A couple of weeks ago, Felix Salmon asked:
Well, now we have our answer. He doesn’t want to, at least at whatever price she was asking.
Last week, Dow Jones, a unit in Murdoch’s News Corp.’s empire, said it would not renew its contract with either Swisher or her partner, Walt Mossberg, founders of the very successful technology site and conferencing operation, AllThingsD.
This split had been brewing for a while. In February, Reuters reported that the AllThingsD team was in talks with Dow Jones to either extend or end the relationship. In August, Fortune reported that the AllThingsD team had hired an investment bank to find outside investors in case the talks didn’t work out.
The leaks accelerated discussion of what Jay Rosen correctly identified as “the rise of the personal franchise site in news”—journalists who once would have been thought of merely as stars working for large news organizations now believed to be franchises in and of the themselves. Rosen included AllThingsD, along with Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook at the Times, Wonkblog, built around Ezra Klein at The Washington Post, Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight, late of the Times now at ESPN, MMQB, starring Peter King at Sports Illustrated, and Grantland, built around Bill Simmons, also at ESPN.
There are others, but not that many.
These new franchise raise the important question of whether and by how much power is shifting in journalism from publishers to authors.
I’d argue that these franchises are to a large extent sui generis and not indicative of a generalized power shift in journalism. In fact their high visibility tends to distort our view of the author-publisher, that is to say, labor-management, power balance.
First, it’s important to note that these particular franchises were (for the most part) all nurtured within big, traditional news organizations, which provided salaries, health insurance, tech support, legal backup, etc. etc., plus and importantly the imprimatur of their brand names built up over decades. So these are not autonomous operations, but in fact highly dependent ones.
It’s significant, for instance, that when Nate Silver moved his Fivethirtyeight franchise in July (which prompted Jay’s post), it wasn’t to go off on his own but to join another big company, in this case, Disney. In that sense, his move wasn’t so different from past jumps by media stars such, as, say, in 1984 when Mike Royko left the Sun-Times after Murdoch bought it and joined the Tribune. True, Silver was already a success before he went to the Times in 2010—he was on one of Time’s most influential of 2009. But the Times’s perch certainly helped to propel him to new prominence, and his next destination, even if it’s not his last, turns out to be within the MSM.
People wonder if Andrew Ross Sorkin will ever make his DealBook independent. Not only is there no sign of that, in order to expand his influence, he took a second job at another MSM outlet.
True, there are independents out there—Talking Points Memo and Andrew Sullivan are usually mentioned. But in fact they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. Matthew Hindman’s The Myth of Digital Democracy brings copious data to demonstrate the degree to which a few in the blog space, mostly early movers, like Sullivan and Kos, tend to lock up and continue to dominate traffic in a particular subject area (Hindman studied political blogs). The vast majority of other entrants get very little attention, leaving what Hindman calls the “missing middle”; In part because the architecture of the Web and of search, there just aren’t many mid-sized competitors.
As in the larger economy, there is a winner-take-all aspect to this personal franchise phenomenon. Think Amanda Palmer, a rare case of an artist who made tons of money to fund a new album. A lot of people can now perform, but only a few reap substantial rewards.
And that’s the larger point. The brightness of this new constellation of stars is a bit blinding. Their presence seems to point to a new era of reporter empowerment—if they can do it anyone can, or so the thinking goes.
Maybe so, but the phenomenon comes against a general backdrop for journalism that is less than empowering. Professional newspaper employment, for one thing, has fallen down and can’t get up. Indeed, it’s still falling. What’s more, many of the rank-and-file still working do so under ramped-up productivity requirements and generally disempowered working conditions. Just last week, my old paper, the Providence Journal, announced another 30 job cuts off of an already-desiccated newsroom, what the local Guild president, John Hill, calls, naturally enough, a “morale-killer.”