In an interview with the Financial Times, Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, offers a confession: news just isn’t as gosh-darn profitable as he had hoped it would be. Peretti has taken an axe to his respected news division, BuzzFeed News, and promises not to do it again.
“I feel like I learned from that mistake … you need to have more financial discipline in the short term to make sure you’re growing in a sustainable way,” he tells reporter Anna Nicolaou.
But as Josh Marshall, the publisher of Talking Points Memo, noted several months ago, there’s never going to be enough money in journalism if you’re relying on venture capital, as Peretti did, or on going public, as he’s doing now. The solution is a slow expansion, most likely built on reader revenue. That’s never been Peretti’s style.
Unfortunately, what Peretti doesn’t say in his FT interview is that he could use revenue from BuzzFeed, the viral site best known for cat videos and listicles, in order to subsidize a first-class news operation. Because for people like Peretti, it’s all about the bottom line — as he showed in April, when he acquired HuffPost and started gutting it.
Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.
Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:
• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.
• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.
• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.
What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.
Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.
“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”
If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.
According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.
Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.
“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”
It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?
According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”
Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?
Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.
Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.
“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”
For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.
The controversy over New York Times columnist and “PBS NewsHour” commentator David Brooks’ conflicts of interest has all but faded away. But before everyone just, you know, moves on, I’d like to share with you a new blog post by Edward Wasserman, former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and one of the country’s leading media ethicists. If you’ve forgotten the backstory, Wasserman has recapitulated it for you.
Wasserman begins with the valuable observation that conflicts tend to arise at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum — low-paid journalists caught in the realities of a shrinking news business have to take on outside work, meaning that “every story we read may be an audition for future work (or a thank-you for past employment), and we’re left to wonder how single-minded the writer’s commitment to us can be.” Or, for that matter, they might have an incentive to write nice things about McDonald’s. That, at least is understandable.
On the Brooksian end of the spectrum, though, the corruption is much more clear. Wasserman writes:
Star journalists cash in on notoriety from their day jobs, and the lead commentator for a prestige publication who moonlights on cable TV can make tens of thousands to speak at a trade association confab or corporate retreat. That’s a powerful incentive to pick subjects and grind axes that sharpen the journalist’s brand — which again raises the question, when we read their work, of who else they’re working for.
Another important point Wasserman makes is that the full disclosure Brooks failed to provide until he was caught by BuzzFeed News is no substitute for avoiding the conflict in the first place. Now, I’m among a younger (not that young) generation of media critics influenced by New York University Jay Rosen, which means that I tend to favor full disclosure without worrying quite as much about conflicts as earlier generations did.
But it’s hard to disagree with Wasserman when he writes: “Disclosure can never cleanse work of its bias; it can only alert readers to the possibility that bias exists and dare them to find it.” I would differ with Wasserman on his use of the word “bias.” Of course Brooks is biased. He’s an opinion journalist. But Brooks does owe us his independence, and he compromised that through his entanglements with Facebook and the Bezos family, among others.
I’m not sure whether Brooks could have survived this if he hadn’t apparently disclosed his conflicts to his previous editors (though not to readers or viewers). In any case, he’s still standing, and though he can drive me crazy sometimes, I agree with Wasserman that he is “a lucid and humane writer.” I’d miss him if he were gone. But I don’t know that I’ll ever trust him again — and there were already reasons to approach Brooks’ work with tweezers and a pair of rubber gloves.
Brooks has undermined trust in the Times, the “NewsHour” and himself. I guess the calculation is that he still has value; otherwise, he’d be gone. But he’s definitely moved himself to the discount rack, perhaps permanently.
Maybe BuzzFeed will save The Huffington Post. Frankly, though, it feels more like the end than a new beginning. Who has given much thought to HuffPost in recent years? Even with a sharp editor, Lydia Polgreen, at the top until recently, the site hasn’t seemed relevant for a long time.
So what happened? Your guess is as good as mine. But I’d argue that HuffPost was built on three pillars, and all of them are gone:
• Unpaid contributions. For a long time, HuffPost was a blogging platform as much as it was a publisher. The site took a lot of heat for not paying its writers, but I always thought that critics were making a category error. If you’re going to blog and not get paid for it, why not do it at a site where you’re more likely to be seen rather than on your own?
Maybe eight or so years ago, when I was between paid column-writing gigs, I wrote a few free pieces for HuffPost just to keep my hand in. There was a huge variety of contributions to HuffPost, some great, some terrible. They gave the site a vibrancy that it has lacked ever since such content was discontinued.
• Abusive aggregation. The Huffington Post originally made its mark with extremely aggressive aggregation — it would, for example, summarize a 5,000-word investigative piece published by another news organization in so much detail that you really didn’t need to click through to the original. As Jeff Bezos lamented shortly after announcing he would buy The Washington Post, HuffPost could rewrite a story “in 17 minutes” that had taken the originating media outlet weeks or months to report and write.
Over time, HuffPost’s approach to aggregation became more conservative even as it added more original reporting. That may have been the ethical thing to do, but I’m sure it cost them a substantial part of their audience.
• Social over search. HuffPost absolutely nailed search back when that mattered above all else. Remember the infamous “What time does the Superbowl start?” headline, which the rest of the internet reacted to with a mixture of rage and awe?
Well, search-engine optimization has long since given way to social-media engagement as the metric that really matters. And BuzzFeed perfected the latter, which is why it’s the senior partner in this particular deal. What the two sites have in common is BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, who helped HuffPost master SEO before founding BuzzFeed and embracing social.
All of this is why I’m not particularly optimistic about HuffPost staging a comeback. It was hugely influential for about a half-dozen years after Arianna Huffington launched it in 2005. But it was a creature of its time, and that time may have expired.
Comments are open. Please include your full name, first and last, and speak with a civil tongue.
I want to take a brief look at a very small wrinkle within the much larger story of the Mueller Report. A number of observers have taken note that the report disputes an article that BuzzFeed News published back in January claiming that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told prosecutors the president had “directed” him to lie before Congress about the Trump Organization’s attempts to build a tower in Moscow.
At the time, Mueller’s office took the unusual step of denying BuzzFeed’s story, and the release of the redacted Mueller Report on Thursday appeared to back that up. For instance, here is how NBC News puts it:
While Mueller acknowledged there was evidence that Trump knew Cohen had provided Congress with false testimony about the Russian business venture, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony.”
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith addressed the matter Thursday night, acknowledging that the Mueller Report contradicts what his journalists had claimed. CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, in his daily newsletter, notes, “Smith stopped short of expressing any regret for the story.” But should he have? I don’t think so. Crucially, Smith also writes this:
On Feb. 27, Cohen testified before a congressional committee that Trump “told” him to lie to Congress “in his way,” using a coded style of speech that Cohen said was familiar from past interactions.
Indeed Cohen did. We all saw him do it. I took it at the time, and I still do, that BuzzFeed’s reporting was essentially correct. Cohen by his own testimony told Mueller’s office that President Trump had made it clear he wanted him to lie. BuzzFeed interviewed two unnamed prosecutors who passed that information along. If Mueller has now concluded that didn’t actually amount to Trump directing Cohen to lie, it doesn’t change what Cohen perceived or how BuzzFeed’s sources understood what Cohen was telling them.
BuzzFeed’s headline and lead used the word “directed,” which is totally accurate. Where BuzzFeed overstepped was in publishing this sentence farther down: “It is the first known example of Trump explicitly telling a subordinate to lie directly about his own dealings with Russia” [my emphasis].
My two takeaways from this episode are, first, that BuzzFeed comes out of this looking pretty good; and second, that every word matters, especially when reporting on a story this explosive. The phrase “explicitly telling” hangs out there as the sole problem in a story that otherwise advanced our understanding of the Trump-Russia connection in a fundamental way.
It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard. Within the past couple of years BuzzFeed and Vice, which had made strides toward becoming major players, fell short of revenue projections and had to cut back on their ambitions. This was owing partly to hubris, partly because Google and Facebook were hoovering up every digital advertising dollar in sight.
Meanwhile the Times and the Post — the latter supercharged by its mega-wealthy owner, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — moved toward economic viability by rethinking coverage and convincing a generation of readers brought up on free online content that quality news was worth paying for, particularly in the age of Trump.
Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times who now teaches at Harvard, has written a big, ambitious chronicle of the past decade. Her method involves a series of revolving chapters that examine the ups and downs of each organization in turn, as well as a chapter on Facebook. (Disclosure: In her bibliography Abramson cites two of my books and an academic paper I wrote.)
Some have criticized Abramson for favoring the legacy newspapers over the digital start-ups. There may be something to that. She goes into great detail about BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti’s research-driven pursuit of clicks and viral content and about Vice’s culture of alcohol, drugs, and sexual harassment. Vice founder Shane Smith comes off as a shambling egomaniac, although later in the book he is depicted as trying to clean up his act.
But those sections strike me as warranted and fair. After all, BuzzFeed was built on a foundation of cat videos and listicles, and Vice’s chaotic, testosterone-fueled internal culture is surely relevant. Besides, Abramson is generous in acknowledging the importance of their best journalism, including Craig Silverman’s groundbreaking work for BuzzFeed on fake news and Elle Reeve’s mini-documentary for Vice about the deadly neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville, Va.
The chapters on the Times and the Post cover ground that will be familiar to many media observers. Abramson traces the Post’s decline during the last few years of Graham family stewardship and its revival under Bezos. The Times’s journey was more harrowing — bailed out by the Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, forced to sell its gleaming new headquarters, and casting off its non-Times properties, including The Boston Globe. Abramson criticizes both newspapers for smudging the line that had traditionally separated news from business operations, a line that she observes doesn’t even exist at BuzzFeed or Vice. Mostly, though, she praises the Times’s and the Post’s reinvention efforts.
In the most awkward section of the book, Abramson deals with her 2014 firing as executive editor of the Times. She uses the occasion to do some score-settling against the then-publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and her successor, Dean Baquet. But her account strikes me as fundamentally honest and reflective, as she blames her demise on a combination of sexism and her own shortcomings as a manager.
“Merchants of Truth’’ spawned controversy even before the book was published.
First, Howard Kurtz of Fox News reported that Abramson had criticized the Times for liberal bias. And yes, Abramson writes, “Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative.” But it’s not quite that simple. For instance, she lauds both the Times’s and the Post’s tough coverage of the Trump administration, reserving especially fulsome praise for her former employer: “The depth and intensity of the coverage was masterful. On most days it outshone the Post’s. The news report as a whole had never been stronger.” By leaving out that context, Kurtz created a misleading impression.
More problematic were revelations of errors in the uncorrected galleys. Vice reporter Arielle Duhaime-Ross complained that Abramson had made multiple mistakes about her, including her gender identity. Danny Gold of the “PBS NewsHour” tweeted that Abramson’s description of his past reporting for Vice about Ebola in Liberia included “a straight up lie.” Errors in galleys are common, but they generally involve typos and spelling mistakes. And not all of the problems were addressed in the final version of the book.
Inaccuracies notwithstanding, “Merchants of Truth” is a valuable and insightful survey. It ends on an optimistic note, with one caveat: Abramson acknowledges that the relative good fortune of the four media organizations she profiles stands in contrast to the implosion of journalism at the local level. The media scene Abramson describes remains in turmoil. Witness the deep cuts at BuzzFeed that took place late last month. Whether journalism will outlive the wobbling vessels in which it is carried remains a fundamental question for the future of democracy.
BuzzFeed News reports that “two federal law enforcement officials” have seen evidence that President Trump “directed” his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie under oath when he testified before Congress about a Trump Tower project in Moscow. Special counsel Robert Mueller takes the unusual step of having his spokesman denounce the story as “not accurate.” BuzzFeed’s reporters and their editor vociferously insist that they and their unnamed sources are standing behind their account.
Within 24 hours last week, what looked like a serious threat to the Trump presidency had collapsed into one big honking mess. Nor does it appear that we’re any closer to resolution. A number of media observers have pointed out that no other news organization has been able to confirm BuzzFeed’s reporting. That’s significant, of course. But no one has been able to knock it down, either.
So what is going on? Let me offer a speculative answer, based on the belief that Mueller’s office, BuzzFeed’s journalists, and their sources are all trying their best to tell the truth: everyone is right. BuzzFeed’s story is essentially accurate, but is flawed in some important way that hasn’t been explained. Mueller, worried that Trump might blow up the investigation, took advantage of those flaws to discredit the entire story. If that was Mueller’s intention, it worked, as Trump praised him after the statement was released.
In the past few days we’ve heard much about the famous mistake that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein made when they were hammering away at the Watergate story for The Washington Post: They attributed an otherwise accurate account of corruption within the Nixon White House to grand jury testimony that did not exist. Their error was seen as so damaging that they offered their resignations.
“Look, reporters make mistakes. News organizations make mistakes. In Watergate, we made a mistake, a very serious mistake,” Bernstein said this past Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” But, he continued, within days the Post was vindicated when it became clear that the information they had reported was true.
The parallels between BuzzFeed’s story and Woodward and Bernstein’s erroneous attribution, though, only go so far. I think a closer analogy involves James Comey’s testimony in June 2017 before the Senate Intelligence Committee shortly after Trump had fired him as FBI director. Comey was asked about a Times story that had been published four months earlier claiming that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” Comey replied that “in the main, it was not true.”
As with the BuzzFeed report, no details were offered as to what was wrong with the Times story. Here we are, more than a year and a half later, and we still don’t know what Comey was referring to. Was it the sourcing? The underlying facts? The Times article reporting on Comey’s complaint noted that there was considerable evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government even then. Today, of course, there is far more evidence, going all the way up to Trump’s extremely guilty campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
If we assume that the basic facts of BuzzFeed’s report are correct, then what might have gone wrong enough for Mueller to issue his extraordinary statement? Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculated that the information came not from the special counsel’s office but, rather, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York. The BuzzFeed story specifically cited the special counsel’s office, but Marshall pointed out that it’s not always clear who is doing what. “The SDNY is notoriously more porous to the press than the Special Counsel’s Office,” Marshall wrote. “So we have a kind of information that seems more likely to come out of New York and an office there that seems considerably more likely to leak.”
National security blogger Marcy Wheeler, while praising the BuzzFeed report in some respects, was also critical of it for making “an absurd claim that this is the first time we’ve heard that Trump told someone to lie.” She added: “The BuzzFeed story is important for the concrete details it adds to a story we already knew — and these reporters deserve a ton of kudos for consistently leading on this part of the story. But it has unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies, in a way that could have detrimental effect on the country’s ability to actually obtain some kind of justice for those lies.”
The journalists who worked on the BuzzFeed story are first-rate. Jason Leopold, despite some serious ethical lapses early in his career, is a dogged investigative reporter who was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. Anthony Cormier, whose byline also appeared on the story, won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2016 when he was with the Tampa Bay Times. BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith is well regarded.
And yet there was one obvious shortcoming. According to The Washington Post, BuzzFeed’s outreach to Mueller spokesman Peter Carr for comment before publication was unacceptably vague: “Importantly, the reporter made no reference to the special counsel’s office specifically or evidence that Mueller’s investigators had uncovered.” When the story was published a short while later, the Post continued, “it far exceeded Carr’s initial impression.”
If BuzzFeed failed to give the special counsel’s office fair notice of what was coming, that would help explain the controversy that broke out after they hit “publish.” But it still doesn’t tell us what, if anything, BuzzFeed got wrong — or whether we’ll ever know.
Last night on “Beat the Press” (above) we took on the BuzzFeed News blockbuster and talked about how much credence the media should give to a story that they hadn’t independently verified. Among other things, I said that BuzzFeed News has a good reputation and that it has owned the Trump Tower story. I’ll stand by that.
Then, a few hours later, the office of special counsel Robert Mueller denied the story, which claimed that President Trump had personally directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress under oath about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. The Washington Post’s account is brutal:
Inside the Justice Department, the statement was viewed as a huge step, and one that would have been taken only if the special counsel’s office viewed the story as almost entirely incorrect. The special counsel’s office seemed to be disputing every aspect of the story that addressed comments or evidence given to its investigators.
BuzzFeed News editor Ben Smith said that he stands behind the story.
In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel's spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he's disputing.
First, this reminds me of James Comey, shortly after he’d been fired as FBI director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee and claiming that The New York Times had gotten an important Trump-Russia story wrong. Comey offered no specifics, and we still don’t know what he was referring to. Likewise, Mueller’s spokesman did not say what BuzzFeed News had gotten wrong — other than “every aspect,” as the Post suggests.
Second, there’s been some well-informed speculation by Josh Marshall (sub. req.) and others that BuzzFeed’s sources are in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, not the special counsel’s office. National security blogger Marcy Wheeler believes that BuzzFeed “unnecessarily overhyped the uniqueness of Trump’s role in these lies,” and that Mueller issued his statement in order to take the temperature down and keep his investigation on track.
Third, BuzzFeed News does, in fact, have a good reputation. Smith is a fine editor. As you may have heard, one of the two reporters on the story, Jason Leopold, was caught in several ethical lapses earlier in his career, and it’s not unfair to take that into account. But there have been no reported problems since 2006, and in 2018 he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The other reporter, Anthony Cormier, won a Pulitzer in 2016 when he was at the Tampa Bay Times.
Smith, Leopold and Cormier knew what the stakes were before this story was published. I would imagine that even BuzzFeed chief executive Jonah Peretti was involved in the decision to hit “publish.” There may turn out to be some significant problems with the story. But unless we see evidence to the contrary, I think it’s likely that everyone involved satisfied themselves that they had the goods. Did they? I hope we’ll find out.
Rudolph Giuliani tells @CNNSotu that Trump may indeed have spoken to Michael Cohen about his congressional testimony beforehand. "And so what if he talked to him about it?" Denies Trump told Cohen to lie.
Thus it was that even on the night of President Barack Obama’s farewell address, the big story was CNN’s report — co-bylined by Watergate legend Carl Bernstein, no less — about compromising (and unverified) personal and financial information gathered by the Russians that could be used to blackmail the president-elect.
On our screens, a popular, largely successful, and thoroughly reassuring president was preparing to leave the White House. Behind the scenes, all was trouble and turmoil.
Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:
With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.
On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.
“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”
My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.
Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.
The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.
CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.
Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)
“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”
For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.
Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!
In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:
It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.
Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)
But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.