We Are All Compromised: The Access Game Isn’t Dead Yet

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg, via Wikimedia Commons

John Herrman’s excellent Awl series on the anxious state of the media business (featured in our latest Top 5) should be required reading for anyone who creates or consumes content on the internet. His conclusions—advertising models are sputtering, no one wants to pay for news, Facebook dictates the entire tenor of conversation and its subject matter—do so much to explain why we are inundated by media but largely unsatisfied with what floats to the surface. Come for Herrman’s dystopian vision—a future in which professional journalism is suffocated to death—and stay for the animated robot GIFs.

Herrman continued last week with “Access Denied,” which suggests that the democratized nature of social media is diminishing one more valuable asset that big news organizations once had, which was control over the way famous or important people once distributed their messages and reached their audiences. This has been a longtime prediction from media critics: that platforms are removing the need for anyone to go to The New York Times to announce their news. In a world where publishing is democratized, the media is no longer necessary, so someone like Mark Zuckerberg can just announce his $45 billion philanthropy initiative right on his own Facebook page.

Further, as organizations see their ad revenue shrink—in favor of digital advertising money consolidated among Google and Facebook—publishers lose both their distribution power and their bargaining power over famous and important people. And in the end, they lose one more thing that makes them unique: The power to speak directly to the people who shape our world, and set the ground rules for those conversations.

I would love to see some parts of Herrman’s vision come true—a world where news organizations are weaned off their addiction to high-profile access—because the delicate dance around access ultimately clashes with a news organization’s perceived ability to serve readers’ interest through aggressive journalism that holds the powerful accountable. Witness the reader backlash to T Magazine’s startup story written by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, the wife of powerful venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, or the old criticisms of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s relationships inside Wall Street.

Despite Herrman’s prediction, the quest for access—and indirectly, elevated status—will remain an insidious force in media for many years to come. What Herrman leaves out of the equation is that The New York Times is still an imprimatur of credibility for a story, no matter the overall size of the publication’s audience. They are a Michelin star of newsworthiness, and when a story gets featured there, the subject gets a boost similar to what a journalist gets from having a byline in The New Yorker. Even if the Times shrank to a fraction of its size, its social proof is invaluable, as yet uncontested by any social media platform. If access were merely an issue of money and reach, most media companies would have been left out of the game years ago.

Mark Zuckerberg posted his philanthropy news on his own Facebook profile, but I would bet that most major news organizations got an early heads-up about the content of his “open letter” under embargo. (Update: The Times’s Farhad Manjoo doesn’t believe anyone at his publication was pre-briefed.) Facebook, like every other company obsessed with its own narrative, has a communications team that is responsible for crafting a message, and working directly with reporters to develop mutually beneficial relationships. None of that is going away, and the powerful continue to use access as a carrot in these relationships. Given the questions he faced about creating an LLC for his philanthropic work versus a nonprofit, we might still expect to see Zuckerberg go on a press tour—hopefully after paternity leave.

Social media gamesmanship is only exacerbating the problem of access and status. When a reporter is begging to be verified on Twitter, it is a form of bargaining for access with a tech company. If I am verified, a reporter might think, I am in an elite club—and, in fact, their credibility and reach only grow within Twitter’s platform, because its algorithm views tweets from verified users as more worthy. Twitter is selectively giving individual writers better bargaining power, and by the same token, leaving others out.

Through this lens, the idea of access “going away” becomes purely academic. Every media job comes with subtle negotiations built on access, trading favors, and courting the powerful. Access isn’t purely about celebrity—whether Nicki Minaj will let you interview her for five minutes—it also comes through observation. Most narratives you read on Longreads are built on access—and lots of it. Reporters can spend days, weeks and months with sources to the point that there is an intimacy and perhaps even superficial version of a friendship. One can only imagine what goes into building a trusting relationship with a family that has encountered tragedy, or that convinces a tech CEO to let you speak to all of his family members and employees for a book, without final signoff. With that depth also comes a level of empathy for the source, and the source in turn trusts that the writer will present a nuanced version of some truth. Dissect these narratives and you may often find sentences where a reporter finessed the language to be polite, or in the opposite case, veered a storyline toward some more tragic version in order to heighten narrative drama.

This is not to say they’re unethical stories—they’re just delicate forms of nonfiction built on a complicated relationship between the source, the reporter, the publication and the reader. In these stories, it may be the reporter who is at risking of losing access, not the publisher. A reporter must rely on her reputation from previous stories to court access for future stories. Transparency helps. When I see Vanessa Grigoriadis share her own ill-fated interview tactics in a Nicki Minaj profile, she seems to be acknowledging both that she is a provocative interviewer, and willing to admit when she gets called out. Publicists also must know what they’re getting when they set up a star with Grigoriadis: she’s a great writer and reporter, and the story will be anything but boring.

What happens if media companies did lose all of their institutional power with regard to high-profile access? Nothing. These old companies will simply be replaced by the platforms and internet media companies that are competing with each other by playing the exact same access game. For Instagram and Snapchat and YouTube to thrive, they need stars. So they will create some of their own from scratch, but they will also court already existing big names—with money, promotion, verified status, early access to new features, whatever it takes. These companies may not call themselves news organizations, but neither are their platforms truly fair and democratized worlds where all voices have a chance to be heard.

Let’s say you become a YouTube star. Congratulations. Once you become huge, your next most important move might be to become a star somewhere other than YouTube, so you can increase your leverage over the platform and make sure they are paying you what you’re really worth. After all, you don’t want to put all your eggs in one platform. A great way to diversify your reach is to get The New York Times to tell people you’re important (stamp of approval), which might trigger conversations with other big-money channels like Snapchat or Netflix. And so your manager or publicist chats with someone at The New York Times about a sit-down interview. But there will be rules.

Reporters may complain now about losing access, but they’ll learn to adapt. According to this Poynter post, some college sports reporters are seeing their access to the teams and players diminish. The downside is it will be even harder for a reporter to gain an adequate understanding of what is happening inside the team or the school, to shed light for readers. The upside is that there is zero relationship that can be damaged if that publisher wanted to get aggressive about reporting on concussions, corruption, or exploitation in college athletics. This would create a situation that more resembles a traditional alt-weekly than a newspaper—more confrontational, with a more skeptical voice about what institutions are up to.

Eventually, if access is truly democratized, The New York Times may decide that it’s no longer worth playing by any rules to conduct a high-profile interview—especially when you can see that person posting on Instagram every 15 minutes. Access, in this scenario, is not just democratized but commoditized. There is no value in original work from a star that is ubiquitous.

Herrman foresees a future where news organizations will gain their value from explainers, but even those, alongside the dreaded “hot take,” are ubiquitous. What’s left?

“I mean, maybe these conditions will create for audiences a clearer need for stories that the powerful don’t want told,” Herrman suggests, albeit pessimistically. But in my mind, this is exactly what’s left for journalism: A headlong jump into advocacy, in a way that maybe old news organizations weren’t so comfortable with.

Further reading: “Writing Without Access: The Craft of the Write-Around”