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The non-partisan news dream
There's little evidence it's what people want
My money is on no mugshot, which ruins the dreams of Trump mugshot beach towels being sold at South Beach stores alongside the Tony Montana Scarface ones. This week, I wrote about the non-partisan news dream that persists. First up, a message from The Rebooting supporter Omeda.
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The non-partisan news dream
The coffee shop where I write is a few blocks away from the New York State Supreme Court, where barricades started appearing this weekend ahead of the planned arraignment later today of former president Donald Trump.
The return of the Trump Show is another reminder of how we have lived through a period of notable turbulence and an all-or-nothing mentality. Later today, the indictment will presumably be unsealed, and people will have an opportunity to assess what exactly he’s been charged with. Of course, many have made their minds up already, and those conclusions coincidentally tend to line up neatly with their partisan affiliation.
Like many middle-aged moderates, I find all this unproductive. The malaise of our political system is not new – nobody has ever been happy with politicians, at least in my lifetime – but something acute appears to have happened with the certainty in which people hold their ideological beliefs. On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke to Joe Ruffalo, the recently named general manager of Nexstar’s NewsNation digital operations and The Hill, and he kept coming back to the point of differentiation being “non-partisan news.”
This is a similar mantra preached by Christ Licht at CNN. As Dylan Byers at Puck has meticulously cataloged, that is not yet going great. CNN’s ratings continue to be in the toilet. Producing highbrow documentaries about Russian political dissidents can win awards, only it doesn’t stand much of a chance when going up against “news personalities” fulminating about enemies on Fox News. And of course, the fulminators claim themselves to be non-partisan, fair-and-balanced straight talkers.
Logan Roy’s ATN newsroom speech in Sunday’s episode of “Succession” was the kind of red-meat rallying cry that’s proven effective time and again. He didn’t preach the gospel of non-partisanship, but instead spoke of combat and catering to the audience’s inner beliefs, or prejudices, by producing “something everyone knows but nobody says.” Sounds like Tucker to me. It’s hard to imagine Logan would believe “serious people” should put much stock in non-partisan news. That’s because Logan believes in markets, and it’s hard to see much evidence of a current market desire for such “non-partisan news.” The closest to non-partisan news that exists is the Associated Press wire copy.
The hysteria of Twitter’s changes to verification has resulted in the typical ideological battles, accusations of “woke media” and counter charges that this time, for real, Twitter is dying. It’s a weird world where “60 Minutes” interviewing a prominent politician ignited accusations of “platforming.” I’m old enough to remember when being in the media business meant you believed more speech was always the answer, not less. You can’t be a popular podcaster nowadays without being labeled as a toady for the “anti-woke elite,” again because asking questions of others can be labeled platforming. The developments of AI are fascinating, only it too is becoming a political issue where maximalists tell the world it must accept AI upending societies in unknown ways, possibly to extinction, and a squad of Cassandras screaming that AI’s development be halted.
The quest for non-partisan news will continue, even if there’s little evidence of market demand. And that’s because rich elites love the concept. Few people I have spoken to have high hopes for The Messenger, the ambitious news brand being readied for launch next month from Jimmy Finkelstein, who sold The Hill to Nexstar in April 2021. Jimmy, who is buddies with Trump, also promises a whiff of non-partisanship. Often this label means “center right,” which might be fair because the United States itself is weighted to a center-right political orientation.
The both-sides mantra is catnip to rich people. The Messenger raised $50 million from wealthy investors like Apollo’s Josh Harris. What I tend to observe about very rich people is they believe more people share their sensibilities than reality. It’s the only explanation of VCs proclaiming Saudi Arabia a “startup country” that’s “founder-led.” Silicon Valley the TV show needs to come back.
When I wrote earlier about The Messenger being “ambitious” – it plans to have a 550-person newsroom in a year – I got some pushback.
“I had the opposite reaction. The Messenger lacks ambition. There is nothing about it that hasn't been done to death. It's almost aggressive in its refusal to think, bet and try. Clickbait, SEO games, events, and a right wing tabloid sensibility barely concealed as non-partisan. It's the dearth of ambition that stands out for me.”
I get that from the journalistic mission perspective, although like the Trump indictment, I’d like to see it first. I do think there’s likely room for a U.S. publication that follows the lead of Daily Mail in making news popular. The Daily Mail does not get enough credit for its packaging of news content in a way that reaches people who have tuned out news. I see this regularly in my family. Many times in the news business, we get snobbish about what is popular. This is why elite discourse focuses on prestige TV vs reality TV with bigger audiences.
My personal inclination is to see “non-partisan” as more of a marketing position than an approach. A more realistic non-partisan approach is one taken by Tangle with presenting ideological viewpoints of issues – ignoring them is a fool’s errand – while remaining ruthlessly open minded in interpreting messy issues.
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Don’t forget the mode
David Grant wrote in with his take on the importance of formats with a twist on the hierarchy of differentiation.
1. Mode: This is the consumer attention / moment that drives everything. It’s the most powerful force because it contains all the potential jobs to be done. It’s all downstream from here.
2. Distribution: Next most important because it’s how you access the mode. As a media operator, I’d ask myself “what is the most advantaged way to get to that mode?” and then pursue that distribution. This is not as important as the mode but more important than the format because if what you’re producing (print newspaper) doesn’t fit the mode (standing in line), you’re screwed.
3. Format: Formats are helpful as a competitive differentiator against other people in the same distribution channel fighting for the same mode. That’s why nobody else can pull a Hot Ones (that would be lame) — but you could do Cold Ones, as it would be seen as clever because people understand the general format already.
The Financial Times bought a majority stake in bootstrapped B2B biopharma media company Endpoints News. B2B will remain a safe haven for time to come in media. The FT is not new to B2B, operating FT Specialist. The sector is somewhat protected from many of the tribulations faced on the consumer side. M&A firm Collingwood Advisory conducted a survey of B2B media companies recently that found 38% expect 20%-plus growth in 2023.
Creating a sustainable local news ecosystem is often talked about in gauzy terms. After all, the size of the challenge is daunting. Boston Consulting Group’s media practice modeled a scenario for covering the gap between the expected revenue for local news operations and their operating costs. It came to the conclusion that $750 million to $1.5 billion is likely needed per year. This sounds daunting, although in a $23 trillion economy it isn’t. BCG estimates an endowment fund of $25 billion would do the trick.
After I wrote about Silicon Valley Bank, I got a note that there’s no evidence greed played a role. I’ll cop to cynicism over gullibility any day. There is always a greed motive in financial crises. No surprise then that details are emerging that bank executives tweaked risk models so as to not get in the way of big profits and big paydays for themselves. The same story repeats.
Substack’s crowdfunding campaign has drawn plenty of skeptics. I’m going to talk to Substack CEO Chris Best on an upcoming episode of The Rebooting Show, hopefully released next week. Benedict Evans is digging into the bar chart to try to find basic financial information that somehow wasn’t given to people who invested. I’m not a financial analyst; what I think is important is the tension between Substack’s success – gGetting consumers to pay close to $200m a year to get blog posts by email is a real achievement,” Evans points out –and the expectations of a $585 million valuation, particularly in the changed environment. Living up to investor expectations in media has a bad track record.
Crypto media is in retreat. It stands to reason that many of the picks, shovels and webinar sellers of the crypto boom are suffering in the long crypto winter. The Block, beset by the scandal of somehow being “secretly” funded by SBF of all things, is swapping out its replacement CEO after less than four months. It also cut a third of its employees. I don’t doubt that crypto will have specialist media, only all booms lead to too much of everything as money sloshes everywhere.
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