Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
At the beginning of this year, an otherwise innocuous job ad — looking for an executive editor to oversee a site about technology — got more than its fair share of attention. Why? Because the entity that posted the ad wasn’t a traditional media company. The opening was for a job at Andreessen Horowitz, an influential venture capital firm in Silicon Valley that has developed a reputation for avoiding the traditional technology press, and this raised a number of questions. Was the proposed site another way to do an end run around the media industry, from a powerful investor who believes that some (if not all) traditional industries need to be disrupted by technology?
A former analyst at Andreessen Horowitz, Benedict Evans, famously described it as “a media company that monetizes through venture capital.” The firm’s assets under management — the stakes it holds in companies like Airbnb, Stripe, and Instacart — are worth about $16 billion. If such an organization really wanted to disrupt an industry like the media, it clearly has the power to do so.
Andreessen Horowitz may still have a master plan to overturn established media, but for now at least, members of the press can probably rest easy. Based on the launch of the firm’s new venture — which is simply called Future — the only thing that might be disrupted is the op-ed industry, and in particular the vast universe of opinions about technology. Sonal Chokshi, the former Wired senior editor turned Andreessen Horowitz editor-in-chief. told CJR the venture firm has no intention of trying to use its new offering to duplicate what journalists do. In other words, it will be focused on personal opinion rather than reported stories. “We’re not going to do what good reporters do, in terms of investigative journalism etc.,” she said. “Others are already doing a good job of that.”
The iea behind Future is to “go for the first person and get the voices out there directly, undiluted,” Chokshi said. “And we’re talking about more nuanced, long takes, not just someone saying ‘I believe this.” The idea is to cover technology such as gaming and cryptocurrency in a “deep and kind of wonky” way, she said, but also to make it more accessible. “We’re at the center of a bunch of networks — policy makers, technologists, and so on — and we believe we can help curate some of those sources.” The executive editor job was ultimately filled by Maggie Leung, a former journalist who has worked for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN.
So will Andreessen Horowitz censor some of the content on the site, or shape it in ways that would promote the firm’s investments? “I absolutely hate when people say we are just going to be relentlessly positive because we’ve invested in it,” Chokshi said. “Someone said we had the best explainer on Section 230, and that kind of thing really matters to me, that editorial rigor. I’m a hardass editor, and this is my bread and butter and my identity — that value has been baked into the process.” Andreessen Horowitz may be in the investment business, but according to Chokshi it also values “the independence of the editorial process.” No one has ever dictated who should be on the firm’s podcast, she said, and with the site’s op-eds, “we definitely will probe the essence of the idea. We’re not just going to run some essay by some rich guy without interrogating it.”
For the moment at least, Future doesn’t really look like it has the resources of a $16 billion investment giant behind it. The site is relatively drab by current web publishing standards, with a front page that is more or less just a list of article headlines like “Well-Behaved Bubbles Often Make History,” and “Designing Internet-Native Economies: A Guide to Crypto Tokens.” Not many of the pieces have images in them either, Chokshi said, and both of these things are deliberate. “For the home page, there’s definitely a bias for information density,” she said. “And for articles, I like images, but not gratuitous ones. They should support or illustrate or advance the narrative.” Disruptive? Perhaps. But only to the advertising and traffic-driven nature of the web, which might actually be a good thing. Another benefit of being owned by billionaires.
Here’s more on Andreessen Horowitz and media:
Silence is tactical: In an essay about the change in Andreessen Horowitz’s media strategy, Eric Newcomer talks about how it began to shift as public opinion started to turn against technology. The firm has “largely stopped cooperating with the media..I’ve talked to a number of reporters at top outlets and that’s the consensus,” Newcomer said. “For the past couple years, the firm has been quiet even anonymously. Andreessen Horowitz has mostly abstained from participating in media coverage.” Newcomer said the firm’s comments about the press raised questions: “How much of the firm’s silence is tactical? And how much simply reflects an anti-media ethos that has penetrated the firm’s leaders?”
Risk of going direct: Former Fortune magazine writer David Morris, who now works for the crypto news site CoinDesk, writes that as innocuous as it seems, there is a risk to the kind of direct-to-audience writing Andreessen Horowitz is doing. “It does risk reducing the traditional press’s ability to ask hard questions of the businesses themselves,” said Morris. “This has already happened with Tesla, a company that can communicate directly with its rabid fanbase so effectively that it actually disbanded its public relations department in 2020. There’s literally nobody there anymore to answer questions from the press, a situation that ultimately increases the risk for Tesla stockholders.”
Eating the world: Writer Tad Friend’s profile of Andreessen in The New Yorker in 2015 paints the billionaire as someone who had a relatively poor and unfulfilling upbringing in the wilderness of Wisconsin (something Andreessen refuses to talk much about), who became convinced that technology had to reinvent not just music or movies or software, but virtually everything—education, politics, government, medicine, and yes, media. This would eventually become the theme of the venture capitalist’s influential op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, entitled “Why Software Is Eating The World.”
Other notable stories:
After more than two years worth of talks, including a recent protest outside Anna Wintour’s house in Greenwich Village, union employees at The New Yorker have reached a deal with their parent company, Condé Nast, the New York Times reports. “The deal with Condé Nast includes base pay of $55,000 for employees at all three unions, rising to $60,000 by April 2023,” the paper reports. Under the agreement, many employees at the three publications will receive wage increases of at least 10 percent, the unions said in a statement.
Bill Adair, the founder of Politifact, writes about the lessons learned from Squash, a 12-year project to create an automated fact-checking engine that could check political facts in real time. Although Adair says the project “has been a remarkable success,” he says there have been some problems as well. “Squash also makes lots of mistakes,” he admits. “It converts politicians’ speech to the wrong text (often with funny results) and it frequently stays idle because there simply aren’t enough claims that have been checked by the nation’s fact-checking organizations. It isn’t quite ready for prime time.”
Facebook has asked its independent Oversight Board to advise it on how to deal with accounts that post other people’s personal information — address, phone number, etc. Some would argue that this form of “doxxing” is never appropriate, but Facebook said in referring the question to the Board that there are some situations in which the sharing of this kind of information might be justified, such as for purposes of “journalism and civic activism.” While the Board’s advisory opinion is not binding, Facebook must provide a public response and details on any follow-up actions within 30 days of receiving the Board’s recommendations.
Carrie Budoff Brown, the top editor at Politico, is leaving to join NBC and run editorial programming for the network’s “Meet The Press” franchise. Budoff Brown will be responsible for all programming on television, digital, and streaming services, “and will work to expand the iconic brand’s reach and impact even further,” Noah Oppenheim, NBC News president, said in a memo to staff obtained by The Washingtonian. Budoff Brown joined Politico in 2007, and has been a staff writer covering the Senate, and the White House, and the managing editor of Politico Europe. She became editor in 2016.
Savannah Jacobson writes for CJR about the New York mayoral race, and interviews seven residents of the city about how they have been following the election. “Age seemed to be the best predictor of news habits: older people looked to traditional outlets — the Times, the tabloids, TV — while their younger neighbors followed the race through social media. The politically engaged among us rattled off a list of local news outlets; others expressed frustration with what they viewed as inadequate coverage, especially compared with the wall-to-wall presidential election news they’d seen a few months ago.”
One of the people being recognized for the role she played in the publication of the Pentagon Papers at the New York Times in 1971 is Linda Amster, who was a 33-year-old researcher for the newspaper at the time. Despite spending eight weeks helping to catalog and decipher the information in the documents, Amster was not given any credit in print when they were published, according to Washington Post media columnist Eric Wemple. Her supervisor at the time recalls that her name was left off the credits because editors were afraid they might go to jail, and they didn’t want Amster to go to prison.
Newsrooms need to treat coordinated online attacks on their reporters — such as the recent attacks on Mara Gay, of the New York Times editorial board — as though they were propaganda, writes former journalist and PR consultant Ed Zitron. “This is not a case of people being mean to other people, it’s coordinated, anti-democratic, anti-free press propaganda, ironically weaponizing the language and methods of the free press. It is a form of warfare, except it’s not engineered by countries to attack other countries – it’s private enterprises and individuals bringing war to the doorsteps of reporters.”
Former foreign correspondent Natacha Yazbeck writes for CJR about the research she has done into the use of local stringers and fixers for reporting on Syria, and how that takes a toll on them and on journalism in general. “The picture that emerges from this research is a complex, hierarchical ecology of newsmaking that marginalizes those it depends on for coverage,” Yazbeck writes. “Stringers face forms of precarity that further compound the difficulties that already confront foreign freelancers.”
Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, says it is shutting down comments on its Facebook page for a month as an experiment, in part because of the abuse that the broadcaster says its journalists get for their reporting. “If public discourse is a litmus test of the health of a society, the conversation on social media suggests we have a problem,” writes Brodie Fenlon, CBC editor-in-chief. “It’s one thing for our journalists to deal with toxicity on these platforms. It’s another for our audience members who try to engage with and discuss our journalism to encounter it on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, where they are almost guaranteed to be confronted by hate, racism and abuse.”