Yep, Independent Media is a Big Deal

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Gawker got sold today to Univision for $135 million. This is the fallout from the Hulk Hogan lawsuit.

Then I saw this tweet …

I confess I had not thought about this dimension of the story even though it’s obvious and has been obvious since Gawker declared bankruptcy with the intention of putting itself up for auction. I think I hadn’t because when I think about brands, who’s growing or declining, who’s bought or who’s not, I tend to think of brands that are competitors to TPM or comparable in some way to it. Gawker is just a wildly different animal on so many different ways. But what Cody says here is true.

Let me start by being clear on a couple critical points.

First, there’s nothing wrong with corporate media. Some of my best friends, as they say. Many of the hits on ‘corporate media’ are overstated, cliched or not well thought through. So this isn’t a hit on ‘corporate media.’ Where would we be without the Times and the Post and even in its deteriorated state CNN. It’s just that not all media should be corporate media. Publications that are independently owned are simply different. They run different. They operate according to different priorities.

Second, this isn’t some monkish or self-sacrificing point I’m making. TPM is a for-profit company, both legally and in its goals. I’ve worked for years to make it financially viable and profitable. I want it to be more viable and more profitable. So none of this is about purity or lack of profit motive. TPM is a business in every sense. In fact, in many ways I’m more its publisher and CEO than its editor.

But here’s the key. I’m looking to make what TPM is more viable and profitable. Though I have zero intention of doing either it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that I might one day close TPM down or sell it. But it’s simply not in the range of possibilities that I would ever wake up one day and decide to make it into a branded content studio or a site that no longer covers politics. That’s simply not what it is. It just wouldn’t occur to me or be acceptable to me to have it be anything different.

Consider this counterpoint.

For going on a decade, MSNBC has been the platform for an amazing number of smart progressive voices. But that’s only because it’s a profitable place to be over against Fox News. Whenever it ceases to be profitable or ceases to fit into Comcast’s larger priorities it will stop being that. And that’s what did happen a year or so ago or whenever that was when they canned a bunch of their talent. I always felt a bit out of sync with the negative response to those firings because, what did you expect exactly? MSNBC is a media property that is part of a huge corporate conglomerate. It can deploy huge resources; pay great salaries. But strategies change.

There are also risks that independent publications take that corporate publications won’t. And this is maybe more relevant with Gawker. One of the things I admired about Denton was his willingness to start new sites and then shut them down if they didn’t work. Just constant experimentation – quick to try new things, quick to untry them if they pan out. Independent media takes risks and experiments in ways that that corporate media doesn’t.

Would the Times have sent John Cook on that gonzo mission to Toronto to blow open the Rob Ford crack cocaine story? I doubt it. The Toronto Star was on the case. But Gawker broke it. They didn’t.

Obviously it was some mix of that independence and pirate mentality that led to the one huge and ultimately catastrophic risk that led to the company’s demise as an independent entity. That’s not just too bad for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above but because, frankly, that’s a hell of a hill to die on for a giant of the digital media era. I’ve already written at length about the danger and just general awfulness of Peter Thiel’s quest to destroy Gawker. That’s a story for another day. But again, a hell of a hill to die on.

One more time for emphasis: this ain’t no knock on corporate media. It just shouldn’t be all media. Just as a biological ecosystems requires a certain amount of diversity to be healthy and durable, media ecosystems do too. For all its sins and faults (and there were a lot), Gawker won’t be the same with a corporate parent, even the best corporate parent. We tend to talk about Gawker. But Gawker wasn’t and isn’t just Gawker. It’s also Jezebel, Gizmodo, Kotaku, (until recently) io9. These were each vital, smart and novel venues – sometimes a bit crazy. But that’s the point too. Independent publications sometimes do crazy things. And that’s good. Because corporate media don’t and won’t. Sometimes crazy genius, sometimes crazy righteous, sometimes crazy stupid. But someone’s gotta do it.

Those won’t be the same with a new corporate parent. And that is one of the major reasons I’ve never sold TPM or conceded a controlling interest in it – even the kinds of covenants that cede de facto control despite majority ownership – to anyone else.

It wouldn’t be the same, even if I were still running it. Because I wouldn’t really be running it. That’s not how it works.

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