Coming amid a flurry of industry-wide layoffs in recent weeks, unanticipated cutbacks at a pair of new media titans added another jolt to an industry mired in turmoil. It wasn’t so much the dismissal of more than 500 employees that was so frightening for journalists and media observers. For decades now, many media organizations have been shedding jobs. What has disconcerted some media analysts was that the companies making the latest cuts — Vice and BuzzFeed — were the digital bellwethers often lionized for excelling in the environment that gutted their competitors in legacy media.
Meanwhile, two of the industry’s flagships — the New York Times and the Washington Post — are thriving after years of stumbling through this digital revolution. Perhaps driven by the “Trump bump,” the Times surpassed 4 million subscribers last fall, a major step in its long path to achieving financial stability while maintaining a first-rate news operation. After the makeover instituted by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the Post in 2013, the Washington veteran publication is also flourishing.
The role reversal between these four entities has further muddied the Fourth Estate’s future, media critics have speculated. If Vice and BuzzFeed haven’t solved the media consumer quandary of cratering circulation and vanishing audiences, then who could survive under these circumstances? The comebacks pulled off by the Times and Post may not be so rosy either. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, provides a vivid portrayal of these four companies as they navigate through an industry beholden to Facebook and Google and besieged by a president who has condemned them as “the enemy of the people.”
Underlying her book are some big questions: Have the New York Times and Washington Post digressed too far from their core values in remaking themselves for the digital age and will their success endure if the upsurge instigated by Trump’s presidency wanes over time? And what about the hundreds of defunct local newspapers? Will they ever be resurrected or, like an ancient imperial capital, live on merely as ghostly reminders of their once illustrious past?
Abramson identifies — but doesn’t provide many prescriptions to — these challenges. Her insider account — a combination of extensive firsthand reporting illuminated by insightful analysis — instead portrays just how the media arrived where it is today.
Led by the Sulzberger and Graham families, respectively, the Times and the Post struggled to adapt to the digital landscape. The former overpaid for depreciating assets — most notably the Boston Globe, which it resold for a billion-dollar loss — while the latter missed out on becoming an internet pioneer, ignoring a 1992 memo authored by a senior editor urging it to forge the “world’s first electronic newspaper.” (The Washington Post started its website four long years later.) Both strained to monetize their content on the internet and faced resistance from newsrooms unwilling to shift to the online world. It was telling, Abramson remarks, that both separated their “web people” from their print staff at first. Nearly everything they tried — unlimited free content, pay walls and a hyper-localized focus — flopped.
They weren’t alone. Unable to respond to declining print advertising revenue, newspapers shed 45% of their workforce from 2004 to 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.
The tools available to dig out of this morass were both limited and distasteful. Both organizations had steadfastly kept their business and editorial divisions apart. This was not some empty slogan: The Post’s former editor, Leonard Downie, Abramson explains, walked out of meetings when business issues were discussed, “because he believed so fervently in that separation.”
Many of the options to stave off extinction threatened to encroach upon this wall. Would the Times and Post risk readers’ trust with native advertising — ads appearing on news sites that were produced to look like genuine articles — as Vice did; mimic BuzzFeed in tailoring their coverage to the latest trends on Google and Facebook or empower their business executives to meddle in editorial decisions?
“As the engine driving 90% of [Vice’s] revenue,” Abramson writes, “native ads … were impossible to ignore, but traditional news organizations, such as the Times and the Post were still spooked by the ethical taint of blurring church and state.”
While these quandaries continued to paralyze the industry’s standard-bearers, the two newcomer media outlets in “Merchants of Truth” bulldozed through them. Unbeholden to the ethical values restraining the traditional press, reliant on cheap and inexperienced labor, and adept at capitalizing on the internet’s virality, they thrived, according to Abramson.
Co-founded by Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes, Vice, Abramson writes, “spent no time pondering the differences between news and entertainment.” Vice masked its advertising so effectively that it was often difficult to parse it from its editorial content. Though it marketed itself as an anti-establishment voice for a younger generation, Vice sometimes granted corporate sponsors final say over its content. Abramson highlights an incident in which Vice erased a shot of a Klansman donning a Budweiser cap from a documentary at the beer maker’s behest. None of this seemed to bother an audience enamored with its subversive antics and unorthodox approach to news coverage nor, to Abramson’s chagrin, investors such as A&E and 21st Century Fox that poured millions of dollars to tap into Vice’s brand of gonzo journalism.
While Vice’s edgy content reflected its founders’ personas, Abramson says BuzzFeed’s founder Jonah Peretti preferred to repackage material into tantalizing snippets — celebrity nipple slips were early favorites — and gamed the internet’s propensity for “contagious media,” as he called it, to emerge as the leader of viral posts littered with clickbait, listicles and provocative stories. The viral pioneer garnered tens of millions of hits through a staff rewarded for maximizing viewership, often concocting up to eight different headlines to test which ones attracted the most viewers, Abramson says. For an entity obsessed with winning the “internet popularity contest,” exposing wrongdoing and upholding ethical standards were immaterial: BuzzFeed initially allowed writers to use aliases and purged 4,000 potentially plagiarized posts in 2014. “Falsifying a byline is grounds for firing at most news organizations, but Buzzfeed wasn’t yet trying to be a news company,” Abramson writes.
Abramson holds no punches in her lengthy portrayals of those at the helm of these companies: “Sexual harassment was an endemic part of Vice’s culture,” she writes in one instance.
For the most part, Abramson is fair. Though she sometimes comes off as petty toward Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times’ former publisher — she was dismissed in 2014 — she praises the newspaper’s ability to weather the storm in her final pages. Sulzberger did more than modernize the newsroom. A $250-million loan from the Mexican business mogul Carlos Slim in 2009 served as an economic stimulus. As the Times stabilized its finances over the subsequent decade, it received an unexpected gift: Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency directed new readers to its pages. “[O]n Election Night, no one, certainly not Sulzberger or [editor Dean] Baquet, could have known that Trump’s presidency would turn out to be the paper’s financial lifeline.”
After Bezos injected the Post with new resources and a tech-savvy strategy, he returned the newspaper to its former glory as well. “Although the Post’s comeback was impressive,” Abramson declares when taking stock of their turnarounds, “the Times was in a class by itself.”
Abramson’s four divergent story lines converge when BuzzFeed — in 2011 — and Vice two years later jump into the news-gathering business.
Then these four entities eventually began to resemble one another. Abramson laments the willingness of the industry veterans to employ the very tactics they had long shunned. “On some days,” she notes, “the Post had as much clickbait as BuzzFeed.” “Soon the Times not only had a full-fledged ad agency operating within,” she adds, “but it also allowed brands to sponsor special lines of reporting.” Native advertising, opinionated news reports, titillating headlines and an obsession over readers’ tastes — Abramson highlights the Post’s efforts to monitor the “second-by-second traffic” of every article — became the norm.
Meanwhile, the news-gathering divisions at BuzzFeed and Vice were struggling. Though BuzzFeed built an investigative team equaling the Times team and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018, and Vice’s news show airing on HBO won plaudits, these recent layoffs underscored the fact that funding quality journalism remained perilous even for these digital upstarts.
Throughout the book, Abramson references but — just like many stakeholders in the media — doesn’t offer many remedies for this dark reality. “BuzzFeed had embraced the crusading tone of the old tabloid press,” Abramson writes, “from the start of the 2016 campaign, it had called out Trump’s racism and lies with no pretense of neutrality.” BuzzFeed’s attempt “to be a serious purveyor of news,” she concludes, “was ever more within reach.” Yet despite their attempt to satisfy the public’s appetite for political coverage with robust coverage, BuzzFeed learned all too well recently that some readers may have a bigger appetite for sensational stories and fluffy slideshows — like their original viral content — rather than probing investigations or reflective analyses.
Despite Abramson’s optimism, Vice and BuzzFeed’s recent layoffs and the overall decline in newspaper revenue make it an open question of what the public wants from journalism — and what, if anything, it's willing to pay for it.
For these four merchants of truth, the uncertain answer to this question might be the most disconcerting truth of all.
“Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts”
Simon & Schuster; 534 pp., $30