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Pressing Issues

What Does It Mean to Reinvent Journalism?

There's a reason why every new news site looks, feels and reports the same way.

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We live in a golden age of national media startups. Every week another group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed media personalities launches another cleverly branded news site to solve all of American journalism’s problems.

So why do all these sites sound the same?

Why do political news sites, begun with lots of fanfare about how different and innovative and disruptive they plan to be, end up covering the same stories covered by every other established media source?

Why are they all obsessed with whatever Donald Trump spews onto his private social accounts? Why do they listen every time GQP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks? Why do they report on what senators say on Tucker Carlson’s show, on each other’s podcasts, on Chuck Todd’s Status Quo Fetish Hour?

Why do they all move in a pack, chasing the same ball, like 5-year-olds playing soccer for the first time?

No exaggeration: Within two months of its founding, the supposedly groundbreaking site Semafor is now mired in the morass of congressional politics, reporting Republican spin as fact and seeking out well-worn sources to spout the expected GOP takes:

Semafor is the brainchild of two of the corporate press’s most experienced practitioners, Ben Smith and Justin B. Smith, and their efforts were lauded by their journalistic peers, covered as though they were the first people to ever think of launching a news site.

Semafor’s people went so far as to pretend it was reinventing the actual form of the news article in an effort to regain the trust of readers cynical about the state of modern media. Yet day after day, Semafor has covered the kinds of things you read on Bloomberg, Vox, Barron’s, the Federalist and most of the editorial pages of the New York dailies. 

Their front page? Congressional maneuvering. Federal reserve policy. Passive-voice both-sidesing of invented controversy. Jokey takes on inflation

They’re tracking such well-trodden ground. Before them, high-profile failures Ozy, Quibi, Mic, all relied on the same sorts of buzzy gossipy “news” that put famous names in big bold type. Politico and Axios got their start rolling over and asking for pets from politicians and brands known to one and all. 

Why? Why, swimming in venture capital and able to do whatever they like, would the latest startup pursue this incredibly easy path? Why do their compatriots do the same? 

Mostly, it’s good old-fashioned peer pressure.

Normal, right? People hire their friends. They hire people they’ve worked with before, people recommended by people they’ve worked with before, people who went to the same schools they did. When one organization in this club lets someone go, you see the call go out to the others—hire this talented person who I know and you know and everybody who matters knows.

The role of a free press should be to pursue untold stories. Every influential person has a megaphone now, a Twitter account, a newsletter, a way to get their message out to people directly, in ways they couldn’t do even 20 years ago. Where once audiences might have been served by repeating the words of the president or member of Congress, now we hear from them constantly.

As such, we rely increasingly on the media for context, explanation, elaboration of what a senator’s actions mean, what the consequences of a political dispute might be, how we are affected by the machinations of those in power. We rely on expertise, news judgment, the ability to see through spin to the effects of people’s words.

Of course, good journalists should be able to look beyond their own lives, their own biases, their own circumstances. A privileged upbringing doesn’t always dictate myopic coverage of wealth and power.

But surrounding yourself with people just like you makes it much more unlikely that your privilege will be challenged.

This is why we focus on the people who are telling the stories. If you come from one community, one class, one milieu, and you only talk to the people within that community, and you only receive feedback from people in that community, then naturally your coverage is going to reflect what that community thinks is important.

Sometimes that leads to coverage that’s silly, or boring. At a past newsroom job, my managing editor would kick off meetings by talking about what his wife was angry about that day: an unfilled pothole in front of their house. A dustup at the local elementary school. Rust on the playground equipment. Something she saw on TV the previous evening that struck her as risqué.

Internally groaning, we all shifted in our seats trying not to be the one our editor assigned to run down who should have filled the hole or disciplined the unruly teacher or buffed the jungle gym. Someone always got assigned to bother the city leaders on his wife’s behalf, and it almost always resulted in at least one short story in the paper about this outrage and its resolution.

We never mentioned in those stories where we got the idea to make a crumbling sidewalk or faded stop sign a federal case. Someone must have wondered, but no one ever asked. And I often think about what we could have been doing with the time we spent chasing Mrs. Managing Editor’s pet peeves.

But insularity in coverage of those in power is more than just dull. It’s dangerous. More and more amplification of anti-democracy, anti-woman, anti-minority sentiment creates the perception that deeply unpopular policies (banning abortion, attacking trans people, censoring books) are commonly held and difficult to oppose.

Repeating baseless claims of election fraud or mishandling of classified information from known and disgraced sources just amplifies the lies, no matter the debunking that may happen afterwards.

A Semafor reporter recently quoted GOP sources who alleged that President Joe Biden was guilty of the same national security violations as the former president Donald Trump, despite clear differences in two cases of missing documents:

This insularity also undermines the ability of those hurt by people in power to speak out. When you go out of your way to exonerate an alleged sex pest, for example, because you move in the same ideas-festival circles and lecture at the same institutions and just know he’s a good guy, you’re saying sit down and shut up to anyone with a similar story about a powerful man.

To be truly innovative, a news site should seek to publish stories from reporters who’ve demonstrated more than the right connections. Expanding the hiring pool past the shallow end of who knows who from the conference circuit would be more disruptive to the coverage of politics and global news than anything happening at Semafor right now.


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