May 13

The Vibe Is Shifting. Will the Media Follow?

My conversation on the future of news with Bari Weiss, Jeffrey Goldberg, Rashida Jones and Jim VandeHei

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Very Serious is a weekly conversation with top political commentators, columnists and policymakers, focused on how events in the news relate to major, long-standing controversies in politics, economics and culture. Host Josh Barro is joined by a rotating set of regular guests to work out the ideas behind the arguments on topics serious and not-so-serious. It’s a great conversation across ideological lines that will leave you entertained, enlightened, and maybe even persuaded.
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Dear readers,

The Washington Post has a sort of bizarre story this week about video game companies and abortion rights. It begins:

In the wake of a leaked draft Supreme Court opinion essentially confirmed that Roe v. Wade’s days are numbered, most of the video game industry’s biggest companies have remained conspicuously quiet — though not all.

“Conspicuously quiet” — why would we expect video game companies to have something to say about a controversial political issue, one on which the country is divided… not evenly, but with, depending on how you measure it, perhaps a bit more than 2 out of 5 Americans on the opposite side of the issue from how the Post would expect the companies to weigh in? (Or I don’t know, maybe the idea was some companies would issue anti-abortion statements.) Well, as the Post says, the expectation was because in recent years, these companies had been making more political statements at the urging of left-leaning staff members.

These corporate statements, I believe, are casualties of the vibe shift. You’re going to see a lot fewer going forward. Conservative consumers and lawmakers get outraged by them, any apparent benefit with liberal customers isn’t appealing enough to be worth the trouble. I’m less sure about this next part, but: I also think the ferocious demands from employees for their employers to speak out on the issues they care about have peaked and are in decline. You don’t see nearly so many news stories about employee social activism out of Silicon Valley as you were seeing four years ago. In 2019, following the James Damore saga and other messy distractions, Google sent an official memo telling employees to stop fighting about politics and stick to coding. There is increasingly open pushback against ESG initiatives on Wall Street.

Of course, there was that recent employee groundswell at Disney that led to the company wading into a prominent social issue dispute in Florida — and look what happened there, a result that gives Bob Chapek and every other major company CEO something to point to when they explain why they’re staying out of the next thing.

As I’ve written before, I’m not sorry to see corporate social activism go — I don’t think the liberal politicization of the corporate sector has been healthy for either corporations or the Democratic Party. But one question is whether that vibe shift will make its way into the newsrooms, with a resurgent expectation for reporters to keep their opinions to themselves.

As you likely know, I used to work in mainstream media. I have at various times been employed at Bloomberg, The New York Times, New York magazine, and Business Insider. I also was a paid contributor to MSNBC for several years, and I hosted two long-running radio shows for KCRW, one of the two major public radio stations in Los Angeles.

So I’ve seen the inside of a lot of organizations — and I have insight into others, such as Vox, which became New York’s corporate cousin through an acquisition while I worked there. And this positioned me well to moderate a panel at last week’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills about what the hell is happening to the media.

When I talk about “what the hell is happening to the media,” there are at least two separate-but-interrelated phenomena I’m referring to. One is a story about destabilized business models: print advertising revenue dried up; Google and Facebook became online advertising giants; venture funders and large corporations pumped a lot of money into (often dubious) new media business models; digital media outlets felt pressure (now somewhat abated) to give their product away for free; and billionaires and philanthropic institutions entered the media space with some willingness to operate at a loss in order to provide coverage that fell through the cracks.

The other story is cultural. Like many organizations, news outlets have become dominated by a young, left-wing, college-educated elite, which has political and cultural values out of line with the public as a whole, and which often subscribes to a journalistic ethic that tends toward activism.

I don’t think I’m being unfair when I describe this ethic as part of a fashion — indeed, New York magazine’s “vibe shift” feature even named the currently waning vibe “Hypebeast/Woke,” a literal combination of footwear and political ideology: “Drake at his Drakest, the Nike SNKRS app, sneaker flipping, virtue signaling, Donald Trump, protests not brunch.” From an editorial standpoint, a media that is more left-wing than ever and relentlessly insistent on telling you what you should think and how you should feel produces a terrible product — preachy, boring, and, for much of the country, untrustworthy and alienating. It doesn’t help that ideologically homogenous echo chambers lead to reporters having poor news judgment and wacky concepts of public opinion. And as a business model, I think the fashion is running its course: Without Donald Trump in the White House, and with the acute COVID pandemic over, the preachy, activist-y media is harder to market.

But can the media change? For mainstream media outlets, I come back to the same diagnosis that I have for progressive political organizations: the key problem is the employees. Employees have a lot of power to override whatever putative editorial strategy is being set from the top, so it instead aligns with whatever is fashionable in Brooklyn: they actually write the content; they have unfettered access to at least a certain segment of their audience and a platform to be more than their byline (on social media); they’re often unionized which creates a permission structure for them to go against management; and management is very often feckless — after all, most of them are former reporters who aren’t really cut out to manage personnel.

Amusingly, Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter (if it ever happens) may give newsrooms an excuse to drag their employees most of the way off Twitter, which would put more editorial control and discipline back into the hands of management. But ultimately, personnel is policy, and if mainstream publications want to claw their way back into being less-ideological news outlets, that’s going to require a lot of change of personnel. And, as at Twitter, that won’t be a fun process for the organizations involved.

Of course, those are just my twenty cents. But take a listen to this week’s podcast, which contains a condensed version of that Milken panel last week, interspersed with some added commentary from me. In that conversation, I was joined by one of the most successful politics Substackers — Bari Weiss — and three leaders of mainstream media organizations: Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic; Jim VandeHei, co-founder and CEO of Axios; and Rashida Jones, the president of MSNBC.

They have a lot of thoughts on what’s working, what isn’t, and what has to change with the new business and editorial realities. And I think you’ll be interested in what they have to say.

Very seriously,

Josh

P.S. As we’ve mentioned, the Very Serious podcast is now hosted directly on Substack, coming to you through the same series of tubes as the newsletter. We think the migration has been pretty seamless — if you already subscribed to the podcast, it should still be coming into your player of choice just like before; and if you want to sign up now, we have a button here for you to press.

We are now offering episode transcripts. You can see this episode’s transcript here.

Questions about the process? Technical issues with your feed? Email podcasting@substackinc.com for support. For any other inquiries, please email mayo@joshbarro.com.

P.P.S. I actually moderated two panels at the Milken Global Conference. The other was completely unrelated: A discussion of fiscal and monetary policy needs in this environment of high inflation, rising interest rates, and large government budget deficits. That panel featured four economists: Jason Furman (a regular on the Very Serious podcast), Doug Holtz-Eakin, Stephanie Kelton, and Phillip Swagel, who runs the Congressional Budget Office. You can see that here, and while we think we picked the most interesting bits of the media panel for the podcast, you can watch the whole unedited thing here.