Exit Ezra, Smiling

Jan 21 2014 @ 11:04am

The New Yorker's David Remnick Hosts White House Correspondents' Dinner Weekend Pre-Party

The last few years have been fascinating to watch as new media stars have both benefited from and then fallen out with big media companies. Nate Silver is the obvious example. He went from being an independent blogger – heavily linked by the Dish among other new media sites – to becoming the true star of the NYT’s 2012 election coverage. Then he and the NYT could not figure out a mutually beneficial deal, and he quit to run a new 538-style site at ESPN.com. It won’t launch for a bit (maybe March, I hear). But ESPN, as they showed with Bill Simmons’s original blog and now Grantland, is one of the very few big media outlets to find a way to a win-win proposition with Internet stars.

Or think of Glenn Greenwald. First an immediate blogging sensation; then Salon, then the Guardian and now … working on his own news-and-opinion website, with a massive global brand, funded by the founder of eBay. The WSJ’s Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg are also now exiting the WSJ’s employ to start their own site. The Dish’s story – until last year – was also a story of trying – and failing – to get a win-win arrangement with media companies interested in allying with us.

The truly frustrating thing about all this is that it was surely in everyone’s interests to stick together – legacy media with new media stars is a win-win proposition. And yet almost every time – the one exception I can think of may be Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook – the deals have unraveled. The egos of legacy media honchos and the energy of new media stars could not quite get along. Mutual resentment, the thorny question of compensation, and the power of personal brands all played a part.

For some, the entire model of individually branded content is a dismaying idea.

Michael Wolff cannot understand it.  His best shot at a description is that we are “less interested in the publishing business per se than in a kind of channel purity and deepness.” But then, Wolff is a big believer in old-school massive media conglomerates, is one of Rupert Murdoch’s primary hagiographers, and with respect to Roger Ailes, makes Mike Allen look like a footnote in the annals of brown-nosing. Today, he’s celebrating the end of net neutrality, so that big media companies – owned by the super-rich – can begin monopolizing again. He finds it mysterious that some writers might actually be in new media not just for the money but also for the freedom to say what they want whenever they want in ways not constrained by highers-up. I’m not so mystified.

Which leads me simply to wish Ezra the best of luck. There are many models going forward, and Ezra may not be content with the Dish’s slow, organic, reader-funded evolution. But we do not exactly have a surplus of trying to find new profitable models for non-listicle, non-sponsored-content journalism. If Ezra can help with that, he can help all of us, but especially readers. Not all of them want to read the stuff that only very, very wealthy corporations think is fit to publish. They might even forgive a few niche interests and quirkiness in the process.

Update from a reader:

You wrote:

The egos of legacy media honchos and the energy of new media stars could not quite get along. Mutual resentment, the thorny question of compensation, and the power of personal brands all played a part.

I think this phenomenon is more general. I have known numerous tech companies that were acquired by behemoths, or spun off as subsidiaries rather than independent companies. I worked for one of them. In every case, the management of the parent swore on a stack of Bibles that they wouldn’t interfere with the entrepreneurial culture of the new venture (as if they knew what the word “entrepreneurial” meant). In each case they couldn’t resist meddling, with serious and sometimes fatal consequences for the spinoff.

There were many reasons, of course: financial straits, changes in corporate strategy, new competitors. But I think the common denominator is the irrevocable human tendency to prefer control over success.

Brilliantly put.

(Photo: Journalist Ezra Klein attends The New Yorker’s David Remnick Hosts White House Correspondents’ Dinner Weekend Pre-Party at W Hotel Rooftop on April 26, 2013 in Washington, DC. By Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The New Yorker.)