Please, Fuck Off: Journalism's Slush Fund Parasites

In the first edition of Discourse Blog's 'Please, Fuck Off' series, let's talk about the media's useless 'thinkfluence' industry.

Despite the myriad crises facing journalism right now, there is still an enormous amount of money in the industry.

Most of this money is tied up in corporations, but a substantial sum also comes from incredibly wealthy people who funnel tax-deductible money into various non-profit organizations because it makes them feel better about being incredibly wealthy. All of these non-profits, to a large extent, exist by selling the idea that journalism is a noble venture that serves as a cornerstone of American Democracy.

This is a misnomer: while a free press is a good thing to have in a generally liberal society, journalism is not some holy art that is inherently good, like medicine or running a cat rescue account on Instagram. Instead, it’s far more useful to view journalism as a trade based on the action of asking people questions and then writing down what they say as long as it’s true.

There are right and wrong ways to go about this trade, but this isn’t a blog about that. Instead, this is a blog about the pipeline of money that flows from wealthy donors trying to launder their reputations to an entire cadre of morons who, while making money off of the general idea of Journalism, do not, in fact, practice the trade of journalism in any way.

Let’s start with a recent news story that can illustrate this. McClatchy, a massive newspaper chain that owns dozens of papers across the country, filed for bankruptcy in February and is up for sale. At the end of June, Ken Doctor reported that the Knight Foundation, one of the largest of these journalism/ media vanity foundations, was considering making a bid for the company. This would have been huge: it would have put one of the largest employers of journalists in the country under the management of a non-profit organization. But a week later, Doctor reported that Knight decided ultimately not to put in a bid. McClatchy will now be owned by one of two massive private equity firms who are currently dueling over who will get to vivisect it for parts.

This is a good tweet summing up Knight’s decision-making process:

The Knight Foundation has an endowment of $2.4 billion dollars. Given the margins facing journalism these days, that’s an absolutely absurd amount of money. The Knight Foundation could have bought the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune (sold in 2018 for $500 million) five times over. It could have bought Gawker (sold in 2018 for $1.35 million) almost 2,000 times. Instead, as Gara pointed out, it chose to stay the course, and continue giving money to “useless thinkfluency future of journalism nonsense.”

Let’s talk about that. An enormous amount of it goes toward gibberish like this, which you can publicly see on the Foundation’s journalism grants page.

News Revenue Hub Expansion

Goal: To support News Revenue Hub’s efforts to help news organizations develop sustainable business models by creating a team that will work directly with newsrooms to expand audience and develop editorial products that enhance loyalty and inspire financial support. The team will work with newsrooms to drive adoption of critical platforms, tools and strategies that increase lead generation, email subscriptions, donations and retention.

Amount:$1,500,000

Cortico

Goal: To help journalists build trust by better understanding the communities they serve and the issues people care about. Cortico's listening system —the Local Voices Network— uses machine learning to analyze online and offline community conversations. Cortico is a nonprofit created by leaders at the Lab for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab.

Amount:$2,000,000

R Street Institute

Goal: To study and explore a multi-stakeholder approach to the management of online content that balances concerns of consumers with those of corporations, and to improve the government's technology policymaking.

Amount:$1,000,000

In short: what….. da fuck???????? Machine learning? Multi-stakeholder approach? Just give newsrooms money!

These are just some cherrypicked examples, of course, but there’s plenty more where that came from. Sure, the Knight Foundation’s money often trickles down to useful projects and organizations — when you’re slinging that kind of cash, some of it is going to hit the mark—but if you spend 15 minutes scrolling its grants page you’ll see at least one utterly incomprehensible nonsense slush program for every donation to ProPublica or Frontline. A huge amount of this money, as well, ends up at smaller institutes and journalism schools, and trickles down to “thinkfluencers” themselves, people like Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Kelly McBride. These people are often professors of something or other, presidents of initiatives funded by nonprofit slush money, “media ethicists,” etc. A large amount of their careers derives from pontificating about media and journalism and thinking very hard about it without ever actually doing any journalism. Almost always, they have a blog (Rosen’s is literally called PressThink.)

These people are often living examples of the “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” adage, and contribute very little to the actual practice of journalism in the real world. Jarvis was the editor of Entertainment Weekly thirty years ago, but has long since settled into the thinkfluence game. He is the “Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism” and the “Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism Innovation” at CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School, and was “named one of the 100 most influential media leaders by the World Economic Forum at Davos,” despite the fact that he appears to only teach one class at CUNY and spends the rest of his time doing utterly useless blogs on a website that looks like it hasn’t been updated since Y2K. Rosen, meanwhile, is best known in recent years for getting hoodwinked by The Correspondent, a scam where a Dutch media company said it was creating a big new U.S. journalism project, got Rosen on The Daily Show, and then fucked off back to Amsterdam with the $2.6 million it crowdfunded and said it wouldn’t be setting up a U.S. office after all. Rosen also runs a vague project called Membership Puzzle that’s funded by the Knight Foundation. You see how this works?

All of this, from the foundations to the thinkfluencers themselves, desperately needs to fuck off. Journalism does not need machine learning to function, and it definitely does not need useless people to think hard about the impact of machine learning on news and then do nothing. What it does need is money, which should be used exclusively to pay the salaries of the people actually doing the work. Any other venture is a waste of time.

Photo: Flickr/Patrick Farrell