An entrepreneurial spirit rages in the chest of the average journalist, rivaled only by his contempt for superiors. Scratch him and he’ll come up with a fountain of ideas for a brilliant magazine, a breakthrough website, a must-listen podcast, or even a groundbreaking newspaper that he’ll launch, if only the hacks and morons who litter the news landscape disappear of their own accord and venture into some enterprise. . a capitalist would endow it with a payload of seed money.
But the mission statements and manifestoes these media visionaries craft when starting their new venture rarely break new ground. Instead, they retreat to well-honed clichés, apparently inherited from earlier seers, which were passed down to them by even earlier seers. Sometimes it seems like a cliché. They vow to overcome information overload. “The stories are too long. Or too boring,” they complain. Too much news regurgitation and not enough focus on what matters. The existing press cannot “explain the news”. And there’s too much clickbait.
The latest to trade in a well-worn journalistic mission are the founders of Grid News. While we wish them and all new entrants great success in their new venture – the art of journalism is not yet perfect and we believe the world needs more journalists, not less – they have not formulated a unique message for their product.
“The grid is for people like you and me who follow the news but want something more. Many of us are inundated with news of relentless crises. The flood prioritizes what’s new over what’s important,” Grid News executive editor Laura McGann wrote this week when the website launched. Preferring “important” over “new” is hardly a breakaway idea. Similarly, Grid’s approach to 360° lighting – a multidisciplinary approach to a topic with multiple simultaneous stories – hardly reinvents the wheel. Fiction stories and investigative series do this all the time.
This idea might catch fire, but it reminds me of the original Vox concept, which was going to break stories into stackable, updated “Vox cards” that would serve as conduits to current news. “Our mission has never been more important than at this moment: to empower through understanding,” declared Vox’s founding credo, as if no other publication was keen to give its readers the edge with fresh copy. But two years later Vox Cards died.
The Puck News mission statement from last September played an obvious card for readers in early September. Editor-in-Chief John Kelly wrote, “We wanted to create a brand focused on the inside conversation – the story behind the story, the details and plot that only real insiders knew.” Isn’t getting inside information the goal of every aspiring writer and editor? If that’s a given, why does the editor have to yell and yell that this is your destination?
If stating the obvious is a crime, then Justin Smith and Ben Smith, whose as-yet-unnamed global news organization has just been launched, should be immediately convicted and jailed. Defector writer Albert Bourneco rightly ridiculed Smith and Smith for their plans to target their new operation to the 200 million college-educated English speakers on the planet who they feel are underserved by the current press. You can prove that 200 million people are underserved, Burneko notes, but if you ignore the results The newspaper “New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Atlantic, New Yorker, New York magazine, Harpers, TIME, National Review, New Republic, Insider, The Intercept, ProPublica, Columbia Journalism Review, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, federalist, nation, Jacobin, Washington Examiner, Hill, Cause, Bloomberg and Daily Beast.
While no one should underestimate Smith and Smith, and everyone should applaud their promise to create something new, neither of them revealed what form it would take other than that it would be great. In an internal memo smoked out by Axios’ Sarah Fisher, Justin Smith argues that “existing news outlets” are “poorly equipped to change direction.” Indulging in the catastrophism that so many new media admire—remember when, after founding Axios, Jim VandeHey said, “The media doesn’t work—and all too often it’s a scam”? Smith wrote that the news business is in decline. “Faced with the technological and social upheavals of the past two decades, traditional editorial institutions have been nearly paralyzed – operationally, politically and culturally,” he said. [emphasis added in both quotations].
Broken? Paralyzed? Yes, most dailies have been in decline for decades, and few of them are making the 30 percent profit they had before the competitive power of the Internet burned them out. But it would be a wild exaggeration to say that traditional institutions are lame. Is not The newspaper “New York Times save yourself from destruction with record-breaking subscription revenues? Is once just not pay $500 million for Athletic? Didn’t the Ringer just go about $200 million? Isn’t Axel Springer buy pieces of Insider he didn’t already own for $343 million in 2015 and POLITICO just the other day for $1 billion? Selling prices alone do not prove that journalism is not as corrupt as doom predictors claim, but it does indicate a kind of journalistic vitality. Readers, many of whom are willing to pay for what they consume, want what these publications produce, whether it’s extensive investigations or short morning newsletters.
So, if the current journalistic scene has been such a fiasco, why are so many contenders rushing to compete with the actors? Obviously because the new entrants believe they can make money and build strong institutions or sell them for a profit. The journalistic landscape has always been fluid, with old behemoths giving way to new challengers. It goes without saying that newcomers, many of whom are on their way to becoming the new media establishment, will adopt the PR logic that old is bad and new is good, because of course they are new. It also goes without saying that they will adopt many of the shortcomings they criticized in their founding statements when they succeed. POLITICO founding statement of 2007 promised“Normally we won’t chase the news of the day,” a statement that soon fell into disuse.
Not every startup boasts of remaking the journalistic world. The Punchbowl News team under-promised and over-delivered in this humble mission statement a year ago: “We will relentlessly focus on the people in Washington who make the decisions, and the news and events that will impact the political markets.” By launching Airmail in 2019, Graydon Carter simply promised more of what he thought people liked. “Our goal is to provide you with a bright, entertaining yet serious weekend edition that will be delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning at 6 p.m. New York time,” Carter wrote. “We aim to surprise you.” Who were its potential readers? “They will be sophisticated people. They are not tourists, and they are not in Las Vegas, drinking champagne and sitting around in their heart-shaped bath,” he told the New York Times.
What possesses the news founders to inhabit the grandiose? The New York Times’ earnings are not big enough for anyone to invest the money needed to replace it. When attracting investors, founders feel compelled to exaggerate the novelty of their potential startups by coming up with the most exaggerated headlines for their baby announcements. All too often, it seems the founder is still drunk on his own propaganda when presenting his publication to readers.
The original motto of the New York Times of the Adolph Ochs era was “The breakfast table doesn’t get dirty.” He later changed it to “All printable news”. Send a mission statement to [email protected]. My email alerts aren’t working, my Twitter is paralyzed, but my RSS feed is fully moving.