The shifting balance of power in media is real, no matter what the Columbia Journalism Review says

With Kara Swisher and the team behind All Things Digital jockeying for a new position with a media partner, and the moves by Nate “Five Thirty Eight” Silver still relatively fresh, the Columbia Journalism Review has taken a look at what it all means and decided that, well… it doesn’t mean anything. Or rather, it means that things are pretty much the way they’ve always been, with some big stars cutting their own deals, and everyone else toiling away in the media salt mines.

Is that really a fair description of where we are right now? I don’t think so. While it may be too early to say that the disruption in media has completely levelled the playing field, there is certainly a lot more movement and freedom than there used to be, and denying that seems a little disingenuous — if not deliberately obtuse.

Are all of these bloggers unicorns?


Dean Starkman agrees there has been an increase in what Jay Rosen has called the “personal franchise” site, and Reuters media critic Jack Shafer has called the “Marquee Brothers” — with sites like All Things D, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Dealbook at the New York Times, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog at the Washington Post and Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight. But the CJR writer denies that this is a sign of any larger pattern in the media industry that is worth following or commenting on:

“These new franchise raise the important question of whether and by how much power is shifting in journalism from publishers to authors. I’d argue that these franchises are to a large extent sui generis and not indicative of a generalized power shift in journalism. In fact their high visibility tends to distort our view of the author-publisher, that is to say, labor-management, power balance.”

It’s worth noting that the term “sui generis” usually means unique or one-of-a-kind, and it’s difficult to argue that half a dozen similar things can actually be thought of as one-of-a-kind. Surely something must be common among all of these examples?

But perhaps Starkman just means that these are special cases — unicorns, if you will — and not examples of something that other journalists or writers might be able to aspire to. He notes that Sorkin and Silver have both chosen to remain with large media entities, and says that any standalone media outlets created by bloggers such as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo or Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish are “the exceptions that prove the rule.”

The balance of power has shifted

Most people in the media, the CJR writer argues, will never be able to create their own site, cut their own deal with a media company or build something outside a mainstream brand because — well, just because. So no one should look to any of the above as examples of what is possible:

“It’s just important to remember that the personal franchise phenomenon is not necessarily a harbinger for journalists or journalism generally. The opposite is probably true [and] the AllThingsD case isn’t really a model for anything.”

This seems like an unnecessarily bleak viewpoint, especially when the media industry is in the kind of shape it’s in right now, with layoffs and outlets closing down all over. Why not look at how much is possible, given the ability to publish anywhere and reach an audience more efficiently than ever?

There are plenty of examples beyond just the ones Starkman cites of journalists and writers who have carved out their own space online, without having to go to a major media brand for help. The Awl springs to mind — Choire Sicha started it after leaving Gawker, and from the sounds of it he is doing just fine — not to mention sites like Techdirt, or Brian Lam’s Wirecutter (which he also started after leaving Gawker) or one-woman ventures like Maura’s magazine, or the reader-funded model taken by Hamilton journalist Joey Coleman.

Is every journalist capable of doing this, or of becoming as large a player as Kara Swisher or Andrew Ross Sorkin? Of course not. But the shift in power is real, and it has levelled the playing field a lot more than Starkman allows. We should be celebrating that, not dismissing it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / discpicture