Earlier this week I noted the way bottom up media are slowly replacing top down media. A story breaking just then provides, in its way, a perfect vignette.
The uproar centered on his allowing Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton to pen an op-ed which urged that troops be called in to deal with the massive George Floyd riots. As Bennet points out, Cotton’s perspective was widely shared among Americans; thus it merited discussion on principle. But his preference for open discussion resulted in a newsroom revolt. And then, remarkably, the paper sided with the no-discussion newsroom. Bennet was told to quit or be fired.
In his long essay in The Economist earlier this week, Bennet observed, “The Times’s problem has metastasised from liberal bias to illiberal bias, from an inclination to favour one side of the national debate to an impulse to shut debate down altogether.”
Yes, certainly. But the key question is why? Bennet doesn’t appear to absorb the central fact: If the New York Times were still cutting-edge, it simply would not have allowed a nasty little Cancel mob in the newsroom to override thoughtful discussion of nationwide civil disorder on its editorial pages.
Bennet murmurs plaintively for Times reform. But, in reality, the Times model is all wrong for our era. It’s top down in an increasingly bottom up media world.
Back in 1993, author and filmmaker Michael Crichton (1942–2008), best known for technothrillers like The Andromeda Strain, predicted that the “mediasaurus” would be gone in a decade. It has hung on much longer, to be sure, but its cultural strength is unmistakably ebbing, as he foresaw.
The Rise of the Independent News Model
In the smoke and haze, one can discern the newer models gaining popularity, including Substack. Substack, founded in 2017, offers more than 17,000 paid contributors who share over 2 million monthly subscriptions. Essentially, it offers commentary from seasoned journalists, writing from a variety of perspectives, without the huge and expensive apparatus of a traditional media newsroom. The internet has made that apparatus obsolete.
Whistleblowers like Chris Rufo, Bari Weiss, and Matt Taibbi are now reporting on major scandals like university plagiarism and secret government censorship at venues like Substack, not on the front pages of the New York Times.
Not surprisingly, we now see feeble efforts at dying legacy media to Cancel Substack. Last month at The Atlantic — a venerable mediasaur — freelance journalist Jonathan M. Katz worried that Substack has a Nazi problem: “The newsletter platform’s lax content moderation creates an opening for white nationalists eager to get their message out.” Essentially, he found 16 newsletters with overt Nazi symbols. That’s bad news, to be sure. But, sad to say, in an era when startling numbers of young Americans believe the Holocaust to be a myth — and demonstrate in favor of the obliteration of Israel — 16 in 17,000 is just not an important statistic. Unless, that is, your favorite mediasaur is threatened with extinction. Then Substack is the imminent asteroid hit.
Matt Taibbi, best known for the Twitter files revelations, responded to Katz, “With censorship, it’s always about who gets the power to evaluate, not what’s being censored. The choice isn’t between getting rid of a few obvious Nazis, or not. It’s between giving someone like Jonathan Katz, or a bunch of Jonathan Katzes, sweeping power over content or not. Americans have always understood the second danger to be scarier, for good reason.”
Indeed. Because the legacy media are no longer needed for their traditional functions, they can easily be turned toward helping suppress newer, more relevant media institutions. If the growth of Substack is any guide, they are failing.
It is also projected that over 100 million US adults will listen to a podcast in 2024. Podcasting is another natural home for independents, many of whom have been very successful.
The newsroom revolt at the New York Times also Canceled Bari Weiss, the staffer who edited Cotton’s piece. Weiss, now a well-known — and largely independent — commentator, summed up the change back in 2020: “the truth is that intellectual curiosity — let alone risk-taking — is now a liability at The Times.” If so, it is no longer a news organization in the traditional sense. The role that such mediasaurs currently fulfil as they slowly go extinct is a story for many future posts.
More important, the rise and fall of intellectual movements may well depend on their ability to use new media successfully to express their views.
You may also wish to read: How bottom up media are slowly replacing top down media. The decline and death of legacy media organizations is speeding up and the media replacing them are much smaller, more numerous and more independent. A key problem: The legacy media that cling to government and corporate interests in order to survive have so much less use now for freedom of the press.