July 2, 2020

So...Who Is the Arbiter of Truth?

On the last episode of Business Casual, media exec and general baller-at-large Joanna Coles explained the implications of ad dollars moving from local newsrooms to social media and Big Tech platforms. The general consensus? We’ve got a serious scale problem. And an even bigger misinformation problem.

So what does all of that mean for the future of media? In this episode, we’re figuring it out with Delia Cai, growth and trends editor at Buzzfeed and author of the Deez Links newsletter (which is described as “a dailyish link to cool shit happening in & around the media industry”).

As someone who both 1) grew up extremely online and 2) has a front row seat to the constant evolution of media, Delia offers honest insight about…

  • What we lose when we lose local newsrooms
  • How much money it would take for smaller media outlets to compete with Big Tech
  • Why social media has tangled our collective psychologies beyond recognition

Listen to the episode now.


Kinsey Grant, Morning Brew business editor and podcast host [00:00:08] Hey, everybody, and welcome to Business Casual, the podcast from Morning Brew, answering your biggest questions in business. I'm your host and Brew business editor, Kinsey Grant. And now, let's get into it. [sound of a ding]

Kinsey [00:00:19] The last time I was here in your headphones, I was interviewing Joanna Coles about the future of the media industry and the changing role of social media platforms in determining what's true and what's not. If you listened to our last episode, you know that that task was an undertaking. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg has spent the better part of his career honing his delivery of the words, "not the arbiter of truth." And Jack Dorsey has spent the better part of his career growing a beard that he loves to stroke so introspectively. 

Kinsey [00:00:48] And it's hard to comprehend in 30 minutes or so just how impactful those men's decisions are. We scratched the surface with Joanna, who has been an executive, a producer, an editor, an author—everything in the media world. And we covered a lot of things. But, I think we should get a fresh perspective from someone who grew up on those platforms that Joanna and I talked about so extensively. If you haven't listened to the last episode of Business Casual, go check it out and consider this one the debrief for that one. We're going to be digging a little deeper and hearing reactions, and it'll be helpful if you have some context heading in. 

Kinsey [00:01:21] So today we are going to talk about that episode with Joanna, the many things that we dug into in the episode, everything else happening in the media world with, I have to say honestly, one of my biggest media crushes, Delia Cai. Delia is the Growth and Trends editor at BuzzFeed and author of the Deez Links newsletter, which is described as "follows a dailyish link to cool shit happening in and around the media industry." Delia, welcome to Business Casual. 

Delia Cai, Growth and Trends Editor at BuzzFeed [00:01:47] Hi. Thank you so much for having me. 

Kinsey [00:01:49] So I, anybody who has read Morning Brew's newsletter, The Essentials, or like any time I make [laughs] recommendations in our newsletter, I love to recommend Deez Links. I find it, like, can't-miss newsletter material. I really do enjoy it every morning. And you have what I would consider a pretty uniquely critical eye for media, which is an industry—let's be honest—like dominated by bullshit in so many ways. So there's a lot of conversations to be had. We had some of them. I want to continue to have those today. And yeah, let's get started. 

Kinsey [00:02:19] I asked this of Joanna when I was interviewing her, but I want to get your perspective on this. If you had to say, in 30 seconds or a minute or so, encapsulate what you think the future of the media space looks like today, what would you say? 

Delia [00:02:32] I think the future of media is only going to get more crowded and noisier, and it's going to be the brands and the people and the outlets that can kind of offer a very unique value proposition, not to sound too advertisery about it, but anyway, that you as either a journalist or an outlet or brand can stick out and can very clearly communicate the unique service or writing or coverage for your readers. If you can do that clearly, then I think you'll be doing well. 

Delia [00:03:10] And I think the landscape will pretty much be like Disney's and Netflix's of the world, but also kind of these smaller, like small to mid-sized outlets that are able to just make their pitch and to connect directly with readers as well as advertisers as clearly as possible. 

Kinsey [00:03:30] Right. And you bring up two interesting points that I want to talk a little bit more about. Number one being personal branding in the media space, especially for journalists, is becoming something that is a non-negotiable. Something you have to have to understand your personal brand, what you bring to the table. You think about some of the journalists that are most talked about in our kind of age cohort. They are being poached from places like The Atlantic. Taylor Lorenz comes to mind that, you know, she is now at The Times. She's a brand. She's someone people recognize. 

Kinsey [00:03:59] And that's because of her writing, her unique ability to offer that value that no one else can. No one else is as well-sourced when it comes to teen and young 20s culture as Taylor is. So, it's incredibly important. And I think the second thing that I want to talk about is the small and medium-sized outlets. One of the conversations that Joanna and I had [chuckles] in the first iteration of our interview that we did was about local journalism, about smaller newsrooms, and about how there has been this conglomerization of the media world, where you see the really, really good, top three newspapers, you know, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, getting better and better every year. 

Kinsey [00:04:37] And you see the smaller newsrooms being absolutely decimated. So I want to hear your perspective why you think that some of these smaller newsrooms are being decimated in such a way. Joanna, I believe—I want to get exactly what she called it—it was like a business shitscape, is what she called it exactly in our interview, about how they are just hemorrhaging money. So what is your take on local journalism? Both why is it important and what do you think is going on? Why is this decimation happening? 

Delia [00:05:07] Yeah. More like Joanna said, I think the role of local journalism in terms of being up to be a watchdog for your community, being able to make sure that the people who are making the biggest decisions affecting where you live and where you go to work and everything are being held accountable. And so there's simply no question that local journalism is just really crucial, I think, for maintaining democracy and having an informed electorate. 

Delia [00:05:36] And it's kind of this really interesting question in terms of—so I went to journalism school, but I ended up concentrating in the advertising-strategic communication route. And so that's sort of given me this marketing-advertising perspective on a lot of things. And so I think if you look at local journalism and local newspaper, you can understand right away they have this value proposition that no one else has. Because if you're a small town in Illinois, which is where I grew up, then The New York Times it's not really covering what's going on in your school district. You're not really going to see your own town and your community's issues reflected on a day-to-day basis on CNN. On one hand, there's not a lot of competition for telling these stories. 

Delia [00:06:27] And who better than the people who actually live in this small town, our source staff, who have all the right connections, who have a lifetime of experience in this hypothetical small town—who better to tell those stories? Because I think that when a local incident happens that ends up on national news, like in the case of Ferguson—the Ferguson protests come to mind because I remember at the time I was, I believe I was still in school in Missouri—and so there is sort of this reckoning with the fact that all of a sudden we had all these national journalists parachuting in, trying to tell stories about St. Louis and the neighborhoods in St. Louis, and just not having any of the context. 

Delia [00:07:10] And so it's kind of crazy because it's on one hand, if you're a local newspaper, you should have an edge. You sort of have a product that no one else can really produce at the same quality as you, same consistency. You sort of have all of these edges over, say, random journalists parachuting in like once a year, or whatever. And so it's sort of this question of how is it that a product that is this valuable and this rare, where there's not a lot of competition, how is that so hard to monetize? 

Delia [00:07:45] [laughs] I sort of laugh because I'm hearing myself say these words and it all sounds very cold and corporate-y, but I think these are the terms that journalists and people who are running these kinds of outlets need to think about, because it's like, how are we not communicating the value to our community enough, in a way, you know? And so I don't know if it's just the fact that local newspapers have kind of been either reticent or reluctant to sort of move past just the sort of normal routes of monetizing, whether it was through classified ads or advertising, both like in the paper and online. 

Delia [00:08:25] It just seems that either there's something about the investment that it might require to be able to pivot quickly from these very old, traditional revenue streams. 

Kinsey [00:08:42] It's sometimes difficult, I think, to reconcile, to borrow your word, the cold and corporate-y part of this, that you have to make money to keep people on the on the payroll with the fact that so much about local journalism is based on emotion, is based on feeling like you're a part of a community, feeling like there's someone to hear your voice, to share your voice, to understand where you're coming from. That's an experience that you can't undervalue. I think that as someone who also went to journalism school, the years that I spent covering a small town in the middle of nowhere in Virginia were probably the most impactful in terms of making me a journalist and understanding what it means to talk to people, to get to the bottom of a story, to make sure that you check back up on your sources. 

Kinsey [00:09:24] It's a really person-to-person industry. But at the same time, you think about the way that the places where all of these ad dollars are now going, to Google and to Facebook. They don't think that way. Their entire strategy and their entire frame of thinking is basically the opposite of what I just said. You are a data point for a lot of these companies. You're a very valuable data point. But they know everything about me, but they don't really care about what that means in the bigger picture or the context. So, yeah, I think that when Joanna said that Google and Facebook are hoovering up the ad dollars, I think that they're about to go like turbospeed with that hoover, which has its own problems. [laughs] 

Delia [00:10:02] Yeah. 

Kinsey [00:10:02] I think that when we think about the impact that big tech has had, not only on you and I as people who are operating in media, but on the world in general, it's impossible to quantify that impact, I think, in any real way. But I'm curious to hear your perspective on that impact. I mean, if you had to say what social media has done to us, how would you put it? 

Delia [00:10:29] I was sort of thinking about this in terms of the problems of scale, which is something that you and Joanna talked about in terms of what does it mean when most of the content we consume is really coming from like two or three platforms or, you know, the whole, like, Disney, ESPN, like entire complex. I mean, one effect I will say is, is that with the rise of social media platforms, I think there is, as Joanna said, it's not that the bar, or the barrier to entry, is necessarily lower in terms of, like, you still, as a creator or a writer or whatever, you still have to bring the goods yourself. 

Delia [00:11:12] But the distribution channels are still far more democratized than if you were just a writer waiting for waiting for The New Yorker to, like, lift you up. And that was like the only way to have a big audience. So I do think in those terms and maybe overall, I would even venture to say it has still been better for, I think, just making more voices heard. 

Kinsey [00:11:39] That's the [chuckles] expectation—some of those voices are good and some of them are horrific. [laughs]

Delia [00:11:45] Right. Yeah. It's a classic of like, oh, the internet is so great because everyone can talk and then it's like, oh, no. 

Kinsey [00:11:52] Like, oh shit. [Delia laughs] Everyone can talk. But should everyone talk? [laughs]

Delia [00:11:56] Yeah, exactly. The other thing I was going to say is I think these platforms are creating these algorithms that sort of reward the content you create based on totally arbitrary rules and largely like these unseen rules. And so I think what sort of happens is that you see, in an attempt to chase the scale, because scale means more page views, which means more programmatic ad dollars, really, at the end of day. So it's like, at the end of the day, we've only really figured out how to monetize scale and page views in that way, outside of if you're doing subscriptions. 

Delia [00:12:35] The tiniest change in the Facebook algorithm would just rock any media outlet today. And then it's this whole battle of trying to figure out—I don't want to say how to game the system—but it sort of seems now it's this relationship where the platforms are setting the rules and not telling outlets about what the rules are. And then you have the entire media landscape is trying to just figure out what those rules are and then trying to game it. And so I think that's why you see, like just sort of these trends coming and going, whether it was kind of, you know, several years ago where it was just really wholesome, upworthy videos that were basically rewarded on Facebook. And so you just saw it everywhere. 

Delia [00:13:17] There is this notorious [laughs] scam where Facebook was like, you should all do shortform video because everyone's watching shortform video. And, of course, that just really changed the DNA of so many digital outlets, especially because they sort of really trust these are the rules. And if we play by them, Facebook, from their scale and page views, will reward us. So I think most outlets are finding it very hard to make these long-term content strategies or even a mission in terms of what they do, because at any moment that could change in terms of medium or just even in terms of what to cover, when in a way they're actually not really owning that distribution channel with their readers as much anymore. 

Kinsey [00:14:09] But I think that's not the only issue of responsibility with these big tech platforms. Obviously, right now, the big conversation around tech responsibility is a) what is the truth and b) who decides what that truth is? Delia, let's take a short break. Think about that a little bit. Hear from our partner. And when we come back, we'll talk more about where that responsibility falls within big tech. — 

Kinsey [00:14:33] And now back to the conversation with Delia Cai. So, Delia, obviously everybody in this past several weeks has been talking about who is exactly the arbiter of truth. Three words I never thought that I [chuckles] would put together this many times until I started covering big tech. But basically, the gist is that the president, President Trump, posted similar messages on Facebook and on Twitter that appeared to threaten violence against protesters who were looting. 

Kinsey [00:14:57] And the responses were pretty varied from these big tech platforms. Twitter responded by hiding the tweet, labeling it as glorifying violence, but didn't take it down. And then obviously, Facebook didn't really do anything. They let it go up without commentary. So, what's your take here? What do you think of this? What do you make of this entire situation? Who do you think is the arbiter of truth, Facebook, Twitter, etc., among those platform? Do you think that they should be the ones responsible for determining whether something is true or not? 

Delia [00:15:25] I just don't think that, at the end of the day, it should be one white guy who decides. And I think that Mark Zuckerberg, his whole thing of like, I'm gonna build this cool, like, carnival grounds and everyone can come in and do whatever they want, but anything that happens, it's not on me, is sort of—you see that a lot in a lot of the CEOs of these major platforms where they're like, Oh, no, no, no, I just build the platform, whatever happens on it is like, I don't want to—they're sort of like, I'm not encroaching on anyone's freedom of speech. I'm not trying to tell people what to say. 

Delia [00:16:11] And I think that it strikes me as just being a symptom of the kind of arrogance of this sort of white startup founder tech culture, where you sort of assume that you know what's best for everyone. This is maybe veering away a little bit from the whole arbiter of true thing or maybe circling back to it, but I just don't think that one person should ever be able to decide these things, and I think if you are creating a platform, especially of the kind of scale that Facebook or Twitter are on, I just think like it — 

Kinsey [00:16:51] It feels almost impossible. 

Delia [00:16:53] Yeah, yeah. I think that Jack and Mark, they really want to be, like, domain of this like—lord over this utopian ideal of what they think that discourse is like or what they think that free speech is about. And it's sort of just so tone deaf and out of touch that I think when things like this happen, they just have no idea—I think they have no idea about the real world consequences of it. 

Kinsey [00:17:20] Right. Yeah. And we don't live in that utopian society. We live in a very different world. Like almost as opposite as you can get from that world. 

Delia [00:17:29] Yeah. 

Kinsey [00:17:29] So I think that—and I agree with what you're saying about who should be the one to decide if something is true or not—I don't think it should be one person. I think it should be an ongoing effort. But I also think that it's one thing to say I'm not gonna decide what's the truth and what isn't. But I think it's an entirely different conversation to have to say, if I determine that something is endangering the 2 billion people who use my platform, I'm going to take it down. 

Kinsey [00:17:54] That shouldn't be hard to me. That should be the normal reaction for people, especially people who are able to access so much information. People like Mark Zuckerberg, who maybe they didn't finish, but were Harvard-educated people. This is a smart person. This is a person who has access to plenty of advisers who could tell them what to do. Yeah. I just don't buy it. I don't buy that you can just back into the corner and put your hands up and say, like, go ye children and figure it out yourselves. You have responsibility. You need to exercise that. You need to recognize it, first of all. 

Delia [00:18:26] Yeah. It's interesting, but um—oh, I think there's a protest outside, can you hear it? 

Kinsey [00:18:32] Um, a little bit. But—it's kind of cool. It's like —

Delia [00:18:34] Yeah. 

Kinsey [00:18:35] This is the moment we're living in. [laughs]

Delia [00:18:36] The protests have kind of come around my apartment, I think, for the past two nights. But it's always at different times. But I think this is it again. I don't know if you can hear it, but there's cars beeping and some chanting. But, yeah, it sounds like they're circling, kind of like going around this corner and then going down Smith Street right now. So, yeah. 

Kinsey [00:18:55] Cool. Well, I mean, it's definitely, you know, obviously to be alive right now is an interesting [chuckles] experience. I think, [Delia laughs] you know, we've had crisis after crisis after crisis that no one could have told us—well, maybe this last one—racial injustice has been happening for centuries, we should have seen this coming—but when you think about a pandemic, a recession, these are all unplanned things. And these conversations about race hitting a fever pitch right now on top of all of this has put a lot of pressure on the media world to make these decisions. 

Kinsey [00:19:29] And I just think it's worth echoing that it's not a decision that any singular person should be making. I think that was a fantastic point that you made, that this is a conversation that needs to be happening. Deciding what's best for everybody is not the responsibility of one person. It should be the responsibility of a team of people who are trusted advisers and so on and so forth. So, we've covered a lot. [laughs] There is obviously a lot of conversation to be had in the media world right now. And I'm grateful that you were so transparent with your opinions, your takes here. So, Delia, thank you so much for coming on Business Casual. 

Delia [00:20:09] Thanks so much, Kinsey. Thanks for having me. 

Kinsey [00:20:18] Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Business Casual. I hope if you took anything out of this conversation with Delia and the conversation with Joanna Coles in our previous episode, it's that local news outlets need your support now more than ever. 

Kinsey [00:20:31] So I encourage you to go find out who is covering news in your local hometown, home city, wherever you are. Subscribe, support them in some way, because they need your help and they're doing really, really important work. Thank you for listening to my TED talk, and I will see you next time. [sound of a ding]