The entrepreneurial spirit rages beneath the breastbone of your average journalist, rivaled in intensity only by his scorn for his bosses. Scratch him and he’ll bleed a gusher of ideas for the brilliant magazine, a breakthrough website, a must-listen podcast or even the revolutionary newspaper that he would launch if only the hacks and dullards clogging the news landscape would absent themselves and some venture capitalist would endow him with a payload of startup cash.
But the mission statements and manifesto these media visionaries compose upon starting their new thing rarely breaks fresh ground. Instead, they retreat to well-grooved cliches handed down, it seems, from earlier visionaries who were handed them by even earlier visionaries. Sometimes it feels like cliches all the way down. They vow to cut through the infoglut. “Stories are too long. Or too boring,” they complain. There’s too much news regurgitation and not enough attention paid to what matters. The existing press fails to “explain the news.” And there’s too much clickbait out there.
Latest to peddle a shopworn journalistic mission statement are the founders of Grid News. While we wish them and all new entrants great success in their new enterprise — the journalistic arts have yet to reach perfection and we believe the world needs more journalists not fewer — they haven’t articulated a unique message for their product.
“Grid is meant for people like you and me who follow the news but want something more. A lot of us are inundated with updates on relentless crises. The flood prioritizes what’s new, not necessarily what is important,” wrote Grid News Executive Editor Laura McGann this week as the website went live. Stating a preference for the “important” over the “new” hardly constitutes a breakaway idea. Likewise, Grid’s “360” approach to coverage — taking an interdisciplinary swipe at a topic with several simultaneous stories — hardly reinvents the wheel. Feature stories and investigative series do that all the time.
Maybe the idea will catch fire, but it reminds me of the original concept at Vox which was going to break stories down into stackable, updated “Vox Cards” to serve as guides to ongoing news stories. “Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower through understanding,” Vox’s founding credo stated as if no other publication had designs on giving their readers an edge with fresh copy. But two years later, Vox Cards were dead.
The Puck News mission statement from last September played the obvious card in its September opener to readers. Editor-in-chief Jon Kelly wrote, “We wanted to create a brand focused on the inside conversation—the story behind the story, the details and plot that only the true insiders knew.” Isn’t getting the inside story not the goal of every ambitious writer and editor? If it’s a given, why should an editor hoot and holler about it being your destination?
If it’s a crime to proclaim on the obvious, then Justin Smith and Ben Smith — whose yet-to-be-named global news organization just entered startup mode — should be sentenced and jailed immediately. Defector writer Albert Burneko rightly ridiculed Smith and Smith for their plans to target their new operation at the 200 million college-educated English speakers on the planet they think are underserved by the current press. You could make a case that the 200 million are underserved, Burneko notes, but if you ignore the output of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, New York magazine, Harpers, TIME, the National Review, the New Republic, Insider, the Intercept, ProPublica, the Columbia Journalism Review, Vanity Fair, Mother Jones, the Federalist, the Nation, Jacobin, the Washington Examiner, the Hill, Reason, Bloomberg and the Daily Beast.
While nobody should underestimate Smith and Smith and everybody should applaud their promise to create something new, neither has communicated what shape it will take other than it will be great. In an internal memo that Axios’ Sara Fischer smoked out, Justin Smith claims that “existing news institutions” have been “ill-equipped to change direction.” Indulging himself with the catastrophism that many new media delight themselves with — remember when upon founding Axios Jim VandeHei claimed, “Media is broken — and too often a scam”? — Smith wrote that the news business was in a shambles. “Faced with the technological and societal disruptions of the past two decades, traditional editorial institutions have become almost paralyzed — operationally, politically, culturally,” he stated [emphasis added in both quotations].
Broken? Paralyzed? Yes, most daily newspapers have been in decline for decades and few of them make the 30 percent margins they did before the competitive force of the Internet scorched them. But it’s a crazed overstatement to declare traditional institutions hobbled. Did not the New York Times rescue itself from doom thanks to record subscription revenues? Did the Times just not pay $500 million for the Athletic? Did not the Ringer just go for about $200 million? Did not Axel Springer buy the parts of Insider it didn’t already own for $343 million in 2015 and POLITICO just the other day for $1 billion? Sale prices don’t of themselves prove that journalism isn’t as broken as the doomsayer’s insist, but they do attest to a kind of journalistic vitality. Readers, many of them willing to pay for what they consume, want what these outlets are pumping out, whether it’s sprawling investigative pieces or terse morning newsletters.
So if the current journalistic scene is such a fiasco, why have so many challengers rushed in to compete with the incumbents? Obviously, because the new entrants figure they can make money and build lasting institutions — or sell them at a profit. The journalistic landscape has always been fluid, with old behemoths giving way to new aspirants. It stands to reason that the newbies, many of which are on their way to becoming the new media establishment, would adopt the PR logic that old is bad and new is great because, of course, they’re new. It also stands to reason that they’ll adopt many of the wrinkles they criticized in their founding statements as they succeed. POLITICO’s founding statement from 2007 promised, “We won’t usually be chasing the story of the day,” a statement that was soon rendered inoperative.
Not every startup brags about remaking the journalistic world. The crew at Punchbowl News under-promised and over-delivered with this modest mission statement a year ago: “We’ll focus relentlessly on the people in Washington who make decisions, and on the news and events that will move political markets.” In launching Airmail in 2019, Graydon Carter merely promised more of what he thinks people like. “Our goal is to provide you with a jaunty, entertaining, but also serious weekend edition, delivered to your in-box every Saturday morning at six o’clock New York time,” Carter wrote. “We aim to surprise you.” Who were his prospective readers? “They’ll be a sophisticated person. They’re not backpackers, and they’re not in Las Vegas, drinking Champagne and sitting around in their heart-shaped bathtub,” he told the New York Times.
What possesses news founders to inhabit the grandiose? The profits at the New York Times are not so grand that anybody would invest the sort of money needed to displace it. When pitching investors, founders feel compelled to exaggerate the novelty of their prospective startups, composing the most exaggerated headlines for their baby’s birth announcements. Too often, it seems, the founder is still drunk on his own pitchmanship when introducing his publication to its readers.
The original motto for the Adolph Ochs-era New York Times was “It Will Not Soil the Breakfast Cloth.” He later changed it to “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Send your mission statement to [email protected]. My email alerts are broken, my Twitter is paralyzed, but my RSS feed is fully ambulatory.