Dollars, dreams and journalism: Comparing the visions of Hamilton Nolan and Steve Brill

January 20, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 20, 2016

I recently came across two stories that surveyed the state of the media, and they made for interesting contrasts.

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan wrote “The Problem With Journalism Is You Need an Audience” in the wake of the closures of the quirky, prestige long-form sports website Grantland and, more recently, of Al Jazeera America, the cable news network that aspired to provide in-depth audiovisual journalism. Nolan also references the announcement that the owner of The New Republic is seeking a buyer to take it off of his hands. That last development comes roughly a year after Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes’s purchase of, and announcement of planned changes to, the boutique intellectual magazine with a liberal bent caused a mass walkout of New Republic staffers.

Nolan is something of a cynic, although he would, I am sure, describe himself as a realist. His core message is that there is no mass audience for quality journalism, or at least for a mass-market product that revolves almost exclusively around quality journalism. Instead, he writes, the only business models that are sustainable in and of themselves in the long term are mass-media outlets “that have huge scale and publish everything for everyone (TV news networks, major national newspapers, Buzzfeed)” or niche publications such as trade magazines.

Outside of those two channels, Nolan posits, the only successful types of media are either small-scale operations or ones that are subsidized in some way, whether as a charity or by a tycoon or large media organization that makes its profits elsewhere. Nolan lists The New Yorker, which belongs to the Condé Nast magazine-publishing conglomerate, and Grantland, which was a branch of the ESPN sports-television media empire, as examples of prestige outlets supported by corporations.

Interestingly, this recent interview with journalist and businessman Steve Brill focuses on newspapers, which don’t seem to fit into any of the categories Nolan reviews. (Maybe they qualify as niche publications?)

When his comments are considered on a superficial level, Brill sounds nearly as cynical as Nolan. Brill blasts the management of the newspapers, both large and small, with which he dealt as head of Press Plus, which helped establish pay walls for newspaper websites.

As Brill told James Warren of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank:

This is not a group of business people who are real business people. They either inherited monopolies or were, by then, part of big chains in the hands of debt holders. The industry wasn’t full of high quality, big thinkers, in terms of the people running it, since for many years it didn’t have to be. For years, if you had a paper, for many advertisers, you were the only game in town. If the Oldsmobile dealer wanted to announce a sale, you got the ad. Now … the car dealers who are left have multiple ways to market their cars and infinitely more efficient ways to market used cars. The underpinning of the business was eviscerated and in many places the people who inherited the businesses weren’t prepared, since they never had to really compete.

(Disclosure: I used to work for a daily newspaper, and I didn’t always see eye to eye with management. Disclaimer: This post isn’t intended as a swipe at said management.)

But here’s what distinguishes Brill from Nolan: The former man sees a path to making money that doesn’t involve having an incredibly narrow focus or selling out one’s ideals. The whole pitch Brill tries to make in his discussion with Warren is that well-thought-out and relatively modest compromises can pay off for journalists and their publishers.

In the fall, The Huffington Post’s Highline, which publishes long-form features, released a 15-part series by Brill documenting how (to paraphrase Warren) titanic health-care and consumer-products maker Johnson & Johnson profited immensely from years of illegally marketing a drug for schizophrenia to children and the elderly. The entire piece is available for free, a strategy with which Brill disagrees. Instead, the journalist believes, HuffPo either should have put the bulk of the series behind a pay wall or, alternatively, allowed the entire series to be read for free for only a short time (say, a week) and then requiring latecomers to pay to read the articles.

“Fewer people would read [the work] but, thinking long term, if they had done that … that would have been more of a business,” Brill said.

“If you do something really well, there’s no shame in getting people to pay for it,” he added. Ultimately, it seems, Brill isn’t actually cynical; rather, he is an optimist at heart.

Nolan is correct to assert that it’s difficult to launch a self-sustaining purveyor of quality journalism, at least on anything other than a small scale. But he misses one thing: Every now and then, some unlikely venture takes off in a completely unforeseen way. In discouraging potential writers and publishers from dreaming big — and in discouraging them even from dreaming modestly — Nolan does a disservice both to those journalists and to the audience that potentially might enjoy their work.

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