Welcome to a New Era of Media Modesty -- and Realism

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Henry Blodget.
Henry Blodget. Credit: Business Insider

The best media-about-media news I've heard in ages came in separate, seemingly unrelated waves.

I'll start with the most recent: Henry Blodget, the editor and CEO of Business Insider, declared that his media company is no longer chasing after growth.

"We have already this amazing audience of the next generation of executives," he told Digiday's Brian Morrissey in a podcast interview released last Wednesday. "We don't want to expand that into a mass consumer market people don't care about. So Business Insider can now consider deepening its engagement within the reach."

That's a remarkable statement coming from a founder, with former DoubleClick execs Kevin P. Ryan and Dwight Merriman, of one of the most notoriously voracious web-native media companies. Since its launch in 2009 as an ambitious outgrowth of Silicon Alley Insider (itself launched two years earlier by the trio as a New York-centric take on tech news), BI has been known for its fast-metabolism, aggregation-heavy, clickbait-humping approach to journalism—an approach that seemed aimed precisely at making business news appealing to a mass consumer market.

So shameless was BI's lowest-common-denominator approach that The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, in a 2013 profile of Blodget, said, "If Bloomberg and Fleshbot had an illegitimate child, it might look something like Business Insider." When BI announced last November that it was shutting off commenting on its articles, doing away with a moderation headache, it also conveniently disappeared one of the site's most glaring embarrassments: the fact that BI readers would often post comments attacking BI writers as know-nothings, and poking holes in the reporting and analysis.

It's worth noting that Blodget, in the '90s and early aughts, was an oft-quoted analyst for CIBC Oppenheimer and later Merrill Lynch; he was charged with civil securities fraud in 2003 by the Securities and Exchange Commission—for publicly pumping tech stocks he was privately calling "crap" and "junk"—and ended up paying a $2 million fine and submitting to a lifetime ban from the securities industry.

More about Blodget and BI in a moment, but now the other recent media-about-media news that's quietly epic: Earlier this month, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet and Managing Editor Joseph Kahn sent around a note to the newsroom describing a new role for Deputy Managing Editor Janet Elder. It read, in part: "We have asked Janet Elder, one of our most esteemed newsroom leaders, to build an operation that will allow The Times to seek philanthropic funding for ambitious journalism.
"We are setting our sights high. Even with the strength of our business and the size of our newsroom, there are opportunities to extend the reach and impact of our journalism with additional support. And we believe we can also work with philanthropies and universities to launch ventures that will help the wider world of journalism, not just The Times."

The initiative has apparently been months in the making, but came in the wake of news, just four days earlier, about a philanthropic drive at one of the Times' global competitors: The Guardian. As the Times itself reported on Aug. 28, the London-based Guardian newspaper has set up a U.S. nonprofit, theguardian.org, "to focus on tapping philanthropic organizations—or even corporate foundations and think tanks—for financial help to report on issues including human rights and climate change."

(Somewhat confusingly, The Guardian is owned by the Scott Trust, a British charitable foundation set up in the 1930s to secure "the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity." But the paper has faced severe financial strain and last year slashed a third of its staff in the U.S., where it was attempting an ambitious expansion.) The Guardian has already secured grants from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Humanity United foundation.

These developments at two of the world's greatest journalistic institutions are thrilling to me because they formalize/systematize something for which I've long advocated.

Back in 2006, the year that billionaire cosmetics-empire heir Ronald Lauder purchased a Gustav Klimt painting for a then-record $135 million to serve as the centerpiece of his pet tax write-off, New York's Neue Galerie, I wrote a column ("Don't Buy Newspapers. Donate Them to Charity") arguing that we need to find ways to make it as easy, from a philanthropic perspective, to support journalism as it is to support the arts.

"Some might think it's pathetic that we've gotten to this point," I wrote. "But is a Klimt painting pathetic because it needed some rich guy to fund its preservation and to ensure its survival and continued exposure, in perpetuity, to the public?"

Now back to Business Insider. What do The New York Times and The Guardian seeking philanthropic support have to do with Blodget's pronouncement about Business Insider's revised ambitions? All three developments are about media execs confronting the realities of the publishing economy circa 2017.

Blodget, one of the hype merchants of the '90s dot-com bubble and "next generation" digital publishing, saying that audience growth for growth's sake is over? To me that's a signal moment for a digital-media ecosystem that still breathlessly ascribes astronomical valuations to the likes of growth-obsessed Vice and BuzzFeed. You say you don't care about growth when you can't figure out how to grow like you used to.

And the NYT and The Guardian declaring, basically, that they're charity cases? OK, yeah, that's sort of sad, definitely.

But when it comes to the media economy, I'll take sad, proactive realism over hysterical fatalism—and/or delusional growth-chasing—any day.

Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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