It was an action-packed week in media, with major developments on numerous fronts. So today I’m going to try out a new feature for paid subscribers: A roundup of provocative pieces on the week’s notable stories. That way, I can reserve Weekend Reads for books commentary (and opinion pieces and personal essays) — and supporting subscribers will get a bonus newsletter. What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you like the format, and if it’s something you want me to continue.
Now, getting to the news…
It was a big week for conversations about the decline of digital media. With Vice headed for bankruptcy and BuzzFeed News shuttering, it appears to be the end of an era. What went wrong? The Free Press has a great piece on this, “The Race For Clicks Was a Fool’s Game,” by business journalist Joe Nocera. Here he is, summing up a new book by Semafor’s Ben Smith, Traffic: Genius, Rivalry and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral, an “instructive primer on the evolution of the modern media company’s business model,” which was also making the rounds this week:
To simplify enormously: companies that began with great plans for delivering content morphed over time into companies that became obsessed with clicks. But at a certain point, generating more traffic meant relying on social media. Especially Facebook — “unquestionably the world’s most important source of traffic” as Smith notes. As Facebook decided it had less need for its content partners, more traffic no longer generated more money. The quest for traffic turned out to be a mug’s game.
Lean Out guest Batya Ungar-Sargon also opined on this topic this week at Compact. Her view is that “there is an additional explanation for what’s happening, and it’s rooted in class.” She elaborates:
Digital media was very much of and for the progressive left. Buzzfeed was designed for the younger white-collar office workers who make up much of this political constituency — the “Bored-at-Work Network” as founder Jonah Peretti called it, people who sit in front of computers all day with jobs that don’t take much time or effort and spend a lot of time pretending to look busy.
But members of the laptop class don’t really have to do that anymore. Since the pandemic, many if not most still work from home, where the pretense is unnecessary. Gone are the long hours pretending to justify your paycheck by staring at your computer while scrolling lists of 29 cats having a worse day than you. When you work from home, you can wrap up your work in three hours and head to yoga without having to worry about your supervisor noticing.
More important, elite tastes have shifted away from viral news and the platforms that used to deliver it — Facebook, for example, which has shed much of its younger user base. Instead, people are once again subscribing to wonky blogs and having them delivered via newsletter, or getting access to legacy wonky blogs via their New York Times subscription.
All of this points to another reason why startups targeting young, affluent, educated audiences may have been destined to fail from the outset: Elites like to consume niche products that burnish their rarified status — the opposite of the virality that drives digital profit.
While we’re on the state of the media, this week Ben Smith also got the inside story on Tucker Carlson’s comeback on Twitter.
And speaking of Twitter, n+1 has an interesting piece on the post-Twitter era, “The New New Reading Environment,” which kicks off with this excellent observation:
No technology in human history has ever offered better access to the inner thoughts of the ruling class — or at least to its prejudices and frequent acts of self-humiliation. This was Twitter’s great unintentional innovation.
The piece essentially amounts to an arch state-of-the-nation on the contemporary media landscape. And while I obviously disagree with the contention here that many Substack writers are “irritating, even malevolent” — and I find the notion that New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie is a “visionary” a little confounding — the essay offers a sweeping look at our press environment, and it is worth mulling over.
As is Lean Out guest Freddie deBoer’s coverage of it. Is there a smarter or more insightful writer working today? Or, for that matter, a more entertaining one? Consider this passage from deBoer’s essay on n+1:
Since the (alright, fine) sad young literary men who started the magazine and then drifted off to mostly not write books, teach at tony universities, and be the antagonist in Emily Gould essays, it’s been taken over by younger generations who were hungry for a particular kind of credibility that seems very valuable to you when you’re young and much less as you get older. These people are, I’m guessing, impeccably educated and the beneficiaries of that status while publicly disdainful of that education, which is the default state of the modern intellectual. They appear genuinely to be sharp, with good if vague politics in exactly the way that grips the contemporary radical left - a communitarian movement that is motivated by no issues more than ones of the personal freedom and autonomy of select classes of people, leading to today’s convergence of right-wing libertarianism and lefty identity politics in the form of incoherent attitudes towards public order and policing. I think I like this crop of n+1 people, and as I said I like the journal. I also think they have that particular talent of being consistently perceptive and occasionally incredibly annoying. It’s kind of a legacy there.
Meanwhile, in further Internet-related news … Nick Gillespie at Reason has an interview with Tablet’s Jacob Siegel on the online disinformation complex, or “the hoax of the century.” Warning: Do not listen to this interview if you hope to get any sleep this weekend. In the world of “disinformation,” things are looking pretty dark.
And speaking of stories that will keep you up at night … Coverage of the tragic killing of Jordan Neely continued to dominate headlines this week. For those getting up to speed, a 30-year-old homeless man on the New York City subway, whom witnesses described as erratic, was killed by a Marine veteran who intervened. He is now being charged with manslaughter. This is a desperately awful story, for so many reasons. And the fact that it has been so swiftly politicized is disturbing.
John McWhorter covered the controversy in his newsletter for The New York Times this week. “We must be able to keep in our minds two things,” he writes. “One is that Neely was unjustifiably killed. The other is that the episode, in all of its horror, highlights what New York City subway riders are being asked to endure daily — and that this, too, is not just.”
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