Dec 6, 2022 - Economy

The alternative-media industrial complex

Illustration of a quill resting in a computer as if it were an ink well.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Elon Musk is the latest patron for an alternative-media ecosystem — right-leaning but not conventionally Republican — that has emerged in the last two years.

The big picture: Feeding on resentment against mainstream media, new media players have established a power base via Substack newsletters, podcasts and other independent channels.

  • These writers — including Matt Taibbi, Bari Weiss and Glenn Greenwald — are getting new attention with Musk's ownership of Twitter. And they're reigniting long-simmering debates about what constitutes journalism in the internet era.

Driving the news: Musk handed Taibbi what the reporter said were "thousands" of internal Twitter documents, then promoted a Twitter thread by Taibbi chronicling the company's decision to limit the distribution of the Hunter Biden laptop story in 2020.

  • Musk now says he has handed over more documents to Taibbi and Weiss for another drop of “The Twitter Files” in coming days.

Taibbi's thread quickly became a political flashpoint: Right-wing voices said the documents proved Twitter’s liberal bias under its previous owners. Many tech journalists argued it didn’t reveal much beyond Twitter’s policy team grappling with a tough call that was soon reversed.

Between the lines: Taibbi, Musk and his fans presented this work as investigative journalism. But the documents weren't exactly leaked — Musk, who now owns Twitter, also owns the keys to all its files.

Who's who:

  • Taibbi is a veteran writer who started out on the left, capturing national attention during the financial crisis of 2008 for describing Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid." His work has more recently taken aim at media pieties, and alleged censorship by government and tech companies.
  • Weiss is a former New York Times op-ed columnist who left that newsroom amid controversy — and now focuses on voices and positions that, she argues, mainstream media outlets are suppressing.
  • Greenwald is a veteran blogger who came to fame as a key figure in the massive 2013 leaks of U.S. government documents by Edward Snowden. Greenwald took his combative writing to his own email newsletter after departing the Intercept, which he co-founded.
  • Greenwald and Taibbi, like many of their readers, broke with their former fans on the left in the Trump era. They saw less danger in Trump's actions than in efforts by some in the U.S. intelligence community to stymie him.

All three have created enormously popular newsletters on Substack, and use the reach of Twitter to bolster their audiences and comment on breaking news.

  • Weiss has more than 500,000 Twitter followers and says she has more than 250,000 email subscribers on Substack, including both free and paid readers.
  • Greenwald has 1.9 million Twitter followers and has more than 200,000 free and paid email subscribers in Substack, with tens of thousands of paid readers.
  • Taibbi has 1.3 million Twitter followers and said last year more than 30,000 people pay for his Substack newsletter.

Be smart: Musk’s Twitter takeover has helped these Substack entrepreneurs cement their alliance with Silicon Valley investors who share their hostility to mainstream media — including several members of Musk's inner circle, like investor David Sacks.

  • Marc Andreessen, one of tech's most prominent investors, has poured billions of dollars into Substack, Clubhouse, and other platforms that democratize media creation. (His firm has also provided seed funding to Post News, a Twitter alternative that's ironically been championed by some mainstream journalists.)

The big picture: The "Twitter Files" saga is the latest iteration of a decades-long debate over what journalism is and who gets to do it.

  • Musk has said that he believes in "citizen journalism" and aims to empower more voices on Twitter while using fewer rules to limit speech.
  • Bloggers in the early internet era faced pushback from newspapers and TV outlets who said they couldn't be trusted since they lacked editors and standards.

What to watch: The platforms supporting this new ecosystem will serve anyone, including those in power, who distrusts the mainstream media.

  • A slew of politicians are cutting out the media middleman entirely by launching their own podcasts, newsletters and even social networks to talk to voters directly.
  • Musk, who abolished Twitter's communications team and cherishes speaking directly to his own vast Twitter following, looks eager to help.
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