Should publishers allow their journalists to launch personal newsletters?
Substack Pro has spooked some media outlets, triggering draconian policies.
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Should publishers allow their journalists to launch personal newsletters?
If you were working in journalism in the mid-to-late aughts, you might remember an incident that triggered an industry-wide debate: Chez Pazienza’s firing from CNN.
For those who don’t know the story: Pazienza was a CNN producer who had a long and accomplished career in TV news. In 2008, his bosses found out that not only had he been maintaining a blog during his free time, but some of his (left-leaning) opinion pieces were being featured on the front page of The Huffington Post.
Pazienza, without warning, was called into a meeting and fired. His bosses tried to get him to sign an NDA in exchange for severance, but he rejected the offer and decided to blog about his firing instead. That blog post triggered a media firestorm, earning him coverage in The New York Times and pretty much everywhere else, but his career never fully recovered. Though he continued writing for various outlets, he never got another job in mainstream media. Sadly, he died in 2017, possibly from a drug overdose.
Pazienza wasn’t the only journalist to be fired because of a blog. The medium was still considered new at that point, and the industry was torn on whether running a blog was in direct conflict with a reporter’s duties to their employer. People like me maintained that what a reporter did in their free time was their own business, at least as long as it didn’t undermine their reporting for their day jobs. But older stalwarts, mostly veterans from the pre-internet age, believed that writing for a blog was basically the equivalent of going to work for a competitor.
Of course, the debate became moot after the rise of social media. Twitter and Facebook were pretty much just blogs with character limits, and their ubiquity made the concept of blogging slightly less threatening. As media businesses shifted online, editors began to realize the benefits of employing reporters with large social media followings that could be leveraged to drive traffic to stories. Journalists still got fired for their online activity, but usually it was because they violated some content-specific policy.
And yet…we seem to be having the same debate all over again. Except instead of blogs, we’re talking about newsletters.
Case in point, these anecdotes relayed in a Wall Street Journal article:
Earlier this year, newsletter platform Substack Inc. expressed interest in signing up CNN contributor Van Jones to write a newsletter for its service, according to people familiar with the matter.
The proposal clashed with terms at CNN that guarantee the network exclusivity over written content from on-air contributors, the people said, and WarnerMedia News and Sports Chairman Jeff Zucker opposed the deal.
Facebook Inc. earlier in the year proposed paying between $200,000 and $500,000 a year to a contributor at CNN to write for its Bulletin newsletter program, but the deal talks never went far for similar reasons, according to people familiar with the offer.
The article later reveals that both the WSJ and New York Times have instituted policies requiring staff journalists to seek approval before launching newsletters.
These policies leave me with so many questions: What’s the difference between running a newsletter and running a blog? How is this any different from banning a staffer from using Twitter? Don’t these outlets want their journalists to build up newsletter audiences that can be leveraged to drive readers to their stories?
I can understand why a media outlet would be hesitant to allow a reporter to launch a paid newsletter; it may lead to competing interests that incentivize the journalist to hold back scoops from their employer so they can serve them up to their own subscribers.
But as far as I can tell, The New York Times is enforcing a de facto ban on all newsletters, not just the paid variety. For some reason, they’re carving out a specific policy that’s aimed at a single delivery system: email.
Why? My guess is that they’ve been spooked by programs like Substack Pro, which offers cash advances to journalists to lure them away from their day jobs. In recent months, several high profile journalists have defected to Substack from places like BuzzFeed, The New York Times, Vox, and Axios. Many were offered Substack Pro advances.
But there’s a huge gulf between Substack Pro and virtually every other personal newsletter, and I think it’s a mistake for media outlets to conflate the two. Could the success of a personal newsletter lead to a journalist leaving their mainstream media job one day? Sure, but why single out that one medium? A journalist with 200,000 Twitter followers could also leverage their audience to quit their job and strike off on their own.
As the Creator Economy matures, it will simply become much easier for content creators to build sustainable businesses. This is a reality that the mainstream media needs to reckon with in ways that might require a shift in their business strategies. Already, we’re starting to see publishers like The Atlantic and Forbes partner with newsletter writers under revenue share agreements, and that seems, to me, like a much more reasonable path than banning newsletters entirely.
Just as media outlets failed a decade ago to stop their journos from blogging, I think their current efforts to curb newsletter use is similarly doomed. The media landscape has evolved in a way that places more power into the hands of content creators, and there’s no putting that genie back into the bottle.
Speaking of newsletter businesses…
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.
I agree with your assessment...contracts can be written in a manner to avoid conflicts of interest, but hamstringing journalists' ability to cultivate an independent audience and report on underplayed aspects of stories (or unrelated stories) should not be curbed. How ironic for bastions of 1st Amendment rights to so broadly curb such rights of their employees.