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The Old Media Exodus

Opinion | April 28, 2014

If you consume the news—not just read it, or skim it, but actually and voraciously consume it—then by now you have memorized the narrative for journalism in the 21st century: print media is being bled to death by the Internet, television news is the intellectual equivalent of a vacant lot, and radio, while a decent supplement to other news sources, doesn’t have the market penetration or depth of services to exist as a primary news source. This dire diagnosis gets repeated all over the news landscape, and every time new information comes out about the declining readership or profits of some former print titan, more media hand-wringing ensues.

However, despite the amount of attention devoted to the fates of major media outlets, there have been some gaps in the coverage. Most notably, many major news outlets have missed out on the recent trend of major writers abandoning their previous old-media homes to helm new web-based news companies; the most recent print acolyte to jump ship was Bill Keller, formerly of The New York Times. This underreported trend is, to me, more important than circulation numbers and yearly profits. It is one that will only continue as media technology evolves, and will ultimately shape both how we consume news media and how it is delivered to us. The future of journalism will be writer-driven, not outlet-driven.

This development is an entirely welcome one that is woefully underreported. A renewed focus on the actual people behind the news not only allows for fair recognition and reward for their good work, but also encourages the development of greater personal accountability for what journalists produce. In addition, a writer-driven news market encourages diversification: instead of a few monolithic news companies doing a little reporting on a lot of topics, there are many individuals or small groups doing in-depth writing on their chosen topic. We’ve already seen this process of diversification happen with blogs and special interest/opinion writing, but with the growth of internet news with a focus on reporting and investigation—like Vox, Bill Keller’s Marshall Project, and newly minted Tufts Observer partner ProPublica—we can expect a similar leap in terms of the breadth and depth in that area as well.

This stands in stark opposition to the last century of news media, where the vast majority of public and critical praise for good reporting was lavished on the responsible outlet rather than on the individuals creating the content. Apart from a few journalists who served as the faces of their network or publication, the general public knew little about the actual humans behind the news that they consumed. After all, a columnist could be pretty easily followed week after week, but there was no guarantee when a favorite reporter might next be published. Furthermore, if a reader read an article and liked a particular writer’s style, the work involved in finding other things that they had written was significant: you would have to go to a library, find back copies of their newspaper or magazine, and then search through them by hand for their old articles. This was obviously too much for most sane people.

However, with the invention of the Internet and online archives of printed publications, it suddenly became feasible to have a favorite journalist, or a stable of favorite writers at several publications. Now, this is doubly true: every journalist has some sort of personal blog, Twitter page, or personal archive for interested readers to explore. It is now possible for any journalist to have a personal following. However, there are also more “star” level journalists out there, who command immense critical and public respect. Perhaps the original example of this change is the career arc sports journalist Bill Simmons, who was one of the first writers to leverage the Internet platform, moving from a blog, to a subpage of the ESPN website, to his semi-autonomous ESPN affiliate site, Grantland. Of course, his quickly-rising fortune coincided with the explosion of Internet use and then later with the rise of reblogging and shared culture on social networks.

The second change that the Internet has brought to journalism is openness and expansiveness. The barrier to entry for old media is wealth-based; there is very little room for competition to suddenly spring up, as there is a small pool of existing old media firms and almost no chance for new, profitable ones to arise. The web, by comparison, is very open. The barrier of entry to the Internet news market is skill-based: can a journalist code a website from scratch, operate a hosting or blogging service effectively, or (more likely) are they good enough at the journalism side of things to convince appropriately-skilled people to join them? Ezra Klein is a great example of a writer who used the Internet to build a brand and become famous independent of his newspaper. After gaining recognition for his work with the Washington Post, Klein left the paper to found Vox, an online news site published by the web-exclusive Vox Media company.

The web also has very few practical limits on the amount of material that a journalist can churn out, apart from the time they wish to devote to writing. There is no page limit, no set amount of inches, and no need to set aside space for advertisements. If a piece needs some background information, there’s no need to make room for a sidebar; a writer can just insert a link to whatever relevant information the reader might need. As Klein noted in the video introduction on Vox, there are significant limits to print media that don’t exist on the web: “The nature of the space constraint [with print] was that we couldn’t put all the information we needed. But we don’t have that constraint on the web.” With the web format also comes room for experimentation and creativity regarding formatting and mixed-media content. Internet media is inherently more expansive than print or television can ever be.

These two changes are behind the wave of recent departures from major newspapers. What unites the former print journalists who have recently moved to web platforms—among them the aforementioned Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, and Bill Keller—is a desire to build a brand around what the web offers: a unique chance for personal recognition, and the perfect platform to do so. In particular, Keller noted when talking with the New York Times that the web platform will allow him and his staff at the newly created Marshall Project to “use all the tools that digital technology offers journalists in terms of ways to investigate and present on a subject.”

It is worth noting that all three of the names I have mentioned above have some sort of big-name financial backing: Silver is backed by ESPN and ABC, Keller is backed by the journalist-turned-hedge fund manager Neil Barsky, and Klein is backed by Vox Media, a prominent web publishing firm. However, the key thing when considering the importance of these backers in web news versus traditional news media is that, in web news, the backers are attracted to the following and talents of the individual journalists they are backing; in the newspaper/broadcasting model, the individual journalists are much more at the mercy of the publishing corporation. Because of the vastly different power structure for Internet journalists, it’s obvious that we’ll see more high-profile departures from major old media outlets in the future.

The structure of the modern Internet is perfectly suited for media personalities to build around personal brands rather than aggregates. We’ve already seen the way that journalistic personalities who became famous exclusively in new media (such as Arianna Huffington and Andrew Sullivan) have leveraged this structure. As more prominent writers shift from old media to the web, and new voices emerge from the realm of blogs and social media, old media companies with major online presences will likely shift to a more personality-driven model as well, and begin to bring to the front the journalists as much as the headlines.