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When editor Tina Brown’s much-hyped Talk Magazine met its demise in 2001, media watchers were at the funeral—but not to mourn. The magazine, which had made its name with a celebrity-heavy launch party at the Statue of Liberty and not much else, had been a punchline throughout its two-year run.
“I have been swimming in a howling sea of schadenfreude for the past three years,” Brown told the New York Times.
Before its launch, one observer snatched up the magazine’s URL and used it to run a mocking explanation of what Talk was. The answer: “Solipsism! Pretension! Cold fusion and Krispy Kremes!”
Former Washington City Paper editor David Carr warned in Salon that the new magazine might indeed just be all talk: “[Brown] may be selling vaporware, but everybody who lives in Manhattan—or wishes they did—is buying.”
Reporters, like people in any other profession, watch their competitors closely. Unlike people in most other professions, we get to publicly criticize them. The thrashing Talk and new outlets like it received then was just part of launching a splashy new editorial product; along with a fancy new title and some branded merchandise, people like Brown were in for a healthy dose of snark.
Maybe not anymore. The media-watching environment has never been more accepting of—and less willing to criticize—new outlets.
Top Politico reporter Ben Smith left last year to become the editor of BuzzFeed, a site previously known for its puppy slideshows, and convinced some other name-brand reporters to join him. This year, Facebook mogul Chris Hughes, who owes his fortune to having the good luck to room with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University, bought The New Republic and promised to turn the geriatric magazine into “the New Yorker of Washington.” (The magazine also hired away City Paper editor Michael Schaffer.) This spring, Arianna Huffington—who’s been the target of some ridicule in the past—launched an iPad magazine called Huffington., and no one said anything about the period in its name.
Aside from a few skeptical tweets, both BuzzFeed and the New Republic avoided the eviscerations they would’ve received in the high-living early Bush years. The gentle receptions for these new outlets makes it clear that the journalism recession has a new victim: media business schadenfreude. These days, people who still have media jobs are just grateful that anybody is willing to spend money on trying something new.
“Everybody is kind of hoping that somebody cracks that code and is happy that somebody is trying to,” says Smith.
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Another protection against high-profile public hate: The lack of money also means new ventures can’t do anything like party at the Statue of Liberty. While we can still dream about how debauched Facebook money could make the new New Republic’s launch, other enterprises are on a tighter budget. The resulting blogger happy hours aren’t going to incite much jealousy.
National Journal editor Ron Fournier experienced the snarky prerecession environment when he launched HotSoup, a site where regular Americans and policymakers could interact, in 2006.
“A lot of people, including not a small part of myself, thought I was crazy,” he says. Much of the criticism of HotSoup, like HotSoup itself, no longer exists, but what’s left reveals that a lot of people thought it was a bad idea and were happy to say so.
“The concept for the site…makes no sense,” wrote media critic Michael Nyhan on his blog. When HotSoup shut down less than a year after its launch, Nyhan was proven right.
It’s impossible to know whether the new New Republic or BuzzFeed will succeed in the end. Maybe they’ll join the Huffington Post and Politico in the ranks of bold ideas that made it, and nobody’s making fun of them now because they’ll work.
That was certainly not the case for Los Angeles-based GOOD, which followed the usual path for media startups: a much-acclaimed hiring spree, followed by a much-bemoaned collapse. In June, the magazine’s owners traded its infographic-heavy business model for another dubious idea—being “a Reddit for social good,” according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
But the best example of the blindly optimistic mood in media may be closer to home: the public reaction to Allbritton’s ill-fated hyperlocal website TBD. The site, which launched in August 2010 after hiring reporters from all over D.C. (including several from City Paper), was meant to redefine local reporting. It was going to run the Washington Post into the ground, it was from the Politico people, and it even had a blogger affiliate network, which is the kind of thing you need in order to explain to the money people how your revenue will be different from old media’s.
TBD also benefitted from another phenomenon created by the recession in journalism: the new media pundit. The same desperate mood that looks to each new company to save journalism has the old companies spending cash and airtime on people pushing similar ideas. And those people need new businesses to talk about.
All you really need to know about the utter lack of irony in the pundit-new media complex—and the present craving for one big moment that will save everyones’ jobs—came from City University of New York journalism professor and top ideas man Jeff Jarvis, who posted a picture on his blog of the whiteboard sketch that would eventually become TBD’s business plan.
“For the history books,” he wrote. “If there still will be books.”
There are still history books, though not much of a TBD anymore. But for the likes of The New Republic, BuzzFeed, and whatever ill-fated iPad doodad is up next, the hungry optimism and the snark omertà that propelled it are here to stay.