In other words, young people do not want to entrust the decision about what’s news to the editors of one geographically proximate newspaper or another mainstream media outlet. They want to decide for themselves, via specialized streams. But the Internet has created such a deafening cacophony of information that they cannot sort it all by themselves. That would be a full-time job. And so it is, for some people. They are known as aggregators.
In the first decade of the 21st century, websites such as The Huffington Post garnered massive traffic for their fast-twitch aggregation, summarizing, quoting from, and linking to the sexiest and hardest-hitting news stories, catering to obsessives who would check in frequently. But many young consumers prefer to have their news filtered by an individual or a publication with a personality rather than by a traffic-seeking robot or algorithm. They like to see news that is selected, and sometimes analyzed, through the prism of a certain sensibility or set of interests.
Many blogs and websites have found great success with this approach (particularly if they add a dollop of attitude, in the tradition of The Drudge Report, which began as a gossip column in 1996). TalkingPointsMemo, founded in 2000, examines the news through a serious, if slightly sardonic, lefty lens, in the image of its chief blogger and editor, Josh Marshall. Gawker, begun 10 years ago by blog impresario Nick Denton, made its reputation with snarky takes on media, politics, and popular culture. And Andrew Sullivan’s blog, the Dish—which employs a team of like-minded writers and interns—is largely a collection of links to outside stories, with a heavy focus on his favored political causes, such as civil liberties and gay rights. On the strength of the blog’s 1.3 million monthly unique visitors—one-third of whom are younger than 35—Sullivan decided to leave The Daily Beast late last year, and is now running the site as a free-standing, reader-supported operation. (After an enthusiastic show of financial support early on, subscriptions have slowed, and Sullivan recently tweaked his payment model.)
At these outlets, the editor—Marshall, Denton, Sullivan—is the public embodiment of the blog’s attitude and ethos. Not coincidentally, all of these sites are also known for the loyalty and active involvement of their readers. TPM famously relied on readers across the nation to contribute reports about the firing of US Attorneys, which added up to a major Bush-era scandal. Sullivan frequently quotes commenters, often at great length, and Gawker is the envy of the Internet for its volume of high-quality user feedback.
The contrast with traditional media is stark. How many readers can tell you about the personality of their local paper’s editor? “I think the invisibility of editors has really hurt news organizations,” says Ann Friedman, 31, the former executive editor of Good and a weekly Web columnist for New York magazine and CJR. “Except for the occasional ombudsman and the very top editors at The New York Times, I don’t know who’s curating my news. When I go to Andrew Sullivan, or the Hairpin, or [The Atlantic’s] Ta-Nehisi Coates, I know who is curating my news.”
The idea has long been that an editor is “this faceless, objective Wizard of Oz type,” to maintain the appearance of objectivity. “Editors should be communicating as humans with their readers,” Friedman says. “The idea that you’re getting a point of view is important. It’s not necessarily a left or right political view; it’s just knowing you’ll get a certain type of tone and content.”
They like having the news find them
A corollary to the existence of empowered and participatory news consumers is that media organizations must now be simultaneously more aggressive in reaching out to them and more humble in their tone when doing so. One can no longer simply produce strong content and rest assured that readers or viewers will order a subscription or tune in every night. They must try to be everywhere their potential readers are: on social-media platforms, in their email inbox, and in their mobile device’s app store. “We’re moving from ‘pull,’ where you request your morning newspaper, to ‘push,’ where links are being put in front of your in your morning inbox or Twitter stream,” says Quartz’s Seward.
Sites like The Atlantic Wire, Slate, and The Daily Beast have recently found success by distributing their take on the day’s news through the digital revolution’s oldest invention: email. Newsletters such as Slate’s “The Slatest” and The Daily Beast’s “The Cheat Sheet” are the modern equivalent of Time or Newsweek, catering to the upper-middlebrow tranche of online news consumers. For them, it used to be enough to get the news sifted and summarized once per week; now, with news sites churning out stories every few minutes, a daily email recap serves a similar function.