Notes on the media on the media

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Prologue: If you hate-clicked on this so that you can glaze over it quick and then tweet something with words or phrases like "navel-gazing!" or "the media on the media on the media #headache" or whatever, remember that you can hit the back button right now. The web is a tool for elective communities to conduct conversations. You can elect to ignore it or leave it. Sorry if that sounds harsh! I've been listening to it since before the founders of Twitter were out of short pants though, and it might have been true when media was scarce because it could only be produced by people with presses. Now it's not. Isn't there something else you can go read? Try Marshall McLuhan!

With that out of the way, I personally happen to agree wholeheartedly with Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur:





But not everything important is widely read. I think everyone can agree that Kate Aurthur and I are allowed to say that we think something is important, even though it might not be widely read, right? This is at the bottom of so many arguments about the media industry in general. This weekend I got sucked into a bit of a rabbithole as I watched an argument between Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, in conversation with Jeff Jarvis, who directs a Knight-Tow joint-funded program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism (phew!). Sample tweets, which are by no means representative of the whole (but you can look the conversation up quite easily yourself, if you're interested, by following them):





So, that's a big fight in general about journalism, and accountability, and the media business, and performance-measurability, and sustenance, and everything else. It's an argument that assumes a few parameters. It assumes a zero-sum game using limited resources, and it assumes that precisely the same market position applies to every news provider in the market, for instance. It assumes that the same strategies work for different kinds of reporting. What if the same story, produced by ProPublica in conjunction with The New York Times, gets 1,000 times the traffic that the very same story would have gotten if a local blogger had done almost precisely the same thing in a different style? What if the reverse is true because of something ineffable like "virality"?

What if there really is, for some publications, such a thing as a loss leader? What if there is something unmeasurable about some websites, like the degree to which their reputation for producing certain kinds of stories, public-servicey stories for the sake of argument, brings people in who then actually read TV recaps once they get to the site, and keep coming back? I'm not suggesting a strategy, I'm just saying I can imagine the website that operates that way.

What if the story that is the right one to put at the top of your homepage, where 10 percent of your traffic comes from, to maximize the number of pageviews you get form each visitor that arrives from that particular avenue, is not actually the most traffic-friendly story on your site? Isn't it possible that having a long profile about an opera singer at the top of your homepage is the right thing to do, when the most aggressive social media campaign you've got going for a story at the same time is your interview with Katheryn Bigelow or a picture of a cat? What if all of these stories sound to you like traffic death for your website? What if for some other site it's the opposite? What if one site only needs to get 25,000 pageviews a day to pay for itself and have an after-work celebration for a great day, but another one needs 1 million or else tomorrow five people need to get fired? How does scale affect coverage?

We're addicted to the measurability of the web, but we by no means have done everything we can to understand how those measurements should guide strategy or content for any individual site you can name, not from the outside. And we're all on the outside of every other site.

When I got my start in media it was for the same reason many people got their start on one beat or another a decade ago. This new story about how the industry has changed forever was already an old story about how the industry was changing forever, before the internet was even a factor. But people get excited and like to create epochs. (I am guilty of this. It's a deeply human tendency, and overall it doesn't harm the race, though I think it is the path to scientific truthiness probably.) I don't doubt that the web has changed media. I just doubt that we are talking about a category that was ever very stable to begin with, for more than a few years at a time.

Back in 2001 and 2002, people were leaving my newspaper, because the industry thought after an initial post-Sept. 11 mini-recession that it had overcorrected and in fact was in such great shape and there was a yawning market for reporting and editing talent at the big places. (I want to point out that, voluntarily or otherwise, most of these people are back with the little guys, and not unhappy about it, for a variety of reasons; often market corrections are good things for everyone. But that's another article.)

Anyway, nobody was being hired to replace them. I was meant to edit the media beat, when I was barely out of my reporting scrubs myself. I had a reporter working for me on the beat at the beginning who knew much more about it than I did, but he, too, soon left. And I was already running the real estate beat while also writing its lead article every week, but I was promised a new reporter, soon.

I didn't start on this beat when Art Cooper was still holding court at the Four Seasons, but I was on the beat when he suddenly died, and I knew from industry legend what it meant. Tina Brown had folded Talk already by the time I was on the beat, but I knew people who had worked for her there before, and people who had left my paper to go work for her. I was in the bullpen when Talk folded, I knew lots of things. A big issue was made, I remember, about whether or not we would publish a thoroughly reliable and well-sourced report our newsroom had obtained that one of the employees had locked himself in the bathroom of an apartment where a funeral party was being held for the magazine, and had covered the room in vomit. Lots of time was spent by our reporter, a friend of mine, on the phone trying to decide whether holding back on that detail at the insistence of a friend of a friend constituted irresponsible journalistic behavior. So, even by the standards of the year 2001, we were operating in pretty quaint territory here on the media beat.

Gawker at the time was routinely beating us on one fun storyline that gave us a surprising amount of agita in retrospect, considering the size of it: The disappearance, thanks presumably to the Atkins craze, of the pasta station at the Conde Nast cafeteria. We had no juice there, it seemed, and we just lost the story.

But also back then it wasn't really that important how many people read us on the internet.

As late as 2004, when I was coordinating the website's "continuing" coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the protocol was for me to edit everyone's copy and email it to a woman whose name I didn't know, a friend I think of the C.O.O., who would post it to our website whenever she got around to it. I kept feeding the site and waiting for stuff to go up. I spent the weekend lying on my brother's convertible sofa in Cambridge, my clamshell Samsung on my chest, set to vibrate so that I got a tiny heart tremor every time someone filed. I'd get up, go to the computer, edit, send the email, and go back to the convertible. Glamor job, right?

We were a microcosm of everything that was changing about the industry, because we were still relying on our instincts about what readers wanted to see, which were unmeasurable. We could never really say why any one person picked up a copy of our newspaper. We naturally assumed that the stories we liked the best in a given issue were the ones people were reading. When we met each Wednesday morning to hear whether our leader, Peter Kaplan, would berate us or praise us for the last issue, it didn't occur to us that any question other than what Peter Kaplan thought of the issue, and whether people, especially friends and acquaintances of the editors, seemed to be "buzzing" about it (something we measured by whether it was "followed" in another paper in the following days, with or without crediting us) was asked in order to determine whether the issue was a success.

First, we became adjusted to the web. Then we became addicted to the web. And by the end, for some of us, the web really was, emotionally, the most important thing we were working on. There wasn't enough juice to go around to keep us from being bound to the weekly publication schedule, so many of our decisions were guided by the paper, but we no longer asked whether we were being buzzed about. We looked, every Wednesday morning, at the inbound links we were getting on different stories on the digital version of the paper.

This happened, it's important to say, on the editorial side first. Since we made no money from the web, since there was so little effort in those early years to monetize it, the web was an afterthought for the business side for a while. And when the paper hired a real web development staff, we suddenly were straggling behind, struggling to make sense of Google Analytics and the trends we saw there, which measured not what other bloggers thought of our stuff but what the reader actually came for and stayed for.

I think in all this we were not unlike many traditional media organizations adjusting to the web.

Now, what about that media beat, and how it evolved through that?

People forget that it's, at least partly, a question of scale. In the time I have worked on the media beat since Google Analytics, Chartbeat and Tweetdeck became permanently open tabs on my desktop and apps on my smartphone, little has changed for me about the traffic profile. Where I have been, media stories sell.

Gawker, for instance, was heavy into media until they weren't. Sometimes when Nick Denton, proprietor of Gawker Media, talks about this, as he did once with me at a breakfast at Balthazar some years ago, it's as though he suddenly had a realization one day that media stories don't get readers. This puzzled me, since media was second only to city and state politics in its popularity on our site. Nick and I didn't talk about politics. For him, I sensed, that would be even worse than covering the media.

But of course, Gawker was already outpacing the Observer in overall traffic by then, wasn't it? Gawker was growing, and spending more aggressively, and still pretty much doing well with a model in which revenue was something you calculated by multiplying pageviews by the price advertisers were willing to pay on your site for each "impression"--each time a new ad is served on someone's browser on your site. They were now writing about lots of things we weren't, lots of things we couldn't, because we were a different brand and wouldn't have gotten the traffic he got from them, and we were writing about things like media and politics more authoritatively than he was, so we were getting relatively more traffic off them. I was once told that because media stories consistently got less than 5,000 page views for Gawker, media was in the doghouse. If every media item we published had gotten 5,000 pageviews, if we'd known how to market stories properly, we'd have been a lot bigger than we were.

Something else was going on. There's a readership for media stories, it's just a question of whether the readership is large enough, even at the saturation point, to support x number of writers and editors at x publication. I think in the case of the Observer, it might have been, or could have been. Not everyone slices the tomato the same way to make their sauce. The important thing is to have something to cook with.

Now, what media stories do we write these days, and why? Over at New York magazine, my former fellow Observer media-beat guys Gabriel Sherman and Joe Hagan regularly cook up giant potboilers. They're recognizable to some of you as "tl;dr" pieces, but to me and many others (how many others? We'd have to find a way to quantify reliable print-sales and pageviews together, and somehow merge them) they are manna.

The point of them is not that there are, every day, a million incisive, true, breaking-news items about the media beat. The point is that writers are allowed to conduct long investigations and produce heavily researched, nuanced, narratively interesting stories from them. And the stories are important. From them we've divined a lot that is being written nowhere else about the very top echelons of the New York Times, Fox News, and more. We've watched the feet of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and his family, and Roger Ailes, and Rupert Murdoch, held to the fire.

Is New York magazine a place whose business model we approve of? And whether we do or not, can we agree they're great pieces, and if Adam Moss can find a way to get them published that keeps Joe Hagan and Gabriel Sherman in ramen and coffee, and leads to awards and book deals for them, that we can simply say hallelujah and enjoy reading them?

To do anything else for me would seem like going to a ridiculously nice restaurant and taking a bite of the steak that is the product of meticulous sourcing and the careful work of an expensive chef and spitting it out because we don't like the taste of the profit margin the business manager's promoting tonight.

Our website does just fine with media stories, which at the moment are mostly written by Joe Pompeo, with a smattering of me, when I can get away from other editing and out of Excel and PowerPoint and businessy work. There's no point in arguing about why. And I don't say it to contradict someone who says media stories get no traffic on their sites. They are all just facts, and they don't contradict each other unless you think there are internet-wide verities about content.

If you have a passion for the work you think you know how to do best, that you have the best people for, you focus on that and you adjust what you need to to make it profitable, and to find a way to get people to read it. Anything else would be a crapshoot.

That piece yesterday on Buzzfeed, which claimed that media coverage has changed, that there aren't as many eyes on places like the Times, that there aren't as many features and in-depth reported pieces about how these institutions are controlled and how they're evolving, is mainly right. It's fine to deride all the articles about the sausage factory until an infection (Judy Miller's W.M.D. reporting, Jayson Blair, ESPN on Tim Tebow or Manti Te'o) breaks out, and then all of a sudden it's essential reading.

But what do we do about it?

Well, for one thing, I never want to preside over the "vomiting in Tina Brown's bathroom" debate in a newsroom I'm running. It's a nice detail, if it's part of a bigger piece that would have some larger purpose, I suppose. But it's not worth paying real money for and it's not worth the time. I suspect that's the kind of thing that many people are saying good riddance to on Twitter today, in response to the Buzzfeed piece. (A disclosure here, and another warning to anti-navel-gazers to close tab: It was written by Doree Shafrir, another talented writer who worked with me at the Observer, in addition to being at Gawker when many of the aforementioned competitions on the media beat were taking place.)

But would I like us to be able to have one reporter peeling back the layers of bureaucracy and business at the broadcast and cable networks for large, heavily reported pieces that give context not just to this business but to the product that results from it? Do I think that there is enough of an audience of people who consume media who would like to know why they are getting this and not that when they turn on CNN, or open an issue of Vanity Fair, or The New York Times, or go to Buzzfeed, or the Huffington Post, or Business Insider, or Gawker? Absolutely I do.

Do I think readers are, now more than ever, capable of seeing the biases and backstories latent in a piece that's done on the cheap, who would like to see someone hold publishers', editors' and reporters' feet to the fire for inside baseball, for corrupt journalism, for shoddy work, for plagiarism, for laziness? Of course I do.

What else did Deadspin, a creature of Gawker Media where media stories are supposedly disparaged, do with the Manti Te'o story? What else did Kate Aurthur and her friends do, using Twitter and Facebook, to force the Times to acknowledge the appalling lack of coverage of the early days of the AIDS virus in its obituary of Koch, and then to take the paper to task for using its own archives to fill out the story when we all know the Times' reactionary attitudes at the time contributed greatly to Koch getting away with it?

There are those who will say that too many media reporters don't understand the "business side," when they spend time worrying about whether anyone's covering the emotions of the newsroom during a giant culling, and when they still don't write articles about a day at General Motors when 1,000 times as many people lost their jobs.

They have a point, in bottom-line terms. But should that be the standard that gets applied to media reporting?

A real business reporter assigned to the media sector, unmoved by the "importance" of the journalism coming out of one company or another, wouldn't actually have much cause to write anything about newsrooms at all. The top digital ones in the country are the Times, The Huffington Post and CNN online. The big broadcast and cable networks are all well known. There are small business stories, relative to overall valuation, in places like Business Insider and the Verge and possibly Gawker Media, that are interesting more because they seem to be showing the way than anything else.

But what are their real financial prospects? When will they ever have as much at stake, in bottom-line terms, as G.M.?

And in terms of the overall market for media coverage (outside the media itself, which of course has a limitless appetite for it) I believe its limits are overstated.

As the Te'o story demonstrated, or for that matter as I learned when my old colleagues Sridhar Pappu and Jason Gay raised the Observer's profile with their newsbreaking coverage of the Jayson Blair situation at the Times, there's always a demand for news. ("Opinions are cheap, reporting is expensive," Kaplan used to say.)

For that matter I think there's more room for media criticism, too. Not more useless punditry, but the good stuff.

Some of this is ombudy: The reason regular readers want to read about things that are happening at the Times is that they want to know what is happening to the paper they read every day. Why not just talk directly to the reader about what he or she is reading and engage in a conversation about whether it's any good?

I'd argue that the Jack Shafers and David Carrs, who have the luxury of saying what they like about media, whenever they like, but seem constrained at times by an urge to be democratic, could go even farther than they do. If we demand criticism, we may as well demand it of the people who will get just as many readers if they devote themselves to it. 

And they would do very well. (What else does Jon Stewart spend half of his very successful show doing?)

There is also a category that is neither break-driven beat reporting nor criticism, which is media-journalism as storytelling. What if the bigger deal (let's say, the split-up of News Corp. into two separate companies) isn't the most interesting one (let's say, the Times' current re-org). Let's stipulate that we know everything there is to know; we are ready to go with a story that's full of actual information and scoops on both of them. What if the smaller deal is just more fun to read about? If you tell me the market cap of the company will always determine the traffic, I will laugh at you. 

Multiple ways of slicing the tomato; multiple services to multiple kinds of readers. Why does it have to be a contradiction? 

If publishers overcommit to covering things that a too-small number of media self-obsessives are interested in, they'll fail, and we'll be reading about them, in precisely the sorts of articles that half of Twitter dismisses as navel-gazing or that long-form advocates dismiss as small-bore, "revolving-door" items.

For the publication that writes them, a calculus: Are you serving your reader? Are you practicing sustainable journalism, according to your definition of sustainability? The people that can answer those questions in the affirmative can publish whatever they want. And if you don't want to read it, click the back arrow, and we'll see you next time.