Jill Abramson’s book, Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution is mostly a story of four news organisations during these past two decades of media upheaval, says Philip Delves Broughton.
The news business has been caught in an endless whirlwind ever since the arrival of the internet. Newspapers have seen their traditional business models collapse and only a few have figured out ways to survive, let alone thrive.
All that juicy advertising money which once sent correspondents overseas and covered bar tabs around the world has long since been sucked up by the remorseless machines of Silicon Valley.
Jill Abramson stood briefly at the centre of this chaos. As editor of The New York Times from 2011 to 2014, the first woman to hold the position, her tenure ended in a managerial dust-up involving the Times’ digital strategy.
She was scuppered, she alleges, by the duplicity of Mark Thompson, former director-general of the BBC , who had been appointed chief executive. “Smart as an Oxford don and proud of it,” she writes of her loathed British overlord. “With a shadow of facial stubble and reddish hair, his casual dress concealed a command-and-control ferocity.” His English accent, she says, intimidated the paper’s owners.
Despite this flash of professional score-settling, though, Abramson’s book is mostly a story of four news organisations during these past two decades of media upheaval, two old, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and two new, Vice and BuzzFeed.
The travails of newspapers are well known, and Abramson does a thorough job of describing the contortions at The Times and The Post. Not so long ago senior editors would leave meetings if business issues were raised. It would have been unthinkable to have technologists sitting on the newsroom floor monitoring web traffic.
Yet, here we are, with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owning the Post, impatient for both a strong, tech-driven business and challenging reporting of Donald Trump . His example, albeit lubricated by the world’s largest personal fortune, is showing how the news business can be done.
BuzzFeed originated at The Huffington Post as an investigation into what makes certain pieces of content go viral, just at the moment when social media was taking off. Its earliest content, Abramson writes, “included a compilation of the seven best links about gay penguins, four clips on Snoop Dogg’s new clothing line for pets, 20 celebrity nipple slips, and 15 links to animal pornography”.
To Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed’s magnetic founder, it was all about uncovering people’s subliminal interests, the things which really caused them to click and share. People would never search for videos of basset hounds running, for example, but would inevitably click on them if they saw them.
BuzzFeed made an art form out of lists and quizzes designed to hook users. It created an eight-question quiz — preferred holiday, hobby, etc — to establish “which billionaire tycoon are you?” Rupert Murdoch took it and discovered he was none other than Rupert Murdoch.
Vice started out as a nasty, sexist, violent Canadian lad mag, but evolved into a swaggering digital content farm. It pioneered a form of immersive, sensationalist documentary, as extreme as the personality of its co-founder Shane Smith, who once described his approach to life as “let’s have 14 bottles of wine at dinner, roast suckling pig and a story about chopping a dude’s head off in the desert”.
For years Vice’s bad-boy act and its appeal to young audiences was irresistible to advertisers. It was cavalier about blending editorial and advertising. But its run appears to be coming to an end. Its corporate culture has proved inconsistent with the #MeToo era, and it recently announced lay-offs.
BuzzFeed has also announced recent cuts to its news division, which has hounded President Trump. So Abramson’s story ends in the middle of another big shift, as the old lags find new life and the digital tyros hit an uncomfortable adolescence. A physical book about this constant re-sorting of merchants and guardians of truth, however interesting, seems oddly analogue.