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It would be pretty easy to come up with a long list of reasons why this year was one of the worst in media: everything from mass layoffs at the New York Times and dozens of other struggling newspapers, to the rise of “clickbait” journalism and massive fact-checking errors like the Rolling Stone piece on college sexual assault. But I’d rather take a look at some of the positive developments in the media sphere this year. So here’s my list of things that make me optimistic:
BuzzFeed and Vice Media: Both of these outlets tend to come under fire from those who believe what they do isn’t really journalism, or shouldn’t be as popular as it is, but there is no question in my mind that they are helping to expand digital media in some interesting new directions — and that includes the business of digital media, i.e. native advertising and sponsored content. Both have reached a size where they can no longer be ignored, with market valuations in the $1-$2 billion range, and both are expanding their coverage into dozens of different regions around the world, and doing some impressive “serious” journalism.
It’s also worth pointing out again that both of these new-media behemoths started out as entertainment entities that were overlooked by the vast majority of traditional journalists and media outlets — BuzzFeed supposedly just did cat GIFs and listicles, and Vice Media was just some former pop-culture magazine from Montreal with delusions of grandeur. As Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz (who invested in BuzzFeed earlier this year) said, paraphrasing Clay Christensen: The next big thing always starts out looking like a toy, and these two companies definitely did. But they are no longer.
Bellingcat and Grasswire: One of the best things about the lowering of barriers to journalistic activity that the web provides is that it allows us to see journalism take root in new places, and it allows anyone to participate. Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins is a British blogger who has become a kind of poster child — for me, anyway — for the potential of citizen journalism or networked journalism, or whatever we are calling it now. With virtually no formal journalistic training, Eliot has become one of the foremost authorities on military weapons and terrorist tactics, and he shares all of his process around that through the site Bellingcat.
Just as the web and social tools allow Higgins to crowdsource the verification of news events halfway around the world, they also allow anyone else to do the same, and that’s part of what founder Austen Allred is trying to do with Grasswire — which launches early next year after being in beta for much of this year. Whether it can become a kind of crowdsourced platform for real-time news verification remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating effort and worth watching.
As part of this group, I should also mention Emergent.info, the platform created by my friend Craig Silverman that launched in October. In effect, Craig is trying to do something very similar to Grasswire — to use data and a kind of crowdsourcing approach to make it easier to spot hoaxes and fakes early, and then to spread the news as far and wide as the original fake, which as Craig knows is one of the major problems with social media.
The Daily Dish and Stratechery: It doesn’t get talked about a lot, for a variety of reasons, but the ongoing success of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish is worth celebrating, I think — regardless of whether you agree with his politics. The fact that he has been able to raise close to $1 million from his fans and readers, enough to keep the small business devoted to his blog running, is something that journalists of all kinds should see as a positive development.
Another individual effort is the Stratechery blog from tech strategist Ben Thompson. Analysts of all kinds have had email newsletters for some time now that are an offshoot of their main business, but for Thompson the blog and email newsletter are his business, and he has been able to go from zero to almost self-sufficient in the space of just six months, which is pretty incredible — proof that all you really need is a thousand true fans, as veteran technology writer Kevin Kelly put it in a prescient blog post in 2008.
New York Times and Washington Post: There have been plenty of mis-steps at the New York Times as it has tried to grapple with the reality of online and mobile, and it is far from out of the woods, but there have been a number of promising developments and experiments that show the Gray Lady still has some life in her — from the success of the NYT Now app to portals like The Upshot. And the “innovation report” was a sign that there are plenty within the Times who have the right ideas and approach for this new era, if they can just get out of their own way long enough to let them happen.
The Washington Post has also been showing signs of life recently, after a number of years of doom and gloom, with multiple scoops and a sense that the newsroom feels optimistic about their future for the first time in a long time. The paper has made a number of smart moves since Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acquired it, including a partnership with dozens of regional newspapers that could add subscribers and a recently announced partnership with the Texas Tribune that should add to its investigative abilities.
Medium and Reddit: It gets some criticism for wanting to be both a platform and a publisher, but I think Medium is becoming a fascinating place for all kinds of content — including serious journalism and experiments in native advertising — and it has the added benefit of being run by Evan Williams, a guy who as one of the brains behind both Blogger and Twitter has done more to pull down the barriers between traditional media and the social web than probably anyone other than Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Not only that, but since Evan is probably a billionaire thanks to his holdings of Twitter stock, Medium likely has plenty of runway with which to experiment.
Reddit is a bit more speculative, but I continue to think that it is one of the social platforms with the most unexplored potential for journalism. You can see signs of it happening in sub-Reddits like the Syrian Civil War forum, where they are doing real-time journalism of the kind that Eliot Higgins and others do, and Reddit has added more tools to make that easier. In a sense, many traditional media outlets started with journalism and are trying desperately to add community, while Reddit is doing the exact opposite.
Along those lines, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Reported.ly, the new venture from former NPR staffer Andy Carvin and First Look Media. First Look has come under fire for a number of setbacks, including the departure of Matt Taibbi and a team of journalists he hired to work with him, but I have to give the organization credit for allowing Andy to try and replicate the kind of social-media driven reporting he did during the Arab Spring on Twitter. How well it will work is unknown, but I applaud him for seeing social platforms like Reddit as communities in their own right worth engaging with, not just places to post links.
Are there lots of things to be depressed about or critical of in digital media? Of course there are — and I’m not saying we shouldn’t be critical when it is deserved, or point out where people are failing. But I also think it’s worth noting that there are lots of positive things going on as well, and plenty of reasons to believe that this is one of the most innovative times in media since a guy named Gutenberg repurposed an old wine press and started printing books.