Paleojournalism

There's no journalism now, just marketing.

Last February, when New York Times science reporter Donald McNeil was forced out of his job, a lot of people saw it as the moment the media industry finally crossed the River Styx. In 2018, McNeil had chaperoned a Times-sponsored field trip to Peru. There, he had racked up a string of charges for speech crimes perpetrated against a group of elite high school students who had enlisted themselves as the protectors of the world’s marginalized from the crusty white supremacy of their boomer elders. McNeil’s crimes included using the actual “N word” in the context of quoting somebody else, questioning the taboo against cultural appropriation, and insisting on nuance in a discussion of systemic racism. The students’ parents complained to management, and somehow, three years later, the whole episode came back to destroy the career of a veteran journalist whose Covid-19 reporting was on the cusp of winning a Pulitzer Prize.

Those who deplored Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet’s decision to hang McNeil out to dry tended to attribute the episode to the rising tide of wokeness currently inundating the world. But it wasn’t just that. Even before that tide had begun to rise, the business model of the news media had undergone massive erosion and was already sinking into the earth. The Donald McNeil episode simply threw into sharp relief just how much the ground beneath the profession of journalism had shifted.

The Peru trip was part of a New York Times educational program called “Student Journeys,” which sends kids whose parents are willing to break off $5,000 - $7,000 on excursions all over the world, where they learn about everything from fashion design to racial justice. The trips are organized by Putney Student Travel, with the Times loaning out its reporters to accompany the students on these educational vacations and the newspaper’s name for the program’s marketing materials. In other words, it’s a lucrative brand extension product.

Student Journeys is just one of a vast constellation of such product offerings from the New York Times. There’s the program’s adult analogue, Journeys, through which you can pay $10,000 to stargaze in Chile or $6,000 to hang out backstage at Broadway shows. There’s also School of the New York Times, which offers pre-college and gap year courses in journalism, writing, politics, social studies, business, art, and other subjects at about $3,000 a pop. In collaboration with the New York Times’ in-house advertising agency, T Brand Studio, the school also has a curriculum for adults to earn a “Certificate in Content Marketing,” to help you advance in a field that doesn’t typically demand any formal degree certification in the first place. It’s like Trump University for English majors.

Other print publications are way ahead of the New York Times in the brand extension game. The Atlantic has basically become an event planning outfit for affluent intellectual dilettantes, with a magazine attached to it. The New Yorker saw the revenues The Atlantic was bringing in through its flagship annual festival and mimicked it, with great success. The Nation has been doing the hippie version on a cruise boat for twenty years, and, like the New York Times, has now gotten into the tourism business, too.

Ozy has achieved perhaps the pinnacle of the form: it appears to be a brand extension company without an actual media brand to extend. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Ozy. Not once in my life has anyone ever recommended an Ozy article to me, even on social media, and looking at their exhaustively co-branded website now, it’s not clear to me that they even produce articles anymore. Yet Ozy has a giant yearly festival that brings in guests like Anthony Fauci, John Legend and Hillary Clinton, and has TV deals with Hulu and Amazon. Ozy is a non-entity as a journalistic outlet, yet a giant as a corporate media brand.

This shift within the industry is a concession to a depressing reality: the most valuable assets within print media today are its fossils. The brand names of venerable legacy media outlets are all but dead, but they remain rich with prestige accumulated over the passage of the ages. All of the other properties — the journalistic craft; the physical print product and its digital counterpart; the news itself — are careening toward commercial obsolescence, a phenomenon described bleakly by Andrey Mir in his book Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers. The New York Times, to be sure, is among the lucky few whose profits, popularity and influence soared during the Trump years, thanks to its pivot toward a reader subscription revenue model that thrived from the surge in political tribalism (more on that later). But now the Trump years are over, and even the Times can’t escape the downward spiral of print journalism.

In the promotional video for the School of the New York Times, a bright-eyed teenager gushes, “It’s the thing you see every morning when you wake up. It’s right there on the front lawn. You go pick it up, you bring it inside, you unwrap it, you put it on your counter, and it’s there — and that’s the news! I mean it’s spectacular to think that this one newspaper is everywhere, and then to be associated with that — it’s just, The New York Times. And it’s...it’s amazing.” As she recites her pitch, we see shots of an assembly line churning out newspapers like it’s the 1930s.

Of course, the number of Americans who actually go out and pick up their New York Times papers on the front lawn each morning could barely fill a small sports stadium today. (I’m actually among them, but only because the Times continues to deliver the paper for free months after I cancelled my print subscription.) The print version of The New York Times is a relic soon to be found only in museums. But the Times understands the symbolic power it still retains, which commands a premium on the market for all types of cross-branded products. The School’s ad is a perfect distillation of the Times’ current branding strategy: lean on the paper’s mythic past to build an emotional affinity for the paper’s quite banal digital present, then leverage that affinity to sell new, non-journalistic New York Times products.

Today, not only do New York Times readers no longer pick up their papers on the front lawn; they don’t even go to the New York Times homepage. Who goes to homepages anymore, after all? We find our news not by seeking it out but by stumbling upon it in our social media news feeds, contained in small, nearly identical squares that can be measured in pixels. If we bother to click through to read beyond the headline, we find ourselves on a website with its own distinctive header, color scheme, and in-house font, and from that, the average, half-engaged reader might vaguely discern that she is reading this article in Buzzfeed, and not in The Guardian or The New York Times.

Or she might not, and even if she did, why would she care? As the form of digital media has flattened into the undifferentiated stream of the news feed, so has the content. The stories are the same, the political takeaways are the same, and as writers migrate from one media brand to another, increasingly, the bylines are the same.

Digital media is a monoculture delivered to us in an endless stream. We consume it not as a discrete meal, as we once did, nor even as a snack, but as a liquid. We sip on it all day like a soda while doing other things, barely registering when we pick up the can. To most readers, asking where online they read a particular story is not unlike asking them on which radio station they heard the latest Billie Eilish song this morning. They might, for some arbitrary reason, remember where they paused the dial at 7:43AM as they were scanning through stations on their commute to work, but probably the only thing that really registered was that they heard it on the radio. Similarly, the only thing that registers to us about a piece of news now is that we saw it on Facebook.

There are a hundred reasons why traditional media is failing as an industry, foremost among them, obviously, being that Google and Facebook have acquired the advertising market wholesale. But the user interface of social media, which is optimized not to encourage discernment in one’s media consumption habits but for endless, half-cognizant scrolling, is also a factor. Social media funnels journalistic content into a vast digital river, within which the distinctiveness of each individual media property is diluted into the larger current of the news feed, and effectively rendered invisible. Already unable to compete with the big tech platforms on ad sales, media outlets are increasingly incapable of even distinguishing themselves from their rivals in the minds of digital readers. With journalistic excellence now all but useless as a means to set themselves apart from the competition, media companies must find new ways to monetize their most valuable assets, which are their brands.

The first tool they turned to was to the paywall, which was a flailing experiment until Trump came along and changed the entire calculus. As Martin Gurri notes in The Revolt of the Public, in the old, advertising-based business model of journalism, media outlets had a huge incentive to attract as wide an audience or readership as possible — the more people a given outlet reached, the more attractive it was to advertisers, which meant more money in ad sales. This led to a pursuit of the lowest common denominator in their coverage. The perfect story was the one that interested the largest number of people while pushing away the fewest. Sensational crimes, political sex scandals and celebrity gossip were staples of this business model. Substantive coverage of politics was, of course, essential to any self-respecting news organization, but it was also divisive, and thus risky. Thus — with the notable exception of Fox News, which anticipated the future of media — politics were covered in as “balanced” a manner as possible in order to avoid alienating readers on either side of the political spectrum. Even the opinion sections of most media outlets tended toward milquetoast centrism.

Then, two things changed. First, the tech platforms began eating the media’s lunch when it came to attracting ad sales. Starved of advertising dollars, outlets started experimenting with alternative revenue streams. This was the dawn of the era of the paywall, which collided headlong with the spirit of the free and frictionless internet, making for unsatisfying results.

But then Trump came along with his “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and suddenly the idea of subscribing to mainstream, left-of-center media outlets felt less like buying a news product and more like signing up for a cause. The media saw the opportunity and capitalized. The Washington Post coined its cringe-inducing new slogan, “Democracy Dies In Darkness,” heralding the beginning of the era of Resistance Journalism. The New York Times saw its subscription base sextuple. Its entreaties to listeners of its hit podcast, The Daily, to subscribe to the paper took on the feeling of a pitch to donate to the ACLU, or to sign up for MoveOn.org. Suddenly the Washington Post and The New York Times weren’t selling papers anymore. They were selling political identities.

The old media business model was thus turned on its head. With outlets now marketing themselves to specific segments of the political spectrum instead of to the vast center of mainstream America, the commercial value of straight-down-the-middle, mealy-mouthed, “objective” political news coverage plummeted. Now, it was stridency that sold, and the appetite for politics became insatiable. Rather than avoid politics, everything became political, whether it was film reviews or parenting advice or cooking recipes. The New York Times’ Wesley Lowery started urging the media to ditch so-called “objective” journalism and embrace instead the values of what he called “moral clarity,” which he took to be a radical, subversive challenge to the traditional media establishment, but was, in fact, just putting a righteous façade on the new business model the media had already adopted — the model of political polarization. It was lipstick on a pig.

Only a few outlets benefited from this windfall, however: the largest, most prestigious, and most well-positioned to cover the Trump reality show 24/7. Signing up for a subscription for The New York Times may have credibly felt like doing something to resist the menace of Donald Trump; subscribing to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, maybe not so much. And now, the Trump menace has been subdued. The media is doing its best to prolong the passing era as far as possible, for instance by hyping the “insurrectionists” of January 6th as the fedayeen to the Trump Administration’s Baath Party. But it’s unlikely to work for much longer, and the Times, along with the rest of the legacy media, will have to redouble its efforts to dress up glitzy vacations and worthless degree programs as repositories of some kind of amorphous “journalistic” value conferred upon them by the application of The New York Times brand name.

Donald McNeil’s errors were innocent and inadvertent, but grave indeed, as his blasphemy profaned not just one, but both of The New York Times’ alternative business models. His indifference to the pieties of woke ideology was an affront to the sensibilities of the anti-Trump #Resistance consumer demographic the Times had been courting so assiduously. And the discomfort he created by uttering such heresies was a blemish on the precious, carefully curated experience on offer to the children of the liberal elite through its Student Journeys product line.

Donald McNeil had worked for The New York Times for 45 years. He was a profoundly experienced reporter who had filed groundbreaking reports on public health from all over the world that saved lives and won numerous awards to boot. At the old version of paper, the one he was most familiar with, in which the main product the company sold was journalism, his value was indispensable. It could not have been eviscerated by a handful of pampered teens. But in 2021, when he found his value to The New York Times as a reporter being weighed against the risks he posed to “The New York Times” as a marketing brand, his fate was sealed. Donald McNeil was a liability. He had to go. His vast achievements in journalism couldn’t save him, because, as he failed to realize, the industry he worked in was no longer the field of journalism. It was the industry of marketing.