From Silicon Valley to the White House, threats to journalistic integrity and the legacy institutions that depend on it have — at least in this country — never been more powerful or widespread. But in times of existential crisis, opportunities arise for those who remain focused on their missions and devoted to their readers.
That was, at least in my mind, the most significant of many takeaways from a star-studded keynote panel kicking off Tuesday’s Folio: Show proceedings.
On a panel titled, “State of Siege: Examining the Craft and Business of Journalism, 2017,” The New York Times’ media columnist Jim Rutenberg hosted a conversation between J.J. Gould, recently tapped as The New Republic‘s new editor, Vanity Fair correspondent Gabriel Sherman, Elizabeth Spiers, founder of The Insurrection and former editor-in-chief of the New York Observer, and The Atlantic‘s executive editor, Matt Thompson.
What, exactly, it means to be a media brand in a rapidly changing era was central to the conversation, but while undermining attacks from politicians seem to generate headlines, economic disruptions and a general erosion of influence among the traditional arbiters of truth seemed more concerning to the panel.
“The publishing business model has been disaggregated,” said Sherman. “A lot of double talk is coming out of Silicon Valley. In reality, [Facebook and Google] are giant advertising platforms, built to generate profits, and news outlets should be skeptical of the aims and goals of their social media partners.”
Thompson was more cautious — albeit not necessarily optimistic.
“I think ‘frienemy’ is a good metaphor,” he said. “It’s harder to retain a distinct, core brand identity when someone encounters just one story a month. You need to pay attention even to the tone of a Tweet and make sure it’s in your brand voice.”
Spiers pointed to Facebook’s sluggish response to accusations of abetting Russian interference as evidence of the platform’s questionable motives, adding that expecting platforms to serve as moral arbiters is unrealistic.
“The culture of Silicon Valley is that they tend to fix things after they’re broken,” she said.
But who will fix the media business model once it’s been broken? Seemingly, the consumer his or herself — provided publishers remain committed to their core missions but adaptable to modern consumption habits.
“We have access to a larger audience, but we’re making less money per reader,” said Sherman. “A subscriber model is a much more sustainable business.”
In other words, consumers have shown a willingness to support outlets who provide them with valuable content they can’t get elsewhere.
“As a reporter, I just want my work to be read,” he added. “I don’t really care where it is read, as long as it has an impact.”
Describing his own tenure at The Atlantic, where he served as digital editor, J.J. Gould said his role originally was one of adaptation — taking what worked in print and translating it to the web. Over time, however, he became more focused on what he termed “institution building.”
Among the lessons for publishers: invest in talent; media companies can’t achieve growth without investment, and cutting costs provides short-term relief more than long-term sustainability. Maintain a devotion to your reader, but let go of deep-seated devotions to distribution channels (“When The Atlantic began publishing online, we didn’t call it a ‘pivot to web,'” said Thompson). Perhaps most importantly, recognize that your brand identity is your strongest asset. It’s the foundation of a trusting relationship with your audience, and, ultimately, the only thing that will separate you from your competitors when push comes to shove.
For more on day two of the Folio: Show, click here.