It’s been nothing but bad news for “the news” lately, and this week piled on two more depressing headlines: Gallup released a poll showing American confidence in the validity of mainstream news media is at an all time low, and The New York Times filed a trend piece noting that Silicon Valley companies, once a font of traffic for journalistic enterprise, are “ditching” news sites. Turns out that with link taxes, content moderation nightmares, advertising blacklists, and consumer fatigue, “news” is just more trouble than its worth for our modern attention merchants. Even Threads, Meta’s Twitter competitor, has decided to downplay the role of current events on its platform.
For those of us in who’ve been in the news business for more than a minute, this story ranks as a classic “dog bites man” story. The Times’ piece turns on the news that Meta’s point person for news, Campbell Brown, is leaving the company. But anyone who’s worked with Brown over the past few years was already in on the joke. Brown was hired in 2017 to put a familiar face on Facebook’s tumultuous relationship with the press. Back in early 2019, when we were just starting The Recount, she was refreshingly direct with me when I asked if I should invest in a relationship with Facebook. In short, the answer was no.
The Recount went on to partner with Twitter, which back then was still the center of the online news universe. That partnership showed some promise for a few months, but our job was to cover the news, and the news was grim: Trumpism, pandemics, racially motivated murders — not exactly the kind of stuff that draws advertising dollars. And then Elon Musk came along. We merged The Recount with another news startup — one that wasn’t as focused on US politics — and for the past year, I’ve been happily not running a news business (and happily off Twitter, as well).
But I can’t stop thinking about what’s gone wrong with our collective relationship to “the news.” What is it about the craft of telling people the truth that makes for such a shitty business?
Turns out, I’ll have to have at least a few decent answers to that question, and soon: I’m teaching a class on the business models for news at Northeastern starting early next year. It won’t be my first attempt at instilling young journalists with a sense…