Tech Is Eating Media. Now What?

A new conversation series on Medium.

Any industry sufficiently powerful to absorb the fourth estate is worthy of its scrutiny. This is not quite a paradox. It is disorienting. And suddenly urgent. Tech is consuming the media.

But let’s back up.

Our most vocal and visible tech leaders — the proselytizing venture capitalists, the reluctantly famous founders and CEOs — are at turns brash and assured. In the first mode: they call attention to a problem; they declare war, on behalf of consumers or customers, against the industry enforcing it; if they’re able to gather momentum, they set their sights higher and talk about disrupting not just industries but ways of doing things. In the other: having dominated in their particular domains, they find themselves, suddenly, in a position to dominate others; with capital and confidence as tailwind, and maybe even a sense of responsibility, they apply their particular brand of disruption to everything they touch. They expand. Of course!

A lot of tech criticism clusters around these performances, either rejecting industry claims as brazen or arrogant or accepting them as inevitabilities. There is, of course, a third way to approach these claims and what results from them. To understand them as promises that might be kept, if possible. Or as threats that are, if not imminent, at least genuine. To less accept or reject than to just take it all very seriously.

Which brings me back to media — that is, the professional media, concerned with the production of all types of content, but, in particular, news. The bringing-to-light of stubborn new facts. The discovery of countervailing narratives. The press, as it is commonly (and often imprecisely) referred to. Until fairly recently, this media has enjoyed the privilege of competing with itself. The websites that took on print media were still recognizable as publications; the social-oriented news operations that are doing the same to websites resembled, in their overall shape, news and entertainment operations a century or more old. Each used the tools and sometimes language of the technology industry to operate media companies; those that claimed to be tech companies in order to either distinguish themselves or raise money were generally overstating their cases. The recent suggestion that Time Inc. can become in any meaningful way a “tech company” is less credible than Nick Denton’s more specific characterization, in 2011 and for some time after, of Gawker Media as a “tech company with editorial products,” which was in turn less credible than claims from Vox and BuzzFeed. But even those companies have turned out to be more like publishers that learned from the tech industry — advertising businesses with a sharp eye on what was going on next door.

But this is changing. I’ve been arguing for some time now that online media companies — and in particular news operations — are, in some cases intentionally but in most cases not, losing a degree of ownership over their audiences. On one hand, the number of people they reach is potentially greater than ever; on the other, they’re reaching these people, as well as much of their old audience, through much larger third parties. That’s just at the level of audience — on the other side of their offices, advertising staff is coming to terms with just how directly their industry’s business model is coming into competition with that of their new, and much larger, partners. It’s not just a major change. It’s a total change of context.

That bigger conversation, the one the tech media has been struggling to engage with, about tech and software changing everything, industry by industry? That change is here, now. Not because any of the countless people or companies that set have set out to disrupt or modernize or just fix the production of news or entertainment have won. No: The change is coming from the outside, encroaching with unanticipated scale and speed. Tech is taking control of the story, including its own.

So, back to the claim: tech is eating media. Neither side would quite dispute this, I don’t think. They’d just put it differently, and spin from it different characterizations of the other party: those media companies are failing, their business models have been disrupted, they’re getting in the way, as Josh Elman suggested on Twitter, of people who are trying to change the world, and they’re prone to reading malice into everything we do. Or: those tech companies, and those VCs, are just trying to avoid scrutiny and remove possible friction from their business plans. They want all the power with none of the oversight.

Neither characterization is quite adequate but each is sometimes true. There are editors who will write hatchet jobs no matter what. There are venture capitalists who want to get away with things they shouldn’t. There are reporters who resent the tech industry for screwing up their jobs; there are developers who hate to see their work, and the work of their peers, criticized by people they regard as outsiders.

And so, now, back to the problem: the same media that has told, or assisted in telling, the story of the internet over the last two decades, and the epochal companies that are rising through it, is being absorbed by its subject, which needs it less and less. In some ways, this change has been surprisingly seamless: an industry supported by one set of advertising models is simply finding support from another. But the ways in which this has altered the relationship between the news media and its subject — the remaking of industry, the resultant rise of a new class of industrialists, and the innumerable social, cultural and political consequences of this change — are becoming less subtle. Latent ideologies are manifesting in action. Conflict is overflowing, now, into antagonism.

Amazon’s initial response to a critical and thorough report in the New York Times about the company’s corporate culture and “bruising” workplace was swift and assertive. Jeff Bezos himself wrote a leak-ready memo to employees. Jay Carney, a former White House Press Secretary, and newly appointed Amazon senior vice president for worldwide corporate affairs, showed up on TV to defend the company. But two months later Carney shot back again: this time here, on Medium, where he called into question the credibility of individual sources quoted in the story, accused one of them of improprieties while working at Amazon, and quoted, at length, emails one of the story’s reporters sent to Amazon during the reporting process. He accused the paper of failing to meet “journalism 101” standards and, in his capacity as a representative of Amazon — the online retailer that has largely succeeded at dominating the entire book industry, that syndicates news through its millions of Kindle devices and tablets, whose owner recently purchased the Washington Post outright — suggested the reporter had deviated from the “standard practice” of journalism. He went further:

The next time you see a sensationalistic quote in the Times like “nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk”, you might wonder whether there’s a crucial piece of context or backstory missing — like admission of fraud — and whether the Times somehow decided it just wasn’t important to check.

This is more than a response or a denial. It’s an attempt at institutional repudiation — an inoculation against future coverage from not just one publication, but all of them.

Amazon has always had a strained relationship with the press; its standard “no comment” became a joke, over the years, among the people covering it. But this boldness — not just to ignore, or brush off, the press, but to wage war with it directly — is a new development. Amazon responded directly, in a venue of its choosing; as a result, the executive editor of the Times came to meet him at eye level, again, here on Medium, to issue a response. Amazon didn’t just try to win an argument. It took control of the conversation, if not for itself, then at least out of the Times’s hands. This wasn’t a press release denial, or a story placed in a competing publication, or a letter to the editor. It was an attempt at domination.

The press has told countless stories of industry disruption, including parts of its own. But now that story is unfolding completely and irrevocably: there is no major preexisting news organization that isn’t currently reassessing its entire Way of Being. What distinguishes them from one another is whether they’re doing so in a state of panic, bewilderment, or, if they’re lucky, tense optimism.

As a media reporter, perhaps I’ve felt this too acutely — the biggest media story of the last five years has been, without a doubt, Facebook. My coverage and analysis of this subject, and adjacent ones, has been largely distributed through Facebook. Media coverage — the media covering itself — is naturally fraught, but this isn’t quite that. Media covering the advertising industry that supports it is a similarly intractable problem that has remained in a sort of remission prone to flare-ups, but this isn’t quite that either. It’s both, and more: the loss of publications’ direct relationships with their audiences is a shadow cast over everything else they do. That Jeff Bezos owns one of the country’s largest news operations and runs one of its largest retailers is at least easy to grasp and factor into assessments of the man, the company, or his paper. That the paper’s audience, like those of most other major publications, belongs ever-more to platforms, is a larger, but less familiar, type of change. It must speak through them. So must Bezos’s reporters, his opinion columnists and his advertisers, along with their counterparts elsewhere, as well as the people and institutions they’re writing about. It’s a change of form and venue in which every relationship—between reader, publisher, writer, advertiser, and subject—is altered to suit a new host’s terms.

One argument against this narrative of looming conflict is that it is merely a preoccupation of businesses being threatened — a traditional press that has been sent into a state of confusion and fear wondering how it will continue to exist, taking for granted that it must, looking for someone to blame, and deciding that its most valuable new partners are, in fact, enemies. (A popular new Twitter account among the aforementioned “proselytizing venture capitalists” is Pessimists Archive, a collection of critical responses to now-common technologies. Some posts are genuinely pessimistic or misguided; others were simply critical of something that later became important. Although some people sharing its posts might challenge such a distinction.)

And there may be some truth to that. But short of replacing the free press with a public relations apparatus fully owned by its subject, it still poses questions any sort of replacement would have to deal with, too. The tech industry is now in a position, at least for a time, to create and control the set of incentives that will define the next great news organizations, whether they already exist or start up tomorrow. Meanwhile, dismissiveness and impatience among some leaders in the industry, who seem to regard these platforms as either natural systems or virtuous extensions of capitalism — as sorts of clarifying attention markets themselves — abound.

Another argument: This is a conflict that doesn’t so much come to a head as get defined out of existence. If, as they seem to intend, Facebook and Google and Twitter and Snapchat, or some later group of companies, replace papers and TV networks and websites or, more aptly, prior media infrastructure as a whole, and themselves become the great media companies of their day, assisting not just in the distribution but in the creation of media, reaching previously unimaginable scale, there will be no conflict: Advertising and public relations and news and entertainment and publishing and consumption are destined to be one and the concept of separate tech and media industries will be relegated to the past. Coexistence on centrally managed commercial platforms that control both content distribution and revenue might make old ideas about editorial independence and conflict disclosure seem quaint.

None of this is to suggest that any large part of the media as it existed before app platforms and dominant internet conglomerates was beholden to no one. The TV industry is rotten with codependencies and layers of conflict; mainstream media ownership has recently, in boom and bust, tended toward ugly consolidation. (Consider how easily we take for granted the spectacular cross-conglomerate rollout of the latest Star Wars film, for example.) It is also impossible to understand virtually any major media without taking into account the many roles of advertising: in the conception and production of individual stories; in the way a publication is distributed, designed and created; even things we take for granted, like the length of a TV show, are the result of advertiser demands. Ad-supported companies with more control over their distribution still compromised deeply and constantly, but tried to do so in ways their audience either didn’t notice or didn’t much care about, or in ways that felt unimportant or irrelevant to their missions or identities. These companies, old or new, often failed.

But this only strengthens the case for understanding the conflicts at the center of our nascent galaxy of media and attention and advertising and distribution. What will be the compromise at the core of a new new media? What will be the tension that animates a media both more and less powerful than the one we’re leaving behind? (More, in that it can expand its reach and audience and influence in previously unheard-of ways; less, relative to its parent industry that has consolidated the economies of media and social interaction, and which now includes all kinds of previously offline personal conversation, and which has found new ways to make money from all of the above. )

So you tell me—how is this relationship supposed to work? What does this newer, better media built from platforms — like this one, perhaps — look like? And how will it talk about the conflicts that allow it to exist?

Or is this just the wrong frame, an old argument made in a new world? If so — if this just sounds like misguided worry about a media that could not possibly be more contingent or conflicted, and whose mission could only be improved by virtually any change — then I’d like to know how.