itself is in deep trouble.

The press baron model works out so long as people want to be press barons. Generally, billionaires buy or start media outlets either for money or influence. There are ostensibly benevolent examples, of course. After personally purchasing The Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has received a great deal of credit for investing in serious investigative journalism and giving the paper the resources to achieve major “digital growth,” as the press releases say. I worked (oh so briefly) for eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, home to lots of great journalists given the resources necessary to do important work. I know Omidyar believes strongly and sincerely in the importance of independent journalism to a free society.

But with Google and Facebook sucking up the majority of the ad money, going into publishing eventually only makes sense if you have particular things you want published. I have no doubt that Bezos and Omidyar believe in the missions of their organizations, but they are both quite upfront about not wanting to run them as charities. They both want to “save” journalism as a business. The trouble will come when the billionaires who think that way discover that, even if they once had one very good idea that made them very rich, they probably don’t have the one good idea that will “crack the code” of making it profitable to run a large and expensive news-gathering organization. Those who initially decide to fund journalism out of a sense of selfless civic virtue will get bored or get tired of losing money, leaving only those funding it for some other, probably political purpose. (The Guardian is currently engaged in a fascinating experiment to see how long a rich man’s money and the economic laws of compound interest can be used to sustain a money-losing, public-interest-serving journalism shop.)...