‘Very few have balls’: How American news lost its nerve

There’s too much to read and watch, too many places to read and watch it. It’s enough to distract you from the biggest news in journalism right now: In 2024, it’s harder than ever to get a tough story out in the United States of America.

A landscape of gleefully revelatory magazine exposés, aggressive newspaper investigations, feral online confrontations, and painstaking television investigations has been eroded by a confluence of factors — from rising risks of litigation and costs of insurance, which strapped media companies can hardly afford, to social media, which has given public figures growing leverage over the journalists who now increasingly carry their water.

The result is a thousand stories you’ll never read, and a shrinking number of publications with the resources and guts to confront power.

One recent example illustrates the difficulty of getting even a modestly negative revelation about a popular public figure into print. Last year, freelance reporter John McDermott discovered that Jay Shetty, a massively popular lifestyle podcaster who recently interviewed President Joe Biden, had fudged biographical details about his life. But months after he began his reporting for Esquire, he wondered: Would any outlet publish it?

Esquire lost interest as the piece took on a critical tone. He then approached The Hollywood Reporter — as did Shetty’s publicists, who delivered a litany of complaints about the journalist, arguing that he had a conflict of interest. More than a year after its conception, McDermott’s story was eventually published by The Guardian, prompting British education officials to demand Shetty remove false references to them from his website.

“Very few owners have balls any more,” the former Vanity Fair and New Yorker editor Tina Brown told Semafor, “a very sorry fact for journalism.”

There are at least five major factors putting journalists on their heels.

Darkening legal climate

The American right kicked off the assault on reporters who cross powerful people, beginning in earnest with Peter Thiel’s success in shuttering Gawker in 2016. That year, future President Donald Trump promised to “open up the libel laws.”

But media lawyers say plaintiffs attorneys have also been emboldened by the massive $788 million settlement that Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems for its on-air lies about the company.

Lawyers suing media organizations have gotten more aggressive. The law firm Clare Locke has created a lucrative business around catering to aggrieved parties, and has professionalized the art of slowing down stories with legal threats and demands for preservation of documents. As Semafor previously reported, Reuters has been forced to at least temporarily take down an exposé about the CEO of an Indian technology company to comply with a court order issued in New Delhi.The same CEO retained Clare Locke in the U.S., where several publications also wrote about the Indian tech company.

At the same time, the cost of defamation insurance has risen, according to several people who pay the insurance bills for news outlets.

“I get calls and worries about this not infrequently — mainly, publishers worried about how much it would cost to defend a claim even if you’re sure you are right,” Nabiha Syed, a first amendment lawyer who is CEO of the Markup, told Semafor in an email. “It can be millions; it can mean you’re kicked off your insurance.”

Magazines lose their swagger

At a moment of economic fragility in the media industry, there’s also simply less of an appetite for stories that could damage important business relationships. This has been a particularly challenging balance for glossy entertainment and lifestyle magazines, whose audiences long ago moved online and who now rely heavily on the businesses they cover.

Last week, Hearst’s car magazine Road & Track published a biting feature on Formula One, which documented journalist Kate Wagner’s experience with the obscene wealth on display at a race in Austin. Within hours of the article’s publication, the editor-in-chief had taken the piece down entirely, objecting to its tone — though he said he’d had no direct pressure from advertisers.

The Shetty and F1 stories weren’t the first high-profile stories to be nixed in recent years by Hearst — where Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and other titles used to veer regularly into aggressive journalism. In 2018, Esquire decided not to publish a deeply-reported story on sexual-misconduct allegations against Hollywood director Bryan Singer, which was published months later in The Atlantic.

The new priorities are reflected organizationally. Editors-in-chief at Hearst, Esquire’s parent company, now report up to general managers, whose singular focus is the bottom line. The general manager who oversees Esquire and other fashion publications, for example, came to the company from the marketing side of digital payment company Venmo.

In the entertainment media world, Rolling Stone magazine’s CEO and ownership recently expressed frustration with the publication’s overzealous use of anonymous sources, resulting in the recent departure of the legacy rock magazine’s editor in chief, Noah Shachtman. The move left tough celebrity profiles, including a follow-up to a piece the magazine published about director Vincent Gallo, in unpublished limbo.

Shachtman declined to talk about Rolling Stone, but said for aggrieved parties, “there’s definitely more surface area for people to try.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Rolling Stone publisher Penske Media initially said that the magazine publisher had not published the Shetty piece because of a conflict of interest. In a subsequent statement, the publisher clarified that the story not proceeding forward “has nothing to do with Jay Shetty’s PR.”

Emboldened billionaires

In the 2010s, untrammeled social media put powerful people on their heels over everything from sex crimes to random offensive tweets. Now, the richest man in the world owns Twitter, now X, and powerful people have learned to use those tools to pressure embattled media owners — some of whom occupy the same rarefied social circles.

After Business Insider reported that billionaire hedge fund manager Bill Ackman’s wife Neri Oxman had plagiarized in academic work, he used his massive Twitter following to complain about the publication and pressure its leadership.

The move provoked action: Business Insider’s parent company Axel Springer released a statement saying it was reviewing the publication’s process, hinting that BI might need to reexamine its overzealous coverage of certain business leaders. CEO Mathias Döpfner reportedly had dinner with Ackman, attempting to smooth over the situation. One person with knowledge of the situation told Semafor that the CEO went so far as to consider dismissing top BI editor Nicholas Carlson, though another person with knowledge suggested that the question of removing him likely had more to do with BI’s recent corporate rebranding than pressure from Ackman. (An Axel Springer spokesperson declined to comment about that conversation.)

Los Angeles Times top editor Kevin Merida left the publication following owner Patrick Soon-Shiong’s fixation on a story about a lawsuit against a wealthy California businessman.

End of internet journalism

A generation of online news outlets made names for themselves with both their quick-twitch publishing style and ability to compete with the major national news outlets for scoops. The old Gawker, HuffPost (née Huffington), BuzzFeed News, the Daily Beast, and Vice, among others, pumped the money they raised into staffing newsrooms with aggressive, mostly young and often left-leaning journalists looking to make names for themselves with high-impact stories. Not all of the journalism (or even most, in some cases) was fair or well-reported. But each of these digital media companies published meaningful work that exposed wrongdoing — whether about local policing in Louisville, China’s mass detention of Muslims, or foreclosure fraud in the mortgage industry.

Facebook’s decision to deemphasize news on its platform, combined with financial struggles, ad woes, and news fatigue, spelled doom for these media outfits. Vice and BuzzFeed have been gutted and no longer focus on news, while a few pieces of the Gawker portfolio continue to limp along. HuffPost, bought by BuzzFeed, is much smaller than it was ten years ago, while Barry Diller continues to bankroll the Daily Beast despite periodic attempts by its parent company IAC to sell it.

“Some scrappier digital media outlets (especially the Gawker sites) gave permission, so to speak, to more established media entities to be more critical in their coverage,” said Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel. She said she believes the more cautious climate comes both from the collapse of those outlets and “social media and fears among journalists, writers and editors about being yelled at or piled upon.”

The collapse of the hard news business

For years, local papers were the bedrock of American accountability journalism. Their erosion — 1,800 communities no longer have a local news outlet, and the number of people with local journalism jobs has been cut nearly in half over the last 15 years — has unquestionably led to the decline in quality journalism in smaller news markets.

That decline has left a huge hole in the American investigative landscape, which was once defined by powerful, prize-winning inquiries from publications like the Toledo Blade, which exposed long-buried Vietnam war crimes by the elite “Tiger Force,” and the Miami Herald, which propelled the crimes of the well-connected money manager Jeffrey Epstein back to public notice.

Few of those investigative jobs exist anymore. The Herald’s Julie Brown reported on the Epstein stories not as part of a well-funded investigations desk, but while juggling stories at a cash-strapped chain.

Some local and national news nonprofits have attempted to step in and fill the void. But these organizations are also facing a difficult moment, as the wave of Trump-driven enthusiasm for journalism wanes. The Center for Public Integrity pledged last year to partner with local newsrooms to exchange knowledge. But less than a year later, the organization is reportedly considering shutting down or merging with another organization to stay afloat.

And those tough economics trickle inevitably into the labor market.

“The current state of there being no journalism jobs tends to disincentivize writers taking risks,” said Hamilton Nolan, who organized Gawker’s union and recently published a book on labor unions. “Balls = unemployment.”

Celebrity control

The rise of social media and celebrity-owned production companies has given the upper hand to stars who want to tell their own stories. And the streaming boom that produced a wave of ambitious documentaries in the 2010s has been supplanted by a new genre of sports and entertainment documentaries, whose subjects sometimes double as executive producers and control the films’ footage and narratives. The basketball legend Michael Jordan, for instance, exchanged access for creative control over The Last Dance, the 2020 episodic documentary series. That show immediately became ESPN’s most viewed documentary ever — even if it appalled the iconic American documentarian Ken Burns, who said it was “not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history.”

Those tradeoffs are now routine. The Hollywood Reporter noted that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s company co-produced Harry & Meghan for Netflix. Over on Apple TV+, Billie Eilish’s record label produced Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry, while Selena Gomez’s management company co-produced a documentary about her. Disney+ paid more than $30 million in 2022 for an Elton John documentary co-directed by John’s husband.

“There has been a significant rise in ‘documentaries’ based on athletes and musicians, which often accord at least some level of control to the subject,” said Simon Pulman, an entertainment attorney.

Documentary producers say that the shift is part economic and part strategic. Streamers manage complex, regulated global businesses and see potential growth from Brazil to Saudi Arabia. One signal moment came in 2019, when then-Netflix CEO Reed Hastings bluntly defined his company’s mandate as entertainment: “We’re not trying to do ‘truth to power.’” Now hard-edged political docs are out.

Netflix, which had a celebrated run of Oscars for films like Icarus and Edge of Democracy — about Russian and Brazilian autocracy — did not win a single nomination in the documentary category at this year’s Oscars. With deep cuts at CNN — which had been one of the few buyers for tough geopolitical films like Navalny — PBS’s Frontline won for the Ukraine documentary 20 Days in Mariupol.

“It’s just not worth it being in the ‘truth to power’ business if you’re going to be regulated,” said one prominent documentary producer.

For its part, Netflix said it has final cut over its sports series, and noted that David Beckham did not get editing privileges over the Netflix documentary series about the soccer star’s life.

“Netflix retains creative control and final cut on our sports series, which is a standard part of our contracts,” a Netflix spokesperson said.