Those who toil in public relations tend to be blasé about changes at media companies. After all, we’ve seen enormous disruption over the past decade. But the soap opera at some top news sites has the PR world watching.
Wired calls it “a new media midlife crisis.” To me, it feels more like an adolescent one, but never mind. First there was the public meltdown at Reddit, not a news site, but an influential community and frequent source of stories run by media. The drama, which was precipitated by the firing of a popular employee, reflects the ongoing struggle between the community’s commitment to free speech and the web’s tendency to deteriorate into a free-for-all run by its ugliest and most disordered citizens. Interim chief Ellen Pao resigned, but it’s not over.
Gawker’s struggle is about more than PR
Then Gawker, every snark lover’s guilty pleasure, stepped into its own ragestorm. After it ran a story outing a (previously) unknown executive at Conde Nast (owner of Reddit and in some ways a rival company) the site experienced a furious backlash from the community. Two days later, Gawker removed the post – an unheard of move in the absence of a factual error or threat of legal action.
Founder Nick Denton called the post a “misuse of the independence given to editorial” and not worthy of Gawker’s more ambitious and newsworthy reporting. In an eloquent letter to staff Denton warned that the episode could do lasting damage to both Gawker’s editorial reputation and its business. He said its standards needed to be more worthy of “the First Amendment protection that protects our most controversial work.” (The lofty words weren’t enough to quell internal dissension; three Gawker senior staff, including its executive editor and editor-in-chief, resigned in protest.)
Gawker’s situation is unique to its identity, but its struggle to mature from a gossip site to an independent journalistic voice is part of a larger issue in web journalism. Almost lost in the chaos of last week was the refreshingly worded announcement from top editorial staff at the Huffington Post that they would not cover Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as political news, but as entertainment.
Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.
No less a bastion of “traditional” journalism than the Washington Post disagreed with the HuffPo stance, explaining that Trump’s popularity had “touched a nerve” among Republicans and therefore deserved attention as a political development. But the point here is that even in the age of digital curation, we rely on trusted media brands to tell us – through countless editorial decisions from story placement to what is publishable – what they deem newsworthy. And as the response of the community shows, those decisions matter.
Whither web journalism?
Last year the late New York Times journalist David Carr asked about web journalism, “Is there a lasting business being built or simply a lot of to-ing and fro-ing by entrepreneurs and investors…?”
The answer is increasingly obvious. And in many ways I think the changes and struggles are a positive sign that these born-on-the-web sites are “growing up.” That’s good news for PR professionals and others who make their living engaging with media, and it signals that while native advertising has its place, it probably doesn’t impact “real” journalism as much as the nature of the web itself, and the community of vocal readers and contributors that successful sites attract.
Gawker, Reddit and HuffPo were founded between 2002 and 2005. They’ve entered double digits in terms of age, and each is at a different phase of maturation. But each has had a significant impact on the journalism or media that preceded them, and the lines are very blurry as editors and journalists move from traditional media outlets to web-based news sites, and vice versa. For each, journalism, blogging, and community are part of the offering, and that mix is here to stay. Under one brand or another, these are the media names of the future.