A couple of years ago, Automattic (makers of WordPress, which powers this blog), Google, and some news-related organizations announced Newspack, a publishing platform that was supposed to be “WordPress for news organizations” (per their site). The original announcement, like all new product announcements, sounded very promising – a publishing platform that had best practices built right in, a curated list of plugins designed to support news organizations, all built on top of the platform that most of the web already runs on. So how did Newspack seem to peter out, especially when other publishing platforms, like Substack, take off?
I think the lack of revolution coming from Newspack stems from the fact that it was trying to offer a technological solution to a fundamentally non-technical problem, which doesn’t work. Specifically, it’s trying to solve the problem of writing and posting articles online, which is literally the easiest, and quite frankly first problem a lot of news organizations solved when building online operations. At this point, the only thing Newspack is offering is built-in plugins for ad and/or subscription support. That’s useful to some people, I guess, but probably not nearly as valuable as the people building it seemed to think. In short, Newspack is a fairly standard CMS (according to WordPress, they already power 42% of the web as of August 2021) with good defaults, and a good selection of plugins already included.
Newspack does solve a problem, namely that smaller news outlets likely have little to no IT budget, but somehow I doubt that’s the biggest problem news outlets need help with. Again, Newspack is an opinionated WordPress install, but you likely could have gotten those opinions and done it yourself from a published list of best practices somewhere. Fundamentally, Newspack just doesn’t seem to offer a value proposition to anyone other than taking a relatively easy task off their hands.
The truth is journalism (the service of informing people about what’s going on in the world) never struggled to adapt to going digital. If anything, it’s gotten easier, more effective, and more accessible thanks to livestreaming and applications like Facebook and Twitter. What’s been hurt by digital was ad revenue-based, mass-targeted sites. As fate would have it, there’s a lot of sites doing that, and they’re all engaged in a heated race to the bottom.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s not just ad-supported sites that are struggling, but organizational news outlets in general. We’ve seen too many organizations bury major stories (Harvey Weinstein), “anchors” (and yes, the quotes are necessary) moving so far away from reading off just the facts that courts have ruled reasonable viewers couldn’t possibly take anything they say as an actual fact (Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson defamation suits), stories alleging conspiracies so massive, pervasive, and serious that you’d think organizations dedicated to news and regularly remind us of the “vital” role they play in “securing democracy” would take the time to make sure they have their facts right and bulletproof, only for us to learn that there was nothing to it (Trump actively worked with the nation of Russia to win the 2016 election, and that the Russians were effectively controlling a sitting US president via blackmail), editors being fired because readers (and reporters) didn’t like what was being printed (Bari Weiss as a result of the Tom Cotton editorial on the summer of 2020 riots), and reports allegedly covering the same events telling 2 completely different stories (the riots – or protests depending on whose coverage you consumed – after the George Floyd murder).
In short, there’s a good reason why trust in traditional, mass media is low and shows no signs of improving. And it’s not just journalism that’s feeling the hit – any organization that has historically acted as a gatekeeper on information seems to be losing trust with the general public. People are taking this as a sign that we need more expertise being promoted in media, but when you look at their proposals more closely, what you see is appreciation for the ability to ignore organizational gatekeepers to hear from scientists directly, all the while saying that media organizations should gatekeep the discussion to what these specific people were saying and remove anyone who deviated from their opinions. Never mind that this is all in the context of a disease that is completely new with facts surrounding it constantly evolving. Never mind that banning people for the content of their postings doesn’t discredit them, but turns them into martyrs and causes people to wonder if they were on to something (remember how the idea that the government was spying on millions of Americans without warrants was a conspiracy theory until the Snowden documents proved otherwise?).
Organizational journalism may be dying, but personality-based journalism appears to be taking off – just see Substack. For the record, I’m using the term “personality-based” instead of “individual” because while the “face” of these newsletters is a single person, some of the bigger writers are paying staff to help edit and produce the content. These journalists are leaning into the reputational nature of journalism, and translating that into subscription-supported business. They can also use their influence to amplify eyewitness posts to major events (like George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent riots in the wake of his death). Because social media applications are built around individuals, personality-based journalism means reports are promoted in a natural voice, under 1 person’s name, in a way that plays well into the whole algorithm thing.
In theory, some of these guys could benefit from something like Newspack providing the editor and, if they wanted, the hosting, for them. Again, that was always the easy part – if a good CMS was all journalists needed you’d see a lot of independent journalists making it big years ago. It turns out what was needed was an easy way to handle making money. Some people built their own service for doing that, but that’s a lot of work. Substack does that as a service (it’s literally the service). That was the missing piece that enabled journalists break out on their own. Journalism is personal now, and I don’t think there’s any saving organizational newsrooms.
The real value in journalism going to personality-based reporting is not just what’s being reported now (although without the requirement of going through organizational gatekeepers more, and more valuable, reporting is coming out), but in what’s not being blocked. That’s how we got reporting on the Harvey Weinstein story, the riots during the summer of 2020, and learned that Covid-19 had been in the US since mid-January 2020. People get really caught up in the fact that bad information exists on the Internet, and demanding that platforms that have no means of determining veracity act as arbiters of truth, which usually means outsourcing that work to the old gatekeepers and censoring anything that got past them. The truth is, we’re pretty good at spotting BS online, but organizational media is really bad at covering things (when they’re not having people wrongly fired for perceived slights).
Journalism is a reputation-based business, and the reputation of the traditional organizations are in a free-fall. That’s not to say the reputation of journalists is falling. The ones breaking away from the old school gatekeepers seem to be doing well. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if working at a major outlet instead of going independent is starting to become a drag on a journalist’s reputation, rather than a sign of credibility. We may not be quite there yet, but things seem to be headed that way. I do think that moving to personality-based options like Substack could be good for journalism. Reputation is everything, and it’s not like these guys have an organizational brand to fall back on (again, that’s turning into an advantage). If they get a reputation for just being wrong, not even spouting conspiracy theories but just consistently making mistakes, they’re out of work as people stop paying money to get bad information. There are a lot of good tools for journalism out there, and it’s enabling a lot of journalists to be truly independent, but there’s no software that can fix a reputation for dropping the ball.