Once upon a time, I was a journalist who covered the journalism industry for the likes of Presstime as well as other publications.
I was a complete newbie when I began, but I learned fast. I learned a lot about venture capital, Ebitda, paywalls, and the smoke and mirrors game of keeping up pretences.
Newspapers were very good at hiding the extent of circulation declines at the time. Canada began including free giveaway newspapers (count as one cent) as part of their circulation way back in 1999. This would include all those untouched newspapers you see at restaurants, laundry mats, and college campuses. I always had to understand the rig, and why it placed there.
I also understood that when everyone’s fortunes are crumbling, and one seems to buck the odds, you have to look at it with skepticism, and not awe. Bernie Madoff seemed to have the golden touch, and it was revealed that he didn’t.
So when the Atlantic boasted of hiring 100 people, I already was not surprised. They are not bucking a trend, but what they are experiencing is the largesse of a sugar mommy: in this case the widow of Great Man Steve Jobs.
This is not uncommon, but it requires some explaining.
This isn’t the first media player who has had this kind of set-up. Steven Bannon had billionaire widow Rebekah Mercer play patron to him until he became a liability with a big mouth and she kicked him to the curb. These relationships usually end in the patron wising up, realizing they are being used as their endgame is not going to happen funding a sinking ship, and they cut their losses.
I had known about this wrinkle for some time, and knew the score when I was invited by a friend to attend a little Fear and Pity Talk in Toronto at Facebook’s satellite headquarters last year. The little panel discussion on uncomfortable bar stools was supposed to about truth and journalism, but it mostly about how no one in the business was getting any clicks anymore…and too much left-field praise about The Atlantic magazine.
It was more than obvious that people in traditional media semi-got together and tried to rebuild their decimated fortunes with a brand name the same way they tried to bluff advertisers by including not-read-newspapers as part of their circulation (or currently with fake Twitter followers). As a tactical move, it could not be worse, but from a single discussion, it was easy to see right through those see-through heads, as the Hives once sang.
But patrons and venture capitalists are not uncommon, and online publications are now imploding because those funders have seen the writing on the wall, and are bailing out.
For the uninitiated, Crunch Base is a good start in seeing various publications getting funding — not from subscriptions or advertisers, but from funding (or venture) rounds. You can look at Buzzfeed’s funding rounds, for example.
The upside is that you can raise big money faster with the theory that money will give you a push. Sometimes it works, and other times, not.
Take Meez, for instance, a non-journalism vehicle.
They raised over 12 million dollars for instance, allowing people to make their own cartoony avatars, like this one:
That one pretty much looks like me now (surprising given that the animation is about a decade old), and it was a handy way to add humour to my web site.
But Meez no longer exists.
They had millions of subscribers, and many (such as me who used it for website graphics rather than personal entertainment) who paid for premium perks. They had high-end retailers have virtual clothing for cash purchase so your avatar could dress in that season’s fashions. Bands, movies, and television shows also sponsored various items and backgrounds over the years. You could make animations, such as the one above, or you could enter chat rooms to talk.
It was all the rage in the 2000s. It had subscribers, advertisers, and venture funding.
And then it imploded, going offline permanent in December 2017 without a prior warning (though users had been expecting doom as moderators seemed to have vanished).
I stopped using Meez years ago, but always kept a watch on its fortunes.
If me-centred media could not make it a go with patrons and/or funding rounds, it should aa serious sign for journalism.
Meez was the ultimate in embracing technology, courting youth, embracing progressive values, and keeping hip and with the times. Time magazine called it one of the worst sites of the year back in the day, as traditional media has always had a fear and disdain for technology. They did everything right.
And they couldn’t make the venture funding translate into self-sustaining success.
Steve Bannon, a shrewd man who understood strategy and managed to secure funding, also couldn’t sustain it.
The Atlantic will not be able to sustain it, either.
Its sophistry is too weak to be taken seriously, and it is no contender to any ideological challenge (when I wish to practice my critical thinking skills, all I have to do is read an Atlantic article, and I can take it down to shreds in seconds). It is the same smug, patriarchal mess that is offered everywhere else, including, the now crumbling Vox which is letting staff go. It has no new model of journalism, meaning there is no way for it to be able to take advantage of any kind of funding. Wealthy widow money burns at the same rate as any other kind of patron funding. Hiring a bigger staff when people no longer see journalism as something to consume will not change its fortunes.
But it will serve as a reason why government funding will not change journalism’s fortunes in Canada, either. You cannot keep opening the same door and expecting a different horizon. The news is pure PR, nothing more, and nothing for a dead profession to celebrate.
It is interesting how they are trying their hand at the same kinds of bluffs Canadian newspapers tried to pull in 1999. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now, either. The Left are losing communications resources, and have decided their best bet is to focus on the inert Atlantic.
They will watch their fortunes continue to shrink with intellectual lightweights trying clumsily to psyche out detractors.
It’s not working. It will comfort the fearful flock for a moment, until the money runs out, and it flops just like everyone else around them.