On Greenwald and online journalism

On Halloween, Glenn Greenwald will leave his post at the Guardian to embark on a new journalistic venture with the founder of eBay, Pierre Omidyar. His future will no doubt be of great interest not only to consumers of news (as it is sure to have its fair share of scoops, given Greenwald’s ever growing fame and reputation), but also to producers of news. Heaven knows pretty much every news company in the world (particularly print) is scrabbling around, desperate to find a way to stop their declines in sales.* Are tablets the answer? Advertising? Sponsored content? Most likely it’s a mixture of these, and many other ingredients – yet Greenwald’s upcoming venture may prove that another factor could be crucial: quality journalism.

There’s little proof for this yet though. Regardless of whether you agree with its politics, the Guardian has invested heavily in its online presence with enormous results. Not monetary results, mind, but rather a huge growth in their global readership. With the Scott Trust behind them, Rusbridger et al have stormed ahead, opening a US bureau in 2011 and an Australian bureau in 2013. This was (accidentally, it seems) perfectly timed to coincide with Greenwald’s international NSA reporting, which has had such profound international reactions. Yet despite this explosion in readers, and one of the biggest scoops of the decade, the Guardian hasn’t yet managed to monetise its high profile. It has in the past declared it will never go behind a paywall (and as far as I can see, is still sticking to that promise) – though they’re clearly looking into other avenues large and small for additional money, including books, journalism courses, and coffee. Furthermore, it’s likely the money will soon run out if the Guardian’s ongoing losses aren’t significantly reduced, and there have been a fair number of voluntary redundancies and pay cuts amongst the staff, including a salary reduction for Rusbridger himself.

Guardian editor considers busking on the side?

Guardian editor considers busking on the side?

This is why it’ll be interesting to watch Greenwald’s new venture. He’ll no doubt get huge stories, high-profile writers, and a lot of publicity. But will this translate into financial viability? And does this matter? Are we now destined to have extremely rich men (and it does seem to be universally men doing this) bankrolling quality journalism? Are your only options as an editor to either: 1) be backed by an Omidyar, a Bezos, or two Lebedevs; or 2) to peddle tits and gossip (a winning formula used to great effect by Martin Clarke and his team at Mail Online)? There’s a limited supply of benevolent billionaires, and it’s a system open to great dangers, particularly if any of them have a desire to become the new Murdoch.

Online-only publications seem to be in slightly less tricky positions. The all-conquering Buzzfeed has found a successful niche that mixes community-driven content, entertaining gifs, and some genuinely serious reporting. Some slightly older online organs have also coped well. Slate, for instance, is thriving. Though its approach is far less scattergun than Buzzfeed’s, Slate’s editor David Plotz ensures the magazine hosts a huge variety of writers, topics and (crucially) blogs and podcasts. It’s enormously online friendly – the Dear Prudence agony aunt column gets them enormous traffic, their photo and history blogs are great portals of discovery, and their ubiquitous Gabfest podcasts are always directing listeners back to the site. In other words, Slate is onto something, and its its new tablet-friendly redesign shows it’s looking seriously into cementing its long-term future. But being online-only is no guarantee of viability. The Daily Beast was launched with great fanfare just a few years ago, but it recently let its founder Tina Brown go, and by all accounts is struggling. This is despite offering plenty of video content and other online friendly material, as well as producing a very impressive books section. Apparently this wasn’t enough.

One of the site’s big draws had been Andrew Sullivan, the famous commentator/blogger. Yet early this year Sullivan left the bosom of the Beast to establish his own site, which essentially operated behind a ‘leaky’ paywall. It seems to have paid off so far, but this is because people want to listen to him. He’s gradually recruited a small team around him in the past decade, as he travelled to different sites that hosted his musings, and over time has built up a substantial and loyal following. This was through sheer quality of posts, as he tirelessly dug up interesting articles, offered thoughtful analysis, and generally gave an insightful digest of the news. Moreover, he included his followers in his articles, posting about feedback, curating fascinating threads on a huge variety of topics, and cultivated a community.

Some of the community may have just been trapped in his beard.

Some of the community may have just been trapped in his beard.

I think this offers a lesson for any journalist or editor. It’s about finding that audience who care about you and your material – and you have to show you care about them. This isn’t about PR guff promising interactivity, or tailored content, or even integrating every new piece of technology into your website (Flipboard can do all that, and make it prettier than most other things). Instead, it’s about creating genuine relationships with readers. Roger Ebert did it brilliantly: he read every single comment on his blog, and moderated them himself. This meant he spent hours and hours every day interacting with his readers, and it paid off. Not only did he write well (obviously an essential prerequisite), but he listened, and people knew he was listening.

This is why I wonder if Greenwald will really show us the way forward. As his sometime Twitter foe Joshua Foust has pointed out, Greenwald isn’t a journalist who generally takes criticism on board. He’s very good at responding to criticism, but only seems capable of loudly rebuffing it, occasionally eliding the truth in the process. He’s unshakeably certain of the essential goodness of his cause. Whether this is right or wrong isn’t really the point – it’s not a tactic that encourages a community to form. It’s not inclusive, it’s didactic, and if you’re not a sworn member of his group, it becomes alienating. (As Jemima Khan pointed out about Assange and his acolytes, there is an ironic echo of Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or against us’ doctrine.)

But then again, does his sort of journalism (and journalism in general) need interactivity? Is that even good for journalism? Maybe straight reporting would be undermined and corrupted by such an approach. Maybe we need some source of authority in order for commentators like Sullivan to thrive, and maybe forming a community only really works for commentators. But then Greenwald is arguably just as popular (if not more so) for his trenchant opinion pieces as for his actual reporting – indeed, these are occasionally tricky to separate – and if he’s leaving the Guardian, he may be taking a large readership with him. So is the fate of internet journalism to be found in small silos? Unless you embrace sweeping populism (in other words, tits and gossip), must you specialise to survive? I hope not, but it does seem to be the way the wind is blowing.

 

*Incidentally, this is the main reason why the Leveson report and its lengthy and ongoing aftermath seem fairly irrelevant to me. As Nick Cohen repeatedly insisted at a debate in January, ‘You’re regulating a corpse!’

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