An excerpt of the session can be found below. The full transcript is available here.
Michael Wolf: David asked us to talk about the state of discord between America and the media. When people think about the new challenges for media, they always come back to the Trump White House, but there’s really a lot more going on, and that’s what I’d like to talk about with our panel. What’s really going on is there’s a total, unbridled contempt for the media from a large segment of America. And make no mistake about it, the news business is booming. Website traffic is way up, TV ratings are doing well, newspapers that everybody thought were wheezing before are now adding digital subscribers and paper subscribers. Paper subscribers—The Washington Post is adding paper subscribers. And so, what we want to do is look at what can we do to confront this contempt. What’s technology’s role in dealing with it?
So, I’d like to introduce my panel. Directly to my left is Jessi Hempel. I don’t know how much people talked about it, but as an editor at both Wired and Fortune, she wrote cover stories about some of the people that are the most important in influencing today’s news environment, which is companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, and others.
Kevin Delaney is managing editor and co-founder of Quartz, which, if you’re not a regular reader, you must be, because it’s some of the smartest analysis out there.
And Charles Ferguson is one of the great documentary filmmakers of our time. He was the director and producer of No End in Sight which is about the American occupation of Iraq. An amazing film, it was nominated for an Academy Award. And he won the Academy Award for the film Inside Job. And he can talk about it, but he’s now doing a film about the Nixon era, which is mildly relevant for today.
So let me start off with a couple of questions for our panel. Kevin, I want to start with you. You could argue today that people are going to online news for different reasons than they did in the past. In the past, it was about being informed. Today it’s really about being outraged and being opposed. What are your users’ expectations for what they’re going to get when they go to Quartz?
Kevin Delaney: That’s a good point about outrage, and I think it is a journalistic and a business model decision to pander to outrage, and you don’t have to do that. And so, the promise we offer our users is to help them be up to date and smart on the global economy, basically with the real global view. And so, in the wake of Brexit and the U.S. presidential election, it’s taken some adjustment by newsrooms like our own to figure out how we actually deliver on that. And so, your instinct as a journalist is, when the President tweets something, or when the Brexit camp says something outrageous about something, that that’s news and you follow up on it.
But the reality of the last year has been, if you were to do only that it would consume you, and actually it’s sort of a zero-sum. You can either report on everything, fact-check every single tweet and other development in the political story, or you can watch those but try and serve your reader with analysis and information that actually helps them figure out what’s in their best interest and where things are heading. And what we didn’t realize at the beginning of this was that those two, in this moment in history, are more in tension and more in conflict than we’re used to them being. Partly just because of the volume of the fact-checking and tweet-watching that you could be doing.
Wolf: So are you being held to a higher standard? Your readers always expect that you’re going to do well-researched factual journalism. Are you being held to a higher standard?
Delaney: Yes, I think that the place that we’re trying to find, which is what a lot of news organizations are, is that the news developments—and Quartz covers politics as one part of the thing, but actually it’s a relatively small part. We have 130 full-time journalists around the world, and a bunch in India, and Africa, and Hong Kong, so the coverage of the White House is limited to a very small subset, and coverage of the Brexit and UK situation is a small subset of our overall staff. But the news is like kind of unrelenting and really kind of big and feels cosmic. And so what you’re being held to is delivering analysis probably at a pace that’s much more accelerated from what it has been. And what that means is that you need to have journalists who have a certain amount of expertise in what they’re writing about so they can actually say smart things with a timeframe that is compressed. Because if you wait a week to write that article about something like North Korea, the situation in North Korea, the facts have changed a lot over that time.
Wolf: And people aren’t waiting for the research?
Delaney: I think they are. I mean, we’re finding an audience for people reading these things, but I guess our own expectation is we’re not going to sit around and take our time and create amazing, artisanal sentences, whereas there’s greater urgency—we love artisanal sentences, for the record.
Hempel: We love artisanal sentences.
Delaney: But there is greater urgency just because of the magnitude of what it feels like we’re going through.
Wolf: So, Jessi, as editor of Backchannel, which, many people don’t know, is part of Condé Nast now, you’re covering a lot of what’s happening not just in the technology business today but what its impacts are more broadly. There is a belief that there’s a large segment of the population that’s been left behind by technology and that’s one of the things that we’re seeing today in terms of the credibility, not just of news but of other forms of media and technology. What do you think about the set of people. Are we really seeing people that are left behind by technology?
Hempel: There’s no question that we’re seeing people left behind by technology and I’ll—so, Backchannel is a small magazine that was started atop Medium, and then Condé Nast bought it last year and put it under the Wired Media Group. So on our good days, we like to call ourselves “Wired’s R&D outfit for the future of longform digital journalism”. And we’re thinking a lot about how to tell technology stories for audiences of people that we have largely ignored in the past. And as I listen to you, Kevin, it strikes me that one of our challenges—so, you nailed it when you said, “Outrage and disgust, it’s a business model problem, it is an editorial decision-making problem.” But then you have to come up with the new business models, and you have to come up with the backbone to make the editorial decisions to do something else.
And that is what we are trying to do at Backchannel. And so we are trying to think less about page views and more about reach, and more about cementing our relationship with our audience and engendering trust from our audience to tell those longer stories. And, Kevin, I’d be so interested in what your experience is. Post-election, it is tricky to be true to a technology beat when the entire world wants to read about Trump’s tweet. You see your audience, even for your best work, just go like that, and stay depressed for a long period of time. And how then you figure out how to monetize your product is—I mean, we are an experiment at Condé Nast. We can tell you nothing for certain, I can only tell you what we’re playing with.
And I can speak more to that if you’re curious, but one thing we’re trying to do is keep costs way down, double down on quality, double down on the relationship between the individual writer and the audience, on the bet that an individual writer with an audience of 100 people who look for that writer and read everything that writer works—maybe not 100, that’s not quite scalable—but small audience. Accruing a number of those is more useful than providing something where the relationship between the writer and the audience member isn’t as distinguishable.
And then we’re also looking for different ways to make money than simply ad-based page views. So we’re doing a lot of events, and sponsorships, and speaking, and we’re finding right now that we can make our costs and put out great, quality journalism to an audience of dedicated enthusiasts without having to rely on page views.
Wolf: So the business model of news is safe. Let’s talk about filmmaking, though. Charles, one of the common themes throughout your films has been the idea that you’re able to take apart something that impacts the world and tell, sort of, the story behind the story. You create a narrative around what’s really happened. What is really happening today? Do you feel that you’re going to be in a position to provide a narrative around today, or is it going to be referred from other periods that you’re looking at?
Ferguson: Well, that’s a nice small question.
I think we are living in an extremely complicated, confusing, paradoxical, unstable time. And what I see in the work that I’m doing, I’m trying to do three things now: I’m making a four-and-a-half-hour-long film about the Nixon era, particularly though not exclusively Watergate. I had that idea, by the way, before Mr. Trump was a gleam in anybody’s eye, so I can’t claim that I was prescient, I was just lucky in that case. But it is, of course, utterly extraordinary to go through that material now, it’s amazing. The second thing that I’m doing is getting ready to do something on Mr. Trump. And the third is involved in a startup in exactly this area. So we’re going to try and do very serious stuff, including documentary filmmaking as a viable, for-profit startup. And OTT video thing. And the OTT video world and its relationship to documentary film