Earthly Buzzkill

Buzzfeed’s investigation into Russian assassinations in the United Kingdom was among its most lauded. Screenshot of Buzzfeed’s article page.

Buzzfeed News and the final gasp of the media attention economy

Like everyone else who has been a reporter or editor in journalism, the demise of Buzzfeed News this week offers the next regular opportunity to analyze the state of media and the business of news. And what a state it is in! Three stories this week exemplify where we sit today:

First, Buzzfeed News, whose Pulitzer seriousness was always overshadowed by the inane content that blanketed the rest of the Buzzfeed multiverse, has vanished. Journalism jobs have been axed in repeated waves this week (in fact, Buzzfeed’s announcement actually overshadowed Insider’s own 10% layoff). Then again, those layoff waves have happened repeatedly the past year, the past five years and really the past decades.

Second, there was the Fox Corporation-Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, where Fox offered Dominion $787.5 million to settle defamation claims that the company’s Fox News channel repeated fraudulent claims about Dominion and America’s 2020 election.

Third, the Wall Street Journal reported this week via theCommittee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that “There were 363 journalists detained in more than 30 countries last year, with the highest number of detainees held in Iran, China and Myanmar”. That number includes the WSJ’s own Evan Gershkovich in Russia, who was declared unlawfully detained by the U.S. government last week. The CPJ earlier this year estimated that 67 journalists were killed globally in 2022.

It’s not so much a Buzzfeed but a buzzkill in media these days, as most days.

Even as the industry has transitioned away from the attention-driven models of last decade’s digital media economy, there have been huge bumps in the path to the supposedly new world. Substack, which has somehow become everyone’s favorite newsletter platform, crowdfunded itself, which forced it to disclose partial financial results. Far from ushering in a new dawn of subscription-driven media, Substack actually had negative revenue in 2021 due to paying out more incentives to writers than those writers brought in as income. The “new economic engine for culture” seems to be just as much of a mirage as the old economic engine.

More journalists are getting killed today, and yet, readers are ever less willing to pay for their work. And that is peculiarly logical — the people doing the killings, the narcos and dictatorships, they’re in countries uninteresting to most American or Western readers. Mexico is particularly dangerous as a reporter — some 15 were killed in 2022 alone, and 151 since 1992. But how many Americans (and for that matter, how many Mexicans) actually want news from beyond the southern border?

As I wrote back in “Unblissful Ignorance”:

But insulation from the news is a form of deep privilege, an indication that financial resources can solve any arriving problems and that the savageries of life can be held at bay. News is ultimately a necessity to all but the lucky few. Think of the young men of Russia who received news that they would be imminently drafted into Vladimir Putin’s war and had mere hours to run before the government started banning their travel by plane and over land. Hope you had push notifications on.

The most successful news media tends to be the financial press, which both covers a high wealth demographic and is also critical for professional success. More broadly, trade publications tend toward better success, covering intricacies in industries that most non-practitioners have never heard of. Most of us (or at least, more of us) are willing to shell out money for our own advancement, for there is clearly a profit to be gained in our informational advantage.

What happens though when it is society we want to better? Who pays?

What’s never been reconciled in the discussion of journalism and society is that while there are a litany of (often valid) complaints about the profession of reporting, the ultimate job that a journalist does — to seek out original, well-sourced stories that offer distant readers a light on what’s happening in the world — must actually exist. All of us get our information from someone else, it’s just a question of quality. The specialization required to understand the world today is beyond the ken of any mortal, and someone, somewhere has to play the role of interpreter between a well-informed reader and an abstruse expert, or government records sitting in a dark hallway, or an informant whose trust needs to be earned to release secrets that deserve spreading.

Unlike most active areas of science, the question of news economics requires no invention and really no analysis. It’s ultimately about whether people will pay for information relevant to them. There are positive externalities to a free press in an open democracy. Do citizens independently but in droves come to the decision that it’s worth funding those positive externalities?

It’s getting harder to do so, since finding consensus is so elusive. Journalism could be — and should be — a profession of building new consensuses through reporting. It should be enlightening, and it should change minds because minds in a democracy should be malleable to new ideas and approaches to pursuing the best life. Journalism in its best rendition should be the consensus function I talked about in … “Consensus Functions”:

Society, meanwhile, doesn’t have all those layers of consensus to build upon for new decisions. There’s no algorithmic blockchain ensuring that the basic facts of reality are cross-validated, or the scientific method to ensure that evidence is considered with appropriate context. Consensus is recursive, and without better consensus functions around values and tradeoffs, it’s impossible for a nation to make decisions.

Buzzfeed’s burning pyre is a reminder that all the feverish attention experiments to get around the hard truth of news economics have failed. A new economic engine of culture needs a new culture of economics, one that sees the value of the work being produced and a wide agreement that a quality consensus function for society deserves funding.

Earth Day as Growth Day

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash
Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash

Today is Earth Day, a celebration of the verdant blue dot that provides sustenance and enjoyment to all of us. It’s also a day that I like to think of as Growth Day, in the sense that with 8 billion people today trending toward 11 billion or so people by 2100, we likely need to triple global GDP this century while also creating several billion high-quality jobs across the continents in order to offer every person on Earth a decent livelihood and life.

Growth is a dirty word in environmental circles these days, with small-scale degrowth initiatives turning into wide-scale socialist movements. The idea is to extinguish capitalism’s obsession with growth for growth’s sake with alternative models of public distribution. Enough is enough’s sake, you could say.

But growth is intrinsic to nature just as much as it is to capitalism. Trees expand their canopies to the furthest extent that the soil’s nutrients and the sun’s rays will allow. Animals grow in size until they have assumed their ideal physical forms, and those animals will collectively give birth until the territory they inhabit can’t sustain any further beings. Growth is the motive force of the natural world, just as it is for capitalism.

Of course, nature’s beauty is also brutal. Species prey on each other, limiting unchecked growth of any group outside of Homo sapiens. Climate shifts before the Anthropocene eliminated entire species who couldn’t readily adapt. When species gave birth to too many kin, nature has a way of just letting the weakest suffer.

The complex contradiction for humanity this century is how to grow and even accelerate growth without (further) triggering nature’s brutal responses. And triggering them we are, given that we are now expected to reach critical heating thresholds by the end of the decade (a topic I last discussed in “Warming Hyperthreat”). Just this week came news that Europe’s glaciers have receded by record amounts in 2022. From the Wall Street Journal:

The World Meteorological Organization, a scientific arm of the United Nations, said Friday that glaciers across Europe shrank from a combination of little winter snow and heat waves between May and September. In addition, dust blown from the Sahara in March 2022 landed on the snow, absorbing the sun’s rays and increasing the amount of melting, the report said. “Europe actually got hit hard both ways last year,” said Blair Trewin, a climate scientist at the WMO and an author of the new report. “They had an unusually dry winter, which meant that you didn’t have as much snow accumulating at high elevations as you normally would. But then they had a very hot summer as well.”

Going back to “Consensus Functions” from before, the next paragraph in my text was the following:

America and much of the West escaped that lack of deep consensus simply through abundance. Multiple values and tradeoffs could be supported by building institutions that allowed them all to coexist. Venture funds can’t make every investment and scientists can’t accept every contradictory result, but wealthy nations can support a wide range of consensuses, each underwritten in parallel.

Growth and climate can co-exist, but it won’t be the infinite abundance where tradeoffs are immaterial. Growth will require balancing competing priorities within the limits of Earth’s grace to humanity. Those limits are fixed, but thankfully, scientific progress can change the calculus of them. Agricultural invention has allowed us to grow more food with less land, inputs and labor than ever before. Such productivity can be found and newly discovered all across the capitalist web of our economy.

We can’t march forward by walking backwards. We can’t provide for billions of new souls by degrowth. Earth is our collective home, and it deserves to be celebrated for the full bounty it offers each of us. It’s time to find the productivity to make it everlasting and extend that bounty to everyone here and coming as soon as possible.

Lux Recommends

  • Peter Hébert throws the dice on a particularly fascinating caper from Kit Chellel in Bloomberg Businessweek in “The Gambler Who Beat Roulette.” Roulette is supposed to be impossible to beat, but not if you can estimate the physics in real-time while standing next to the table. “The Mirror reported that an unidentified high-tech gang had hit the casino with a ‘laser scam,’ pairing a device hidden in a mobile phone with a microcomputer to achieve the impossible. It was as good a theory as any. But closer observers weren’t so sure, and the case remained a mystery even to casino insiders almost two decades later. ‘We still lose sleep over that one,’ a gambling executive told me.”
  • Sam Arbesman recommends venerable Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s memoir-cum-how-to-guide Novelist as a Vocation, describing what he dubs the “mental chest of drawers” that writers need to imagine fictitious worlds.
  • Grace Isford has been swimming through the cutting edge of AI research, and she recommends a new paper from Wei Ping, principal research scientist at Nvidia, and a group of researchers entitled Shall We Pretrain Autoregressive Language Models with Retrieval? A Comprehensive Study. The answer is yes, retrieval methods enhance performance of AI language models.
  • I recommend recent “Securities” podcast guest Eliot Peper’s new speculative short story “Victory Condition”. In his own words, “I thought about what a city means, and what it means for a city to grow and change and become a better version of itself, always on the brink of something new. That’s what Victory Condition is about: reinventing the Bay Area.”
  • While we are on the subject of speculative stories, the Japanese animated film Suzume directed by Makoto Shinkai is an incredible tale of humanity’s response to catastrophe. Fantastical, moving, and a visual blast of fresh air — it’s made huge waves in Japan and is currently in reasonably wide release in the U.S. The IMAX experience was particularly breathtaking.
  • Sam enjoyed UNIX founder Brian Kernighan’s personal reflection, Unix: A History and a Memoir. UNIX transformed from a side project at Bell Labs into the basis for Linux servers and Apple’s iOS and macOS, underpinning a huge number of our devices today.
  • Finally, I recommend a short Bloomberg look at Brazil-China relations and how Brazil is pivoting away from the U.S.. The Western Hemisphere may well be the most contested geography in the decades ahead.

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.