Coinbase and the death of media’s stewardship model

What if Big Tech's in-house media plans aren't indefensible and terrible?

Coinbase has launched a new “Fact Check” blog with the stated goal of giving itself a venue for airing facts without the interfering slant of the media.

The whole announcement post is worth reading in full, but here’s a quick summary:

  • When a company gets bad press it thinks is unfair or wrong, it has three options: ignore and let the media have its way with the story, fight back, or go directly to the public with its own version of things.

  • Coinbase is going to start doing the latter, and it’s encouraging other companies to follow suit.

  • They’re launching a “Fact Check” blog to correct media misinformation about the company and the crypto scene, but they plan to expand and tell more stories.

This new Coinbase effort is explicitly positioned as part of a larger tech company movement to bypass traditional media channels, a movement that has two main components:

  1. Refuse to work with reporters from traditional outlets on stories. Just cut them off entirely.

  2. Stand up your own in-house media operation, complete with editorial titles like Editor-in-Chief.

What makes the above not only feasible but attractive is that companies like Coinbase really just don’t need media outlets in order to get publicity and tell their stories.

And in fact, it’s really not clear what a “media outlet” is anymore, and why a company like Coinbase can’t play this game along with every other blogger, YouTuber, Substacker, and influencer.

I’m still sorting out what I think about all of this, so the following is kind of a brain dump. I reserve the right to change my mind about anything and everything here.

What even is “media” in 2021?

There was a time when media was able to leverage monopoly (or cartel, in some cases) power over distribution in a particular geography and medium to make money off of content. And in exchange for that exclusive franchise, there was an agreement that these companies would act in the public’s interest. That they would act as stewards over these distribution networks, and use them for the good of society. This understanding was even explicitly enshrined in law in various ways, and certainly the people who owned and worked at these privately owned enterprises understood themselves to be public servants of a kind.

But everyone knows the story by now — the internet and social media have unbundled content and distribution, and now the only thing that makes a “media” operation a media operation is that certain power centers in legacy media and government treat it as one.

Seriously, think about what makes a media shop a media shop in 2021. You don’t need an FCC license or an exclusive distribution network. You just need a certain kind of public branding, employees who have titles that match a certain pattern (regardless of where or how they were trained), a public-spirited mission statement, and content that’s packaged a certain way. What else is there, really?

Sure, in the case of legacy media brands there’s institutional continuity. But how much is that continuity really worth in an era where Amazon owns the Washington Post and is not shy about using that ownership to openly push its own agenda?

The entire stewardship model and everything that rested on it — especially public trust that privately-owned media companies are acting in the public’s interest (vs. purely in the interests of their owners and employees) — has almost completely broken down.

Increasingly few members of the public in 2021 still truly believe that any of these for-profit media brands are stewards of anything other than investor/owner money and the careers of the people who can score a job at one of them. There are definitely some great journalists left at some of these outlets who are still acting as if the old stewardship model is A Thing We’re Still Doing, and God bless them for it, but they’re selling a dream that most of the country is not buying.

Turnabout is fair play

As I put it in a brief Twitter thread on the Coinbase post, media outlets are used to making the following move: ignore what they say and look at what they do, usually by following the money.

Well, this move is now getting turned on media companies themselves by tech companies: ignore what a large outlet says its mission is, and look at who owns it and how the company is behaving, and treat it as the for-profit entity it is.

The other move being made is: if a for-profit media company can do it in order to get traffic and boost revenue, then any company can do it for those same reasons.

For instance, take the practice of contacting a private citizen’s friends, family, and past coworkers to vet them and maybe uncover some dirt. This is for-profit media company behavior that’s done to generate subscriptions and ad revenue, so why shouldn’t it be for-profit tech company behavior that’s done to protect or enhance the bottom line?

It’s hard to answer this question in favor of media companies’ exclusive right to investigate and publicize the lives of private citizens, without appealing to something like the aforementioned “public interest” argument.

But if Americans no longer buy the “public interest” argument — and frankly, I no longer buy it even as a media professional — then it’s hard to give a reason why media companies have some kind of exclusive license to engage in behavior that in any other context would be called “doxxing.”

Again, all of this goes back to the collapse of the vertical content/distribution integration that underwrote the entirety of media’s conception of itself as a fourth estate.

Can Coinbase really make a go of it?

My initial reaction to the Coinbase move is that this is rebranded PR. But as I think more about it, I’m not sure that definitely has to be the case. It could well end up as a mix of traditional PR and worthwhile reporting, some of which may even meet the definition of journalism often attributed to Orwell (i.e., printing what someone else doesn’t want printed).

For instance, I could see a Coinbase editor digging up dirt on the New York Times and its internal fights, or on specific journalists and editors the way reporters currently do on specific figures in the startup scene. The media would call this “doxxing,” but would anyone care? Should they care? (A non-rhetorical question, since I’m still thinking about all this, myself. Feel free to push back in the comments.)

Or, here’s another example of possible worthwhile reporting: One major source of power legacy media still has is in providing exposure for up-and-coming startups. Even startups that may not want to play along with traditional media still feel forced to if they want to attract attention. So when I read the following paragraph in the announcement post, I read it with this fact in mind:

In the future, we will need to move beyond fact checking, and start creating more of our own original content to communicate with our audience, and tell the stories of crypto that are happening all over the world. Many of these stories are not being told by traditional media. Fact checking is still largely reactive, but we need to move to a more proactive stance on content creation to have a true media arm.

I take it as implied in the above that Coinbase is going to start giving publicity to smaller players in the tech scene, and that pitching Coinbase’s media operation in the exact same way you’d pitch a media outlet is about to become A Thing that startups do.

I take it as a good thing that startups will have other options for publicity, but the following are open questions for me:

  • How good will Coinbase be at spotting startups that are worth covering? It takes skill and experience to spot a startup or a story that has that special traffic juice — does anyone at Coinbase have that? If not, will anyone in media who does have that go to work for them?

  • Directly related to the above is the question of how effective Coinbase will be at driving attention to these smaller players. Can Coinbase really compete with traditional media at injecting a company or story into the zeitgeist?

  • Will existing media companies steal stories and angles from Coinbase (the way they do with competitors, especially smaller ones), or will there just be a total blackout?

  • Will Coinbase put in the work and resources to be taken seriously by its target audience as an honest-to-goodness source of news and information vs. just PR? (I take it as a given that it will never be taken seriously by the legacy media as such, but that’s a separate question from will its audience accept it.)