Digital Journalism: The Next Generation

massing_1-062515.jpg
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times/Redux
Jonah Peretti (left), cofounder and chief executive of BuzzFeed, with Ben Smith (center), its editor in chief, New York City, August 2014

1.

It was with great anticipation that I arrived for my appointment at the editorial offices of BuzzFeed on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. Among journalists, no other website has stirred more interest, resentment, or envy. “Why BuzzFeed Is the Most Important News Organization in the World,” ran the headline atop a recent post by a widely read tech blogger. The answer boiled down to BuzzFeed’s having found a business model that allows it to enjoy “true journalistic independence.” (That model is “sponsored content”—copy that is produced jointly by BuzzFeed and an advertiser to blend in with editorial copy, with a small, inconspicuous identifier of the sponsor.) In 2014, BuzzFeed’s revenues surpassed $100 million (or so the company says—it’s privately held and publishes no financial records). Its post in February asking people to vote on the colors of a woman’s dress—was it white and gold or black and blue?—became a national sensation, attracting more than 38 million views.

Earlier, in a tour of first-generation digital news sites, I found most of them stuck in place, unable to advance beyond their initial innovations.* I was now visiting a second generation to see whether they’ve done better at harnessing the unique powers of the Internet. BuzzFeed was founded in 2006 by Jonah Peretti and Kenneth Lerer, both of whom helped create The Huffington Post, and though the site is only a year younger than that organization, it’s generally considered the face of journalism’s future, so it seemed a good place to begin.

From the start, BuzzFeed has been known for its lightweight listicles (list + article), jaunty GIFs (brief animated clips), teasing headlines, and, most of all, cute cats and dogs. When the site a while back announced that it was looking for an associate editor for animals, it received hundreds of applications. At a certain point, however, BuzzFeed realized that it could not live by listicles alone—that its readers were as interested in news and current affairs as they were in celebrity and pop culture. In December 2011, BuzzFeed hired Ben Smith, a respected blogger at Politico, to strengthen its coverage of the 2012 election campaign.

After the Boston marathon bombing sent a surge of traffic to the site, BuzzFeed brought over Lisa Tozzi from The New York Times to build a breaking-news team. It also hired Miriam Elder, a correspondent for The Guardian in Moscow, to create a world desk; it now has a dozen reporters and editors stretching from Mexico City to Nairobi. In 2013 BuzzFeed formed an investigative unit and to run it hired Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist at ProPublica. Last August, BuzzFeed added to its home page a news feed to run parallel to its usual river of froth, and today one can find posts on the “16 Magical Gifts All Unicorn Lovers Will Appreciate” and “21 Celebrities That Prove Left-Handed People Are By Far the Sexiest” alongside dispatches about the war in eastern Ukraine and terrorist attacks in Kenya.

Arriving at BuzzFeed’s editorial offices (housed in temporary quarters while the main office is being renovated), I found two adjoining cavernous spaces filled with long tables, at which sat some two hundred people gazing at computer screens. I was introduced to Shani Hilton, the executive editor for news. Thirty years old, she had worked for NBCWashington.com, the Washington City Paper, and the Center for American Progress before joining BuzzFeed in 2013. I asked her to cite some recent stories she felt were noteworthy. She mentioned a report by Ben Smith about the threat by an Uber executive to dig up dirt on a reporter who had criticized the company (it kicked up a storm); a story by Aram Roston on financial conflicts of interest involving a top NSA official (which led to the official’s resignation); and “Fostering Profits,” an investigation into deaths, sex abuse, and gaps in oversight at the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company. As for regular beats, Hilton mentioned two in which she felt BuzzFeed had excelled—marriage equality and rape culture.

From talking with Hilton and with Ben Smith (now editor in chief) and from sampling BuzzFeed’s home page, I came away convinced of its commitment to being a serious provider of news; there’s a sense of earnest aspiration about the place. At the same time, I was surprised by how conventional—and tame—most of its reports are. Much of BuzzFeed’s news feed seems indistinguishable from that of a wire service. Its investigations, while commendable, fall squarely within the parameters of investigative reporting as traditionally practiced in this country, with a narrow focus on managerial malfeasance, conflicts of interest, and workplace abuses. There’s little effort to examine, for example, the activities of hedge fund managers, Internet billionaires, or other pillars of the new oligarchy.

In April, Ben Smith removed two BuzzFeed posts that were critical of the advertising campaigns for Dove cosmetics and the Hasbro board game Monopoly. Both Dove and Hasbro advertise on the site. After coming under much fire, Smith restored the posts, though he denied that their original removal had had anything to do with pressure from advertisers. Soon after, the writer of the post critical of Dove, Arabelle Sicardi, resigned. So much for “true journalistic independence.” Overall, BuzzFeed’s practice of journalism seems nowhere near as pioneering as the sleek platform it has developed to deliver its product.

Could that change? BuzzFeed recently hired Hussein Kesvani, a reporter in London, to cover life among young Muslims in Britain. The site is also considering starting a beat on the status of women in India. If BuzzFeed were to head further in this direction, it could blaze a new path. So much of today’s reporting is given over to war, terrorism, geopolitical rivalry, and high-level diplomacy. BuzzFeed could pioneer a more grassroots approach, chronicling how ordinary people live, giving a voice to overlooked populations, capturing the daily struggle of citizens as they contend with poverty and prejudice, bureaucratic obstruction and government indifference. Coverage of this sort would, I think, resonate far more strongly with BuzzFeed’s young audience than its current reporting does. Undertaking it, though, would require a radical rethinking of how to use digital technology to cover the world. One way or another, BuzzFeed needs to become bolder and brasher. Otherwise, it will remain known mainly for its cat photos.

In the meantime, the BuzzFeed formula—brisk, entertaining, visually engaging, and reliant on sponsored advertising—has had a mesmerizing effect on second-generation sites. One can see it at Quartz, the glossy business publication launched by Atlantic Media in 2012 (“Why 8-Year-Olds Should Start Thinking About Their Careers”); Business Insider, the gossipy business tip sheet (“10 Things You Need to Know Before the Opening Bell”); and Fusion, the new “multi-platform media company” created jointly by Univision and Disney to reach “a young, diverse, and inclusive millennial generation” (“Here Are 7 Very Racist Emails Sent by Current Ferguson Officials”). To be fair, these sites do employ some talented journalists, such as Felix Salmon at Fusion, but to the extent that true innovation is taking place at them, it’s far more in the presentation than in the practice of journalism.

BuzzFeed’s influence can even be seen at Vox. Launched in April 2014, this venture represents a wager by Ezra Klein that he could do better heading his own site than working at The Washington Post, where his pathbreaking experiment in policy analysis, Wonkblog, proved a huge draw, with some four million pageviews a month. Vox—one of seven sites owned by Vox Media—seeks to marry the technological panache of BuzzFeed with the charts-and-graphs earnestness of Wonkblog. Its trademark feature is “card stacks”—a series of linked pages explaining subjects ranging from campaign finance and voting rights to obesity and e-cigarettes. Reading “11 Facts About Gun Violence in the United States,” I learned that mass shootings are not becoming more common in this country and that they constitute a tiny share of overall homicides; an accompanying graph helpfully showed the details. On foreign affairs, Max Fisher is a lively presence, writing on subjects like “AIPAC’s Most Awkward Tradition: Non-Jewish Politicians Faking Jewishness.”

What Vox most sorely lacks is a sense of outrage. Consider, for instance, a recent post headlined, “Why Does the US Have 800 Military Bases Around the World?” This is an important subject that rarely gets the attention it deserves. Clicking on it, though, I found a very brief discussion that drew heavily on a new book by an American University professor. “American taxpayers are in charge of the bill for keeping these bases running,” the post blandly stated.

This estimated $100 billion is pumped out of our economy to the location of these bases. It’s a massive military system that ensures US influence in every corner of the planet, and given the uncontested nature of this widespread strategy, there isn’t likely to be any change soon.

An accompanying four-minute video was not uncritical—it noted that all other nations maintain only about thirty bases outside their borders, and that many of the US bases were created during the cold war and so may have outlived their usefulness. It did not go beyond that, however. Neither the post nor the video mentioned that this massive system is propped up by a powerful military-industrial complex of defense contractors, arms dealers, lobbyists, and consultants. If this strategy is “uncontested,” Vox could perhaps contest it, for example by questioning the justification for these bases; that’s how change occurs. Embarking on such a course, however, would require it to challenge the Washington establishment, and to judge from my visits to the site, that’s something it’s loath to do.

Similarly anodyne is FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s creation. Mirroring Klein’s move, Silver became such a star at The New York Times that he decided to leave the paper and create something more ambitious under the wing of ESPN. Today, FiveThirtyEight has a staff of more than twenty turning out a steady stream of posts about politics, sports, science, economics, and entertainment, all relying heavily on stats and surveys. In the days leading up to the Academy Awards, the site posted regular updates on the odds of likely winners; with the approach of basketball’s March Madness, it speculated on seeds and upsets. A piece examining why some Democrats attended Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and others didn’t relied heavily on things like “logit regression” and “DW-nominate scores”; no one was interviewed, no real-life political calculations allowed to intrude. FiveThirtyEight exemplifies a troubling tendency in digital journalism—a preference for gathering data available on the Web itself rather than developing new information by picking up the phone or going into the field.

Despite the expansion in his staff, Silver’s visibility has dimmed since his departure from the Times (though it will no doubt rise again in the months before the 2016 election). In response to it, the paper created its own data-driven blog, The Upshot, which, sustained by a staff of fifteen under the direction of David Leonhardt, augments the use of surveys and graphs with interviews and on-the-ground research, thus advancing well beyond anything available at FiveThirtyEight. Similarly, The Washington Post has expanded Wonkblog since Klein’s departure, and the traffic to it has more than doubled.

The journalistic success of both The Upshot and Wonkblog has upended a long-standing presumption about online journalism, best summed up in a 2012 report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. “The fate of journalism in the United States,” it declared, “is now far more squarely in the hands of individual journalists than it is of the institutions that support them.” Since then, however, the era of the go-it-alone star seems to have receded; more and more, institutions such as the Post and the Times, with their financial support and audience reach, are critical.

Even Glenn Greenwald, the epitome of the outspoken, independent-minded, Web-based journalist, has from the start relied on institutional backing—first at Salon, then at The Guardian, and now at The Intercept. Launched in February 2014, The Intercept was greeted with great expectations. Conceived as a means of building on the Edward Snowden revelations, it teamed Greenwald with filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, with backing from First Look Media, an organization created by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar to promote the principles of the First Amendment.

Omidyar promised to invest $250 million over five years in high-impact journalism. In addition to The Intercept, he created another site called Racket, which was to offer sharp, satirical coverage of Wall Street and corporate America; to run it, Matt Taibbi was hired from Rolling Stone. Coming in the wake of Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post, Omidyar’s venture seemed to augur a new era in which Internet moguls would apply their ingenuity—and dollars—to reinventing journalism on the Web.

Before Racket could publish a single word, however, Taibbi was gone, a casualty of bitter internal feuding, and the site was disbanded. The Intercept has survived but been plagued by similar turmoil, including debilitating turf battles between the headstrong journalists on its staff and the executive types at First Look. Their differences were laid bare with unsparing candor by Greenwald and his colleagues in a piece that was posted last October on The Intercept itself. It described the “months of constant wrangling, bubbling resentment, and low-level sniping” that had occurred over perceived infringements on the staff’s independence. Omidyar came in for sharp criticism for, among other things, insisting that he personally sign off on employee expense reports for taxi rides and office supplies.

The report left many wondering whether Greenwald and Omidyar could continue to work together. Somehow they have managed to do so, and Betsy Reed, a veteran editor at The Nation, was brought in to impose some order. Just as things seemed to be settling down, however, senior editor Ken Silverstein left in February, complaining in a blistering piece for Politico about “epic managerial incompetence” at the site, as well as a shortage of editors and a cult of personality around Omidyar. “Where Journalism Goes to Die,” it was headlined.

Yet journalism remains very much alive at The Intercept. In May, for instance, it featured a piece by Jeremy Scahill based on an interview with a member of al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group, who described its brutal treatment of the foreign fighters in its ranks. It also ran a revealing account by Peter Maass about the Justice Department’s prosecution of State Department official Stephen Kim for leaking information to a Fox News reporter about American intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program.

I could give a dozen more examples. Now that the internal squalls at The Intercept seem to have subsided, it faces challenges of a different sort. Can a site devoted to surveillance, surveillance, and more surveillance, with some counterterrorism, national security, and criminal justice thrown in, attract a large and loyal enough following to make a difference? The collapse of Racket along with the departure of Taibbi seems especially significant in this regard, for it was to serve as a much-needed watchdog on the American elite. Betsy Reed says that she plans to widen The Intercept’s focus to include more reporting on Wall Street, business, and the influence of money on politics. It will take that and more, I think, for the Greenwald-Omidyar partnership to cause the type of stir once expected of it.

2.

Similar questions about mission and impact beset digital journalism in general. There’s been an explosion of narrowcast sites providing in-depth coverage of single subjects. InsideClimate News, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its reports on the flawed regulation of the nation’s oil pipelines, has a staff of a dozen covering climate change, clean energy, and fossil fuels. SCOTUSblog follows the Supreme Court with a depth and comprehensiveness unmatched by any other organization, online or off. The Hechinger Report and Chalkbeat cover education and its discontents with more manpower and energy than any newspaper can muster. And The Marshall Project, created by documentarian and ex–hedge fund manager Neil Barsky and headed by former Times executive editor Bill Keller, is dedicated to exploring prison overcrowding, prosecutorial overreach, and police misconduct with similar thoroughness.

On virtually any subject these days, you can find opinionated, informative, provocative sites and blogs. There’s Feministing on feminism, Tablet on Judaism, PandoDaily on Silicon Valley, The Millions on books, Inside Higher Ed on academia, Balkinization on the law, Aeon on philosophy, ALDaily on arts and letters, Deadspin on sports, and on and on and on. By geographic region, there are sites on cities (Voice of San Diego, Baltimore Brew), states (Texas Tribune, MinnPost), countries (Tehran Bureau, Syria Deeply), and the world (GlobalVoices, GlobalPost, Goats and Soda). As traditional news organizations shrink, NGOs and advocacy groups are helping fill the gap. Human Rights Watch, for example, has ninety researchers in thirty-four countries, who contribute correspondent-like reports to its website. Meanwhile, a boom in podcasts, led by Serial, has opened up a new world of high-fidelity news and information, while a young generation of restless videographers, led by Vice, has established a beachhead on YouTube.

I recently asked a friend who divides her time between writing about the environment and working at a nonprofit to list the sites she follows. Like so many other news consumers these days, she says she doesn’t actually go to sites but instead receives feeds arranged through Facebook and e-mail that deliver a steady flow of information from a multitude of sources. They include Environment and Energy Daily, an online policy newsletter; Dot Earth, a blog by Andrew Revkin carried on the New York Times website; Yale Environment 360, operated by the Yale School of Forestry; Grist, a Seattle-based source of climate news; and the website of Field & Stream magazine, which features pieces on conservation aimed at the hunting and fishing crowd. She also follows the environmental coverage on the websites of the Times and The Washington Post. “I can’t tell anymore whether a story I read counts as digital journalism or not,” she told me. “It ceases to be a meaningful distinction.”

Some of these sites are for-profit, supported mainly by advertising; others are nonprofit, relying heavily on philanthropy. Together, they put at my friend’s fingertips more news and information about the environment than was available to even the most well-connected scholar or activist before the rise of the Internet, all of it carefully tailored to her special interests. That, of course, produces its own potentially worrisome byproduct—the fragmentation of the audience. Some have cited this phenomenon as an important factor in the growing ideological polarization in America, with people gravitating to sites that reinforce their preconceptions. Perhaps that is so, but certainly many other factors, like Fox News, are also at work.

What does seem undeniable is the effect that audience fragmentation has had on the ability of journalists to have an impact. With so many sites and outlets competing for attention, it becomes harder for stories to find a foothold. Paul Krugman has praised economic bloggers for elevating the quality of discussion in that field, but it takes someone like Krugman writing regularly about such matters in the Times for that discussion to reach a broader audience, enter the political discourse, and make a difference.

When it comes to impact, traditional news organizations retain an overwhelming edge. It’s hard to think of Web-based stories that have produced as big a bang as Jane Mayer’s report on the Koch brothers in The New Yorker, Dana Priest’s exposés on Walter Reed Hospital and CIA rendition sites in The Washington Post, Alan Schwarz’s stories about football concussions in The New York Times, The Guardian’s baring of the British phone-hacking scandal, and Peter Beinart’s analysis in this publication of the failure of the American Jewish establishment. Even the revelations of WikiLeaks and Snowden, while involving leaks of digital information, were delivered to the public via print-based outlets.

Some of the most heralded innovations on the Web have failed to pan out. An example is “longform,” a movement dedicated to presenting extended, essay-like pieces online. It has had occasional triumphs, like Jon Krakauer’s withering takedown (posted on Byliner) of Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea. Too often, though, longform on the Web has meant slow, writerly, peripheral. Here, for instance, are some of the titles offered by The Atavist, one of the movement’s leaders: “Company Eight,” about corruption among firefighters in the 1880s; “The Zombie King,” about a 1929 book that introduced zombies to America; “Cloud Racers,” about a group of aviators in 1933; and “The Life and Times of the Stopwatch Gang,” about bank robbers in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally, The Atavist does run something of a more urgent nature, like “The Trials of White Boy Rick,” Evan Hughes’s report about a Detroit cocaine dealer of the 1980s who remains in prison long after other, larger dealers were set free. For the most part, though, these longform sites fail to take advantage of the Internet’s immediacy to run stories that might grab hold of readers and change the way they see the world. (Last summer, Byliner itself was reported to be on the verge of closing; it was eventually absorbed by Vook, a digital publishing service.)

Similarly stillborn has been citizen journalism—the gathering of news and information by nonprofessionals. Overseas, in countries gripped by war or ruled by repressive regimes, citizen reporters and photographers have made a vital contribution. In this country, citizen journalism made a splash in 2008, when Mayhill Fowler—following presidential candidates as part of The Huffington Post’s “Off the Bus” campaign—caught on tape Barack Obama’s comment about bitter people who “cling to guns or religion.” Since that incident, I had not heard much about Fowler; from an online search, I discovered that in 2010 she had severed her ties with The Huffington Post because of its refusal to pay her for her work. Reporting, it turns out, is expensive and time-consuming and not something readily performed between shopping and the laundry.

Input from citizens has proved useful in certain limited ways, like providing leads and checking facts. The initial questions about Brian Williams’s account of coming under fire in Iraq, for instance, were posted on Facebook by helicopter crew members who had been on the scene. (Stars and Stripes did the critical follow-up reporting.) And cell-phone cameras have proved an invaluable source of eyewitness footage, as shown in the police-related deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in South Carolina, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

In a similar manner, Facebook, Twitter, and other online vehicles can boost the profile of languishing stories, as occurred with “Kony 2012,” a video aimed at promoting the movement to capture the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Gaining 100 million views in six days on YouTube, it helped focus international attention on the issue (at least for a time). Such outlets can also help bring to the surface alternative points of view. When the coup occurred last December at The New Republic, for instance, the initial expressions of outrage at the desecration of so hallowed an institution were soon joined by another perspective, carried by social media, pointing to the magazine’s monochromatic masthead and its sometimes strident coverage of subjects like race and Israel.

For every such constructive example, however, there are many troubling ones. In one of the most notorious, the Boston marathon bombing set off a wave of inaccurate and outrightly false tweets that spread misinformation about the hunt for the two brothers and much more. (Some traditional news outlets were similarly guilty.) More generally, social media have become a sluice gate for the dissemination of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and vitriol. In “GamerGate,” for instance, video game developer Zoe Quinn, after an ex-boyfriend posted a diatribe about her online, was subject to months of virulent online attacks, including threats of rape, the hacking of her accounts, and death threats; when her home address was leaked online, she sought refuge with friends.

A similar toxicity has seeped into readers’ comments sections. When these were first introduced, most journalists valued them for the instantaneous—and often thoughtful—feedback they provided on articles. Before very long, however, the sections became clogged with insults, slurs, and partisan attacks posted by trolls hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet, and more and more news organizations have decided to either rigorously vet them or drop them altogether.

massing_2-062515.jpg
Joanne Rather/Boston Globe/Getty Images
Brianna Wu, a video game developer who received rape and death threats after tweeting jokingly that misogynistic GamerGate supporters were fighting against a ‘future where women are 8 percent of programmers and not 3 percent.’ A poster of female action heroes from Wu’s video game Revolution 60 hangs on the wall behind her.

As for that once-alluring dream of all writers on the Web—going viral and reaching the multitudes—it has proved mostly illusory. “The odds of going viral are comparable to winning the lottery, but the lottery, to its credit, actually pays out in cash,” Tim Wu, a Columbia law professor and expert on the Internet, has observed. Perhaps because the monetary returns from the Web have proved so meager, many writers seek to drive up their Facebook likes, Twitter followers, most-emailed rankings, and other measures of digital worth. It’s now even possible to hire a writer to prepare a glowing entry for oneself on Wikipedia—a clear violation of the honor-code spirit of that site.

In early March, The Awl, one of a proliferating number of websites dedicated to pop culture, posted a letter headlined, “I Hate Myself Because I Don’t Work for BuzzFeed.” “How can you feel good about yourself,” asked the anonymous writer, “if you don’t work for such a massive, popular, successful company?” The writer went on to denounce the New York media world in general as “soul-draining,” “status-obsessed,” and driven to produce “as many pageviews as possible regardless of ethics or quality.”

It was hard to tell from the letter whether it was a genuine cry of despair or a sly sendup of BuzzFeed. Either way, it highlighted the clubby, inbred nature of the digital news world. It’s ironic that a medium with such democratizing potential has become so highly centralized. BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Gawker, Quartz, Business Insider, The Intercept, Talking Points Memo, and ProPublica are all located a short walk from one another in lower Manhattan, forming a sort of journalistic counterpart to Silicon Valley and replicating the parochialism of the New York media elite.

“With digital technology, people no longer need to be in midtown or lower Manhattan, in the highest-rent area in America,” says Joshua Benton, the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab. “You could be anywhere. But digital technology has concentrated power in New York even more so than before. People could go to the Yucatán and live cheaply, but everyone wants to be in New York.” In the era of printing, Benton observes, America had a highly dispersed news system. A newspaper could circulate only as far as its trucks could drive; this led to the creation of strong metropolitan newspapers. Radio and TV stations, with audiences extending only as far as their signals could carry, developed local news operations. In the digital world, geography is no longer a constraint, so everyone goes for a nationally based audience and national advertisers. The main casualty is local coverage. “I don’t know what the economic incentive is for people to do watchdog journalism in Shreveport or Colorado Springs,” Benton told me.

When one considers the amount of resources that the sites I’ve mentioned have consumed, the level of attention they’ve received, and the number of people they employ, the results thus far seem dishearteningly modest. That’s especially so when compared with the consistently high-quality material produced by such traditional institutions as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. These organizations are commonly referred to as “legacy” institutions—a gently derisive term that lumps them in with Blockbuster and Radio Shack as enterprises that, once thriving, were undermined by more innovative startups. When it comes to actual journalistic practice, however, it’s the media startups that in general seem the laggards.

Yet there are many promising journalistic experiments out there. In a subsequent article, I’ll describe some of them and try to suggest a path toward a new digital future.

—This is the second of three articles. The third article will appear later this year.

  1. *

    See my “Digital Journalism: How Good Is It?,” The New York Review, June 4, 2015.