Does Editorial Independence Exist?

Famous journalist Matt “Vampire Squid” Taibbi recently wrote an editorial excoriating what he perceives as a trend towards journalists and their institutions adopting extreme progressive ideologies rather than focusing on reporting the truth, and attacking journalists for any deviation, however small, from the opinions they consider acceptable.

While the editorial itself is interesting and worth reading (though too vitriolic for my tastes; I’m getting too old to believe that the benefits of deploying invective outweigh the negative consequences), what’s more interesting is the business model behind it.

You see, Taibbi recently left his longtime employer, Rolling Stone, in favor of his own Substack newsletter. Rather than having to make sure that he doesn’t offend any of his fellow journalists, he just has to retain his paying subscribers. Ben Thompson pioneered this path with Stratechery, the horrendously-named but consistently excellent newsletter covering the technology business.

The individual subscription model for the individual writer offers would-be persecutors far less leverage–no editors to intimidate with walkouts or threats, no advertisers to boycott.

So free of interfering editors, writers like Taibbi and Thompson have the ultimate editorial independence, right?

Maybe. Just like running your own business means you don’t have a boss, right?

The fact is, even running your own business leaves you open to customer pressure. Sure, each customer makes their own decision, but if customers decide that they don’t like what you write, they’ll vote with their cancellation requests.

Yet for all its imperfections, I’m glad that the subscription model exists. To paraphrase Churchill, reader-supported journalism is the worst form of journalism, except for all those other forms that have been tried.

As long as journalists need to make money, the potential for conflicts of interest exists, but without the ability to invest substantial amounts of time, breakthrough investigative journalism doesn’t happen.

Unpaid citizen journalism simply isn’t enough–I know from personal experience, because even the limited amount of time I devote to writing about the news in a evidence-based way consumes an economically irrational amount of my time (there isn’t much money in debunking Covid-19 propaganda). Most people resolve this by simply not bothering with pesky evidence or fact-checking.

Perhaps the answer is to pursue portfolio diversification in content consumption. Instead of allocating your savings to stocks, bonds, and cryptocurrency, you can allocate your attention to a mix of academic studies, advertising-supported media, citizen-journalism, and reader-supported investigators. Your diversified news portfolio can provide you with better truth-adjusted insights than relying on a single class of sources.

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