Last week workers at a San Francisco-based company announced they were forming a union.
“We are organizing because it is more important than ever that companies are equitable and supportive of their employees… [Our company] must support and protect its workforce and create the best environment possible in these turbulent times.”
While this sounds like it could be about a meatpacking plant or plastics factory, the company in question is Medium, a digital media publishing platform created by Twitter (TWTR) co-founder Evan Williams. (You can read the entire statement here.)
That employees at Medium feel the need to join the Communications Workers of America (CWA)—a 100-year-old union best known for repping workers at AT&T and (Yahoo parent company) Verizon—perhaps speaks to a failure by Medium management. Which would be ironic since a number of years ago the company instituted a “Holacracy” model, which it touted as “a radical new theory of corporate structure, a completely management-free environment,” and “by far the best way to structure and run a company.” Apparently it wasn’t all that. The Holacracy was scrapped after three years.
The point is that leadership at Medium have deeply considered the idea of management and its employees still feel it’s necessary to unionize. And it speaks to a bigger point too, which is that even after all these years of tech and media melding together, the divisions between these two businesses are deeper than ever and at the same time becoming more urgent to address as the tech industry inexorably takes over more and more media, in particular the news business.
You’re probably familiar with that latter, takeover point, but I suspect that you may not have considered the totality of tech’s incipient media dominance.
Let’s explore that now.
Tech companies and tech moguls hold sway over the news business in at least three overlapping ways. First, if you include social media platforms (Facebook (FB), Twitter and YouTube) as media—as you certainly should—the tech industry is actually now defined to a great degree by media companies. (We could also include a portion of Apple (AAPL) by dint of Apple News and its music business and LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft (MSFT).) As measured by audience size and profit (billions), ad revenue (hundreds of billions) and market capitalization and impressions (trillions), all the other media outlets combined aren’t nearly as big as the social media companies.
Adjudicating the frictions that arise from this unreconciled relationship—manifested for instance by whether Facebook et al. should be shielded by Section 230—is no easy matter, even for the likes of brainiacs such as Harvard Law School professor emeritus Larry Tribe who told me this week: “I think the time is ripe for really a full reconsideration of the intersection between the First Amendment and powerful, extensively private social media.” So what should we do, Larry? “I don’t know yet,” Tribe told me. “It’s one of the things that, if I look at my sort of intellectual agenda for the next 10 years, if I’m around for another 10 years, that’s one of the things I’m thinking about.”
Two current flash points are 1) Australia, where the government there is requiring Facebook and Google to pay publishers for news that it outs on their platforms (Imagine that.) And 2) Facebook’s oversight board which will rule soon on whether Trump will be allowed back on Facebook. Just to give you an idea of the lack of consensus there, I asked Tribe, who told me Trump should not be allowed back on, while Bill Gates told me: “I don’t think having him off forever would be that good.” That one will be worth watching.
But even if you reject the idea that social media is media (then why is it called social ‘media,’), tech is coming to dominate the media industry by other measures.
Which brings us to the second means of tech holding sway over media and that is simply buying news organizations. The examples here are high-profile and obvious: Laurene Powell Jobs and the Atlantic, Marc Benioff and Time Magazine, Jeff Bezos and the Washington Post. I guess you could include bio-tech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong buying the LA Times, as well as Facebook founder Chris Hughes’ brief ownership of The New Republic.
“Wealthy people who buy a publication do it largely because they believe in its mission and partly for prestige in the community or nationally,” says Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at Poynter. “They used to say of rich people buying papers, it’s more fun than having a bond. It’s kind of like owning a sports team.”
Ownership of these properties by tech billionaires now constitutes a significant slice of American news business and it’s likely we’ll see more of it in the years to come. After all, they are the wealthy people now. On the other hand, does buying one of these businesses really make sense? Many news organizations are fusty and unprofitable and besides there are other, vulture-like buyers circling, such as hedge fund Alden Global Capital which just bought Tribune Publishing this week.
That point segues to our third category of tech influence in media, which is instead of buying, DIY or building one of your own. Here we have the aforementioned Medium as well as First Look (which publishes The Intercept) created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. This group of companies isn’t neat and tidy grouping as many digital media or new media companies have mixed pedigrees, like Reddit funded initially by Y-Combinator, then bought by old-school media giant Condé Nast, then spun off and now funded mostly by, you guessed it, Silicon Valley VCs.
I should also make mention of my own organization, Yahoo, very much a creation of Silicon Valley, and ditto for sister publication TechCrunch, also owned by Verizon (VZ). Business Insider, Axios and Vox, to name just three, had blends of old media and Silicon Valley as investors. And of course there are hundreds of other media-like companies birthed in Silicon Valley such as Digg, Flipboard, Quora and so forth.
The startup cycle here is important to note. A few years ago it was generally accepted that the digital media boom was over. As growth slowed, valuations topped out for the likes of BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost, and VCs cut back on funding new ventures. That proved to be a false peak. Podcasts became all the rage and soon enough entrepreneurs founded scores of audio companies and platforms. And more than that a new wave of red-hot social media companies have taken the stage, most notably TikTok, which now has 1.1 billion monthly active users (MAUs), as well as much smaller but high-profile entities, Substack and Clubhouse. All three have deep Silicon Valley funding roots; TikTok’s parent ByteDance via Sequoia Capital China and Substack and Clubhouse through Andreessen Horowitz. (Other Silicon Valley and non-Silicon Valley investors have bought stakes as well.) Though it varies by company, these investors have a strong or even dominant influence on the workings of these platforms. And remember all those billions of eyeballs and dollars flowing to TikTok, Substack and Clubhouse come at the expense of traditional media.
More on Andreessen Horowitz in a moment, but first a bit more on the relationship between Silicon Valley and the media, because it’s become a hot-button issue for some very simple reasons which seem to get lost in the heat of the debate.
Historically, as in say before the 2016 election, tech companies were mostly covered by a small group of tech reporters. It was a pretty insular world, with the subjects and their Boswells more or less on the same page. There were hard-hitting stories and scandals, but the general idea that tech companies, while of course money-making ventures, generally had honest intentions and were even forces for good in society, was more or less accepted by many tech journalists.
But this changed over the past half decade, particularly as Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Facebook, Apple, Amazon (AMZN) and a revived Microsoft grew into global giants with tentacles reaching into all facets of society. Why did these halo-topped companies lose their luster? “There’s been this growing animosity between Silicon Valley and mainstream media,” says veteran business journalist Jim Ledbetter, chief content officer of Clarim Media, which owns Techonomy and Worth magazine, who for a time was the head of content at Sequoia. “I remember seeing that image of beat up Mark Zuckerberg on the cover of Wired [in 2018] thinking ‘wow.’”
There are bonafide reasons behind the shift in perspective. Societal conflicts like privacy and election integrity came to the fore. There were scandals at companies like Theranos and Zenefits. Employees at these tech giants—heretofore the happiest, most privileged people on the planet—began to agitate over issues like working conditions in warehouses, gender and racial equality and #metoo issues, and contracts with the Defense Department. Lawmakers took notice and began berating the companies. And journalists began to write stories about these issues, and new journalists without any historical knowledge or relationships (not that this should be a requirement) began to write about tech companies.
Now the bloom is off the rose. Increasingly Silicon Valley feels itself under attack, some even suggesting there is conspiracy by the media to write negative stories, a point of view shared on forums like the now defunct website Slate Star Codex, (The New York Times in particular seems to draw tech’s ire), engendering all manner of dust-ups on Twitter and now on Clubhouse too.
Behavior has changed. To be sure, some high-profile executives like Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg still appear in traditional media, but increasingly, leaders like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos as well as Larry Ellison and Marc Andreessen, some of whom used to engage with media, are eschewing traditional news outlets.
And why not, particularly since they can now communicate without media filtering directly to audiences on Twitter, Medium, LinkedIn and Substack, platforms in which they either invested or whose founders or other investors they know well.
As for the animosity and finger pointing, not surprisingly, there’s truth on both sides while the extreme views are generally off-base. Fact: People in Silicon Valley want to make money and yes, want to change the world. They can be arrogant, clueless entitled and can act badly. They generally have good intentions but can create products which have negative consequences.
We journalists on the other hand want a story, not necessarily a good one or a bad one, just a story. Understand though that calling people out on hypocrisy and misdeeds is our job. And yes, we too can be arrogant, clueless, entitled and can act badly. Both sides probably have more in common than they realize or would like to admit.
Some journalists and some in Silicon Valley care more about this than others. And that brings us to Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the powerful VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, (whom I noted recently as possibly decamping from Silicon Valley.)
As I mentioned earlier, Andreessen is one of those Silicon Valley potentates who used to be much more public facing, but now he and his firm apparently aren’t doing interviews, reflecting the increasingly fraught relationship between media and technology, (see more detail in this piece). (A company spokesperson declined to make anyone available for this article.)
It’s a bit of a paradox because I’ve interviewed and spoken with Andreessen a few times over the years and I can tell you he’s someone who cares about media, and more than that is taking an active role in reshaping it as an investor and behind the scenes. “The running joke of the firm is that we’re a media company that monetizes through venture capital,” Andreessen told Wired in 2018.
“Every media company is a tech company now, and every tech company not only needs to have a PR wing but also produces its own content and manages user-generated content,” says Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor at the New York University journalism school and author of, “Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World.”
Andreessen’s eyes were opened early on. Twenty five years ago to yesterday, (2/19/96), Time Magazine put then 24-year-old Andreessen on its cover, barefoot on a throne-like chair with the cover line: The Golden Geeks: “They invent. They start companies. And the stock market has made them Instanaires. Who are they? How do they live? And what do they mean for America’s future?” At that point Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape, was riding high after that company’s IPO from the year prior.
By 2009 Andreessen and his partner Ben Horowitz founded their eponymous firm, (also known as “a16z”) which I remember well as I was editor of Fortune at the time and we did an exclusive cover story on the firm’s launch. Two years later Andreessen penned his famous “Why software is eating the world” op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.
Andreessen, through his familiar @pmarca twitter handle, practically invented the tweetstorm seven or eight years ago. Bloomberg counted that he tweeted over 20,000 times in the first half of 2014, which was right around when Twitter went public (November 2013), a company in which a16z had invested.
Twitter is hardly the only digital media company a16z has had stakes in. Here’s just a partial list: Facebook, BuzzFeed, Pinterest, Reddit, Medium and Digg as well as newer investments like Substack and Clubhouse. (To be clear, this is just a sliver of the 890 investments a16z has made, according to crunchbase, but it’s substantial within that industry.) BTW, nowadays Andreessen doesn’t tweet so much, and when he does, lately it’s been about appearing on Clubhouse.
It’s worth noting too that a16z has had a significant in-house content, or content-marketing effort for some time now. Six years ago the firm hired Sonal Chokshi from Wired to be its editor-in-chief. The company produces all manner of articles, videos, podcasts and newsletters. Given where a16z sits and the brainpower there, it makes sense that some of it is revelatory. Some of it though is preachy, lost in the weeds and axiomatic.
Now a16z is stepping up its media presence even more, announcing late last month that it is “building a new and separate media property about the future that makes sense of technology, innovation, and where things are going…expanding and opening up our platform to do this on a much bigger scale.” The firm hired Maggie Leung from NerdWallet as executive editor apparently to manage the operation.
The announcement goes on to say a16z will welcome contributions for articles, op-eds, newsletters, video and more, even offering pitch guidelines. But just when you think, wow, maybe a16z really is creating a traditional media company you come across this line: “Our lens is rational optimism about technology and the future.” Ahh. A risk here is creating content only for the Silicon Valley echo-chamber.
“Companies have always put out content,” says Broussard. “There have always been corporate magazines — Amtrak magazine, and other magazines put out by corporations. Nobody thinks Amtrak magazine is going to destroy democracy.”
“Marc has always been good at media,” says a former a16z person. “Ben’s a good writer and other people there are great at social and creating content. Now they feel they can go out on their own, which may or may not be true depending on what kind of audience and impact they want.”
Here’s where I come out on all this. First regarding a16z: It’s too bad people there don’t talk to the media anymore, but that’s their prerogative. It’s also their prerogative to create as much content as they want. Just don’t call it journalism, (not that a16z has) which would allow for the creation of content critical of the firm, its portfolio companies or tech in general. It sounds like that won’t be happening, although who knows. As far as a16z’s investing in media companies, more power to it for doing so, and more power to Marc and Ben for using and promoting these companies.
When speaking to Bill Gates this week I asked him if he ever thought about investing in or buying a media company like Jeff Bezos. Not interested. “I’m glad somebody is providing long term capital for great interactive news, but I don’t see myself [doing that.] I’ve gotten pretty full up,” Gates said.
Part of Gates being full up is a massive, traditional media campaign for his new book “How to avoid a climate disaster,” which includes him doing interviews, (including with schlubs like me), which may result in stories where he is criticized or even where journalists play gotcha or twist his words. I’ve asked Gates about this and he essentially says it comes with the territory. Meaning if you want to reach as many people as possible, you have to put yourself out there and absorb the slings and arrows from The New York Times and others.
I was thinking about Gates’ influence when I noticed he has 53.7 million followers on Twitter. As for Marc Andreessen, he has 813,000. Of course it’s just one metric, but on Twitter at least, Bill is some 66 times more impactful than Marc. To be sure, Gates does have the advantage of being the richest guy on the planet for many years, but Andreessen has some world-beating ideas too. Maybe Andreessen doesn’t care if he reaches a wider audience, but if he does, it may be difficult to do so inside the ecosystem of a16z.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on February 20, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.
Britney Spears calls recent documentaries about her ‘hypocritical’
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pop singer Britney Spears spoke out on Tuesday about recent documentaries about her life and career, calling them “hypocritical” because they rehash her personal problems while criticizing the media for reporting them the first time.
Walt Disney Co’s FX network and The New York Times released “Framing Britney Spears” in February. The documentary examined the singer’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager, the ensuing media scrutiny and her widely publicized breakdown.And this month, the BBC released “The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship” in Britain. It will debut in the United States and Canada starting May 11 via the BBC Select streaming service.
In an Instagram post, Spears did not name either documentary but said “so many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life.”
“These documentaries are so hypocritical … they criticize the media and then do the same thing,” she added.
In March, Spears said she cried for two weeks after watching part of “Framing Britney Spears”.
The BBC said in a statement on Tuesday that its documentary “explores the complexities surrounding conservatorship with care and sensitivity.”
“It does not take sides and features a wide range of contributors,” the statement added.
A New York Times spokesperson declined to comment.
Spears, who shot to fame in 1998 with the hit “Baby One More Time,” is in a court battle seeking to replace her father as her conservator. He was appointed to the role in 2008 after she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.
Her fans have shown their support on social media under the hashtags #We’reSorryBritney and #FreeBritney. Spears is scheduled to speak to a Los Angeles court in June.
In her Instagram post, which included a video of herself dancing, Spears said that “although I’ve had some pretty tough times in my life … I’ve had waaaayyyy more amazing times in my life and unfortunately my friends … I think the world is more interested in the negative.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by David Gregorio)
Grammy organizers change rules after allegations of corruption
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – The organizers of music’s Grammy Awards on Friday announced an end to the so-called “secret” committees that have led to allegations that the highest honors in the industry are open to rigging.
The Recording Academy said that nominations for the next Grammy Awards in January 2022 will be selected by all of its more than 11,000 voting members, instead of by committees of 15-30 industry experts whose names were not revealed.
The Academy was slammed last year when Canadian artist The Weeknd got zero Grammy nominations, even though his critically acclaimed album “After Hours” was one of the biggest sellers of 2020.
The Weeknd, in a Twitter post last November, said “The Grammys remain corrupt. You owe me, my fans and the industry transparency.”
The Recording Academy said in a statement on Friday that the changes were significant and were made “to ensure that the Grammy Awards rules and guidelines are transparent and equitable.”
Allegations that the Grammy nominations process is tainted were made in a legal complaint filed in early 2019 by the former chief executive of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan.
At the time, the Academy dismissed as “categorically false, misleading and wrong” Dugan’s claims that its members pushed artists they have relationships with. Dugan was later fired.
American pop star Halsey, also shut out of the 2021 Grammys, last year called the nominations process “elusive” and said she was “hoping for more transparency or reform.”
Former One Direction singer Zayn Malik called in March for an end to “secret committees.”
“I’m keeping the pressure on & fighting for transparency & inclusion. We need to make sure we are honoring and celebrating ‘creative excellence’ of ALL,” Malik tweeted hours ahead of the 2021 Grammy Awards ceremony.
The Recording Academy on Friday also said it was adding two new Grammy categories – for best global music performance, and best Latin urban music album – bringing to 86 the total number of Grammy Awards each year.
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by David Gregorio)
Movie theaters face uncertain future
By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Maryo Mogannam snuck into the Empire theater in San Francisco with his older cousins to watch “Animal House” when he was 14. He watched most of the James Bond movies at the historic art house and took his wife there on some of their first dates.
The cinema, which had been showing movies since the silent film era, served notice in February that it was permanently closing because of the impact of COVID-19. The marquee is now blank, and cardboard and paper cover the box office window.
“It’s kind of like losing a friend,” said Mogannam, now 57, who owns a retail shipping outlet near the theater, which had been renamed the CineArts at the Empire.
As vaccinated Americans emerge from their homes, they also may find their neighborhood theater is not there to greet them.
An eight-cinema chain in New England said it will not reopen. The same fate hit a Houston art house beloved by director Richard Linklater and, in a shock to Hollywood, more than 300 screens run by Los Angeles-based Pacific Theatres. That includes the Cinerama Dome, a landmark that hosted several red-carpet movie premieres.
Following a year of closures, theaters face deferred rent bills plus media companies’ focus on drawing customers to streaming services. Up to one-fourth of the roughly 40,000 screens in the United States could disappear in the next few years, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said.
The National Association of Theatre Owners rejects that estimate, spokesman Patrick Corcoran said, noting that similar dire warnings accompanying the advent of television and the switch to digital screens never came to pass.
Hollywood filmmakers want cinemas to thrive.
“It’s the only place where the art dominates,” said “Avatar” director James Cameron. “When you watch something on streaming, the other people in the room with you are welcome to interject, to pause to go to the bathroom, to text.”
At theaters, “we literally make a pact with ourselves to go and spend two to three hours in a focused enjoyment of the art.”
“For 300 people to laugh and cry at the same time, strangers, not just your family in your house, that’s a very powerful thing,” said Chloe Zhao, Oscar-nominated director of best picture nominee “Nomadland.”
At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie industry will “make a case for why cinema matters,” producer Stacey Sher said. While acknowledging the hardship of the pandemic, “we also have to fight for cinema and our love of it and the way it has gotten us through things,” she said.
About 58% of theaters have reopened in the United States and Canada, most restricted to 50% capacity or less. The biggest operators – AMC, Cinemark and Cineworld – make up roughly half the overall market.
Industry leaders project optimism, forecasting a big rebound after restrictions ease and studios unleash new blockbusters.
Coming attractions include a new Bond adventure, the ninth “Fast & Furious” film, a “Top Gun” sequel and several Marvel superhero movies.
“Avatar 2,” Cameron’s follow-up to the highest-grossing film of all time, is set to debut in December 2022. Some box office analysts predict 2022 ticket sales will hit a record.
Supporters point to late March release “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which brought in roughly $48.5 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices over its first five days, even though audiences could stream it on HBO Max.
“That was a big win for the entire industry,” said Rich Daughtridge, president and chief executive of Warehouse Cinemas in Frederick, Maryland.
But near- and long-term challenges loom, particularly for smaller cinemas.
Theaters are negotiating with landlords over back rent. A federal aid program was delayed due to technical problems.
Plus, media companies are bringing movies to homes sooner. Executives say streaming is their priority, pouring billions into programming made to watch in living rooms as they compete with Netflix Inc.
Most at risk are theaters with one or two screens, Wedbush Securities’ Pachter said. He said his best guess is between 5,000 and 10,000 screens could go permanently dark in coming years.
“I think we’ll see a gradual decline in the number of screens,” Pachter said, “just like we’ve seen a gradual decline in the number of mom-and-pop grocery stores and bookstores.”
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles, Alicia Powell in New York and Nathan Frandino in San Francisco; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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