Merchants of Truth is the groundbreaking and gripping story of the precarious state of the news business told by one of our most eminent journalists.
Jill Abramson follows four companies: The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and VICE Media over a decade of disruption and radical adjustment. The new digital reality nearly kills two venerable newspapers with an aging readership while creating two media behemoths with a ballooning and fickle audience of millennials. We get to know the defenders of the legacy presses as well as the outsized characters who are creating the new speed-driven media competitors. The players include Jeff Bezos and Marty Baron (The Washington Post), Arthur Sulzberger and Dean Baquet (The New York Times), Jonah Peretti (BuzzFeed), and Shane Smith (VICE) as well as their reporters and anxious readers.
Merchants of Truth raises crucial questions that concern the well-being of our society. We are facing a crisis in trust that threatens the free press. Abramson’s book points us to the future.
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Merchants of Truth
The party had a distinct fin-de-siècle air. On a wintry night in early 2016, the battered lions of journalism gathered at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., for a party to toast the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes. These editors and reporters had spent their careers at newspapers such as the New York Times, which had won 117 of the coveted awards, the most of any news organization. Scattered throughout the room were representatives of the Washington Post, which had won 47, the second-most. Their stories over the years had chronicled Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, war zones, terrorism, financial scandal, poverty, political corruption, civil rights, China, Russia, and on and on. The “first rough draft of history,” popularized by Phil Graham, scion of the family that owned the Post, had become a self-congratulatory cliché, but for this body of journalism’s most honored work, it was true.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the Times’s publisher since 1992, took immense pride in the announcement of the Pulitzers each spring, just as his father had. The Times almost always had someone on the Pulitzer board that picked the winners. For nearly a decade, the paper’s emissary was Tom Friedman, the Times’s influential foreign affairs columnist and a three-time prizewinner. After the board made its decisions, Friedman would call the publisher to leak the results the Friday before they were announced. Seldom did he have anything but good news. Almost every year the boyish-faced Sulzberger added at least one framed picture of a winner to the corridor below his office. Most of the other guests knew that Sulzberger, 64, hoped to hand over the reins to his son, Arthur Gregg, as Arthur’s father, “Punch” Sulzberger, had done for him.
Absent from the crowd of luminaries was the Washington Post’s Donald Graham, the self-effacing, beloved company chairman who had executed a changing of the guard three years before. Despairing that the paper’s quality couldn’t survive deep staff cuts and vanishing advertising revenue, he sold the newspaper his family had owned since 1933 to a tech billionaire, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The Post’s sleek new offices were no longer festooned with the famous front page “Nixon Resigns” from Watergate days. They were dominated by flat-screens displaying real-time traffic statistics on how many readers were looking at each story. Prominent was a Bezos mantra, in blue and white: “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.”
Also missing was the younger guard, the founders of the digital media companies that had used Facebook and Google to build giant audiences of younger readers and viewers. Though very few had won Pulitzers for their news coverage, companies such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media were giving the old guard serious competition—and heartburn.
The party celebrated journalism’s golden age, but the celebrants were living through journalism’s Age of Anxiety. All of them knew a colleague who had taken a buyout or been laid off. The newspaper industry had shed $1.3 billion worth of editors’ and reporters’ jobs in the past decade, some 60 percent of its workforce since 2000. Some of the newspapers that won the prizes had gone out of business—more than 300 altogether—or were shadows of what they’d been. There had been repeated assurances that more could be done with less. Even the newcomers, despite their bloated valuations, were hard-pressed to show profits.
Global news-gathering, meanwhile, remained monstrously expensive. The kind of investigative stories that won Pulitzers took months to report, took still more time to edit and make legally bullet-proof, and were ever more costly. Editors had to safeguard accuracy and fairness: if a big story broke and they needed to scramble helicopters or flood the zone with reporters, they couldn’t agonize over budgets. What was being threatened were the very qualities these prizes were meant to recognize. What was at risk was far bigger than just one industry—it was truth and freedom in a democratic society, an informed citizenry, and news sources that were above politics in their reporting.
All the editors there were mustering their troops to cover the presidential election, never suspecting that voters would bring to power a man who cast them as agents of evil, the “fake news media.” At Donald Trump’s rallies, his supporters jeered the campaign reporters behind their ropes. Trump’s penchant for serial lying would challenge all the old rules of so-called objectivity and force journalists into the uncomfortable role of seeming to be, at least in the eyes of many conservative Americans, combatants against a sitting president.
Everything these journalists cared about was under attack. As they sipped wine in a cavernous museum devoted to their profession’s glorious past, the laurels that mattered were now quantitative: clicks and likes and tweets and page views and time of engagement.
Beyond the political climate, the traditional news media itself had played a role in the public’s eroding trust. Self-inflicted scandals had damaged their credibility, including those involving Janet Cooke at the Post and Jayson Blair at the Times, the run-up to the Iraq War, and, soon, controversies over coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails, hacked messages from the computers of Democratic Party officials, as well as the failure to recognize Trump’s electability. Most Americans now got their news on their smartphones, on social media, from a jumble of sources, such as family members they trusted far more, or from alt-right websites, increasingly polarized cable TV news shows, Russian bots, and branded content from corporations.
I surveyed the room with the eyes of an outsider, nervously glomming on to old friends and former colleagues from the Times, the author Anna Quindlen, and Isabel Wilkerson, resplendent in a red dress. She had been the first black journalist to win a Pulitzer for feature writing, for a wrenching portrait of a fourth-grader from Chicago’s South Side. In 2014 I had been fired as executive editor of the Times, but Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the man who pink-slipped me, had generously invited me to be part of the Times family celebrating our Pulitzer heritage. During my time as managing editor and then executive editor, and as the first and only woman to hold those jobs, the Times had hauled in 24 Pulitzers.
I’d become a reporter during Watergate. As a college-age woman, my odds of joining the ranks of Woodward and Bernstein were slim, but their groundbreaking investigations of turpitude in the Nixon White House had inspired me to try. From a starting job at Time magazine, I’d climbed to journalism’s highest rung and then fallen. I was well-versed in the new landscape of news, with its native advertising for brands, clickbait headlines, and 24/7 rhythms, but it wasn’t the world I’d grown up in. As the newspapers tried to keep up with technology, executive editors were expected to be digital gurus and let business imperatives guide their editorial judgment.
One particular post-Watergate book that inspired me to become a journalist was The Powers That Be, published in 1979. The author was David Halberstam, who won a Pulitzer as a Times reporter covering the Vietnam War. The book examines the histories and paths of four influential news companies: the Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and Time Inc. Halberstam was writing at the moment of journalism’s zenith, after the Post had broken stories that led to the first resignation in history of a U.S. president and CBS had played a central role in opening the country’s eyes to the futility of the Vietnam War. This was long before online publishing proliferated in the 1990s; it was a time when newspapers were printing money, stuffed with want ads and department store ads and enjoying profitable monopolies in more and more cities. Smaller papers such as the Baltimore Sun could afford to deploy foreign correspondents to postings in faraway capitals like Tokyo and Berlin.
Halberstam chronicled how those four institutions achieved not only financial success but journalistic excellence in the postwar era. As the longtime New Yorker political commentator Richard Rovere wrote at the time, the big political issues of the period—McCarthyism, civil rights, Vietnam, Watergate—were primarily moral issues. Halberstam’s four news organizations played an admirable role in getting the country through these crises. Rovere also warned that trouble was looming, as family-run papers became increasingly tethered to Wall Street and various bean counters.
Surveying the scene, I had the overwhelming sense at the Pulitzer party that, just as it was when Halberstam wrote his book, a power shift was taking place under our noses. News had become ubiquitous in the digital age, but it was harder than ever to find trustworthy information or a financial model that would support it. Newsrooms had made drastic cuts and were still at it. The Boston Globe had closed its foreign news bureaus in 2007; the Post, too, closed its domestic bureaus in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago two years later. Newcomers, notably BuzzFeed and Vice, were opening international offices, taking advantage of the internet’s capacity to give anyone a global audience but not coming close to replacing the reporting muscles lost.
We had moral crises of our own, some of which the press fumbled: the flawed coverage of the lead-up to the Iraq War, troubling surveillance of citizens by U.S. intelligence agencies, and blindness to the forces that led to the Trump election. The trust and authority lauded by Halberstam, along with the business model, seemed to be crumbling.
Shane Smith, Vice’s founder and one-time hard-partying lads-mag editor, had recently bragged of being “the Time Warner of the streets” and talked of elbowing aside CNN. Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed had won the hearts of the hard-to-reach millennial audience with photo links of adorable puppies, then parlayed that into an investigative reporting staff that was the size of the Times’s investigative unit. Meanwhile, the Times and Post were trying to teach digital users to pay for the content they consumed, a lesson that went directly against the internet mantra that “information wants to be free.” Each had begun charging subscribers for their digital news reports, not knowing if that would be enough to save them.
The Times had already and unsuccessfully challenged the free-news orthodoxy a decade earlier, by charging readers for its opinion section and columns, but had quickly thrown up its hands after reaping a scant $20 million from its readers on the web. There had been dark talk inside the paper of bankruptcy, until a Mexican billionaire rode to the rescue with a huge loan. Now things had stabilized, and a more flexible digital subscription plan was bringing in sizable revenue. But the Times was still heavily dependent on its print circulation base for survival, and these print subscribers were aging and their numbers decreasing.
The partygoers around me, like print newspaper readers, were relics of Halberstam’s golden age. But their essential gift—nosing out the truth in a city that thrives on greed and lies—had never been more vital to the health of our democracy. The Times was still in a fight for survival in the digital age, trying to attract enough paying subscribers to support its $200 million annual news budget and remain in the hands of the family that had owned it since a Tennessee newspaper baron, Adolph Ochs, Sulzberger Jr.’s great-grandfather, bought it in 1896. The Post, seemingly rescued by Bezos, was trying to restore its reputation, hurt by years of cost-cutting and staff reductions that the Graham family couldn’t prevent.
As for the new digital competitors, the question was whether they were ready to step up to be our guardians of truth. They considered themselves disruptors, hammering the power structure as if it were the Big Brother screen in Apple’s legendary “1984” TV commercial. Some of them didn’t even believe that editors needed to be gatekeepers. They were sometimes hasty in putting news “out there” and letting readers decide whether something was true. Their headlines were hyped, although recently their desire to be serious news providers had improved quality. BuzzFeed and Vice depended on social media sharing, a broad metric called “engagement,” which included time spent reading, the number of likes, shares, and comments on social media, and a host of other factors. The wisdom of crowds, with commenters rather than professional journalists setting the terms, drove coverage. The breathless news cycle left little time for formal training of the young, aspiring journalists who mostly sat behind computers scraping previously published content off the internet and rewriting it or spinning it in new directions.
By understanding the power of social media and video, BuzzFeed and Vice had won millions of devoted readers and viewers, largely using the giant tech platforms of Facebook and Google to amass followings among the young, the demographic most prized by advertisers. Their financial success was rooted in so-called native advertising, ads that were virtual carbon copies of stories created by journalists. Facebook, which supplied the lifeblood to new digital media sites, was all about deriving ad revenue from the fast-paced social sharing of their 2.2 billion global users. Eschewing its responsibilities as mankind’s biggest publisher, Facebook would be badly tarnished after the 2016 election for sharing users’ data with a Trump-tied outfit, Cambridge Analytica, and for failing to police its platform, enabling fake-news creators in Russia to disrupt the election.
All in all, it felt like a singular moment. The fate of the republic seemed to depend more than ever on access to honest, reliable information, and people were consuming more news than ever, but every news company was turning itself upside down to produce and pay for it in the digital age. I determined to capture this moment of wrenching transition—and to do it as a reporter, my first calling.
Copying Halberstam’s template, I would chart the struggles of four companies to keep honest news alive. But my narrative would be less triumphal and more personal. I’d lived through the fight to keep facts alive in a new economic climate. I’d lost my way when I became executive editor of the Times, trying to fight for what I viewed as the necessary balance between safeguarding the independence of the news and the urgent need to find new sources of revenue. Halberstam’s four companies were pillars of a rising news establishment, and he told their fascinating origin stories. The two newspapers I chose to chronicle, the New York Times and the Washington Post, were both struggling through an extremely disruptive technological transition and fighting to retain their importance and essential values. The two newcomers I chose, BuzzFeed and Vice, were improbable players in the news arena but were claiming the upper hand at a time when huge social media platforms rather than individual publishers drove audiences to news.
In the Trump era, the news wars were no longer the stuff of lofty discussion on public TV and in journalism classrooms. They were center stage every day. The man who vilified the media as “enemies of the people” was in fact a creature of the media. His rise to fame in New York City was fueled by tabloid newspapers like the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He sold papers and he worked these outlets, all the while stewing that the Times and other mainstream media organizations scorned him. Later he built a national profile as a master of reality television. The paradox of Trump’s view of the media only deepened after his election. As he tried to delegitimize traditional news organizations, sometimes successfully, he wound up energizing them and helping drive new subscriptions. Journalists wringing their hands about technological pressure were suddenly forced to focus on the importance of their mission—and were less concerned about being marginalized. Courtesy of Trump, they were more threatened than ever, but also more vital.
The threats to trust and authority were evident at the time of the Pulitzer party, and by the time Trump assumed power the remains of any true common source of news and information for a broad swath of the American public were gone.
“There is a risk that one third of the electorate will be isolated in an information loop of its own, where Trump becomes the major source of information about Trump, because independent sources are rejected on principle,” wrote media critic and New York University professor Jay Rosen in April 2018. “That has already happened. An authoritarian system is up and running for a portion of the polity.”
Although the panic about the business model had retreated a bit in some newsrooms, especially after the Times and Post both witnessed a “Trump bump” in new subscriptions following the election, the old guard and the young had a common, persistent problem: the advertising that supported newspapers throughout the 20th century was rapidly disappearing. In terms of ad revenue, print dollars had become digital dimes. The ads that cluttered readers’ screens were cheap and plentiful, while a full page in the Times still cost north of $100,000. Mobile phones were driving the prices of ads even lower. Though digital audiences, well into the millions for all four companies, were far bigger than any newspaper reader base, most readers and viewers were paying little or nothing for the content they read or watched online. Facebook and Google, with their automated ad systems that pinpointed specific audiences, were hoovering up 73 percent of whatever U.S. digital ad revenue there was.
At the same time, a basic tenet of quality journalism was under attack: the wall between church and state. Part of what slowed the Times and the Post from adapting to the digital age was a concern about separating the business side of the papers from the editorial side. The Post’s former editor Leonard Downie was known to walk out of meetings where business issues were being discussed because he believed so fervently in that separation. Joe Lelyveld, a former Times executive editor, protested when the head of advertising once walked through the newsroom to find him.
The dam held for a while, but mounting financial pressures broke through practically overnight. At the Times, journalists were asked to appear at conferences with advertisers where some questions were vetted by the marketing department; the paper’s ombudsman complained about the too-cozy appearance of reporters and sources at these events. The Washington Post had been hit far worse. Its advertising base in D.C. had been decimated, as was the case with many local newspapers, and it would be left to grasp for creative new ways to bend professional ethics in order to shore up some more revenue.
The pain was most acute at local, smaller papers. The Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia would win the Pulitzer for investigative reporting but was forced into bankruptcy soon after the Champagne was uncorked.
During the years after 2008, when global financial calamity was intensifying, the need for quality journalism increased. The forces of nationalism were massing across the Western world. There was record income inequality even with a record low unemployment rate. The financial crisis of 2008 cost the U.S. economy some $10 trillion, according to the Government Accountability Office. Economic dislocation and technological change were upending life everywhere. Climate change was wrecking the environment; catastrophic events, such as the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, were becoming more commonplace. Terrorism was on the rise. The U.S. was involved in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There had to be reputable news organizations digging into all of these cataclysmic stories. If not, who would tell the people? It’s easy to forget how desperately afraid of centralized power the Founders of America were. The First Amendment protecting freedom of the press was first for a reason.
It seemed to me that a good place to start my book was 2007, when it seemed almost everything changed. That year saw the introduction of the iPhone and the news apps that have become the dominant reading device for many of us. Facebook had just introduced its News Feed, which would become the news distribution channel for many Americans. It was when Vice decided to use digital video on YouTube to create immersive documentaries in far-flung locales that it drew new audiences to news. Jonah Peretti, a wonkish visionary, was beginning to experiment with how news could go viral and tinkering with a new website he called BuzzFeed.
For the Times and the Post, still the country’s dominant general-interest papers, 2007 was the year everything began to fall apart. With the financial crisis looming, and heavily burdened by the costs of a new skyscraper they moved into that year, the Times would soon go hat in hand to mogul Carlos Slim for a $250 million loan. This forced the company to rent out most of the floors of its new headquarters, which Sulzberger Jr. had envisioned as the home for a powerful new multimedia empire. At the Post, Katharine Weymouth, very much her grandmother’s girl—she even sometimes wore Katharine Graham’s signature pearls to work—became publisher and CEO, only to be slammed by financial woes. Newspeople started asking if these two pillars of journalism’s establishment, the papers that still broke by far the most important stories, could survive the transition to digital.
The climate for creating the kind of journalism the First Amendment was intended to protect, the stories that held powerful people and institutions to account, had grown noticeably chillier. During President Barack Obama’s administration there were more criminal leak investigations, far more of these chilling probes than in previous administrations. Though the Times and Post each had exposed classified operations eavesdropping on citizens and secret overseas prisons where terror suspects were tortured, sources and whistleblowers inside the government clammed up, fearful of prosecution. Reporters, forced to testify and reveal their secret sources, were threatened with jail time for refusing to comply with coercive subpoenas. Some of these investigations touched Times reporters, and I had publicly attacked the leak investigations, observing that the Obama White House was rivaling Nixon’s for secrecy, much to the chagrin of the White House press secretary. I agreed with a former Post editor who said that if a war on terror was being waged in the name of the people, the American public needed the press to tell them about it. That was what “consent of the governed” required.
In the age of Trump, these questions heightened. Could the weakened traditional news organizations still carry out the mission the Founders intended for a free press? Had the shiny rewards for entertaining the public eclipsed their duty to inform? Would a business model, other than the whims of certain billionaire owners, emerge to support quality news-gathering? Could trust in the news media be restored when the president, almost daily, called it fake news? These seemed to me the vital issues.
Trying to answer them would take time, but working on this book, a narrative history told through four different news companies, would give me a passport into the newsrooms on the front lines. After two years of hanging out with their leaders, their technologists, their reporters and editors, I might have some sense of whether there was a future for quality news.
What do I mean by “quality news”? News that isn’t commoditized, merely chronicling what happened and where, like the stories doled out by public relations firms or announced at staged events. Such stories were published every day.
Quality news involves original reporting, digging to find the real story behind the story. Investigative reporting on the murky nexus of money and politics and corporate behavior. International reporting from hard-to-reach places and dangerous conflict zones. Stories that require the skills of professional journalists using state-of-the-art reporting tools, such as databases and crowdsourcing, and age-old shoe-leather techniques to fill in gaps in the backstory. Stories that are thoughtfully presented, taking advantage of digital technology to provide on-the-scene accounts and visuals that further explain how events transpired. Stories that are edited so as to honor the intelligence of readers rather than exploit their emotions.
There are not that many places left that do quality news well or even aim to do it at all. But these four can and sometimes do: BuzzFeed, Vice, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. BuzzFeed because its success exemplifies Facebook’s impact on how information spreads online. Vice because digital video and streaming services are rapidly replacing conventional TV broadcasters and cable stations and earning the loyalty of younger audiences who would rather watch than read. The Times because it covers more subjects and places more deeply than any other news organization. The Post because of its inspired quest to reclaim its lost glory as the most important digest of American politics and the government. These four are among the leaders in producing the big stories—I can’t always bring myself to call it “content”—that we discuss every day. And all four are endangered.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 BuzzFeed I 13
Chapter 2 Vice I 42
Chapter 3 New York Times I 62
Chapter 4 Washington Post I 82
Chapter 5 BuzzFeed II 103
Chapter 6 Vice II 147
Chapter 7 New York Times II 182
Chapter 8 Washington Post II 225
Chapter 9 Facebook 271
Chapter 10 BuzzFeed III 301
Chapter 11 Vice III 346
Chapter 12 New York Times III 370
Chapter 13 Washington Post III 403