The future of journalism: Cranking it out with one eye on the exit
The last few months have told us one thing about tech and business journalism: For major* outlets, trying to stay independent is really expensive, really difficult and ultimately doomed to failure.
At least that’s the lesson we can draw from GigaOm (RIP), TechCrunch (AOL/Verizon), Re/Code, the Verge and Buzzfeed (all three massively controlled by Comcast), the Financial Times (Nikkei) and now Business Insider (Axel Springer).
This isn’t how it was supposed to be. A decade ago, when TechCrunch was getting started, blogging was going to strike a blow for independence against corporate owned media. Independent digital journalists were supposed to be more agile and less cowed than reporters who worked for The Man.
A few things were wrong with that plan.
The first being that independence turned out to be exhausting. By the time Mike Arrington sold TechCrunch to AOL it was modestly profitable, and could have remained independent indefinitely. Heather Harde wanted it to become a $100m company: The ESPN of tech, as she’d often say. But Mike was beyond burned out: Years of breaking unpopular (but important) stories, being attacked (fairly and unfairly) by readers and rivals alike, and just the brutal reality of a 24hr tech news cycle left him ready to sell to any bidder. And lucky that he did: Both Kara Swisher and Om Malik have talked publicly about, respectively, their heart attack and stroke. Today at Pando, Sarah Lacy is just out of the hospital, recovering from a serious bout of pneumonia, exacerbated by working way too long hours.
Independence is also expensive: GigaOm was reportedly burning through around $300,000 a month when it went bust, Business Insider couldn’t stay independent with $55.6M in venture capital.
Perhaps the biggest presupposition, though, is that the people starting the new generation of media companies would actually want to remain independent. One of the more jarring things about Business Insider’s exit is the number of other journalists -- not just those who stand to make money for the deal -- who responded as if selling to a giant media conglomerate is the ultimate victory for a journalistic organization.
A whopper of a second act for @hblodget! Whooped Re/Code’s Walt Mossberg. “KABOOM!” exploded Politico’s Ben White, “I mean I'm not actually wearing a cap. But if I was I'd tip it to BI.” “Huge congrats to @hblodget and everyone who built BI. What a win,” cried Lockhart Steele (disclosure: A former Pando board member) who not-to-long-ago sold his own media company to Jim Bankoff. Even Om Malik joined in the cheering: “Congrats Henry. Well, no one can ever say media companies are a bad investment :),“ either alluding to, or skipping over, the former GigaOm investors who would likely say precisely that.
Amongst all the cheering and backslapping, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone wondering how the move might affect Business Insider’s journalistic independence (don't laugh, I'm serious), or whether the continuing consolidation of digital media is good for journalism.
Most telling of all was the tweet by Business Insider’s Jay Yarow who wrote: “My advice to the kids: find a company you love, and crank. Hopefully [it] will all work out well for you, too.” Not “do great work,” not “speak truth to power” but “crank” it out and hope for your giant exit. Contrast that idea with the 200 Financial Times staff who wrote a letter to Nikkei demanding a guarantee of journalistic independence. The difference is stark, and should be terrifying to anyone who trusts new media journalists to report the truth without worrying about upsetting a potential acquirer and thus ruining the game for everyone.
It should, but it won’t. Well done, Business Insider employees! Now, along with your friends at Re/Code, TechCrunch, the Verge et al, you can stop cranking!
As for the rest of us readers -- for now, at least, there is still one (and only one) well-funded, independent new media outlet which continues to publish significant numbers of posts about the inner workings of tech companies.
I’m referring, of course, to Medium.
Yes, Medium, which is increasingly the place tech workers go when they have something Important To Say about their company or someone else’s. The company has raised $82m including $57m raised just this past week.
Of course, a cynic might wonder what it means that the largest independent platform for tech writing just so happens to be owned by two of the founders of Twitter. And why, despite previously boasting about investing in journalism, the company has significantly reduced its commitment to original, in-house tech reporting, preferring instead to rely on user generated insights.
Maybe that cynic can write a Medium post about it. Business Insider will totally link to it.
* For the avoidance of doubt, by “major” I mean those with sufficient numbers of employees to cover the entire tech/business landscape, not just a narrow vertical. According to the Awl, Business Insider has 325 employees and BuzzFeed has over 1,000. Vox media has around 500. AOL has 5,600. Those are major media companies. For comparison, Pando’s total employee headcount is five.