A collection of the most fun media stories we read (and wrote) in 2012
There are less than 12 hours left in 2012 (and less than 48 left in the media snooze-fest that is the week between Christmas and New Year), so we thought we'd end the year with a selection of some of the deep media stories we had the most fun reading this year (and a couple we had a lot of fun writing, at the end).
These are not in any particular order, and we expect we are forgetting a few standouts; let us know on Twitter (@joepompeo, @tmcgev, or @capitalnewyork) or in the comments section what's on your list. Herewith, Capital's 2012 Media Longreads:
Murdoch's Civil War (Vanity Fair)
Sarah Ellison went deep inside the internal investigation probing News Corp's corruption scandal:
The investigation that has been most immediately terrifying to those inside the Murdoch empire is the one mounted by Murdoch himself. The culture inside News Corp. has been called corrupt by many. It has been likened to that of the Mafia. On the positive side, News Corp. has always taken care of its own. Murdoch is known to have paid hospital bills and legal fees for his employees. He calls many of those who work for him his friends, possibly because he doesn’t have any others.
As the scandal widened throughout 2011, Murdoch determined that, in order to save his business, the company needed to turn on itself.
A New York Times Whodunit (New York)
Joe Hagan got to the bottom of why Janet Robinson was fired from her job as C.E.O. of The New York Times Company:
Even as a new pay wall was erected on the Times' website last spring to charge customers for access, the company’s performance, including an alarming dive in print advertising when other media companies were beginning to recover, was faltering, and Sulzberger was under pressure both financial and familial to throw Robinson overboard.
As the paper’s stock price has declined in recent years, there has been increasing unease among the Ochs-Sulzberger clan, who control the paper through a special class of shares. Three years ago, facing huge debt problems, the company suspended the lucrative stock dividend that once flowed quarterly to the family’s 40-plus members, intensifying the need to solve the intractable advertising problems of the newspaper in the digital age and figure out a way to turn the family’s cash spigot back on. Janet Robinson, the company’s advertising brains, found herself caught between her increasingly remote boss and a frustrated family worried over the future of its 116-year-old fortune.
Six degrees of aggregation (Columbia Journalism Review)
Michael Shapiro told the fascinating story of how The Huffington Post was founded:
Of the many and conflicting stories about how The Huffington Post came to be—how it boasts 68 sections, three international editions (with more to come), 1.2 billion monthly page views and 54 million comments in the past year alone, how it came to surpass the traffic of virtually all the nation’s established news organizations and amass content so voluminous that a visit to the website feels like a trip to a mall where the exits are impossible to locate—the earliest and arguably most telling begins with a lunch in March 2003 at which the idea of an online newspaper filled with celebrity bloggers and virally disseminated aggregated content did not come up.
Chris Hughes Is About to Turn 100 (New York)
Carl Swanson profiled old-soul New Republic saviour Chris Hughes:
He is not really a showboat. Given that he’s trained himself to be on-message since answering media inquiries about Facebook from a dorm room, he is a considered person, not predisposed to blurty swirls of confessionalism or raucous self-doubt. His old friends talk about his circumspection, and his new ones his calibrated fresh-faced-ness. He radiates opportunity in an era of disruption, and people read things into him or onto him. Politicians do it: He’s become a big Democratic fund-raiser. Literary mandarins do it: The Paris Review had him host its annual benefit bash earlier this year. And certainly journalists do it—those he employs, those he hopes to employ, and those who are just curious about whether he has an answer for this whole shaky-seeming business. He seems happy to represent, to all of us, what a fantasy member of his never-not-wired generation could be—a savior from the future for the institutions of the past.
The Tabloid Turncoat (New York)
Steve Fishman on Daily News editor Colin Myler's return to New York after being thrown overboard in the U.K. phone-hacking scandal:
Myler has come back with the deepest possible knowledge of his competitors at the New York Post, as well as ample reason to hold a grudge against its owner, Rupert Murdoch, who, it seems to many, was happy to let Myler take heat for the phone-hacking scandal in order to protect his own son. Myler has returned with a tarnished résumé. The scandal continues to threaten his reputation. Last week, a member of Parliament accused Myler of authorizing his reporters to dig up dirt on M.P.’s investigating News of the World. But New York is a new beginning. He’s no longer marching to Murdoch’s orders. Now he can put his own ideological stamp on the Daily News, score-settling of a different kind. For Colin Myler, these intertwining pasts are a prologue to the tabloid war he’s now joining. “It’s going to be fun,” Myler told a reporter.
Mail Supremacy (The New Yorker)
Lauren Collins on how The Daily Mail "conquered England":
The Mail presents itself as the defender of traditional British values, the voice of an overlooked majority whose opinions inconvenience the agendas of metropolitan élites. To its detractors, it is the Hate Mail, goading the worst curtain-twitching instincts of an island nation, or the Daily Fail, fuelling paranoia about everything from immigration to skin conditions. (“WITHIN A DAY OF HIS ECZEMA BEING INFECTED, MARC WAS DEAD,” a recent headline warned.) A Briton’s view of the Mail is a totemic indicator of his sociopolitical orientation, the dinner-party signal for where he stands on a host of other matters. In 2010, a bearded, guitar-strumming band called Dan & Dan had a YouTube hit with “The Daily Mail Song,” which, so far, has been viewed more than 1.3 million times. “Bring back capital punishment for pedophiles / Photo feature on schoolgirl skirt styles / Binge Britain! Single Mums! / Pensioners! Hoodie Scum!” Dan sings. “It’s absolutely true because I read it in the Daily Mail.” The Mail is less a parody of itself than a parody of the parody, its rectitudinousness cancelling out others’ ridicule to render a middlebrow juggernaut that can slay knights and sway Prime Ministers.
Citizens Jain (The New Yorker)
Ken Auletta on the Times of India and the state of journalism on the subcontinent (subscription required):
About Samir and Vineet Jain, the two brothers who run the Times of India, which has the largest circulation of any English-language newspaper in the world. While profits have been declining at newspapers in the West, India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive; in fact, circulation and advertising are rising. In part, this is because many Indian newspapers, following an approach pioneered by the Jain brothers, have been dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department. At the Times of India, for example, celebrities and advertisers pay the paper to have its reporters write advertorials about their brands in its supplementary sections; the newspaper enters into private-treaty agreements with some advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment. These innovations have boosted the paper’s profits, and are slowly permeating the Indian newspaper industry. Critics point to a decline in journalistic quality, especially amongst high-circulation newspapers (one critic, a former editor at the Times of India named Darryl D’Monte, says the paper is “the most serious threat to journalism not only in this country but in the entire developing world”). Author discusses the disparate personalities, the business approach and close working relationship of the Jain brothers.
Big, Bigger, Biggest (Newsweek)
Nick Summers on why ESPN may have become "too big for its own good":
A new president, John Skipper, took over the network on Jan. 1. Promoted from within, he is expected to chart a steady course—but it won’t be easy. When one team is running up the score, resentment is inevitable, and in 2012 ESPN finds itself the object of criticism on a variety of fronts. Uniting them all is a sense that “The Worldwide Leader,” as its slogan goes, has gotten too big for its own good. By driving up the price of sports-rights packages and passing along the cost to consumers, ESPN helps send monthly cable bills through the roof. And in order to maintain favorable access to athletes, teams, and entire leagues, it is widely accused of downplaying stories that cast sports in a negative light. Live games may lead fans to watch ESPN more and more, but they’re seeing less and less of the network they fell in love with.
ESPN races to the bottom with Tebowmania (Deadspin)
John Koblin analyzed how ESPN rode its favorite 2012 hobbyhorse into irrelevance:
This helps explain why, over the summer, ESPN dispatched veteran reporter Sal Paolantonio and a crew to cover Jets camp as if it were the run-up to the Super Bowl. ("ESPN embarrassed themselves," Dan Patrick, who spent 18 years in Bristol, said of ESPN's flood-the-zone coverage in Florham Park.) This helps explain why ESPN2's First Take referred to Tim Tebow more than seven dozen times in late May even though there was absolutely no Tebow news to report on. This helps explain why SportsCenter covered Tim Tebow's 25th birthday like a moon landing. This helps explain why it seemed perfectly reasonable to a SportsCenter anchor to ask in-studio guest Liam Neeson whether Tim Tebow should be the Jets' starting quarterback even though Liam Neeson had no clue what he was talking about. This helps explain how ESPN wound up breaking Tim Tebow news to, yes, Tim Tebow.
The story of how ESPN fell in love with Tim Tebow is really the story of a breakup, between ESPN and the business of reporting the news.
Al Gore's Desperate Bid (Newsweek)
Rebecca Dana reported on the troubles of pugnacious anchor Keith Olbermann, and the vice president's efforts to set his little-watched cable-news channel right again:
It was early November when tensions between Keith Olbermann and Al Gore escalated into a crisis at Current TV. There had been a short honeymoon after Gore, the channel’s co-owner, had handed the notoriously temperamental anchor a reported $10 million salary and equity stake in February of last year, but the relationship soured quickly. Now, just five months after Olbermann’s show Countdown had resurfaced on Current, it looked as if he might walk away.
Accustomed to the flashy graphics and slick broadcasts of MSNBC, Olbermann balked at the cheap sets and lo-fi production values at the scrappy Current. Ensconced in his New York office, the star ignored emails from the network’s West Coast executives. He wanted them to invest more on the technical side, and he wanted more authority in other areas of the network, including personnel decisions. He was also upset about his car service. Gore and his partners had shelled out for a star; now, it seemed, the star owned them.
By November, network executives were exhausted by his antics, according to a source familiar with the inner workings of Current. Olbermann was implacable. Executives feared an ugly, public fight.
The Cranky Wisdom of Peter Kaplan (The New Republic)
Nathan Heller on Peter Kaplan (our former boss), and his influence over the current media landscape:
Although Kaplan is seen (or lampooned) today as a spokesman for the hoary charms of screwball comedy and ink-stained fingers, he has also, quietly, played a big role in marking the path of digital-age journalism. It’s hard to find a major publication right now, in print or online, that’s not in some way flavored by the old Observer: Subtract Kaplan from the media landscape of the past 20 years and you lose The Awl, much of Gawker, and a good bit of Politico, too. You lose many of the most distinctive reporter-stylists at magazines like New York, favorite bylines in the Sunday Times, and even members of the writing staff of “Girls.” It was Kaplan who hired Candace Bushnell, a struggling freelance contributor, and suggested that she write her way into the mounting erotics of money and power in ’90s New York by reporting them as a narrative he called “Sex and the City.” And it is Kaplan who attended to many voices long before they started tearing down the mainstream. Nikki Finke was a Kaplan writer. So was Ben Smith. It’s not just that his spunky sensibility has seeped into the DNA of Internet prose. (Sicha, a defining voice of Gawker and a co-founder of The Awl, told me that when he sits down to write, it’s still Kaplan’s taste and standards he is trying to meet.) What Kaplan offers is an eye to the long arc of journalistic craft—a sense of how today’s reporting, form, and style compare not only to the coverage of, say, the last election cycle, but to the greater arc of journalistic evolution since the late Jazz Age.
Inside The Cult: Politico At A Crossroads (The Huffington Post)
Michael Calderone painted a portrait of Politico and the strange position it found itself in, heading into the 2012 election season:
So it is that Politico, the last election cycle’s insurgent, has morphed into a muscular member of this cycle’s establishment. No longer the upstart it was during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Politico’s current success is also freighted with the reality that however cultish it may be, however pivotal it has become, it is also at a crossroads: Having built a sizable and still-expanding newsroom of 225 editorial and business staffers, Politico has to size up new revenue streams and reshape the franchise in such a way that staffers speculate the company’s co-founders may not stick around a few years from now.
Media fight on the right over GOP (Politico)
Dylan Byers wrote about the "escalating civil war playing out ... between moderate and far-right-wing pundits":
After a disastrous performance in the 2012 elections, the Republican party has come face-to-face with the new demographic reality: “The white establishment is now the minority,” as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said on election night. Republican support among old, white men can no longer offset their lack of support among women, the young, African-Americans, Asians and the fast-growing Hispanic populations — all key groups in Obama’s victory, some observers say.
But which path to take for the GOP toward broader appeal — doubling down on a core economic and family values conservative message that transcends identity politics or polishing the party’s image by recruiting more women and minority candidates and adopting more moderate positions, particularly on immigration reform — has exposed a sharp rift in the conservative media.
The Lex Factor Roils Dow Jones (Reuters)
Jennifer Saba on "brash" Bloomberg defector and Dow Jones C.E.O. Lex Fenwick:
He's tearing down walls. He's tossing out old business models. And he's dressing down people, publicly and profanely, in the once-buttoned-down halls of Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the august Wall Street Journal.
Lex Fenwick (pronounced FEN-nick), a long-time Bloomberg LP executive, is making his mark on Dow Jones, the News Corp subsidiary where he became chief executive officer earlier this year.
Fenwick quickly dismantled the offices in the executive suite, emulating the open-floor plan of his previous employer. He works from a desk in a corner of the seventh floor of News Corp's headquarters in midtown Manhattan, and his conversations - often expletive-laced - can be widely heard.
"This is not what I wanted! Are you a f---ing idiot?" one employee heard Fenwick screaming at a colleague not long ago. Others inside the company say they have often heard Fenwick yelling profanities and shouting at underlings.
Lucia Moses described what the expansion of the news-and-information titans means for the future of journalism:
With their outsized role in the news ecosystem, the companies also raise some thorny questions about the future of journalism. On the one hand, their deep pockets subsidize content that might not otherwise see the light of day. Bloomberg, for example, will lose an estimated $20 million this year on the magazine Bloomberg Businessweek. And the global presence of both Bloomberg and Reuters is formidable, as other news outlets have been forced to gut or shutter their overseas operations.
Yet the core news content produced by the two companies is not exactly what one would call public-interest journalism. Rather, it is made up of stories geared to making, as one critic puts it, “a handful of people even richer.”
BuzzFeed, the Ad Model for the Facebook Era? (Bloomberg Businewsweek)
Felix Gillette on BuzzFeed and the future of advertising:
Peretti says the growing centrality of Facebook in consumers’ digital lives has created the opportunity for the next leap forward. The new breed of social publishers like BuzzFeed, he explains, aren’t just aiming for search engine optimization, they’re pioneering social network optimization: sites designed technologically and editorially to cater directly to the growing number of people who organize their media consumption through a social network’s news feed. But for BuzzFeed to achieve Peretti’s ambitions, he will have to convince advertisers that what the site offers is substantially different, and more valuable than, the endless inventory of Web advertising space, which keeps online ad rates maddeningly low.
Tom Freston's $1 Billion Revenge (Forbes)
Jeff Bercovici on the secret weapon behind Vice Media:
How did a cadre of Williamsburg hipsters blow off the worst economy for media companies since the Great Depression? Part of it was great instincts. Vice made big bets on original Web video years ahead of giants like Google and Yahoo, which are racing to license as much of it as they can now. Part of it was luck. Who could have foreseen that the neighborhood where Vice set up shop in 1999 would be the taste-making capital of the world a decade later? But the real secret weapon was a seriously connected grayhair, Tom Freston.
Bright Lights, Big Secret (BuzzFeed)
Michael Hastings on Jose Antonio Vargas:
Although Vargas has written about his experience as an undocumented worker, he’s been reluctant to publicly talk about the impact his decision had on his place in the media world, the fallout from his controversial move, and how he’d been treated by fellow members of the press. In an extensive interview with BuzzFeed, he agreed to open up about these issues for the first time—from the surprising support from high profile fans like Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and yes, Aaron Sorkin—to what his friends say he viewed as a betrayal from the Washington Post, a newspaper that he called his home for five years.
Glenn Beck's New Brand: Prophet of Love (BuzzFeed)
McKay Coppins on the new Glenn Beck:
Beck continues to drive and echo the popular narratives of conservative talk radio: In recent weeks, he has accused Obama of "legimitizing Jihad," declared a "race war" in America, and tossed around the word "communist" with just as much gusto and frequency as ever. But whereas two years ago Beck was on the forefront of the right-wing conversation — introducing new villains, crafting new story lines, and making headlines with envelope-pushing rhetoric — now he often runs through the talking points like items on a to-do list before moving on to enthusiastic descriptions of his latest project, and feel-good interviews.
Truth or Consequences (Texas Monthly)
Joe Hagan on Dan Rather (subscription required):
Eight years ago, Dan Rather broadcast an explosive report on the Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. It was supposed to be the legendary newsman’s finest hour. Instead, it blew up in his face, tarnishing his career forever and casting a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion over his reporting—and that of every other journalist on the case. This month, as Rather returns with a new memoir, Joe Hagan finally gets to the bottom of the greatest untold story in modern Texas politics, with exclusive, never-before-seen details that shed fresh light on who was right, who was wrong, and what really happened.
Doyennes in Distress (The New York Observer)
Kat Stoeffel on the dethroning of Martha and Oprah:
The news that The Martha Stewart Show was on the butcher’s block (the Hallmark Channel neither confirmed nor denied the report) signaled the end of an era for the so-called Doyenne of Domesticity, a former Connecticut caterer who turned a monthly magazine and weekly half-hour how-to program into a publicly traded corporation, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, worth $1.87 billion in 2005. (“Omni-” includes mass-market merchandise.) The same week, papers reported that fellow daytime maven Oprah Winfrey was still struggling lead her network audience of six to eight million to the upper-register of the cable dial (115 on Time Warner Cable in Manhattan), where her one-year-old Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) had landed. The New Year’s Day premiere of Oprah’s Next Chapter, a weekly answer to The Oprah Winfrey Show, drew just 1.1 million viewers, suggesting a once-revolutionary media archetype—the self-made goddess of self-improvement—had entered her declining years.
Al Sharpton's Got a Brand New Bag (GQ/Death Race 2012)
Marin Cogan on MSNBC's newsest prime-time anchor:
The Al Sharpton of 2012 is in some material ways very different from the Sharpton who came of age leading marches and sparring with administrations. He's an Upper West Side liberal now, aficionado of Hermes ties and Ashton Churchill cigars. The bouffant, a tribute to James Brown, is gone; his silver mane is now coiffed straight back and lying flat against his head. He still retains the board-straight posture of a former boy preacher, but he's lost nearly half of the bulky 300 pounds he used to carry around under those leisure suits, trading a meat-and-soda diet for vegetarianism back in 2007. He's so thin that there are times it appears he might disappear into his suit, sending his fine violet-and-yellow-striped shirt and raspberry tie into a crumpled pile of laundry on the floor. It's unclear how he holds that head, now a touch too big for the rest of his body, upright all day long while he messages. This part is, and has always been, Al Sharpton's job. A self-made media figure with a talent for injecting himself into the conversation, first on the outside, as antagonist, and now from the studio-lit perches of 30 Rock, Sharpton messages. And messages. And messages.
And now, a few we wrote ourselves! We had fun writing them, and we hope you have fun reading them.
2012 saw the one-year anniversary of The New York Times' subscription strategy; controversial and risky, its surprising success has led other newspapers to follow suit, for better or worse. From inside the room where Times staff flicked the "on" switch on the new paywall:
They watched as the Times almost instantaneously ensnared its first paid online customer in history—some guy in Canada who saw a promo for the digital subscriptions and bought one right away. Then they watched as more and more subscribers followed. A sense of relief and euphoria set in once it became clear that not only was the technology working, but that people were actually whipping out their credit cards. "Everything could have gone wrong," said someone who was there. "The commerce system could have failed. The article meter could have not worked. The website could have crashed. But for all the issues we had leading up to the launch because it was such a huge project, it went off surprisingly trouble free."
Over the summer, we dug deep into the plans of elusive entrepreneur and TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, and his motivations for building out a network of neighborhood news websites:
As the story goes, according to three people who have heard Ricketts tell it, he was at home with his wife Marlene one day, flipping through the pages of a local newspaper, taking note of who was selling what in those interstices not occupied by editorial content, when he paused to reflect on something prescient: Before long, he predicted, there may not be papers like this for businesses to advertise in.
At the same time, even if newspapers seemed to be going the way of the dinosaur, it wasn’t as if local merchants would become extinct, or cease to require some means of getting their names before local consumers. Plenty of people had already been trying to work through this conundrum, and in the area of classified listings, Craig Newmark had already long ago run away with the prize platform: Craigslist. But for Ricketts, a man long fascinated by the industry-transforming potential of technology, the scenario struck a chord. TD Ameritrade had revolutionized securities trading, first via the touch-tone phone in 1988, and again via the Internet in 1994. Now Ricketts was envisioning a business that would have the same pioneering effect on local news, which was high in demand, but still hadn’t found a way to become profitable online.
At the height of the conflict over Village Voice Media's sex classifieds and human trafficking, a reflection on what was lost when our local alt-weekly was acquired by a Phoenix-based chain operation:
The Village Voice was the voice of the Village, and the voice of the village carried far north of 14th Street, across rivers and mountains like the ones in that famous New Yorker cartoon that maps out the world as parochial New Yorkers see it. It was the authentic voice of New York nonconformism, the adolescent id of the city.
It was not leftism (in fact, certainly not leftism, in the early days); just a certain discomfort with the state of the discourse, its disingenuousness to lived experience, its lack of nuance and its false objectivity. The official voice of New York is a lot like the rest of the world: Sententious, brokered to death, calculated to persuade, shallow. Automatic.
We're sure we've overlooked some other great pieces. Please let us know in the comments which media longreads we've missed!
More suggestions from our readers:
One reminds us of Marc Tracy's great BuzzFeed profile in The New Republic:
BuzzFeed’s triumph, then, lies less in its content than in its understanding of how people consume the news in 2012. It’s actually taking advantage of a long-term pattern in media, whereby the pace of technological innovation allows news organizations to rise to prominence in no time—so long as they’re able to give the people what they want in the ways they want it more precisely than any of their competitors. Think of CNN offering 24-hour updates during the Gulf war; or the Drudge Report embodying the Internet’s premium on sensationalism during the Monica Lewinsky mess; or Politico, which, in 2008, exploited the blogosphere’s expansion of the community of political junkies during an especially captivating election. Looked at this way, BuzzFeed—lightning-quick, light-hearted, addictive, and a little dumb—is the defining media outlet of 2012.