Why the tech-bro takeover of media keeps failing

Shredded newspaper

The mass resignations at the New Republic today are part of a bigger pattern.

Media Twitter is in flames today after a masthead shuffle at the New Republic triggered a public exodus of editors and contributors. However you care to spin these events—either a venerable magazine has been gutted or it’s business as usual at a basically irrelevant joke of a predominantly white publication—one thing is clear: The folks in charge didn’t plan for a mess.

And just who is pulling the strings? 

Chris Hughes and Guy Vidra

The billionaire Facebook cofounder and one-time roommate of Mark Zuckerberg you don’t remember from The Social Network has been TNR’s publisher since buying it in 2012. Guy Vidra, formerly the general manager for Yahoo News, was recently installed as the magazine’s first chief executive. They’ll be able to frame the resignations that followed the departure of editors Franklin Foer and Leon Wieseltier as a clearing away of dead wood—less the expense of staff buyouts—that would otherwise hinder the development of a new, Internet-savvy, vanity press company.

Even so, it seems they’ve successfully alienated the vanishingly small handful of people who actually care about TNR’s (checkered) history and (often mystifying) mission, and they’re hardly the first tech bros who forayed into media only to find themselves becoming a story.

First Look Media

His muckraking mavericks weren’t fans of the “confounding array of rules, structures, and systems.”

The greatest slow-motion corporate trainwreck of 2014 is First Look Media, a venue for “independent journalism” established last year by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who discovered that his muckraking mavericks weren’t fans of the “confounding array of rules, structures, and systems” he imposed from on high. (“Omidyar,” his employees said, “was personally signing off on—and occasionally objecting to—employee expense reports for taxi rides and office supplies.”) He’s lost two of his splashiest hires, John Cook and Matt Taibbi. The former is editor-in-chief of the Intercept, the company’s sole publication, but will return to Gawker at the end of the year, and the latter was slated to head a digital magazine called Racket, which never got off the ground and had its considerable writing talent axed.

SugarString

Still more absurd was the story of SugarString, Verizon’s short-lived technology news site. Because it was backed by the most valuable and second-richest telecommunications company on the planet, the Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill wrote in October, “reporters at SugarString are expressly forbidden from writing about American spying or net neutrality around the world.” Verizon, of course, has fought tooth and nail against net neutrality, and is totally enmeshed with the current surveillance state. At first the company tried to blame the self-serving censorship policy on a lone editor; when that didn’t work, they pulled the plug.

Murdoch and Bezos

Though he could become the kind of employer who rewards hard work with world-class benefits … “it’s not clear that he wants to be.”

These implosions are brought on by a clash of cultures. It’s not that media entities can’t be successfully run by corporatist oligarchs with narrow agendas—Rupert Murdoch controls an empire that reflects his own biases at every level. But he inherited his business, and others of his ilk have a deep experience of the news industry. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos brought his anti-union stance to bear in negotiations with Washington Post staff this year, he was seen as the same clueless outsider who had the audacity to buy the paper in 2013. Though he could become the kind of employer who rewards hard work with world-class benefits, said reporter and guild co-chair Fredrick Kunkle, “it’s not clear that he wants to be.”

The greatest weakness of the Silicon Valley kingpin who now wants to control and disseminate information—and it doesn’t say much for their potential as media moguls—is an ignorance of the narrative driven by their takeover. Traditional publishing, as anyone on its front lines is intimately aware, sits on the edge of extinction. Fortunes today are made in technology. It would be too tempting, as a wealthy startup warrior, to imagine that your entrepreneurial background and resources might revitalize institutions hobbled by debt and panic. They don’t need a viable business plan for their companies because they are the plan. Disruption is the plan. Breaking shit is the plan.

Who could reject this charity? The undervalued people actually churning out the news, who, apart from their existential angst, won’t be condescended to by rich young overnight successes or bow to brands, and will publicly spurn both at any opportunity. Who know that big changes are ahead but want to cling to the vaunted old ways as long as they can. Who will always pinpoint your sleazy ulterior motive and report it. If you’re an Internet billionaire, you can’t be their hero—you’re already the villain.      

Photo by DaveBleasdale/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Miles Klee

Miles Klee

Miles Klee is a novelist and web culture reporter. The former editor of the Daily Dot’s Unclick section, Klee’s essays, satire, and fiction have appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, Vanity Fair, 3:AM, Salon, the Awl, the New York Observer, the Millions,  and the Village Voice. He's the author of two odd books of fiction, 'Ivyland' and 'True False.'