Dear old media: Get over yourselves

The newsroom of The New York Times

The New York Times couldn’t help itself. In a Thursday report on Gawker’s farewell toast to independent ownership, the Paper of Record looked down its grey nose and described the media company as “a place where too many of the articles published were not only mean but inconsequential.”

The Associated Press scratched a similar itch in its story Thursday about Arianna Huffington’s departure from her namesake digital publication: “The site is known for its celebrity and newsmaker blogs and for cobbling together articles using information from different newspapers and other sources.”

This genre of snide description has been commonplace over the past decade, as digital cool kids like BuzzFeed have taken turf from older and slower, if more prestigious, competitors. It’s a coping mechanism of sorts. And it’s sadly unsurprising that vaunted legacy brands felt the need to take parting shots as Gawker and the Huffington Post—arguably the most influential actors in the past decade of digital change—transition to new leadership.

Such inside-baseball slights will no doubt continue, tired as they are. But they belie the fact that even the most sacred old media brands will not survive unless they internalize lessons from the likes of Gawker, the Huffington Post, and all the others. 

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There are of course worthwhile criticisms of these publications. That’s true of any organization. Gawker can be needlessly cruel, while the Huffington Post’s model is largely built on repackaging the legwork of others.

But let’s not forget that the latter also taught us all about the real utility of aggregation in the digital age. What’s more, HuffPo leverages that foundation to finance reporters who often break news across a variety of beats. Huffington Post Highline, as I noted in CJR last year, is a feat of magazine storytelling. The AP hilariously nods to just one of the site’s accomplishments—its 2012 Pulitzer for national reporting—only after its snarky description of what the Huffington Post is “known for.”

To its credit, the Times does acknowledge the role Gawker has played in shaping an opinionated, transparent, and ultimately more vibrant writing style among digital media. Calling much of its work “inconsequential,” however, is a window to the high self-regard of a newspaper that publishes a weekly piece on weddings of the privileged and well-connected. The “Vows” feature is “inconsequential” by any definition of the term, but people still read it. That’s not a bad thing; it doesn’t dilute the Times’ harder-edged journalism.

The new kids on the block discovered what online readers want far quicker than more traditional news organizations while producing capital-J Journalism in the process. Their shortcomings are many, varied, and yes, consequential. But the same holds for what they’ve added to the increasingly urgent discussion on the future of media.

It’s 2016, not 2006, and the financial health of news organizations remains precarious. Legacy outlets must learn from digital newcomers, and vice versa. The time for holier-than-thou thinking has long since passed.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.