Opinion

Jack Shafer

Journalism’s new Marquee Brothers

Jack Shafer
Aug 21, 2013 22:03 UTC

When Nate Silver packed his FiveThirtyEight.com flag into a box this summer and trundled it from the New York Times, where it had flown for the last three years, for planting at ESPN, he cemented his status as one of the Marquee Brothers, that fraternity of overachieving reporters whose journalistic triumphs have inspired media outlets to grant them nation-state status inside the greater organization.

In exchange for a mountain of ESPN cash and the authority to hire a team of his own, Silver will now apply his statistical hoo-doo to every sporting event, political twist, weather record and market phenomenon for which sufficient data has been assembled. In addition to running the sports numbers for ESPN on his own site, scheduled to launch January 1, Silver will also be performing political and polling analysis for the network’s cousin, ABC News. “Sports might be a third of the content,” he said about his site. “Politics might be a third.”

Other brotherhood members include Ezra Klein, the lord of the Washington Post’s Wonkblog; Walt Mossberg, perhaps the Ur-brother, whose Wall Street Journal column about personal tech birthed a conference business and more at All Things D [see addendum below]; Andrew Ross Sorkin, the founder and boss of DealBook at the Times; Andrew Sullivan, whose AndrewSullivan.com crew has operated inside  Time magazine, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, and is now independent; the Freakonomics guys (economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner), who were indie, set up shop at the Times, and went back to being indie, and the various sports stars, Peter King of Sports Illustrated, who captains The MMQB, and Bill Simmons, who does a slew of things for ESPN, Grantland (founded 2011), The B.S. Report and TV. (Depending on how liberally you want to define the brotherhood, baseball writer Peter Gammons may also fit. He just launched Gammons Daily for TruMedia Networks.)

The rise of the Marquee Brothers is, as best I can determine, unprecedented in American journalism. Journalism has traditionally been a portable art: A reporter can move his boxes to a new publication and file that day. Star columnists—Walter Lippmann, Heywood Broun, Westbrook Pegler and Drew Pearson in ancient times—regularly migrated to new papers or syndicates, or established broadcasting beachheads, as Walter Winchell famously did. Other syndicated columnists, such as Pearson and Jack Anderson (“Washington Merry-Go-Round“) and Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, hired staffs and pursued their own editorial muses. Likewise, columnists and politicians have long been recruited to host cable news talk shows. But the semi-independent scribe working directly inside a news operation with a staff and brand of his own, and substantial autonomy from the remainder of the organization, appears to be a new thing.

“The Nate Silver analogue of the 1800s would have just started his own paper, because it was so cheap to start one,” said Jonathan Ladd, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters.

Jeff Bezos has two words for you: ‘No comment.’

Jack Shafer
Aug 19, 2013 22:12 UTC

When journalists pressed William Henry Vanderbilt in 1882 about his plan to discontinue his railroad’s popular but unprofitable mail run, the richest man in the world reportedly exclaimed, “The public be damned!” Whether Vanderbilt said “be damned” or not — he claimed to have been misquoted — business titans of the Gilded Age routinely assumed this default posture.

Extending the big buzz-off to the press and the public is a tradition that Jeff Bezos’s Amazon.com Inc. has restored to the commonweal, as the New York Times slyly noted yesterday in its business section feature about the $25 billion man. As many journalists noted, the piece quotes James Marcus, former Amazon employee and current executive editor of Harper’s magazine, talking about the company’s sense of reserve. “Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’” said Marcus. The next line of the Times story went completely meta, reading, “Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.”

It doesn’t matter whether the topic is Amazon operations, the number of Kindles it has sold, the company’s video plans, a new Kindle commercial that tweaks the iPad, Bezos’s plans for his Blue Origin rocket or Bezos’s recent salvage of the sunken Apollo 11 rocket engines: “no comment” is the default response by Bezos and the company. Today, when the entire Amazon site went down for about 45 minutes, some reporters couldn’t even reach a company spokesman to gather an explanation for the outage. 

News never made money, and is unlikely to

Jack Shafer
Aug 15, 2013 19:26 UTC

Sometime in the mid-1990s, the Web began to peel from the daily American newspaper bundle its most commercial elements, essentially the editorial sections against which advertisements could be reliably sold. Coverage of sports, business and market news, entertainment and culture, gossip, shopping, and travel still ran in daily newspapers, but the audience steadily shifted to Web sources for this sort of news. Broadcasters had dented newspaper hegemony decades ago, absconding with breaking news and weather coverage, and inventing new audience pleasers, such as traffic reports and talk. But it was the Web that completed the disintegration of the newspaper bundle that dominated the news media market for more than a century. In addition to pinching the most commercial coverage from newspapers, the Web has also made off with the institution’s lucrative classified ads market, simultaneously reducing its status as the premier venue for content and advertising.

This isn’t to say newspapers deserted the commercial news categories. Newspapers have maintained their presence in the sports-weather-business-entertainment-culture departments to attract readers who attract advertisers. Even so, circulation has eroded and ad revenues have fallen to below 1950 levels in real dollars. The units of the newspaper bundle not yet ransacked by the Web — international, national, state, local, and political coverage – have (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) little-to-no commercial potential. Traditionally, newspapers have struggled selling space to advertisers by invoking these news varieties unless the news is absolutely spectacular or sensationalized. As the bundle fragments, it becomes more difficult for publishers to support non-commercial news.

Outlets such as Politico (a child of the Web) and the Bureau of National Affairs (a pre-Web entity, now owned by Bloomberg), which were designed to commercialize news about politics, the federal government, regulatory affairs, political campaigns, law, and lobbying, have succeeded in targeting an elite Washington, D.C., audience with this kind of news. But those successes don’t subtract from the fact that Washington news is a loss leader for most mainstream newspapers. The same is largely true of international and national news. No mass audience is willing to directly pay for such news outside of the one already served by the New York Times (combined daily print and digital circulation, 1,865,318). Even At the Times, subscribers now contribute more revenues than advertisers, indicating that they value its mission more than Madison Avenue does.

The next publisher of the Washington Post is…

Jack Shafer
Aug 12, 2013 21:19 UTC

I resist making predictions if only to avoid the inevitable disappointment when they fail to peg future events. As best as I can tell, every forecast, every prophecy, every reading of entrails and chicken bones that I’ve committed to print (or its digital equivalent) has failed to come true. But this time I think I’ve read enough into my tea leaves to confidently assert my suspicion that in early October, after Jeff Bezos consummates the deal he made with Donald Graham to purchase the Washington Post for $250 million, one of his first acts of ownership will be to name Vijay Ravindran his publisher of the newspaper.

Ravindran, who holds the title of senior vice president and chief digital officer at the Washington Post Co., seems like such a logical fit for the job I feel guilty about killing that goat and boiling a chicken to confirm my hunch. Ravindran’s company biography makes him sound like a research product bred specifically to replace the Washington Post‘s current publisher and chief executive officer, Katharine Weymouth.

Ravindran previously worked as a software engineer and technical manager between 1998 and 2005 at Bezos’s Amazon, where he labored to help bring 1-Click ordering, Amazon Prime, and other advances to the online shopping. From 2005 through the 2008 election, he was chief technology officer at Catalist, a D.C.-based vendor of voting-list databases for progressive clients. Since joining the Post Co. in 2009, Ravindran has sought to transfer some of Amazon’s technological gravitas to its online operations. WaPo Labs, which Ravindran founded and leads, has developed several experimental services including Trove, a news personalization site that I use daily, and others that I’ve never touched, including the Post‘s Social Reader and its Poll Watch app. As part of his techno-push, the company has also recruited such talented folks as Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame. Last year, SocialCode, the Post Co. social advertising agency that Ravindran helps lead, made news when it “acquihired” 15 engineers from the previous incarnation of Digg.com.

Jeff Bezos is an owner who knows how to deliver

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2013 23:21 UTC

As the American newspaper business began its red-ink slide in the late 2000s, I fully expected a billionaire to rescue the financially struggling Washington Post. But I never thought its savior would be Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who purchased the paper today for $250 million.

I put my money on Michael R. Bloomberg’s money, in a July 2012 column titled “How Bloomberg can still run Washington” because he seemed like such a logical buyer. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg already owned a media empire comprised of a news service, a cable channel, a weekly magazine, and more. Unlike Bezos, Bloomberg had toyed in semi-public with the idea of buying either the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. Unlike the 49-year-old Bezos, who has been building spaceships and an eternal clock with his mad money, the aging (71 years old) Bloomberg seemed to need one last great gesture in his career before called to paradise. He wasn’t ever going to be president, a campaign he had gamed out. As for running the World Bank, a job Bloomberg was reportedly shopped to fill, well, that would be a step down from Emperor of New York City.

My matchmaking ploy failed. Washington Post Co. CEO Donald E. Graham, whose family owns a controlling interest in the company that owns the paper, humorously rebuffed my proposal in a tart email. Bloomberg didn’t knock on my door offering to pay me a finder’s fee. My idea was completely forgotten — even by me! — until today.

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