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The shifting balance of power in media is real, no matter what the Columbia Journalism Review says

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With Kara Swisher and the team behind All Things Digital jockeying for a new position with a media partner, and the moves by Nate “Five Thirty Eight” Silver still relatively fresh, the Columbia Journalism Review has taken a look at what it all means and decided that, well… it doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means that things are pretty much the way they’ve always been, with some big stars cutting their own deals, and everyone else toiling away in the media salt mines.

Is that really a fair description of where we are right now? I don’t think so. While it may be too early to say that the disruption in media has completely levelled the playing field, there is certainly a lot more movement and freedom than there used to be, and denying that seems a little disingenuous — if not deliberately obtuse.

Are all of these bloggers unicorns?


Dean Starkman agrees there has been an increase in what Jay Rosen has called the “personal franchise” site, and Reuters media critic Jack Shafer has called the “Marquee Brothers” — with sites like All Things D, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook at the New York Times, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Washington Post and Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight. But the CJR writer denies that this is a sign of any larger pattern in the media industry that is worth following or commenting on:

“These new franchise raise the important question of whether and by how much power is shifting in journalism from publishers to authors. I’d argue that these franchises are to a large extent sui generis and not indicative of a generalized power shift in journalism. In fact their high visibility tends to distort our view of the author-publisher, that is to say, labor-management, power balance.”

It’s worth noting that the term “sui generis” usually means unique or one-of-a-kind, and it’s difficult to argue that half a dozen similar things can actually be thought of as one-of-a-kind. Surely something must be common among all of these examples?

But perhaps Starkman just means that these are special cases — unicorns, if you will — and not examples of something that other journalists or writers might be able to aspire to. He notes that Sorkin and Silver have both chosen to remain with large media entities, and says that any standalone media outlets created by bloggers such as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo or Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish are “the exceptions that prove the rule.”

The balance of power has shifted

Most people in the media, the CJR writer argues, will never be able to create their own site, cut their own deal with a media company or build something outside a mainstream brand because — well, just because. So no one should look to any of the above as examples of what is possible:

“It’s just important to remember that the personal franchise phenomenon is not necessarily a harbinger for journalists or journalism generally. The opposite is probably true [and] the AllThingsD case isn’t really a model for anything.”

This seems like an unnecessarily bleak viewpoint, especially when the media industry is in the kind of shape it’s in right now, with layoffs and outlets closing down all over. Why not look at how much is possible, given the ability to publish anywhere and reach an audience more efficiently than ever?

There are plenty of examples beyond just the ones Starkman cites of journalists and writers who have carved out their own space online, without having to go to a major media brand for help. The Awl springs to mind — Choire Sicha started it after leaving Gawker, and from the sounds of it he is doing just fine — not to mention sites like Techdirt, or Brian Lam’s Wirecutter (which he also started after leaving Gawker) or one-woman ventures like Maura’s magazine, or the reader-funded model taken by Hamilton journalist Joey Coleman.

Is every journalist capable of doing this, or of becoming as large a player as Kara Swisher or Andrew Ross Sorkin? Of course not. But the shift in power is real, and it has levelled the playing field a lot more than Starkman allows. We should be celebrating that, not dismissing it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / discpicture

9 Responses to “The shifting balance of power in media is real, no matter what the Columbia Journalism Review says”

  1. Sir,
    in my humble opinion, print will never disappear. it may lose its shine.
    will continue to be there– in some shape or the other.
    so, let’s adopt a positive attitude to it.
    and not be offended by other say.
    let’s have our own being and do our best
    in which ever we can.
    good luck, and happy / merry christmas.
    mulakh dua

  2. Joey Coleman

    There is a symbiotic relationship between “brand journalists” and established traditional media brands.

    My career track is an example of this.

    I started as an independent blogger, built a loyal audience of thousands in a niche – higher education in Canada. This niche that was attractive to a traditional publication. I was hired and “merged” my blog onto their site.

    When Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s top news weekly) hired me, they gained readership and high quality stories. I gained a guaranteed pay cheque and access that I was not able to previously gain to politicians and institutions. I professionalized, at the same time, I needed to maintain my “bloggers voice” and independence. My audience expected my voice and this needed to balanced with the institutional voice of the publication paying my bills.

    I was there for two-and-a-half years before leaving. I was independent for two weeks before being hired by The Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) to anchor their higher education blogs. Again, because of my brand and audience.

    I wasn’t happy working for a traditional news outlet with its restraints and structure.

    Independent branded journalists are attractive for our loyal audiences. Yet our loyal audiences are often the result of our own idiosyncrasies such as breaking barriers between opinion and “news”, odd working hours, unique working habits, and unwillingness to confirm to traditional expectations or structures.

    This creations tension and eventually the relationship is no longer beneficial enough to both parties to remain mutually beneficial.

    Myself, I watched the continued downsizing of the media with despair. My hometown newspaper’s downsizing decreased my knowledge of local news. I decided to take summer leave to cover my hometown with the goal of taking this break to refresh myself before returning to my Globe blog.

    Instead, I found the thrill of trying to rebuild local news too tempting to not pursue.

    I decided to breakout on my own.

    My success is in large part from the credibility of having Canada’s top two national print news outlets on my C.V.

    Combined with my personal reputation in my hometown (numerous volunteer activities, running for public office at 18, etc), this enabled me to successfully establish myself as a professional journalist and granted me the ability to convince over two hundred individuals to financially contribute to my journalism.

    All parties benefited from the relationship and what we’ve seen this week with Kara Swisher will be repeated with others.

    Will Swisher find a new home? That’s the now question.

    The bigger question: Can an single individual or franchise built around an individual compete successfully on national scale in the long term. This is the question Andrew Sullivan is going to answer for us.

    Or are brand journalists subject to a short half-life as some many things on the Internet? Let’s not forgot MySpace, GeoCities, and so many other hot sites of Internet past.

  3. Henry Hank E Scott

    i agree with randybennett and must note that the reputations of Sorkin, Silver, Swisher, Sullivan etc were built on their associations with established traditional media brands.

  4. randybennett

    I agree with Starkman that the personal franchise phenomenon does not necessarily imply a transfer of journalistic power. There is a lot of hyperbole around that assertion. I also don’t see where he is denying that there is ” lot more movement and freedom than there used to be.” Absolutely there are vastly more opportunities for new voices to be heard and more media organizations to drive deeper into particular categories (sports, technology, politics, etc.). But, traditional media has been building personal franchises forever (Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Hunter Thompson, Bob Woodward, Ted Koppel, Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper — to name a few). As much as I love sites like All Things D, TechCrunch, The Next Web, ReadWrite, GigaOm — most of which I peruse every day — would my ability to keep up with the technology world collapse if anyone (or two) of them disappeared? I don’t think so. Now take away the New York Times or the Des Moines Register (if I lived in Des Moines)…that’s a different story.

  5. I wonder if the future isn’t in a more “loosely coupled” entity that exists somewhere between today’s media “brand” (NYT, WAPO, etc.) and a universe of standalone authors (who will always struggle to obtain 1) reader discovery of content and 2) economies of scale in sales and other overhead functions.

    NYT/WAPO/etc and their ilk are gradually dying – unlamented by all save those they did the bidding of (the NY/DC “establishment” “consensus” – otherwise known as a self-serving, self-appointed “elite” more less interested in skull-f*cking the rest of the nation into compliant belief).

    But…Andrew Sullivan and All Thing D(ropped) ain’t the future either.

    AS is one of the highest profile online bloggers – and his big first year started with a bang and has lapsed into something falling short of success.

    AS’ year two will be even less kind.

    And forget about year three.

    Exceeding rare is the individual (guru?) who 99%+ of people will pay for their “opinions”.

    But there *is* a market for “drive-by” articles where a reader’s interest in the specific topic discussed intersects with *some* respect for the author.

    But you can’t make a standalone living on 50k page view posts occurring every three weeks (at 50 cent CPMs, those “hit” posts generate…$25 per ad…).

    So there does need to be some sort of “aggregating entity” that helps gather audiences and handles overhead chores (ad sales, IT, etc.).

    It just doesn’t need to be some tainted, bullsh*tting dinosaur like the legacy MSM.

  6. Ah, I don’t know. Andrew Sullivan may be a unique voice but I’m less convinced by Kara Swisher. Her pieces seemed filled with gossip, not eye-opening insight. And Walt Mossberg just spent time talking about how much RAM a computer should have.

    Will they succeed? Selling ads is hard. And I’m sure that AllThingsD was supported in some way or form by the dead-tree edition of the paper. The same thing is true about digital projects at the NYT, the WaPo and a few others. Bloggers who go off on their own don’t get that cross-subsidy from the geezers who still pay too much to read the print edition.