In November, Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder of online brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, million-dollar Trump donor, and father of the governor of Nebraska, shuttered DNAinfo, the local news startup he founded, and Gothamist, the network of city blogs he’d purchased just a few months earlier, in a fit of pique, after editorial employees organized a union. Shuttering the company meant nothing to him—DNAinfo reportedly lost money and the Gothamist network was not profitable enough to make an appreciable difference to a man with a net worth estimated at over $2 billion—but to me it meant that there was no longer a reporter assigned to cover my neighborhood in Brooklyn and its Halloween Dog Parades, community board meetings about unsafe intersections, and new tiki-bar openings.
My loss, I’m aware, is small potatoes compared to that of the reporter herself, and her dozens of suddenly jobless colleagues. But I know a little bit about how it feels when a billionaire with inexplicable power over you takes your job away out of what seems like personal spite: I was the last editor of Gawker, before it went bankrupt and ceased publication, the result of years of legal warfare secretly funded by billionaire Facebook investor Peter Thiel.
It is one thing—an infuriating thing, granted—to lose your job because of “the market.” When your factory shuts down because labor is cheaper overseas or when your magazine folds because luxury watch companies shifted their marketing budgets to Instagram influencers, you may rage and despair, but you also probably saw it coming, in industry-wide economic trends that were impossible to ignore. But when your livelihood is disrupted because of the whims of one powerful person—when the invisible hand is replaced by one very visible and shockingly capricious one—it is a much more bewildering experience. And it is one more journalists can expect to experience in the near future, as the economic power of the 0.01 percent increases and the revenue models underpinning traditional news-gathering shops break down.
It’s rote at this point to observe that many of the ways the media landscape has been transformed in the 21st century have oddly caused it to more closely resemble the media landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries, from the flourishing of a more openly partisan press to the erosion of the norms of “professionalism” that were built up in the era of post-war prosperity and supposed national consensus. Another throwback: The press baron. Not since the 19th century have so many individuals had so much power over the press.
It’s important to remember that Ricketts only had that power because no one else wanted to spend the money to do what he was doing (before he got mad and decided to stop). He thought he might eventually make money doing hyper-local reporting across the country, but he hadn’t yet, and no one else is trying on his scale. That is not meant to suggest he should be considered a heroic failure, it’s mainly to say that an industry that relies on the Joe Rickettses of the world to sustain itself is in deep trouble.
The press baron model works out so long as people want to be press barons. Generally, billionaires buy or start media outlets either for money or influence. There are ostensibly benevolent examples, of course. After personally purchasing The Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has received a great deal of credit for investing in serious investigative journalism and giving the paper the resources to achieve major “digital growth,” as the press releases say. I worked (oh so briefly) for eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, home to lots of great journalists given the resources necessary to do important work. I know Omidyar believes strongly and sincerely in the importance of independent journalism to a free society.
But with Google and Facebook sucking up the majority of the ad money, going into publishing eventually only makes sense if you have particular things you want published. I have no doubt that Bezos and Omidyar believe in the missions of their organizations, but they are both quite upfront about not wanting to run them as charities. They both want to “save” journalism as a business. The trouble will come when the billionaires who think that way discover that, even if they once had one very good idea that made them very rich, they probably don’t have the one good idea that will “crack the code” of making it profitable to run a large and expensive news-gathering organization. Those who initially decide to fund journalism out of a sense of selfless civic virtue will get bored or get tired of losing money, leaving only those funding it for some other, probably political purpose. (The Guardian is currently engaged in a fascinating experiment to see how long a rich man’s money and the economic laws of compound interest can be used to sustain a money-losing, public-interest-serving journalism shop.)
The ones who are doing a pure influence play—and have enough money stockpiled to afford not to care if it works as a business—have the advantage over everyone else. The fact that Gawker had the readership and revenue to sustain itself didn’t, in the end, make a whit of difference to the people who made the decision to kill it off, just as the Gothamist network’s modest profitability made no difference to Ricketts—and just as, in another sense, the financial viability of Breitbart News means little to billionaire backer Rebekah Mercer, nor that of The Federalist to whichever wealthy interests are secretly bankrolling that conservative publication. In this world it makes more sense, from the billionaire’s perspective, to fund Breitbart than own DNAinfo. Both will probably lose money, but one of them might help get a president elected.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that American journalism’s professional norms around fairness and ethics emerged at a time when newspapers and magazines were good investments for normal financial reasons. Safe investments attract safe corporate investors. Corporations like clear standards of conduct and don’t like offending huge numbers of potential customers, which is how Yellow Journalism gave way to “All the News That’s Fit to Print” and the mainstream media as we knew it. The market played a big role in determining content. A big city paper could lean a little to the left or the right, but it couldn’t go full–John Birch or all–in Yippie without losing the thing that gave it power: monopolistic access to the eyeballs of the city’s literate adults.
New economic rules determine new forms. We’re already seeing market forces that have nothing to do with audience preference—let alone “public interest”—drive changes in how news is gathered and reported. After building what resembled newsrooms of yore, Mashable, Mic, and Vocativ eliminated dozens of editorial jobs in the now familiar “pivot to video,” in spite of the fact that readers, being readers, prefer text: Most literate adults can read a paragraph much faster than it takes for a preroll advertisement to load and then hear that paragraph get read aloud over stock photography. But major brands have expressed their spending preferences for video inventory and thus media companies seek to satisfy their demand. No one really believes it’ll work, where “work” means preserve thousands of jobs gathering news as opposed to crafting branded content videos tailored to the latest Facebook algorithm changes.
This is the dark timeline: Journalism-agnostic media investors learn news can’t “scale” and then jump ship just as soon as they’ve finished killing off both the corporate and independent legacy press businesses, leaving the fate of the industry to ungodly rich people with very idiosyncratic personal agendas.
What’s happening to the press is reflective of the broader transformation of our society. Rule by supposedly benevolent technocratic elites is giving way—in large part due to the fecklessness of those technocrats—to straight plutocracy. And really, that only makes sense in an era in which everyone feels like their lives are, in important and fundamental ways, in thrall to the whims of a few mega-rich people. Our cities promise to remake themselves to please Bezos. A few GOP donors threaten to close their checkbooks, and the entire federal tax code is sloppily rewritten. Chris Hughes sneezes, and The New Republic catches a cold.
We shouldn’t romanticize the days when the nation’s agenda was determined in a handful of Midtown Manhattan conference rooms. (Though if you got into the industry after 2001 you’re allowed to romanticize the expense accounts, catered dinners, and office bar carts.) But the mere fact that corporations were beholden to even small groups of people—stock holders, boards of directors, Wall Street analysts—made them more accountable than our new generation of owners.
The force of public opinion can compel a corporation to change course. MSNBC recently hired left-wing comedian Sam Seder back on as a contributor after firing him in response to a ginned-up alt-right campaign to purposely misinterpret an old joke he made about Roman Polanski. The realization of how easy it is for an outraged and organized group to sway a massive corporation was the foundational insight of Gamergate, the right-wing online backlash freakout that created the mold for the modern bad-faith right-wing pressure campaign.
It is one thing to lose your job because of “the market.” It is much more bewildering when your livelihood is disrupted by the whims of one person.
But a stubborn billionaire—and billionaires are frequently quite stubborn—can’t be moved by anything but criminal prosecution or confiscatory taxation. The billionaire owner has no board or shareholders to appease. The billionaire’s entire existence is a constant reminder that he or she is beholden to no one.
Even if you don’t directly work for the billionaire, the billionaire can determine what you work on. David Koch is a major sponsor of America’s misnomered, largely privately financed “public broadcasting,” and NOVA, PBS’s flagship science series, has been notorious for not covering climate change. Sometimes he exerts his will more directly: A few years ago, The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported that plans to air a documentary on PBS stations about the Koch brothers’ purchasing of great political influence were squashed to avoid offending such major public television donors.
In the near term, this shift largely determines what sort of journalist it is profitable to be. One promising model is to tailor your content to grant the wealthy an advantage they don’t already enjoy. This includes mega-paywalls which block off reporting to only those with a (usually financial) stake in the subject—like intelligence briefings for the C-suite class or real-time oil refinery status updates for energy traders. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei left Politico, a pioneer of this model in political reporting, to launch Axios, a startup narrowly focused on lobbyists and those who hire them. This kind of thing began in finance, of course. Michael Bloomberg’s eponymous company perfected the model by which people who can afford tens of thousands of dollars in subscription fees get the best and fastest information while the rest of us are generously provided, gratis, with arguments for making public housing more flammable.
Another way to make yourself useful to the billionaire class is to literally attack their political enemies. Take, for example, James O’Keefe, the would-be Michael Moore of the far right, whose hidden camera stunts have never proved particularly trustworthy, but have been tremendously useful politically. His biggest splash recently was his utterly botched attempt to entrap The Washington Post into reporting a false allegation of sexual assault against Roy Moore, then a candidate for US Senate from Alabama. By the normal standards of reporting and objective reason, the operation was a spectacular failure. He proved only that the Post was being incredibly careful and responsible in its reporting on Moore. But O’Keefe won’t suffer the normal blowback that a “journalist” would for dreaming up this fiasco, because he’s playing an entirely different game, with different rules. Thanks to the generosity of his backers, including the Mercer family, O’Keefe made $300,000 last year. Nearly every journalist I know—even the very bad ones—has much higher ethical standards and makes much less money.
But this is now something that publishers, editors, and individual journalists will need to be mindful of for the foreseeable future: Billionaires will pay people to destroy you, using any underhanded tactics they can think of. And there’s nothing you can do about it. (Unless, perhaps, you can convince your billionaire boss to sue theirs.)
Oddly, in their spending habits, which frequently fly in the face of traditional economic theory on rational self-interest, right-wing media investors seem to show a more sincere belief in the power of the press than many ostensibly liberal publishers. Why buy alt-weeklies in this environment—as a secretive cabal of apparently conservative investors did to LA Weekly—unless you believe that alt-weeklies, and the stories they publish, fundamentally matter? Why did casino mogul and Trump mega-donor Sheldon Adelson buy the Las Vegas Review-Journal—anonymously, at first—unless he believed that controlling a newspaper in his hometown was important to his business and political interests?
When a billionaire buys a journalism outlet to shut down the critical reporting they do on politicians and businesses, or pays a dirty tricks specialist to “sting” your publication, it is an endorsement of the idea that journalism matters.
That might sound like a rallying cry, but in the absence of any plan to save the industry from the 0.01 percent, it can only be an observation.