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.
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