Collectivised clicks

‘As Silicon Valley comes to Washington, the pattern of 21st-century journalism is emerging’

Dominic Green

When a big pig loses his footing, the little squealers get squashed. The fall of Harvey Weinstein has brought down less powerful and famous swine, including Leon Wieseltier. Now, Wieseltier was only famous in the small world of American media and politics. But for the same reason, he was quite powerful.

As Books & Arts editor of the New Republic, Wieseltier appointed himself court jester to the bicoastal elite: movie nights with Barbara Streisand, supper with Katharine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. An Olympic-class social mountaineer, Wieseltier promoted himself as the philosopher king of the Republic of Letters. This left him little time for actual writing. He did, it now emerges, find time to grope, kiss and harass the New Republic’s female employees.

By the Nineties, Wieseltier looked like a casualty from a Seventies rock band — cowboy boots and scarves, puffballs of white hair over his ears, red eyes and bloated face. Still, when the internet devastated print publishing, his survival at the New Republic attested to the possibility that digitisation might not wholly degrade America’s public life.

In 2012, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought the New Republic and set about infantilising it for a millennial audience. In 2014, the senior staff revolted, and Wieseltier resigned very publicly. The hero landed on his feet: a teaching job at Harvard, a fellowship at the Brookings Institution, and a spot on the masthead of the Atlantic. Best of all, Wieseltier promised to avenge the dumbing-down of America’s media by launching Idea, a culture journal funded by the Emerson Collective.

This is a curious name for a collective. Waldo Emerson, freelance journalist and Yankee individualist, was utterly opposed to collectivism. Society, Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance, is “everywhere in conspiracy” against the individual, and works like “a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater”. Anyone who has bought one Apple product, and found that using it involves further purchases, knows that feeling. But the Emerson Collective isn’t really a collective. It is a philanthropic behemoth, one of those distinctively American machines for the generation of good works and tax breaks, and it belongs to one person: Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs.

Emerson Collective describes its objectives as “removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential”, and executing “innovative solutions that will spur change and promote equality”. It has donated generously to schools, and to media businesses including film production companies, journalistic start-ups like the California Sunday Magazine and  the news website Axios, and non-profit journalism outlets like the Marshall Project and ProPublica.

In July, Emerson Collective bought a majority stake in one of Waldo Emerson’s regular gigs, the Atlantic magazine. The price was undisclosed, but the deal gives Emerson Collective the option of taking full ownership of the magazine and its ancillary businesses in the near future.

The Atlantic, founded in 1857 by Emerson and his friends, and mostly unreadable since the late Nineties, is what they call “legacy journalism”. This is an unfortunate phrase, for it admits that someone or something has died. In this case, the corpse is the print business model. Advertising used to keep print magazines afloat, but Facebook and Google now monopolise the advertising business.

The Atlantic’s “legacy” is not its journalism, most of which should also be in quotation marks, but its brand. The Atlantic made nearly $80 million last year, but only 20 per cent of that came from print sales and advertising. The rest came from Atlantic Media’s digital side, and its consulting and events divisions.

“It was a friend of many of us here, Leon Wieseltier, who first put me onto the possibility that Laurene might come to love the Atlantic as I have,” Atlantic Media owner David Bradley cooed in July. That was before Wieseltier’s methods of loving came to public attention. When they did, the Atlantic and the Brookings Institution dropped him, and Powell Jobs cancelled the funding for Idea, whose first issue was at the press. 

In October, Powell Jobs spent $500 million on a 20 per cent stake in Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Washington Wizards basketball team, the Washington Capitals hockey team, and their home venue, the Capital One Arena. The Washington Post noted that with this investment, Powell Jobs “instantly commands an influential position in the male-dominated ownership circles of the ‘Big Four’ professional sports leagues”.

Since 2013, the Post has belonged to Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Chris Hughes destroyed the New Republic and sold its remains in 2016, but the Post has survived under Bezos. And now Powell Jobs brings big Apple money to legacy journalism. As Silicon Valley comes to Washington — and as Washington struggles to absorb Silicon Valley before the internet giants swallow America’s politics along with its media — the pattern of 21st-century journalism is emerging.

In part, the new news business resembles the old. As in Citizen Kane, buy a newspaper, and you buy a seat at the table. The commercial interests of the owners and the journalistic interests of their editors have always been in tension. Atlantic Media already exploits its legacy by running a Davos-style corporate salon at the luxury ski resort of Aspen, Colorado. Will the Atlantic investigate the companies that sponsor Atlantic Media’s conferences? Probably not. But in the digital era, even legacy outlets cannot, as Wieseltier presumed to do, “police the culture”. The problem now is whether the culture fits their business model.

American democracy, Emerson believed, depended upon democratic culture. Idea was a great cultural idea, but it was never going to make money or find a mass audience. Digital media collectivises clicks, and “aggregates” for the advertisers. Now that new media have degraded print culture into  multi-platform entertainment, how much of the culture remains? And what does that mean for digital democracy?

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