What does the future of journalism look like?

How to build a healthy media consumption diet

Today I’m taking a break from self-help and productivity to discuss a topic I care about: journalism. In another life—before I learned to code and knew what product management was—I was a journalism student. I sat in a classroom and studied what makes a good lede, how to write clearly, and how to craft a strong narrative. From my vantage point, a former journalism student turned newsletter writer, I see a clear trend emerging. We’re seeing journalists, writers, podcasters, and vloggers transform from mere company employees to prolific solo creators with engaged and active audiences that will follow them wherever they go.

Let’s jump in:

Back when I was in high school and college, the majority of the content I consumed came from large publications and media conglomerates. I read Sports Illustrated articles over a bowl of cereal. I browsed the New York Times app numerous times a day. I frequently navigated to growing online publications such as The Verge, Mashable, and TechCrunch to scratch my technology itch. On occasion, I’d sit down and watch NBC Nightly News with my dad. 

I then went through a heavy social media phase—from around 2013 to 2016 the majority of the content I engaged with came from what I discovered on my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn feeds. I had a lean-back experience… I let the content come to me. I was at the mercy of the algorithms.

Upon the rise of “fake news” in late 2016, it became clear that the algorithms were a bad judge of accuracy and truthfulness. So, I adjusted how I consumed content. It was time for a lean-in experience, one where I set a high bar for the content I was consuming and began to place more emphasis on the who than the what.

This meant focusing on what creators I followed rather than what publications or networks I consumed. In 2017, my content intake shifted to specific creators. For technology news, for example, I abandoned scrolling through TechCrunch and Mashable, and I started specifically consuming Kara Swisher, Nick Bilton, and Casey Newton content.

My shift in approach was reflected in the industry—newsletters and podcasts started to flourish. Substack was founded in 2017, raised $17m+, and is creating an entirely new type of entrepreneur (myself included here). There are 512k+ new podcasts published so far this year, 4x the number in all of 2017.

There is an entire industry, called the passion economy, that is emerging with hundreds (thousands?) of prolific creators. Companies such as Patreon power journalists, writers, and podcasters who have a large and engaged audience to make a living flying solo. Discovery engines for creators such as LetterDrop, Newsletter Stack, Sounder (shameless plug), Stitcher (SiriusXM just acquired for $325m), Spotify, and Podchaser are gaining steam to help niche creators develop sizeable audiences that can be monetized.

Let’s not forget, too, that newspapers have been hit hard. According to Pew Research, newsrooms have seen a 50% decrease in employment between 2008 and 2020. Plus, as revenues declined, power has started to transfer from corporations to the journalists who work there.

Source: News Media Alliance, formerly Newspaper Association of America (through 2012); Pew Research Center analysis of year-end SEC filings of publicly traded newspaper companies (2013-2018).

For example, the CNN Politics Twitter account has 3.6m followers, while Jake Tapper and Jim Acosta’s Twitter accounts have 4.3m followers combined. That means just 1.6% of the political team at CNN (according to the website there are 122 reporters on staff) has 19% more followers than the team’s account. On top of that, individual tweets by both Tapper and Acosta generally receive more engagement than those by CNN Politics.

So there have been two key trends compounding on top of each other:

  1. In the United States, the general population has distrusted the media consistently (based on Edelman Trust Barometer Reports).

  2. The number of creator-first tools and services has grown.

Taken together, it’s never been more important to be authentic and trustworthy. Given that it’s easier to assess the authenticity of specific creators rather than an entire newsroom, creators understand that their trustworthiness is the foundation of their business. Without it, they have no chance to compete. That’s why you see many newsletters share their credibility and guiding ethos. As a reader, it’s easier to do your homework on creators before engaging with their content. I can dig into Ben Thompson’s history, for instance, and decide if his voice is one that I consider trustworthy. Now, imagine vetting an entire newsroom of hundreds of reporters. Plus, newsrooms are always changing: the average employee tenure is 2.2 years at Vox Media, 3.1 at BuzzFeed, and 2.9 at The New York Times.

Trust is king.

This leads us to today’s grid, which dives deeper into the tectonic shift happening in journalism and what it should mean for your media consumption habits.

On the x-axis, we have the size of the organization. On one end we have individual writers, vloggers, and podcasters. On the other: publishers, newsrooms, and media conglomerates.

On the y-axis, we have trustworthiness. Trust can be broken down into numerous components: a creator’s training, industry experience, truthfulness, accuracy, speed, and intention. Personally, and for the quadrants breakdowns below, when it comes to trustworthiness, I value accuracy and truthfulness above all. That may be different for you. However, one constant is that becoming a trusted source is challenging work. It requires consistency over an extended period of time. If creators or publishers demonstrate they can be trusted, it’s worth rewarding them with a greater share of your attention.

Understanding the Grid

This grid can help you create a healthy content diet in a fast-changing media landscape. Media consumption should be filled with a diverse set of voices—from large, trusted publishers to up-and-coming creators. We are too often trapped in our filter bubbles—reading, watching, and listening to content that only supports our point of view. We should be engaging with all types of content, especially content from creators we don’t agree with. GASP!

When we step outside our content comfort zone, it empowers us to understand both sides of important issues, be well-rounded in our thinking, and have more engaging conversations.

Right now, I’d estimate that about 60% of my content comes from niche creators and rising startups, 30% comes from accuracy-first publishers, 5% comes from fiction-first publishers, and 5% comes from the algorithms. It’s with this mix I feel most informed. My hope is you can apply these same proportions to your content diet, too.

Accuracy-First Publishers

The size of the organization is large, and it is a trustworthy source. For me, publishers such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, Vox Media, and ESPN fit inside this quadrant. These organizations are behemoths and provide general news for me to consume on the core topics I care about. Plus, the size (and pockets) of these organizations allows them to fund deep, investigative reporting. These publications cite their sources. They use data. They’ve demonstrated consistent trustworthiness through repeated accuracy. Thus, I believe what they say and consume their content. With publishers in this quadrant, I usually read the headline of an article before reading the byline. That’s because I’m going to these sources for breaking news and hard facts. When it comes to commentary, deep analysis, and hot takes I go to specific creators (meaning I’ll read the byline before the headline). For example, there were dozens of tech reporters with hot takes on the big tech CEO antitrust hearing, I only deeply read the takes from the creators I’d already vetted.

Fiction-First Publishers

The size of the organization is large, and it is an unreliable source. For me, Fox News is in this quadrant. Publishers that land here sensationalize the news. They report one side of the story and have a clear bias. Despite these trust shortcomings, I still keep tabs on what these organizations are publishing. I engage with this content to inform me of how millions of people are experiencing the news. To many, content from these publishers is their main source of truth. I recommend consuming this content just enough so you can understand the context and tone. The goal here, remember, is to create a healthy media diet. That means engaging with all types of content. If you’re living in a news bubble, how can you expect to understand key issues from a 360-degree perspective? How can you have meaningful conversations with friends and family who hold different opinions if you don’t understand why they hold the beliefs they do? Engaging with these publishers pops your filter bubble and allows you to expand your perspective.

Niche Creators & Rising Startups

The size of the organization is small, and it is a trustworthy source. For me, startups and niche creators such as Axios (Mike Allen, Kendall Baker, Jonathan Swan), Casey Newton, Li Jin, and Patrick O'Shaughnessy fit in this quadrant. The common thread: I engage with every single name on this list via a newsletter or podcast. I primarily use this quadrant to seek opinions and predictions about topics I care about. As a bonus, I’m occasionally able to build a real connection with these creators due to their accessibility—sparking thoughtful conversations directly on Twitter. These interactions allow you to better understand the creator’s point of view. You can ask questions when you’re confused. Finding these trustworthy, niche creators is relatively easy. Generally, they’re coming from two main pipelines:

  1. Journalists who leave their publishers to start their own independent ventures.

  2. Business leaders who leave their companies to start writing/podcasting based on subject matter expertise.

When successful creators consolidate, it creates a Rising Startup—that’s what Everything, The Information, Defector, and Axios have done. These startups are thriving as audiences follow creators rather than the publishers. For example, Bill Simmons grew a large audience who trusted him at ESPN. Once he left and started Grantland, his audience followed him there… and followed him again when he created The Ringer. Remember, in this quadrant, be less concerned with where the news is coming from rather than who is delivering it.

The Algorithms

The size of the organization is small, and it is an unreliable source. For me, this is news that’s algorithmically served through social media. I find this content unreliable due to its inaccuracy. In this quadrant, you find that everyone and anyone can become a journalist. After all, most people have a social media account and a camera in their pockets at all times. This, however, can lead to bad and unreliable content being consumed en masse. That’s because false content is placed directly next to accurate content. It’s challenging to be able to tell right from wrong. When we are consuming content in this quadrant, we need to be sure to check our sources before accepting what we read as truth. Again, just like the Fiction-First Publishers quadrant, we want to keep tabs on these publications as a way of knowing what others consume. It can help you understand how the facts are being distorted. It also allows you to better defend your arguments by better understanding how others will try to poke holes in your beliefs.

As Charlie Munger said:

“I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do.”

Grid Shortcomings

It’s difficult to know which quadrant to place journalists with large individual audiences at big organizations. As an example, let’s take Brian Stelter (CNN) and Kara Swisher (Vox). Should they go in the top right or the top left? You could make an argument for both. I’d put them both on the top left of the grid as I’d follow them if they were to leave their current publisher. In fact, I did. When Brian left the NYT at the end of 2013, I followed him to CNN. It’s kind of like how I just root for whatever team LeBron James is on (don’t at me... it was really hard being a Knicks fan). Go Lakers.

With so much content available, it’s more important than ever to make sure we are consuming the right content in the right amounts. My hope is that this grid provides you with a framework to get started building the healthy habits needed to be properly informed in today’s media landscape. How do you think about your media consumption? I’m curious to hear other perspectives. Reply back to this email, drop a comment, or send me a direct message on Twitter—I’d love to hear from you.

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,

Special thanks to the Compound Writing members who reviewed this post: Dan Hunt, Stew Fortier, and Tyler Wince.

If you enjoyed today’s Gridology post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family, or colleagues. As always, please reply to this note or find me on Twitter if you have any feedback, have ideas for a post, or want to collaborate.