The Intellectual Situation
The New New Reading Environment
For an account of the old reading environment, see “The New Reading Environment” (Issue 32).
For a decade and a half, Twitter held true utility for the contemporary reader. At its best, the site offered brisk access to the news and the figures responsible for it, to the wide-ranging commentary and often terrible opinions of interesting people, and to surprising encounters with previously unencountered knowledge. Until the past year’s insipid Musk-related shenanigans, the platform functioned as an efficient information delivery system that made it unique among its social media rivals — and unique, for that matter, among the media organs that depended on it for readers and ideas.
Despite its fatuous new CEO’s fondness for describing the site as a “town square,” Twitter’s appeal was never its egalitarianism. Rather, as Max Read has argued, Twitter’s centrality to the last decade’s information economy owed much to its widespread adoption by “politicians and their staffers, entertainment creators and executives, tech investors and programmers, academics, and an annoyingly high number of lawyers.” No technology in human history has ever offered better access to the inner thoughts of the ruling class—or at least to its prejudices and frequent acts of self-humiliation. This was Twitter’s great unintentional innovation.
But Elon Musk’s obsession with conspiracy, his piecemeal algorithmic tweaks, his desperate desire to monetize everything — all this has undermined the features that made Twitter useful and occasionally enjoyable for even the nonruling class. The site is glitchier than ever, hobbled by mass layoffs, mass rehirings, mass outages, and mass attention-seeking viral events. Above all the reading experience has gotten much worse: one’s feed is now filled with so many unknown users and cut-rate ads that even the lawyers are barely visible.
Will the whole thing simply go away, disappearing into the internet’s unforgiving past tense? This is the fate one occasionally longs for, but it won’t happen anytime soon. Twitter, in the end, has proven simply too dumb to fail. Instead it seems poised to survive indefinitely, albeit in corroded form — forever catering to hucksters and marks, the passive and the desperate. The self-respecting reader might feel like it’s time to search elsewhere for new ideas. But where?
What one notices first about the latest iteration of the online reading environment are all the new names, as jarring as the pre-revolutionary street signage that suddenly sprang up after the fall of the USSR. (What the hell is Manezhnaya — what happened to Fiftieth Anniversary of the October Revolution Square?) The new sites are called things like Semafor, Air Mail, Punchbowl News, Puck. Puck? What is one to make of these names, which have the unsettling, archaic quality of early Tintin translations?
The latent influence on many of these websites is Vox, which launched in 2014 as an aggressive, multimodal operation that deployed podcasts, videos, and “explainers” in service of news analyses with a technocratic and self-consciously objective style. Vox helped instantiate a category of web-only publication that was intended to dominate the millennial consciousness during the Hillary Clinton Administration (and later the Pete Buttigieg Administration). The site was wonky-presenting, information-dense, user-friendly, and chatty — but chatty in the way people who hang out at Adams Morgan bars are chatty (that is, annoying). Vox could not ensure its supremacy after the electoral defeat of its sensibility, and the site has been spotted drifting onto strange backroads, as when it launched a credulous vertical focused on effective altruism bankrolled by Sam Bankman-Fried, which was then tasked with reporting on Bankman-Fried’s downfall. But for a brief moment during the late Obama years, Vox seemed to capture an entire cohort — and then coerce that cohort into listening to a biweekly podcast about zoning reform. Vox Media, the parent company, one-upped its own child and captured an entire industry: at a time when independent websites were closing down at a frantic pace, Vox Media stanched the industry’s hemorrhaging by acquiring Eater, Curbed, and eventually New York magazine and its own stable of verticals.
Vox’s modern imitators, however, don’t have the range. Scrolling through Semafor — a digital-only Financial Times in aspiration, if not quite in execution, founded last year by former BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith and former Bloomberg CEO Justin Smith after a blitz of investments and controversial global partnerships — one gets the sense that the site is filling a niche that need not be filled. The dozens of columnists, the ungainly combinations of strange fonts, and the ubiquity of something called the Semaform (a “format [that] separates the undisputed facts from the reporter’s analysis of those facts”): all this adds up to the impression that impressions are hard to come by. The gap between investment and impact is so extreme that perhaps readership isn’t even the point; all that capital had to go somewhere. (Semafor has promised to buy back the $10 million Bankman-Fried invested during the seed round, but fortunately an early investment from Jorge Paulo Lemann, Brazil’s richest man — implicated earlier this year in a massive accounting scandal — is still intact.)
If you attempt to access anything beyond your three monthly allotted Atlantic pieces, Jeffrey Goldberg will pay a personal visit to your home and do krav maga on you.Tweet
Also heavy on columnists and prone to experimental typography, though lacking whatever mischief its title might suggest, is Puck. Backed by private equity and edited by Jon Kelly, who previously launched the weird Vanity Fair vertical the Hive, Puck typifies the new news sites’ tendency toward “access journalism,” aspiring to capture “the inside conversation at the nexus of Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley & Hollywood.” This sounds promising enough — what initially made Twitter so distinct was the chance to witness various power centers preening at one another — but the result is at once bombastic and low stakes, like so much contemporary cultural production. (“A ‘Catastrophic’ Sundance for the ‘Cat Person’ Movie,” ran one recent representative Puck headline.) Puck’s dozens of pieces about palace intrigue at Netflix and palace intrigue at Vladimir Putin’s palace all announce themselves with great urgency and then linger indefinitely in an odd, noncommittal register. Though many of its contributors are print veterans, their output makes one yearn for the brutal constraints of column inches.
Like Puck, Air Mail — a weekly newsletter started by Graydon Carter — is desperate for proximity to power, but at least it’s a little more transparent about it. The site doesn’t really exude wealth or celebrity so much as the hunger for wealth- and celebrity-adjacency that its founding editor has long personified. In the age of company limousines, company Veuve Clicquot, and company cocaine, Carter brought the readers of Vanity Fair into the minds and mansions of the ultra-rich, via a Concorde’s worth of well-compensated journalists. That writing was on the wrong side of the class war, but it had a lushness that now seems inconceivable: even with $32 million raised in Series A and B funding, no website can afford Annie Leibovitz or Michael Lewis. Carter still wants to deliver proximity to the power elite, but in lieu of sumptuous photo spreads, an Air Mail reader must settle for the site’s online shop, where they can order $18 vintage (?) toothpaste or a $15,000 watch.
Ghosts flit by: the Daily, News Corp’s short-lived iPad-only newspaper; Topic, the First Look Media visual storytelling website; all the unknown soldiers lost in the great pivot to video. In the older boom-and-bust era, big media companies like Univision fought for market dominance. Now venture capitalists and private equity long to make their mark. But they, too, will move on when they discover that media is not the most profitable business, as Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes did when he bought the New Republic and then dumped it four years later in an open letter on Medium.1 What unites the new Potemkin websites is their ephemerality. One reads them (or, more likely, doesn’t) with the melancholic assurance that they are not long for this world. Perhaps one of these sites will somehow attract enough subscribers to outgrow the investor-dependent model, or maybe they’ll all merge into a minor Vox Media–style behemoth. (Semafor exudes so much corporate ambition that it should be called Letter of Intent.) For now, the only assured survivor of the bunch seems to be the bro-y, artless Punchbowl News, a DC news site founded by the reporters John Bresnahan, Anna Palmer, and Jake Sherman and spun off from Politico along the lines of Axios, a DC news site also spun off from Politico, itself a DC news site now owned by a rapidly expanding German media conglomerate. All this dizzying self-reproduction doesn’t necessarily reflect the public’s desire for repackaged and re-repackaged gossip, punditry, and guest op-eds by corrupt and genocidal world leaders ghostwritten by PR professionals. But Washington is a city that loves to read about itself, especially from a venue that can be written off as a business expense. Perhaps defense contractors and lobbyists offer subscriptions as part of their benefits packages, alongside robust 401(k) contributions and free Pelotons. In the end, this kind of walled-garden insularity — in which news is pitched primarily at the people it covers — is more than an editorial sensibility: it’s a last gasp at a sustainable business model.
Punchbowl News costs $30 a month. Air Mail goes for $79.99 a year, though students and educators get the first year free — a kind but deeply strange discount that suggests a longing for details about the sex lives of aging restaurateurs not typically seen among students or educators. An annual membership in Puck’s Inner Circle is $250 and offers readers the chance to “break the 4th wall with direct access to Puck’s elite talent” and receive “exclusive access to signature Puck merch collabs.” The new Gabriel Snyder venture the Fine Print, which unlike Puck publishes serious media reporting, is $99 a year and is signature merch collab–free. This is the next thing one notices about reading on the internet now: it costs a lot of money.
And there is no way to avoid paying. After a long and glorious spell of underpolicing, the modern paywall has attained its final, fortress-defending form. For years the illicit pleasure of an incognito tab often exceeded the actual reading experience. Today’s paywalls, however, are hostile and impenetrable. Might they be sentient too? Every week new websites and browser extensions emerge to tunnel through or scramble over the walls, and every week they are crushed by rocks and catapults. Punchbowl News will never let the rabble in. Merely thinking about reading one too many Bloomberg Businessweek pieces now carries with it a substantial fine. If you attempt to access anything beyond your three monthly allotted Atlantic pieces, Jeffrey Goldberg will pay a personal visit to your home and do krav maga on you.
In the good old porous days, paywalls had the quality of a suggestion. Now they are binding contracts with strong personalities. The New Yorker and the London Review of Books, which log readers out much more reliably than they keep them logged in, are aggressive bouncers averse to bribes and persuasion. Contra its gloomy disposition and intense commitment to Courier, which give it the appearance of a bomb threat, Leon Wieseltier’s Liberties is more like a generous (if creepy) uncle, offering two free articles in exchange for an email address. The twisted minds at the New York Review of Books have perfected the length of their preview text, guaranteeing cut-off at the point of maximal tantalization. “In 2019 a female platypus, who was possibly carrying eggs stuck to her tail,” writes Tim Flannery in a recent review, “was captured on video as she killed a rakali — Australia’s carnivorous native water rat, which can weigh more than two pounds and has nasty stabbing incisors — after it attacked her. The battle lasted twenty minutes before the platypus finally managed to drown her assailant.” More! Give us more! But alas: what follows is a subscription offer.
Paywalls, of course, keep publications in business, even if an online subscription can never replicate the pleasures of print.2 But even the most passionate faith in the system’s logic is liable to be shaken by regular encounters with the draconian paywalls of local news sites. An attempt to read even a single article in the Houston Chronicle or the Atlanta Journal-Constitution or any number of other newspapers slams the reader against an unforgiving prompt for a one-time micropayment followed by a weekly rate somewhere down the line. Pay nothing, read nothing — beyond a lede or a dateline. On their own, these fees are small and even reasonable. Still, the situation is clearly counterproductive: Who is going to subscribe when it’s impossible to know exactly what one is subscribing to? There are stories in these papers about the depravities of local cops, state legislatures, and transnational landlords that could provide an essential service, and nothing quite literalizes the tragedy of local news like the obvious fact that, in the face of such discouragement, the vast majority of people simply won’t read their local reporting at all. In a recent piece for NiemanLab, Joshua Benton noted that the ailing newspaper chain Gannett, whose properties include the Arizona Republic and the Detroit Free Press, among many others, spent more in the fourth quarter of 2022 on debt service than it brought in from digital subscriptions across the entire company. “You can debate the direction of causation,” Benton wrote: “how much [Gannett’s budget] cuts were driven by declining revenues, versus how much the declining revenues were driven by the cuts.” Either way, militantly keeping newspapers away from their readers did them no favors.3 At least some newspapers present the option to subscribe “maybe later.” Barring that, one sometimes finds oneself in the debased position of opening a new article, immediately selecting all, and pasting the results into an unformatted Google Doc before the paywall finishes loading. This kind of subterfuge can only generate sheepishness — but then again, how many subscriptions can one person handle?
This is the question posed by Substack. Whenever things on Twitter feel especially dire, writers remind their followers of their new Substacks, or their newly reactivated Substacks: “If this place goes down, follow me here.” (In recent weeks this has become harder to do, after Twitter effectively banned tweeting about Substacks.) Could Substack be the future? It certainly felt that way a few years ago. Its emergence in 2017 was greeted by the kind of Silicon Valley hype typically reserved for AI solutions to pied-à-terre management, and the kind of skepticism typically reserved for the wholesale elimination of the public commons. But Substack’s VC funders were never going to fully bring down writers and editors and their employers. Undercompensation, despair, and cultural marginalization will take care of that! The panic provoked by Substack’s emergence — and by its cheerleaders’ deterministic confidence — thus always felt overstated in its intensity.
Could the Times simply replace the Twitter experience outright?Tweet
But not in its particulars. From the beginning, the skeptics pointed out that even the most compelling self-curated bouquet of newsletters could never add up to anything more than its own kind of walled garden. Unlike generalist operations such as newspapers, TV news, and, well, magazines, Substack effectuates a radical dispersal of expertise and curiosity — a Substack in every pot (and about every pot). For readers, both finances and attention suffer. How many Substacks can we possibly pay for? And how many do we have time to read? It already feels like we spend more time in our email inbox than anywhere else. Must our leisure reading happen there, too?
It’s clear that Substack (and its functionally similar alternatives, like Ghost) has provided a steady income to a large and politically diverse group of people, some of whom were facing down uncertain futures before the newsletter infrastructure came along. Many of these writers are irritating, even malevolent. Many of them produce important reporting, rigorous criticism, and delightful esoterica that they are unable to publish anywhere else. But it is hard to be one’s own publisher. All Substackers, whether honest or self-dealing, are incentivized to iterate. By outsourcing the work of publishing — the editing, the marketing, the fundraising — onto authors, Substack has only accelerated a long-running trend toward universal basic freelancerization: more exhausting self-promotion, more money (maybe), more nominal autonomy and less actual autonomy, and above all more risk.4
For larger publications, the upside of newsletters is obvious. Email-bound readers can seamlessly swipe over from their Zocdoc appointment notification to their health insurance bill payment notification to their student loan payment notification to their local mass shooting notification to a Washington Post opinion newsletter about the biggest threat facing the nation (still, somehow, cancel culture). Supplemental newsletter programming can expand publications’ reach, develop themes, help collect data, and offer a degree of plausible deniability if the writers get a little overheated: they’re independent contractors — they’re just riffing! But whether one is reading Vulture’s hourly MILF Manor recap or a roundup of A. J. Liebling’s most memorable zingers from the New Yorker archives, publications’ newsletters too often feel like semi-redundant monuments to segmentation. At least Jeffrey Goldberg won’t beat you up if you forward one to a friend.
Of course, no one has pursued newsletters as zealously as the legaciest legacy-media operation of them all: the New York Times. The Times’ expansionist tendencies speak less to the paper’s interest in newsletters than to its interest in everything. During the Trump presidency, with democracy at constant risk of dying in darkness, the Times was an epicenter of liberal mass media production, its swirl of push notifications and daily Maggie Haberman pieces generating a shared sense that all the news that was fit to print had to be consumed in its entirety, hungrily and constantly. Now, with the national emergency depersonalized, the Times has become the news industry’s Amazon, a miniconglomerate that specializes in international reporting and podcasting and sports commentary and product reviews (the latter two, respectively, via the Athletic and Wirecutter, both standalone sites acquired after demonstrating category dominance). The Times seems able to forge entire new empires faster than smaller publications can go through their bankruptcy proceedings. For millions of home cooks it is a recipe website with a news division; for Spelling Bee addicts it is a game website that also happens to contain non-game content.
With its Stakhanovite publication regimen and its massive reach, could the Times simply replace the Twitter experience outright? Perhaps the entirety of political argument and cultural commentary one encounters on Twitter already exists inside the newspaper: in the articles, the newsletters, the aggrieved comments sections, and the opinion pages, which publish columns by some of America’s most dim-witted opinion-havers and also the visionary Jamelle Bouie, alongside a formidably diverse roster of contributors who have challenged Times readers on everything from student debt relief to prison abolition. Anarchists for DeSantis, horny teens against sex scenes, tradcaths against guilt, communists for feudalism — these are the characters one found on Twitter, and increasingly one is likely to find them in the Times, too.
So then why, given all this power and reach, does the most important and lavishly funded newspaper in the United States present itself to the world with the jittery paranoia of a terrorist cell facing defeat — paralyzed in its mountain hideout, bickering with itself, and treating everyone like an opponent that wishes it existential harm? In 2003, following the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal and also the one where it helped start a catastrophic and illegal war, the Times made an uncharacteristic step in the direction of self-critique and hired a public editor. The best and most rigorous of these public editors, Margaret Sullivan, left in 2016, and the position was eliminated soon after. Since then, the paper’s response to readers’ criticisms has grown increasingly guarded. In her memoir, Sullivan devotes a chapter titled “But Her Emails . . .” to the most egregious recent example of the paper’s willful defensiveness, citing a report in the Columbia Journalism Review by the researchers David Rothschild and Duncan Watts. Rothschild and Watts found that “the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all the policy issues combined in the sixty-nine days leading up to the election.” Sullivan writes:
This flawed coverage, and its dire consequences, angered and alienated many Times readers, a fair number of whom haven’t forgiven or forgotten what happened. In this way, too, it is similar to what happened with the Iraq run-up coverage; it has become a long-standing grievance. The difference is that there was no public mea culpa for the Clinton coverage, and perhaps not even an internal admission that anything was really wrong. I believe that many readers sense that self-satisfaction and are offended by it .
Unsurprisingly, former executive editor Dean Baquet doesn’t take his readers’ or his former public editor’s objections seriously. “I know this is going to get everybody riled up again, but I don’t have regrets about the Hillary Clinton e-mail stories,” he told the New Yorker last year. “There are a lot of people on Twitter who like to parse out everything I say. There’s nothing I can do about that.” For Baquet, his successor Joe Kahn, and the rest of the Times leadership, those people on Twitter aren’t individuals who read widely and approach the newspaper with reasonable expectations — they are a collective enemy, a voice of immoderation that it is the paper’s job to balance. The Times continues to plead a generalized innocence inappropriate for any news-gathering organization, much less the most influential newspaper in the world — as if the paper’s editors wake up every morning happily free of all institutional memory and discernment.
The news industry’s major shifts since the height of the Twitter era have mostly been technological (new distribution platforms for new websites with new and ever-crazier ways to scroll) and material (new funding models with new volatile cash flows and new precarities). The Times has assimilated many of these shifts, but its most important recent innovations have been thematic. The paper has always had a disproportionate agenda-setting power: in his 1996 book Breaking the News, James Fallows wrote, of the paper’s coverage of Bill Clinton’s health-care plan, that “because the Times casts such a huge shadow not simply over other papers but over network news operations as well, the rest of the news machine soon began covering the health deliberations as if they were a continuation of the presidential race.” The Times remains impossible to ignore, its preferences and biases decisive even in an age of media decentralization. And over the past couple of years, it has been especially impossible to ignore the paper’s coverage of transgender health care, which has unfolded with grim regularity alongside a massive and well-funded legal and political assault on trans people throughout the US. Every publication has an agenda, and it’s the combination of the Times’ clear editorial priorities and its denial of any kind of ideology that makes its approach so sinister. Writing in his Substack, Tom Scocca offered a useful thought experiment about the Times’ “plain old-fashioned newspaper crusade”: What if the Times covered abortion with the same skepticism that it has applied to stories about trans and nonbinary youth? “The ordinary liberal reader may be squeamish about this or that aspect of abortion,” Scocca wrote, “but they are fundamentally committed to the idea that abortion patients and their doctors are the ones best equipped to figure out what to do with a pregnancy. . . . For trans care, [the] liberal theory of autonomy and decision-making is cast aside.” Often the strongest editorial stance is one unwilling to see itself as such.
In a welcome and necessary escalation, in February a group of Times contributors published an open letter to Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, that articulated their “serious concerns about editorial bias in the newspaper’s reporting on transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming people.” The letter catalogued the paper’s long history of homophobia alongside recent examples of right-wing, anti-trans legislators citing the Times’ coverage.5 Although the letter attracted extensive news coverage and gathered tens of thousands of signatures from contributors and readers, the Times barely bothered to acknowledge it, though it did threaten staffers who signed it with disciplinary action. Like Axios, which recently fired the reporter Ben Montgomery for the journalistic crime of sending a snarky email reply to a bullshit Ron DeSantis press release, the Times has again and again displayed a self-sabotaging refusal to take seriously its use and misuse by the American right, which continues to play an effective double game: attack and undermine the media, except when the media is helpful to the cause.
For the reader, editorial predilections make themselves felt even if one isn’t reading the coverage of the coverage. It’s easy enough to intuit that a Times op-ed by a moderate student, supposedly red-pilled by his left-wing campus, was almost certainly written by a right-winger who strategically omitted the relevant portions of his bio, such as the summer he spent interning at a neoconservative think tank. And because one can count, one knows that pieces like this appear often enough that even when they don’t reflect an explicit editorial sensibility, they still speak to a deep-seated editorial pathology. Readers don’t like to be made to feel stupid, which is why mealy-mouthed, half-hearted, thought-annihilating headlines in the high Times style like “Someone Called the Police on a Girl Catching Lanternflies. Then Yale Honored Her” grate. Someone? A Girl Catching Lanternflies? Yale . . . Honored Her? What is this knowing, portentous tone supposed to achieve, other than the reader’s gradual lobotomization? Perhaps Twitter’s increasing marginality will liberate readers from these attention-chasing headlines. But first the Times would have to free itself from its attention fixation.
Twitter was unproductive, depressing, and a big waste of time, but until recently it never made anyone feel quite this stupid. The Musk era has been defined by a relentless barrage of idiocy, which has seeped into the infrastructure. The sense of chaos, the eternal return of memes and controversies, the algorithmic de-emphasis on tweets that link out to anything other than tweets, the emergence of the most annoying people in new and surprising contexts (Bari Weiss and Musk: a true signature collab) — all of it is too much, especially when all one wants is interesting articles.
At least there are still magazines, one thinks, only to remember the news about Bookforum and Astra, the near-closure of the Believer, and all the other increasingly precarious institutions. It is important to subscribe — but what if it’s not enough?
“I will be the first to admit that when I took on this challenge nearly four years ago, I underestimated the difficulty of transitioning an old and traditional institution into a digital media company in today’s quickly evolving climate,” Hughes wrote. “The unanswered question for the New Republic remains: can it find a sustainable business model that will power its journalism in the decades to come?” ↩
For the most part, nonprofit journalism—once a novel phenomenon, now a critical node in the news infrastructure—has avoided the paywall trap. National institutions like ProPublica and the Marshall Project, and local ventures like New York Focus and the Texas Tribune, publish essential investigative reporting and make it widely available to readers. The American Prospect’s editor David Dayen, who has been explicit in his antipathy for the paywall model, wrote last year that “the greatest threat to democracy as it relates to the media is not the spread of disinformation, but the spread of paywalls. The information that an informed citizenry needs to make choices about who governs them and what is happening underneath the surface has been privatized, gated, and kept from those with an inability to pay.” ↩
Two non-Potemkin websites that have emerged in recent years—Defector and the New York–focused Hell Gate, run by veterans of the digital media landscape—confront that alienation directly, starting from the dual premises of worker ownership and reader membership. ↩
As the letter writers detailed, the Times’ track record includes: publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger’s prohibition on the topic of homosexuality and the term gay starting in 1975; giving William F. Buckley the airtime in a 1986 op-ed to claim that “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals”; and A. M. Rosenthal’s refusal to promote staffers who were suspected to be gay during his tenure as executive editor in the ’70s and ’80s. ↩