I remember the first time I discovered the existence and encroaching omnipresence of the Media Technology Complex. I was covering the film and music fun at South by Southwest 2009, when I ran into a pair of young enthusiastic coders who I previously met at some event at MIT back home. Unlike me and all the road dog journalists I knew in Austin who had come to drink and hustle like a pack of donkeys, the coder journos were in Austin to speak at the burgeoning SXSW interactive conference, which it turned out had a journalism track. I would have liked to check it out, and to follow up with any progress they made upon my return to Massachusetts, but like innumerable other overworked exhausted hacks, I was far too busy working 80-hour weeks covering several beats to pay too much attention to the sausage-making process and evolving innovations blossoming around me.
Surveying the Landscape
In the years that followed, I focused an increasingly amount of attention on the seismically shifting “digital landscape,” as the chaos that has run amok throughout commercial media this whole millennium is easily and often euphemized. In time, I even jumped in as a close observer, student, and participant. I was sent to cover summits at places like Google’s New England Research and Development center. I wound up profiling startups such as Echo Nest, which has since been absorbed by the music behemoth Spotify, as well as MuckRock, an essential online transparency resource that I still use today, before other writers gave them a glance.
While I have been fascinated by the changes in both social media and journalism, I’ve also come to acknowledge developments in these sectors with buckets of skepticism. That doesn’t mean I don’t get played like a damn sucker every now and then. I do. That’s what this essay’s all about. But unlike many grantmakers and influential media funders I meet in my current role as the director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), I do not believe that any app or tech—short of a low-cost printing press that cranks out hundred-dollar bills—will “save” the publishing industry.
I feel that way for several reasons. But for starters, at least observationally, I’ve seen how many elite academic researchers (along with startup brats) have infinitesimal interest in bolstering local reporting. They frequently make bold announcements and opine about the future of journalism. Meanwhile, it’s 2018 and we don’t even have a sustainable crowdfunding platform. I have watched my own hopes in that realm, as well as those of many other journos, get dashed with the shuttering of Spot.us, then Contributoria, then Beacon Reader. (Don’t get me started on Kickstarter’s lackluster initiatives for journalists.)
Despite doubts about the media tech sector, my partners and I launched BINJ in 2015 with a mere couple of grand from our personal bank accounts. We couldn’t afford to develop a standalone destination site. Since the features we produce run in various outlets anyway, including on the websites of our partners, we simply set up a presence in the form of a clearinghouse on the popular free platform Medium, and enjoyed the easy formatting and minimalist slate they offered. It was a similar scenario in 2016, when BINJ was shopping for a way to accept recurring donations. Medium was there, their services were free, and we even visited their crew in San Fran and snapped selfies in their sweet ass office. The situation was attractive. Until it wasn’t.
Medium’s Larger Message
Earlier this month, after nearly two years of hosting a paid membership program on Medium, all of the monthly donors to the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism were suddenly told that their monthly gifts were cancelled. It was such a tone-deaf blow, even for a Bay Area tech company that I thought it was in error. When I found out that it wasn’t, and that the company’s outspoken mastermind Ev Williams had simply decided to pivot the platform—again—I went bananas on the Twitter machine Williams helped build before starting Medium.
After four days, hundreds of RTs, and coverage of the fallout by outlets including Columbia Journalism Review and Fast Company, Medium apologized, announcing that they’re giving all the outlets that were impacted the total of four months’ worth of anticipated contributions. What’s more valuable than their pity, though, are the lessons spurring from this. Most will probably seem obvious to those who work on the technological side of the business, but if my experience is some kind of indication, these are things that average rank-and-file journalists exploring independent or nonprofit pastures probably don’t consider enough.
So, as you consider technology partners, here are some important questions to consider:
- Did you initially approach your partner? Or did they approach you first? How might the way in which this partnership formed impact the outcome? How can you control for that ahead of time?
- What are they, the innovation partner, getting out of the relationship? What is your nonprofit or news organization getting in return?
- Will there be customer or user information collected through this partnership? If so, do all partners have equal access to it?
- If there is publicity around the project, will it be shared? Equally? Will your media nonprofit be driving that exposure? If so, has that asset you bring to the table been acknowledged by your partner?
- Do you have other comparable options for the services the innovation partner will provide? If so, why aren’t you using them?
- Are the things that you are telling your handlers getting through to the coders, technologists, and/or anyone else needed to implement the requested measures?
- How has your handler’s response time been during the courtship and planning process? Do you feel that you could actually get someone to be responsive within an hour in the case of an emergency?
Had I latched on to the reporting innovators I bumped into back at SXSW, I may have hit the startup jackpot by now, as they did. More importantly, had I taken these questions more seriously two years ago (as, I humbly acknowledge, some of my partners did), BINJ would not be scrambling to reestablish our nonprofit online today.
In writing this, I re-discovered several articles, written by me as well as others but all comparably humiliating in hindsight, in which I shilled for the likes of Medium and Beacon Reader. If you’re in a situation like the one that we were in when BINJ first started, and you are reading this warning ahead of time, think long and hard about your next move, and don’t wind up like we did.
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent and I Killed Breitbart, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.