“The journalistic orthodoxy” is how Jack Shafer, a media columnist for Politco, described the media establishment (when writing about the media furor over Rolling Stone’s story on El Chapo, interviewed by Sean Penn). It is a perfect phrase to describe the establishment, which is so busy nose-picking that it doesn’t see a steamroller barreling from behind.
First it was handwringing over “the El Chapo scoop,” and then it was the endless chatter about Chris Hughes’ decision to dump the New Republic in a very public manner. I mean, the guy lost $20 million in four years and figured it wasn’t worth the effort. In other words, he lost $5 million a year (about $2 million more than previous owner Marty Perez) to figure out a future for a publication that has been riding the coattails of its past. And yet, from the overblown media reaction, you would think Hughes clubbed their cat or something.
“The obsession displayed by the media establishment with the New Republic shows an industry that fetishizes past, refuses to imagine the future!,” is what I tweeted. “Can we stop talking about a pub that essentially nurtured a fabulist, is elitist & pretty boring, even on good days.”
The first time I spent any meaningful time reading old issues of the New Republic was back in the go-go years of the Internet. I was a young reporter at Forbes.com. In May 1998, my then-colleague Adam Penenberg read a story written by TNR’s star writer, Stephen Glass, called “Hack Heaven.” It was a story about a 15-year-old hacker who held a company, Jukt Micronics, hostage by intruding on their network. “It was all a pack of lies,” Penenberg (who spent his life writing about security and hackers) told the editors. It didn’t take very long to prove that.
As part of the team that did some background work and helped Adam prove the lies, what I remember from the story was the lameness & amateur nature of the Jukt Micronics website. Even back then, a child could tell you that the whole Jukt Micronics website was childish. It took about two days work to prove that the whole thing was a hoax.
What was even more clear was the sheer incompetence of the TNR staff in actually not seeing through the bullshit. Glass, who had a checkered record of being accurate, kept getting away with crappy, made-up stories, because the magazine and its so-called elite editors kept letting him get away. It was as if they smelled their own shit, and concluded, “No, that does smell like Chanel No. 5.”
I moved on from the story, from Forbes and from the East Coast. The reason I moved out west, well actually two reasons — first, even though I love New York more than any place in the world, if you want to write about the Internet, technology and change, you needed to be in the Bay Area. Second, I was actually really frustrated by the clubby, insular and orthodox nature of the East Coast media establishment.
Had it not been for long-shot aficionados like Steve Dante (at Quick Nikkei News) and David Churbuck at Forbes.com, there wasn’t a chance in hell for a guy who didn’t go to proper U.S. schools, wasn’t of a certain ethnicity and had a funny accent. In the mid-1990s, everyone in media on the East coast was so dismissive of the Internet — a sharp contrast to over here, where wild-and-wooly was accepted as normal. Good riddance to the orthodoxy and hello, Internet.
Over the years, the media establishment (mostly on the East coast) has pooh-poohed technology and new emerging trends. Just as they were dismissive of the web, they were also dismissive of blogging when it came around. Blogging became popular because it mirrored the readers and the society around us. The network was making the world faster; the network was making the world a lot more personal. Forget the old-fashioned stuff, which was boring — the network made it possible for readers to have choices. Choices that resonated.
Instead of trying to understand this change in behavior, the media establishment kept saying, “It’s not journalism.” It focused on how and what, failing to ask, “Why do people read blogs? Why do people blog?” If they had, then it would have been easier to understand how the business was changing. In December 2001, I started blogging “tech news,” mostly because it seemed obvious — an industry as fast-paced and constantly changing as technology is going to need more than a monthly magazine to cover it. An industry as pervasive as technology would need something more consistent than just the occasional piece or two in the business section.
A few years later, I tried to convince an executive at Time, Inc., to help sell ads for GigaOm, but it wasn’t something he cared about, because after all, the ad revenues would be so small that it wasn’t going to really contribute to his bonus at the end of the year. Now the same person puffs around posing as a digital pioneer, but that’s a story for another day. Frankly, that episode was illustrative of the fog of mediocrity that envelopes the establishment.
In 2001, Dave Winer was telling anyone who would listen about the changes that lay ahead. But hey, what does a guy making software know about journalism. In 2016 (and for the past few years) he has been talking about “sources go direct.” Blogs were the beginning, as well as social networks. Mark Zuckerberg announced his daughter’s birth on Facebook. Derek Jeter talked about his future on Facebook.
Four years ago, when I wrote Amplification & the changing role of media, only the tech executives were “going direct,” and “in the end, both casual observers and publications were doing the same job — they were amplifying the news, spreading it across various mediums.” Now everyone, from sports stars to blowhard politicians to Hollywood glitterati, are going to Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and Twitter to push out their messages — middlemen (aka most of the reporters) are not really required.
And yet, you have the journalistic orthodoxy spinning their wheels about the El Chapo scoop and how terrible Sean Penn really was as a writer. You think Time or Vox would have not run that piece, especially if it guaranteed a gazillion page views? No need to answer that.
The debate over who is a reporter and who is not, or what is a story and what isn’t a story is just a waste of time. Washington Press Corps covers the president like a hawk, and yet they don’t have much to say or report other than regurgitating the PR babble. And yet, Jerry Seinfeld goes to the White House, hangs with the president and finds out that President Obama can’t get enough guacamole, or that he wears one brand of underwear, or that he openly admits that many of the world leaders are just loony. Yeah, I would watch that episode again and again, because as Bob Lefsetz says, “And there you have it, the modern era in a nutshell.” El Chapo, Trump, Seinfeld — the whole thing is entertainment.
“Hughes’s failure at the New Republic is worse, then, than Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million failure with Newark’s public schools, because it destroyed something of value,” writes Felix Salmon, the man with coolest name amongst the journalistic orthodoxy. Hughes, he points out, “was clearly positioning himself as a Washington power broker ahead of his husband’s anticipated election to Congress.”
So Hughes spent $20 million, kept the magazine around for another four years, employed a bunch of journalists and then decided to cut his losses. The way I see it: he kept a patient in a coma on generous life support for four more years. It wasn’t growing — and when you aren’t growing you are only dying.
More importantly, what does Salmon mean when he says “value?” As a business, TNR hasn’t made money in years. According to Vanity Fair reporter Sarah Ellison, the in-house tabloid of the orthodoxy, “Marty Peretz, the longtime former owner, told me that the magazine enjoyed a mere four years of profitability during his multi-decade association with the publication.”
As a magazine, it hasn’t had any real impact in years. I read American media, and Huffington Post has had more of an impact than the New Republic. It is a magazine whose time is past. As Ellison writes today, “He’s not selling a shell of a brand; he’s selling a shell of a brand wrapped up in lots of liabilities.” So can we now please shut the f**k up about the New Republic and move on to more important things…like that woman who called Trump a racist.
January 13, 2016, San Francisco