Earlier this week, John Oliver made headlines (as he is wont to do) by discussing the fate of local news organizations and especially newspapers:
As a summary of the problems facing local newspapers and how it will affect journalism in the United States more broadly, it’s as good and accessible a summary as any I’ve seen or read. For those who do not want to watch the full 19 minute video, here’s a synopsis:
- Newspapers still do much of the basic on-the-ground reporting on local news.
- However, due to the rise of Craigslist, Google AdWords, and other free or cheap advertising platforms online, newspaper print advertising revenue is plummeting at shocking rates. (Revenue from Google AdWords is higher than all print advertising revenue in the US combined and has been since 2012.)
- Many digital-first media companies online (HuffPo, Vox Media, Vice, Buzzfeed, etc.) as well as a number of other major media companies (HBO, ESPN) enjoy far larger online audiences than local newspapers but are not able to do the same kind of local reporting that local newspapers do. (DISCLOSURE: I work as a freelance writer for a couple Vox Media properties.)
- The result here is that true, deeply researched investigative reporting is largely done through failing institutions that no longer have the financial (and often corporate) infrastructure needed to support deeply researched investigative reporting. (Take it from a former employee of a newspaper owned by one of the bigger newspaper companies in the country—the Stoplight parody video ain’t lying.)
- As these institutions fail, we do not at present have a good economic mechanism for continuing their work within new media companies and institutions.
- Rather, we have lots of examples of stupid, euphemistic ways of dressing up a strategy that amounts to “be the next Buzzfeed.”
- The end result, though it hasn’t happened yet, figures to be really, really bad.
As far as the financial side of this is concerned, some combination of Oliver’s call for people to start paying for journalism along with some kind of sponsored content and limited display advertising revenue seems like the only way forward to me. That said, the great danger of sponsored content is that it breaks down the wall between advertising and editorial divisions of a publication in ways that cannot but compromise the editorial independence of the publication. (This was always Andrew Sullivan’s primary critique.)
So the business model for a journalism that retains its integrity may just be “basically altruistic donations from concerned members plus what meager funds can be raised via limited display advertising.” And that’s not really a business model, is it? (If you want more on this issue, The Guardian has a good piece on the problem published back in July.)
Where do writers come from?
That said, as I’ve mentioned in the past, the problem isn’t simply how to pay writers, but how to make writers. One of the downstream consequences of the great publishing institutions failing is that the career path for writers now looks very different too.
In the newspaper days, many young writers would get their start at a small local paper and work their way up. You’d learn your craft from working with a variety of editors, covering a lot of stories, and making many, many mistakes. And eventually if you wanted it, you might make your way to a bigger paper.
For example, Michael Rezendes, the Boston Globe reporter who is one of the primary characters in Spotlight, started out at the Boston Phoenix, then the San Jose Mercury News, and then finally the Washington Post and, ultimately, the Globe.
Harkening back to older days, before he would cover the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960s, David Halberstam started at the Daily Times Leader in West Point, MS.
Though elite news organizations have become more cloistered in recent years, largely drawing their top reporters from elite northeastern universities, even here there is still something of a slow, initiation process for new reporters. A person might go straight from Princeton to the Washington Post (like Pullitzer-winner Barton Gellman) or from Harvard to the Atlantic (like Ross Douthat) but even so they are given somewhat limited briefs initially and have the guiding hand of the institution to shape and direct their work and, hopefully, to address any particularly bad or destructive habits before they become more entrenched.
In other words, journalistic jobs might be less accessible (which is a really bad thing, to be sure) but at least the people who are getting them have the chance to start small and work their way up without the pressure to become an online celebrity or the temptations that come with that pressure.
This is, increasingly, no longer how it works for many writers.
The self-made writer is becoming a more and more common thing.
In 1997, Bill Simmons, an under-employed bartender who had just graduated from Holy Cross, talked AOL into giving him a local sports column for the Boston area and so the Boston Sports Guy was born. From there, Simmons moved to ESPN’s Page 2 in 1999, ESPN Magazine (where he chafed against the limits of print as a medium), and finally to his own vanity site funded by ESPN, the much-loved Grantland. Unfortunately, Simmons burned through every relationship he had with an ESPN higher-up. Eventually he was fired and a fantastic site was shuttered.
In February of 2003, a young college student named Ezra Klein started a politics blog shortly before he began work for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Dean fell apart, but Klein’s political blogging kept going, such that by 2007 he had a job at the American Prospect. In 2009 he moved to the Washington Post and, in 2014, he founded his own digital publication, Vox.com, in partnership with Vox Media, one of the aforementioned digital media companies. Today his site is one of the biggest online political news and reporting publications going.
In October of 2005, a litigation attorney named Glenn Greenwald started a blog investigating the Plame affair and CIA leaks more generally as well as broader questions of government surveillance. In 2007, Greenwald moved to Salon and in 2012 he moved up again, joining the popular UK publication The Guardian. After breaking the Edward Snowden story (with the help of Gellman at the Post) Greenwald announced in 2013 that he would be leaving the Guardian and in 2014 launched a new site called The Intercept, funded by First Look Media, a company bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
What all three of these new media moguls have in common is that they began their career as outsiders, rose up through the journalistic world to secure jobs at major media companies, making them rather unconventional insiders who never did really fit in that legacy media world, before returning to their previous outsider status as they launched vanity sites built around their personal brand.
In my judgment, two of these three projects have mostly failed. Simmons, it turned out, couldn’t get along with ESPN (or seemingly any humans who are not his friends or employees he himself hired) and the result was burning down a site that was, in its prime, one of the most beloved destinations on the web for great feature writing. Greenwald, meanwhile, is such an ideologue by nature that it has made it very difficult for The Intercept to receive much mainstream coverage.
Klein is the exception here, probably due to a combination of his own unique talent and the fact that, amongst the new digital-first media companies, Vox Media seems particularly well-run and more averse to the worst excesses of digital media as they exist at places like Buzzfeed, Vice, or the Huffington Post.
Writers who are #brands are badly compromised writers.
The key thing here is that last phrase a few paragraphs up: “personal brand.” Because you are a young, unattached writer hoping to someday work professionally as a journalist, pundit, or essayist of some sort, your primary concern is not simply doing good work quietly and honing your skill because there is little guarantee that anyone will notice if you do that. Instead, you are told to “build your brand,” an awful little phrase which translates to “get attention so you have lots of Twitter followers and have written in a half dozen decent publications.”
Unfortunately, the habits you learn when you’re a young person writing on your own with the goal of building an audience are very different from the habits you learn when you’re a young person writing for a small local paper under the oversight of an experienced team of editors and have the luxury of being indifferent to readership numbers.
I feel a little guilty mentioning him given the silly attacks he has been subject to lately and the fact that I just poked him last week in the Duke piece, but Eric Metaxas is a good example of how this can shape writers in bad ways. Metaxas spent a long time trying to establish himself as a writer before finally breaking through in the late 2000s thanks to the combination of well-received works on William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The fact that it took a long time to establish himself is no commentary on Metaxas’s abilities, which are considerable. It’s much more a commentary on how bad the writing economy has become for aspiring writers.
The Bonhoeffer book in particular put Metaxas on the map. But Metaxas was in his late 40s by that time and had been trying to establish himself as a professional writer for years. He did kids books, Veggie Tales, and a host of other smaller projects, all as he tried to both establish himself within a kind of cultural elite of the writing world and make enough money to pay the bills.
And today Metaxas, whose Bonhoeffer book while well-written did have some real academic problems, seems to be slowly morphing into another Dinesh D’Souza. He’s endorsed Trump. His latest book plays fast and loose with historical fact. He has mocked scholars who criticized the work of known hack David Barton.
What is so frustrating about this development is that I actually have liked much of Metaxas’s work. I learned a lot from Bonhoeffer, even if there were some things I needed to be corrected on after reading. His work with Breakpoint has been both helpful and important. I’ve heard many good things about his Socrates in the City events in New York. If we’re drawing up teams in the culture war (which I generally don’t like doing, but OK) Metaxas and I are on the same team.
Even so, the way that Metaxas has turned himself into a media brand has hurt him. He is less useful to the conservative movement precisely because he has become such a branded member of that movement.
Metaxas is an extreme example, but there are many others who are only different from him in the degree to which they are afflicted by this problem. And, to be sure, this problem cannot be limited to one slice of the blogosphere. There are movement soldiers in most every online movement. The left has them. The right has them. Reformed evangelicalism has them. Progressive Christianity has them.
Indeed, it’s hard to be too tough on Metaxas because so much of the space in which we make writers today pushes us toward the sort of branding sensibilities that Metaxas so embodies. There is enormous pressure to embrace the sensational in order to win the attention of the squirrel-like internet masses. Our viability as authors with major publishers is judged at least in part by our Twitter followings even though Twitter follower counts mean basically nothing.
We are pressured, like the journalists Oliver describes, to build a “platform” on social media and to see ourselves as “authorpreneurs.” Of course, once we become personal businesses, we must consider the many questions that businesses must by necessity address. How do I manage customer relations in ways that will make people keep buying my product? How do I maintain good relations with other businesses in my niche?
And the trouble with all of this is that it teaches us as writers to think first of ourselves and only secondly about things like artistic craft, virtue, and truth. Moreover it shapes us into a kind of hyper self-awareness that is probably antithetical to cultivating the virtue of humility, which rests very near the center of Christian piety.
So the problem facing aspiring writers today is not simply one of employment status, although that is a major problem. We also must find ways of disciplining ourselves in the virtues necessary to produce good writing without the support structure that many American writers have enjoyed until quite recently and we must do that while operating under a set of pressures and constraints that older American writers generally did not face.
To be sure, we need to find a solution to the problem of funding journalistic work. But if we figure that out and there are no serious journalists to employ, we have actually accomplished very little.