Illustration: Jim Cooke/ FMG

Not so long ago, Nick Denton used to boast that Gawker Media was the last true beachhead of “independent media” in America. How quickly things change. Does “independent media” even mean anything, any more? Did it ever?

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Today, we are owned by Univision, a multibillion-dollar international media company controlled by a partnership of private equity firms. There is nothing wrong with that, per se. But whatever “independent media” means, it is not that. Then again, perhaps it is not anything.

  • Last month, an anonymous donor made a $1 million donation to the New York Times subscription department. “The genesis of the ‘sponsor a subscription’ program came directly from readers who approached us with the desire to help support independent journalism,” explained Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, whose family has exercised sole control of the company for more than 120 years. The New York Times Company is a publicly traded corporation whose stock is held in large chunks by some of America’s biggest institutional investors.
  • Vice Media, America’s most prominent new “gonzo” news outlet, a “Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media,” has major investors including News Corp and Time Warner, and may pursue an IPO after rumored acquisition talks with Disney did not pan out. The secret to Vice’s success? “Vice is very, very, very well-known in the marketing circles for being able to reach that demographic and to create programs that are exciting,” according to the marketing chief of Intel.
  • Just a couple of years ago, media savants said that Buzzfeed, the new media’s greatest success story next to Vice (thanks in part to pioneering work in native ads), had “a bright future as an independent company.” Now, Buzzfeed is reportedly planning its own IPO, which would presumably pay off richly for investors including NBCUniversal and the venture capital giant Andreesen Horowitz.
  • Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder who funds First Look Media, has pledged $100 million to fund journalism and other civic efforts over the next three years. At least $4.5 million will go to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which will presumably use the money to produce actual works of journalism. On the other end of the media philanthropy spectrum: a group of tech companies, foundations, and well-meaning but misinformed rich individuals announced this week that they are donating $14 million to fund the “News Integrity Initiative,” which will be run out of CUNY and overseen by thinkfluencer/ hustler in chief Jeff Jarvis. The extremely expensive “initiative” promises to “advance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world, and to better inform the public conversation.” It does not promise to “produce actual works of journalism.” But it does promise to burn $14 million.

Independent media is not as easy as it sounds. Can a media company be “independent” if its shares are bought and sold on the stock exchange (like the New York Times)? Is a company with predatory private equity (Univision) or hedge fund or venture capital investors (Vice, Buzzfeed) really “independent” in a meaningful way? Is it more “independent” to be completely owned by a single rich guy (like Gawker Media was, or the Washington Post is), insulated from competing whims of investors but subject to the singular whims of a mercurial all-powerful owner? How about when the rich guy gets tired of losing money (The New Republic), or gets old and cranky (Harpers), or passes his leadership position off to his wastrel kid (Rolling Stone)?

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I won’t keep you waiting: The answer is no. True financial independence in the media is almost impossible to find. The closest model is probably enterprising do-gooder publications that beg their own readers and foundations for monetary support (Mother Jones, The Nation), although this model tends to reward more ponderous and self-conscious “WE DO PUBLIC SERVICE” journalism, rather than outlets that leaven their do-gooderism with less noble but more enjoyable content. Unless you are a very rich person who self-publishes your own thoughts on your own fully owned platform, you are beholden to someone.

What is actually being insinuated by places that declare their journalistic “independence,” then, is editorial independence—the idea that they answer to no one but the truth. But this assessment always includes a degree of fantasy. The same credible media outlets that spend their days following the money to report on the web of power and influence in the business or politics world will proclaim themselves free of any such outside influence from whichever money person sits atop their own pile of funding. Bullshit. This does not mean, as simpletons often shout, that Carlos Slim is dictating coverage in the New York Times, or that Jeff Bezos is secretly seeing to it that the Washington Post runs fawning stories about Amazon. For publications that want to be seen as mainstream, raw political ideology is too crude an instrument. The influence of money in the media is more often expressed by defining the boundaries of a news outlet’s conception of what news is. It is the insidious, unspoken self-censorship that causes an editor to turn down a story not because it is bad or wrong but because it’s just not what we do here. Whether the root of this self-censorship is fear of losing advertisers, or fear of pissing off the boss, or fear of offending someone that you might run into at a party later this year, or just a deeply internalized and ill-understood sense of what is and is not respectable, the effect is the same. The New York Times, which answers to the most establishment of establishment families, and Breitbart, which answers to an unhinged right-wing hedge funder, draw their boxes of acceptability in different places, but they both have boxes. The near-impossibility of true independence in journalism is expressed not by what is published, but by what is not published.

“All the news that’s fit to print” is not the same as “All the news.” The gulf between those two concepts represents the black hole that would be filled by a wide variety of “independent” media outlets in a perfect world. The tougher the economic climate of the media industry is, the less free money is sloshing around to grow all the fun new publications that should be filling in the gaps. And all money comes with a price. You may have a varied media diet. You may read publications that are large, and small, and print, and online, and serious, and wild, and sober, and fun. But it is very unlikely that you read many publications that are independent. Don’t let them sell you too hard on that idea. It sounds nice, but it may kill you.