What's wrong with the media

The young/urban/educated bubble in an era of growing polarization

Welcome to Thursday!

I’ve been reading some interesting policy reports about everything from maternal mortality to how to target student loan forgiveness but at the moment there is a lot of demand for me to address the situation at Vox in detail or to assimilate my personal story into a larger narrative about “wokeness” or the culture wars. Personally I’m not a huge fan of navel-gazing. So I’ll just say that my personal interest in reclaiming my status as an independent, blog-like voice transcends any particular issues with any particular publication. I wanted to do this, not go find a different job, and I thank those of you who’ve joined me on this journey.

But Vox is typical of a few trends that exist broadly in the media industry and that I do think are of interest.

  • The staff skews very young.

  • The staff is concentrated in big coastal cities, and especially New York.

  • The staff is overwhelmingly composed of graduates of selective colleges (state university flagship campuses and private schools with names you know).

The media industry has long skewed young, educated, and New Yorky. But digital disruption trends have made it more so than ever before. Daily newspapers published in mid-sized cities and small towns are weaker and less significant. A lot of reporters born in the 1960s and 1970s have left the industry as it has shrunk and few of them work at digital native startups.

Separately from that change, national politics has been polarizing around age, educational attainment and population density in an unprecedented way. A group of young, recent college graduates living in Brooklyn would’ve skewed left in 1990 but this was an era when Al D’Amato could win statewide in New York and Democratic presidential campaigns would win in West Virginia. Today a demographically identical group skews much further left than it used to. None of this is really an outcome that anyone particularly wanted or intended. But it’s put a big thumb on the scales ideologically at the exact same time that economic trends have turned against the startups.

The result is that I think you should expect the instability we’ve seen this fall to be just the leading edge of the wedge.

Most media isn’t political journalism

Reeves Wiedeman’s recent article about internal tensions at The New York Times includes this passage, which gets at a dynamic that I think you see across the media landscape. The vast majority of the people who work at any given publication are not professional political journalists, and generally the further you get from the ~~political journalism~~ section of a media organization the more left-wing things get:

Of all the fronts on which the Times was being pushed to change, the strongest insurrectionary energy was coming from legions of newsroom-adjacent employees in digital jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago. The employees responsible for distributing the Times in the past — typesetters, pressmen, delivery drivers — had never been encouraged to speak up about the ethical questions at the heart of the paper’s journalism. But the app developers and software engineers who deliver the Times’ journalism to the world have held their hands up in just as many Ivy League seminars as their editorial peers. They might be too shy to march over to a masthead editor and complain about a clumsy headline, but #newsroom-feedback had opened a digital door to criticism. Reporters found that suddenly it was the Times’ programmers and developers, rather than their editors, who were critiquing their work. During the town hall about the Cotton op-ed, one data engineer said on Slack, “How many such process failures would be tolerated in tech?”

Many of the techsurrectionists had come from Facebook or Uber or Amazon to join the Times out of a sense of mission, leaving the ethical quandaries of the tech industry for what they thought were more virtuous pastures. “I joined the company for one reason, and it’s because I feel a responsibility to be a part of a mission that I believe in,” a product manager who previously worked at Apple wrote in #newsroom-feedback after the Cotton op-ed. “This feels like the rug’s been pulled out from under us — not just because it feels like that mission [has] been severely compromised by the decision to publish this piece, but even more so because the products we’re building were used to do it.”

“It’s like making telephone poles,” one software engineer added, “and finding out they’re being used as battering rams.”

People who cover politics professionally, for better or worse, end up spending a fair amount of time talking to Republicans and trying to understand what conservatives think about public policy issues. If we’re doing our jobs at all correctly we can do stories that bring a mostly-progressive audience a greater understanding of what is happening on the other side. And when a professional political reporter does a bad job it’s often because he or she is taking a dive to maintain relationships with sources on the right, or bending over too far backwards to be fair.

At the same time, we political journalists have our fair share of totally ignorant hot takes about music or cooking or sports or whatever else that we can fire off.

The flip side is that our colleagues who cover sports or music or cooking also have hot takes about politics. Hot takes that come from the very narrow demographic and ideological niche that dominates the media and is untempered by the need to actually cover politics.

Coverage has gotten really weird

Ian Walker recently ended his PS5 review for Kotaku with this thought:

The world is still reeling under the weight of the covid-19 pandemic. There are more Americans out of work right now than at any point in the country’s history, with no relief in sight. Our health care system is an inherently evil institution that forces people to ration life-saving medications like insulin and choose suicide over suffering with untreated mental illness.

As I’m writing this, it looks very likely that Joe Biden will be our next president. But it’s clear that the worst people aren’t going away just because a new old white man is sitting behind the Resolute desk—well, at least not this old white man. Our government is fundamentally broken in a way that necessitates radical change rather than incremental electorialism.

The harsh truth is that, for the reasons listed above and more, a lot of people simply won’t be able to buy a PlayStation 5, regardless of supply. Or if they can, concerns over increasing austerity in the United States and the growing threat of widespread political violence supersede any enthusiasm about the console’s SSD or how ray tracing makes reflections more realistic. That’s not to say you can’t be excited for those things—I certainly am, on some level—but there’s an irrefutable level of privilege attached to the ability to simply tune out the world as it burns around you.

The problem here, to me, is not that Walker ought to “stick to sports.” It’s that the analysis is bad. But because it’s in a video game console review rather than a policy analysis section and conforms to the predominant ideological fads, it just sails through to our screens.

What actually happened is that starting in March the household savings rate soared (people are taking fewer vacations and eating out less) and while it’s been declining from its peak as of September it was still unusually high.

One result of this is a lot of people have been able to pay off old debts. At the same time, interest rates have plunged without sparking an increase in borrowing, so household debt service costs have plummeted.

The upshot of this is that no matter what you think about Biden or the American health care system, the fact is that the sales outlook for a new video game console system is very good. There is economic hardship in America, but the larger trend is that middle class people are seeing their homeowners’ equity rise and their debt payments fall, while cash piles up on their balance sheets, because it’s not safe to throw a big birthday party or take a vacation this weekend.

Not to just pick on this one article, but it was striking to me because it was both emblematic of the way far-left politics has suffused non-political media and also because the topic had nothing to do with race or gender identity issues.

It’s not really about “wokeness”

There’s a lot of talk lately about excessive “wokeness” in the media driving people away from their jobs. But I don’t really think the underlying dynamics are specific to any particular issue area.

I remember a time in December 2018 when there was a flurry of articles about an Amazon Prime backlash and I felt inspired to write a corrective noting that Amazon is actually incredibly popular both as a shopping destination and in polls. In response to a similar barrage of articles about how maybe you shouldn’t have children because of climate change, I felt inspired to write, at somewhat greater length, my book One Billion Americans.

The basic dynamic is that if you take a normal distribution (say of political views) and then shift the average a bit to one side, you end up with explosive growth in the number of outliers. In this chart, the average of the red line isn’t so different from the average of the black line. But the right-hand tail of the red line is much higher than the black.

If everyone in digital media is an under-fifty college graduate living in a big city, then it’s not that everyone in digital media is a far-left weirdo, but you do get drastically more far-left weirdness.

This tendency could obviously be tempered by business considerations. Hollywood is famously full of left-wing people and they do produce some content that reflects those ideas. But they mostly produce content that lacks overt political themes, and they also feed the network television audience a steady diet of police procedurals that embed very conservative ideas about the criminal justice system. It’s not personal, it’s business. But at the moment the journalism business is flailing.

The New York Times refuses to be disrupted

Obviously the number one thing crushing journalism as a business is the Internet.

The challenge here is actually more profound than a lot of people working in the industry acknowledge. It’s not just that Google and Facebook compete for ad dollars, it’s that tech companies directly substitute for a lot of the services the media used to provide. When I was a kid in the 1990s, my family and I relied on print newspapers for information about:

  • Who won the previous night’s baseball games?

  • What movies were playing at which theaters and at what time?

  • What bands were playing at Irving Plaza when?

  • Did the stock market go up or down?

  • What’s the weather forecast for today?

Over and above the famous Craigslist disruption of the classified business, there was just a ton of information that was convenient to access in a daily newspaper. There were other ways to answer these questions, of course, but the newspaper had a piece of the pie. The Internet has just been a huge ongoing wave of competition, with much ad revenue and consumer attention being diverted not from print journalism to digital journalism, but from print journalism to things that aren’t journalism at all.

That’s an old story, of course, and it’s been happening for a while.

But five or ten years ago, I’d have said that nonetheless the conditions were ripe for digital native startups to “disrupt” incumbents in line with Clayton Christensen’s disruption theory. That made digital media an exciting and opportunity-rich landscape to play in, even as the business was challenging.

Now, though, it’s clear that The New York Times is just kicking ass.

The Times is up to seven million digital subscriptions thanks to a Trump-era boom. But what’s really bad for the competition is that the Times is specifically kicking ass by refusing to be disrupted. We had this idea when we launched Vox that the old dog would refuse to learn new tricks for Christensen-type reasons. Instead they hired Max Fisher and Amanda Taub. And Brad Plumer. And Jenée Desmond-Harris. And Sarah Kliff and Jim Tankersley and Eleanor Barkhorn and Johnny Harris and Jane Coaston.

That’s just Vox. They’ve also got Choire Sicha, one of the great original digital media entrepreneurs. And Kara Swisher, another of the great original digital media entrepreneurs. What’s more they are so big and so successful that they can afford to be kind of wasteful in their hiring. They poached the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed to write a once-a-week media column. And it’s a great column!

People complain about the NYT because that’s life. But anyone who’s halfway honest with themselves has to admit that it’s a stellar product. People who don’t like “woke” stuff are mad about the 1619 Project (which certainly had its flaws) but the sheer extent of attention it garnered makes it just about the single most successful special issue of a magazine ever. But if you’re woke-skeptical, Michael Powell is doing great stuff on that beat. Jennifer Medina was ahead of the curve on Trump’s Latino supporters. Nellie Bowles has been taking on the excesses of protestors and critiquing policing abolition for months. It’s simply a very capacious product.

If you’re not a tedious ideologue, you can’t help but notice that Liz Bruenig and Ross Douthat are both great columnists and so are Jamelle Bouie and Michelle Goldberg and David Brooks and Farhad Manjoo. Did I mention they also have Nobel laureate Paul Krugman? And that’s just in opinion.

They are of course not unaffected by the pathologies I opened this item with. And at times the newsroom seems to be at risk of tearing itself apart, as when the infamous Tom Cotton op-ed led to James Bennet getting fired, rather than an organized discussion about whether the tradition of publishing random noteworthy takes from politicians makes sense in the Internet age. But the Times has gotten into a virtuous circle where they can poach more and more talent and grow their subscriber base and poach and poach — and the people who make the hiring decisions have shown excellent judgment.

And good for them. But the more that would-be disruptors are in a precarious position, the more tightly people working in the industry cling to ideological fads and groupthink because their employers can’t offer stable career paths or distinct identities.

Meanwhile, nothing has been fixed

Fifteen years ago, I would’ve said the biggest problem in political journalism was a reflexive tendency to be driven like a moth to the flame of partisan balance. I’d say there were related pathologies, such as sourcing relationships leading reporters to pull punches, and political journalists who all too often didn’t actually understand the substantive issues the people they were covering were talking about.

Remarkably, although a weird demographic/ideological cocoon has taken over a huge swath of the media landscape, none of this has been fixed.

And with a larger and larger share of the nation’s best journalists all working at the same place, there are fewer and fewer people around to point out how absurd this Times front page was — all the more so because in fashionable leftist circles it’s considered unforgivably reactionary to think mainstream Democrats could ever get a raw deal.

That’s all very long-winded. But it’s my way of saying that I think an independent base of operations is a good thing to have these days. I hope lots of people subscribe (and thanks to those who already have) and if enough do, maybe this could become a little operation with a few coworkers.

But fundamentally the digital media startup dream of obtaining massive scale and disrupting the incumbents hasn’t really worked. So we’re left with a giant that’s incapable of self-scrutiny, because that might lead to implosion, paired with a set of institutions that increasingly all reflect the same worldview and do so in very strange ways.