Corporate Media’s Intellectual Stagnation Feeds The New Contras’ Ascent

Corporate Media’s Intellectual Stagnation Feeds The New Contras’ Ascent

Yglesias will become part of The New Contras, a band of center-left journalists whose willingness to critique the excesses of leftism have pushed them from major publications to ascendant self-publishing platforms. 
Ben Domenech and Emily Jashinsky
By

The state of the media is neatly explained by the recent separation of inseparable bloggers Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias. Six years after co-founding Vox in 2014, and nearly two decades after hitting the blogosphere, the pair is splitting up. Klein is headed to The New York Times. Yglesias is going to Substack. 

At the Times, Klein will become part of The Consolidation, another starry-eyed pioneer of new media settling comfortably into the old guard. The Grey Lady alone is now home to many such trailblazers. At Substack, Yglesias will become part of a group we’ve dubbed The New Contras, a band of center-left journalists whose willingness to critique the excesses of leftism have pushed them from major publications to ascendant self-publishing platforms. 

In corporate media, heterodox thought is rewarded with closed doors. In the Wild West of today’s new media, it’s rewarded with subscriptions. While it may sound laughable that Klein and Yglesias will enjoy similar levels of influence—one at the Paper of Record and the other at an independent newsletter—it’s mostly true. And that’s a blindspot legacy outlets still haven’t corrected. 

While the corporate press remains incredibly powerful, the splintering of mass media that affects everything from Netflix to the Washington Post means news and entertainment creators increasingly serve niches. The Times may be doing just fine with a fraction of the readership it had in decades past, but that readership is more ideologically monolithic. This shapes its coverage, which pushes dissatisfied consumers to Substacks and Patreons and YouTube. 

Those platforms are more and more competitive with the corporate media establishment, a direct reaction to the demand created by intensified bias at legacy outlets. In an interview, Saagar Enjeti, co-host of “Rising,” The Hill’s wildly popular YouTube show, put it this way: “The New York Times has to post crazy critical race theory, because that’s what their upper-middle-class white subscribers want to hear.”

But on YouTube, Enjeti and Krystal Ball have grown their populist program into a “self-generating juggernaut,” of which the “vast majority” of fans “are young, below age 30,” Enjeti says. “And they’re both sides. I mean, it’s both right and left.”

Ball and Enjeti tap into what he describes as a “massive audience” of people who “just despise the contemporary discourse that we understand here in D.C.” On an average day, “Rising” segments posted to YouTube accrue tens of thousands of hits, sometimes hundreds of thousands, and sometimes more than 1 million.

Enjeti’s dogged coverage of the sickening Jeffrey Epstein saga is particularly popular. As “Rising” rises on YouTube, it’s increasingly competitive with cable networks, which would have seemed an unbelievable feat only a couple of years ago. Katie Herzog, co-host of “Blocked and Reported,” said Substack newsletters are “a response to market forces.” 

“There is an enormous cultural impetus among fans to support independent creators,” podcaster Michael Malice told us. “On a daily basis people throw me five bucks here, five bucks there like tipping a waiter, whatever, because they see if you’re doing your loan, if you are pushing for values that they like, maybe they have a job, maybe they have family, they’re not positioned to do it, you’re not obligated to, but it is the right thing to do.”

“My malice.locals.com pays for my rent,” he added.

As we tread into uncharted territory, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution sees a parallel—with an important caveat. “This is blogging, but refashioned in a different format,” he told us. “It essentially serves a similar purpose as what was going on in the early and mid-2000s. I think a lot of us long for that period.”

“It was always interesting to see who would respond to who,” he added, remembering the days “when Ta-Nehisi Coates and Andrew Sullivan would go back and forth in The Atlantic.” 

“And now you can’t even imagine that scenario of Sullivan and Coates engaging with each other like they used to,” Hamid lamented.

While legacy outlets shed writers like Sullivan, Hamid notes the disengagement is one-sided. “If the New York Times came to me tomorrow and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to be a columnist?’ I mean, that would be pretty awesome,” he said. “So I don’t think it’s necessarily that people like myself are not interested in that or are turning our backs on traditional media outlets. But I think the bigger issue is that it would be very hard for The New York Times to hire me.”

For this, Fifth Column co-host Kmele Foster has an explanation. “The impulse for self-preservation, which is a very conservative impulse within industry, means that a big blue-chip company is likely to embrace uncritically anything they’re told they must in order to stay around. This is the script for how you signal you’re a good person, for academia, for the office, for media. And that’s much of what’s happening here.” 

Comedian Andrew Schulz agrees. “All these corporations act all woke, but what they really want is the dollar,” he notes.

Truly fearless, Schulz is one of the creators both smart and brave enough to pave his own path as the risk-averse corporatists fortified their roadblocks. His takes on politics and pop culture have exploded on YouTube and social media, a promising example of how the New Contras can diminish corporate control of our culture while still making a living. 

Netflix couldn’t resist. Just this week, the streaming giant announced it would be releasing a four-part special from Schulz. The move is strong evidence of Schulz’s theory that what corporate platforms “really want is the dollar.” As mass media splinters and outlets like the Times increasingly make their money by cultivating a dedicated progressive niche, other outlets will have an opportunity to capitalize on the demand created in that process.

“Young Heretics” host Spencer Klavan is cautious. “The answer can’t just rest on these promising new content creators. We’re scrappy, but we’re not going to win this alone.” Klavan, an associate editor at the Claremont Institute insists people like him “need the backing of institutions.”

“Entities will try to cancel you. Being out there in the cold on your own is not a good place to be,” he emphasized. “Unless you’re Joe Rogan and can take your audience wherever, you need a support system.”

Herzog agrees. “Financial freedom is key,” she told us. With platforms like Patreon, “financial freedom is there whenever the cancel crowd comes for us, and we know we can resist the crowd when they come for us.”

“We don’t want to have to dilute what we do,” she said. 

While Klein will enjoy an established audience at a storied institution, this is the growing market demand to which Yglesias will respond, unfettered by risk-averse editors or stakeholders, buoyed by the droves of people fleeing legacy media for something honest. Choose your fighter. 

Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom. Emily Jashinsky is culture editor at The Federalist. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyjashinsky.

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