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Journalism is a team sport

Another day, another reminder of two things:

  1. It’s financially viable — sensible, even — for some journalists to go solo
  2. More reporters going solo is, at best, a short-to-medium term solution to the news industry’s woes.

The latest high-profile example is Casey Newton, formerly of The Verge and now of Substack-newsletter Platformer. Platformer will be a continuation of Newton’s work at The Verge, where he covered ”the collisions between tech platforms and our democracy”.

The main goal? “Holding the world’s most powerful companies to account.” Certainly worth a few dollars a month. But the secondary goal is at least as interesting: testing (and perhaps demonstrating) the viability of a market where there are fewer traditional media companies and more indie journos doing their thing for readers that pay them directly.

It’s a powerful proposition. And an even more powerful bit of myth making.

Rogue reporters

Here’s how Newton frames his vision:

But I can’t stop thinking about a world in which we blow up media companies into their smallest constituent parts — individual reporters, aggressively working their beats, for an audience of paying customers grateful for the work — and allow them to rebuild from the ground up. A world where hundreds of new publications are born, and thousands of journalists are once again employed — in jobs that only their readers can ever take away from them.

I’m ready to find out if such a world is possible, and to do my part to make it happen.

To be fair, there’s a lot to like about his thought. And, credit where credit’s due, Newton’s using his sizable platform to articulate, test, and (hopefully) build out this vision.

He also touches on something else important, and currently lacking, about the media:

Platformer is dedicated to the proposition that the world’s most powerful companies — and everyone affected by them — deserve a publication that goes narrow and deep.

Newton is right about the value of ”narrow and deep”. And, unfortunately, specialist journalists were among the first to go as payroll budgets cratered. They’re one of the most important, and most criminally undervalued, parts of a robust news outfit. But they’re also expensive. And, when you’re desperately trying to cover more news than you can afford to, you start to value cheaper generalists over the more experienced, but more narrow, reporters.1

These journos — the ones who go ”narrow and deep” — are in a fantastic position to build sustainable audiences around their work. They can build passionate audiences in niche areas, some of whom will be willing to splash out a few dollars.

And that’s great — genuinely great. Those reporters can, and do, add tremendous value to the world. But a collection of solo journos doing it themselves for small communities built around shared interest in a niche topic does not a health democracy make.2

There are a few potential issues, though. And only one is financial.

Diminishing returns

Here’s a boring statement: there are a lot of people and services that ask for your subscription dollars. Only so many of those people and services will get them and even fewer will get enough of them to actually make a living.

I do think the doom and gloom around that sentiment is overstated: somehow, against all odds, there are a lot of subscription dollars floating around the ether. And I do think some kind of sustainable ecosystem of subscription publications will emerge (and that it’ll be bigger than people expect).

But, still, cynicism. Those dollars will likely flow on disproportionately to the bigger publications (who can thus dedicate yet more time and resources to their work). And solo publications, by nature, call for more time and more effort to promote yourself and find readers (unless you already have a platform). That means they favour people who are already financially stable, already well known, or can just afford to work what amounts to two or three full time jobs until they can go completely solo.3

There will always be stories of the single parent of two who worked full time at the dead-end desk job but wrote great stories of an evening until they cracked the big time. And there will always be stories of passionate reporters who struck off on their own to build an audience. And there will always be yet more stories of smug young guys who ”did it on their own (just don’t look at the family money behind them)” that are used as examples of the solo model being both possible and desirable.

But all of the above are rare. And they perpetuate a myth that, frankly, needs to die. Especially when it comes to journalism.

In this together

Journalism is a team sport. The best work — the most powerful, the most meaningful — comes when a room full of people or a small team work together to create something bigger than themselves.

Sometimes, that’s a couple of reporters and an editor working together for years to break a seismic story. Sometimes, it’s a radio station pulling shifts to cover a disaster — as a former employer of mine, ABC Melbourne, did during the Black Saturday bushfires.

But they’re just the big ones. The real value of media organisations comes from the grunt work no-one cares about and from the structure they provide to help train new journos.

Hands up if you’ve paid any attention to your local courts lately. Or ever. What about your local council meetings?

Chances are you haven’t. Because no one does. Because they’re boring. In the case of local council, probably deliberately so. But both are vital. And so is sending a journo along to them.

That grunt work — the boring stuff, the court reports and the council meetings — are critical to a healthy media system. Maybe you don’t get a cracker of a story out of them very often but the stories you do get form the basis of the bigger stories down the line.

But who’s going to pay for a newsletter dedicated to your local court system or council? Who’s going to build a viable indie press out of that?

No one. But both are absolutely critical. And both form a foundation for a broader whole that can serve its readership well.

Another thing no one’s going to pay for? The newsletter from a 20-year-old kid fresh out of their cadetship or degree. No contacts, no bylines, can’t tell a lede from their shoes. Those kids need to come up somewhere. And they need to develop the editorial nous required to make a great story from someone.

That’s where institutions excel. Sure, they do foster some bad habits.4 But they also instill a lot of the habits that matter.

Gather up

That’s not to say there isn’t value in Newton’s world where ”hundreds of new publications are born” and more reporters take their careers into their own hands. It’s not like there are many big organisations that are doing well by them, anyway.

But his vision does by into this ideal of rugged individualism that, to my mind, has caused more harm than good. It’s the Die Hard of journalism: the lone reporter, surrounded by bad actors and worse business models, strikes out on their own to change the world.

Alright. Cool. Yippee-ki-yay.

Something special happens when a publication shrinks down all the way to a single reporter’s point of view. The publication feels more trustworthy: you know who the writer is, and where they’re coming from.

That kind of approach works great for reviews or opinion pieces. I want and value they kind of long-term relationship so I can contexualise what they’re saying.

But I don’t trust any single reporter more than I trust, say, the ABC here in Australia or The Guardian. Because I know the codes of conduct they’re bound by and I know the editorial processes they go through. And I know that, for a lot of stories — for the stories that matter — that I won’t be getting one person’s view with all the biases, be they unexamined or otherwise, and limitations that entails.

An informed society takes a village. And that starts with the people doing the informing.

Variety, spice, life

Fortunately, the model of journalism Newton’s espousing here will help in that regard in some ways.

Ben Thomson of Statechery explains it well:

Just because this model works for stars like Newton doesn’t mean it is exclusive to folks who could easily have jobs with traditional media companies. Indeed, I expect the greatest societal benefits from this model to be the emergence of more and more creators whose voices would have never been heard previously.

And that’s great. More voices, more thoughts, more potential for great work. Having more people try to make a go of it has a lot of benefits, even if they don’t pan out.

It’s in that doing — of more people throwing their hats into the ring and trying — that little communities of publishers emerge, each feeding off each other and building a place where ideas and skills evolve.

Maybe they’ll even pool their resources together. Maybe we’ll see publishing collectives make a comeback. Not that they ever went away: collectives are nothing new, online or otherwise. But they haven’t held a lot of sway in the public consciousness for a long time.

Artists have led the way: multiple independent artists, each doing their own thing, but operating under a loose banner and sharing resources.

Imagine four or five indie reporters, each from adjacent fields, operating their own publication but banding together to help each other out and share subscribers. They get more than they would individually; readers learn more than they expect (another benefit of larger publications with broader remits). Maybe they can even bring younger, less well-known and experienced reporters into the fold now and then.

Sure, it’s not as romantic or easily mythologised as a solo journo venturing into the world. But it’s the kind of future I’d like to subscribe to.

  1. The Conversation, a former employer of mine, is a good example of the value of specialists. Every article is written by an academic and edited (and usually commissioned) by a specialist journalist. The site is consistently a source of high value, timely information about the world and its doings. 

  2. If it did, subreddits would be a lot more worthwhile than they are now. 

  3. ”Afford” in this case refers to both money and time. Both are a currency. 

  4. Far too many Australian journos call every story a ”yarn” and it has to come from somewhere and that somewhere needs to be destroyed. 

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