Feb. 23, 2015, 2:59 p.m.
If you’re a weekend denizen of Media Twitter, (a) my apologies and (b) you’ve already seen this Friday blog post from Fredrik deBoer, a doctoral student at Purdue and a smart critic of contemporary media. He’s riffing off of some time spent reading Fusion and noting the sameness of the 2015 News Web:
But [Fusion] just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be…you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.
The mix changes… [here deBoer has a lengthy and funny and telling riff about the various 10-percent-different boxes that online publishers slot themselves into — it’s not fair to excerpt it, go read it all.] But one way or another, you could take 90% of what each of these sites publish and stick it on any other, and nobody would ever know the difference.
I’m sure some people will think I’m talking poop and saying these sites aren’t good. That is not the case. I’m saying that they are all as good or as bad as whatever piece I am reading at the moment. Writers are good or bad, and much more, writing is good or bad. But I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.
I think he’s onto something here, but I want to put a slightly different twist on it. What unites these outlets? (Fusion, Grantland, Slate, The Atlantic, New York, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, BuzzFeed, Salon, The Awl, Gawker, Vice, Vox, FiveThirtyEight.) Two things:
They are not local. (New York, Gawker, and The Awl might in some moods claim to be local to New York, but they’re really more about the state of being (or aspiring to be) a New Yorker, which is universal.) This is both deeply obvious and historically strange. Before the Internet, journalism in the United States was intensely local — local newspapers, local television, and local radio, with only magazines really slicing up the market psychographically rather than geographically.
Today, with the Internet taking distribution out of the physical world of broadcast towers and delivery trucks, the media world is even more centered on New York (with honorable mention to D.C./L.A./S.F.) than ever. Add in younger (and cheaper) staffs at most places and you end up with content that is highly shaped by its context — the sort of broad editorial middle that 20something and 30something graduates of good universities like to write. (You’ll also note that these outlets are much more willing to be open about taking left-of-center stances — on, say, same-sex marriage or immigration — than a more geographically dispersed media ecosystem would be, because in that world, there really is only one side to those arguments.)
Most are funded by venture money (Vox, Vice, BuzzFeed), backed by giant corporations (538, Grantland, Fusion), or traditional media companies trying to adjust to the digital world (The Atlantic, The New Republic). In each of those cases, the operative business model of choice requires scale — scale to support national advertising buys. Of the 14 outlets deBoer mentions, only The New York Times Magazine has a paywall of note. Despite what you may hear about events strategies, digital advertising is still very much the big kahuna in their models. And you don’t get sort of scale by being quirky or playing on the culture’s edges.
It’s also worth remembering that this was not The Dream of The Internet from what seems like not that long ago. The power of personal publishing was supposed to be about empowering the little guy — everyone on an equal platform, subcultures to the fore, the crowd and those who make it up given expressive power heretofore unseen. Not a bunch of good but same-ish websites bound by most of the same boxes.
When I talk about digital media, I often fall back on an accordion metaphor: The playing field of any medium takes turns expanding out and crunching back in. The early days of newspapers were filled with handfuls or dozens of papers per city, each attached to a specific audience or political point of view. But over time, they compressed down to a single, establishment daily in most places. The early days of radio were filled with amateur and experimental stations, operating under the regulatory radar. But they quickly divvied up the dial and, through many years of conglomeration, turned into your Clear Channels and Cumulus Medias. It’s a regular pattern — a new format opens up a wide space for experimentation and audience targeting, and then business forces compress it down into a few big players.
We’ve already seen a version of this online in the political blogosphere (that quaint word), which a decade ago was a lively place with many thousands of blogs, some big, some small, all operating and interlinking on the open web. That’s mostly been subsumed by a much smaller set of large political sites on both left and right that are both professionalized and monetized. The formation of the broad content middle deBoer describes is a logical next step in that process. There’ll still be the little magazines and their equivalent, but they’ll enter the broader conversation insofar as they get aggregated up the food chain. (And of course “personal publishing” has long moved to the biggest players I haven’t mentioned yet: Facebook, Twitter, and the other social platforms that are even more all-encompassing — and aim to stake even further claim to their domain.)
The image of the accordion crunching back in doesn’t have to mean a financial crunch; lots of people made lots of money in the consolidation of readers and outlets in newspaper and radio. What deBoer is really describing is the re-creation of mass media — a little younger-skewing than the last one, sure, but the same sort of broad zone of uniformity.