The Pressthink of FvckTheMedia

I first heard the word “Pressthink” from NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who began a blog of the same name.

I’m not sure I ever heard Jay define the term “pressthink,” but I’ll try:

Pressthink:  A set of shared, embedded and often unspoken notions that guide the actions of a group of people creating news media for public consumption.

In otherwords, the “pressthink” of a publication and the people who work at it help those people decide what is good work, or bad work; what’s worth doing and not doing, whether coverage is fair or not.  (Writing that makes me think that pressthink is inherently moral; perhaps it is the moral philosophy of a news organization).

When I saw FvckTheMedia, an online publication formed in the wake of the sudden closure of Boston alt-weekly The Phoenix by former employees of the paper,  I thought: what can you say about the pressthink of this little green shoot?

  1. Periodical publication is periodical.  ”There is a specific rhythm to putting out a weekly, a thoughtful pace that the speed of the Internet diminishes,” says Liz Pelly in the essay whose headline dominates the front page.  So news is not inherently continuous: the “snapshotting” effect of print editions is meaningful somehow; the fact that we pick where things begin and end shapes the story, transforms a stream (or a river) into the countable unit “story.”  
  2. It is not a blog.  This distinction remains very important to people in or from traditional news organizations; I often hear individual journalists define themselves in comparison to blogs, bloggers, and blogging.  It’s unclear what that assertion and comparison means here, since I have heard it mean so many things, like “Our coverage is more than just an opinion,”  ”We do this for money and therefore are professionals,” or simply, “We are periodical and regular; we have our own schedule and are not event-driven.”
  3. First person. The word “I” is present and prominent; the publication reflects individual points of view and is perhaps politically opposed to the “God voice” of third person or what Jay might call “The View From Nowhere.”  It’s also within a certain alt-weekly journalistic tradition, isn’t it?
  4. The name.  Reading the front page essay by Liz Pelly gives me the impression that the actual title of the publication is in fact “The Media,” but the publication’s social media accounts and its url refer to it as ‘FvckTheMedia’ and online conversation about it uses that name.  It’s reminiscent of the many Tumblrs with the name format of [fuckyeah][topic].tumblr.com, or in a variation more likely to slip through censorware at libraries and schools, [fy][topic].tumblr.com.  But there’s none of the playfulness or approval of “Fuck Yeah” style tumblrs — this is most certainly “Fuck You,” or perhaps “Fuck It,” saying goodbye to all the friction of a job with an internet deskflip now that the job itself is gone.  And yet there’s the slyly funny addition of “v” for “u”, making the name “FvckTheMedia” a bit like the “Mvsevm” we see above buildings where someone wants to remind us that we’re trying hard to build something as imperial as Rome back in the day.  The name is an announcement that says “I’m not going to do what you think I’m going to do or what you want me to do,” which means that the risk of falling into a Thomas Frank “we’re all rebels who end up buying the same chunky hipster glasses and wearing the same jeans because we’re rebels” -style hipsterpocalypse is, as it always is, present in all our affairs and internet doings.

The ideas about money are so interesting that they are worth unpacking all on their own.

We are enthusiastically doing this ad-free because we are not interested in starting a business. We are interested in being sustainable though, and paying writers. On the bottom of this page you’ll notice a “donate” button. We’re trying to do this through donations, microgrants, and fundraisers because we believe there’s a way to be sustainable and community-funded without guilt tripping our friends into giving us money via Kickstarter. This might work, it might not.

  • Ad-free: Indeed, the site does not feature a single ad.  ”Ad-free” can mean a lot of different things; I’ve heard NPR described as “ad-free,” though that seems a bit disingenuous when we hear ads from “underwriters” of programs (What’s the difference between an advertiser and an underwriter?  An advertiser pays $120 while an underwriter pays $1200).  An advertising-supported model, of course, tends to enforce the “periodicity” of a periodical, since advertisers want to advertise for a specific period of time.  Advertising also creates economic incentives for creating material with broad appeal (JT Hamilton’s remarkable “All The News That Sells” points out that the “balance” and “objectivity” of postwar media was also a business strategy: for awhile, a “neutral” publication could find a bigger audience than a “red” publication or a “blue” one.  But that falls apart when you have lots of distribution channels; see MSNBC and Fox News, and of course, the countless publications of the Web).
  • “Sustainable and community-funded without guilt tripping” If FvckTheMedia is eager to avoid being shaped by the business processes that go along with advertising, they seem equally eager to avoid the indignities of the public radio fund drive and the unseemly edge that Kickstarter campaigns have taken on now that they have become so widespread.
  • Tip jar economics But there is a donation button.  A friend of mine who does a lot of what might be considered ‘public spirited programming’ makes a fair amount of money this way; he calls it ‘cyberbusking.’  As with a real-world street musician, you do have to happen by in order to throw a dollar in the guitar case. So in terms of strategy, it’s not quite like ads in terms of encouraging creation of material with wide appeal, but it does encourage you to set up on a busy corner instead of a cornfield. (Disclaimer: after reading the front page essay, I gave FvckTheMedia $20 and even offered use of a conference room for an editorial meeting).
  • “No intention of starting a business”  – Interesting.  I can already hear people dismissing the venture because of this, though I’m not one of them; Thomas Jefferson was not paid to write the Declaration of Independence, but no one derides him by calling him a “citizen legislator.”  Conceptualizing something as a business can (but doesn’t always) provide a path to longevity, but do we really care about longevity?  Indeed; why start a business when you can start a revolution, amirite?  Even projects that do not directly create revenue, if good enough, often have a long term economic impact for the creators, as the quality of their work is an advertisement — for their skills, their sensibility — for themselves.  All things, for example, that others might wish to hire or work with.  Or for  (I once heard Nicholas Carr say, “Employers are going to want to see things you make with your own little fingies.” Truefax).
  • Bootstrap.  Like all but a tiny minority of online publications, FvckTheMedia does not seem to have access to traditional sources of startup capital.  HuffPo can get startup capital from a venture capitalist; other small businesses can get small business loans.  Most online publications have no access to startup capital, and thus they are shaped by the requirement of bootstrapping — they have to survive on whatever they have.  This too, shapes pressthink, especially when FvckTheMedia says they intend to pay writers.  One aspect of pressthink is “how much is enough”?  Buzzfeed’s answer might be “too much is never enough,” but FvckTheMedia’s will be inherently different, and reflect the 99% v. 1% landscape that access to startup capital creates.

I’ve never seen Jay discuss the design of an online publication as part of its pressthink (though it’s entirely possible I missed such a discussion).  But with FvckTheMedia, design is such a front-and-center part of the package that I believe it does rise to the level of pressthink.

  • It’s made to look like a physical paper.  In fact, it’s made to look like a physical paper from the era of early desktop publishing or even earlier, during the last gasp of physical layout with a roller, wax, and an X-Acto knife.  
  • Grayscale.  The entire publication is black and white, including the illustrations. Even the publication’s Instagram account is 100% black and white. While using web technology, it seems to say to us: “I want to remind you that an Instamatic camera and a Xerox machine are entirely sufficient to our aims.”
  • FvckTheWeb?  There are a number of references to zines in the text of the first edition.  Apart from the links to the publication’s own social media accounts, the tip jar, and links to services that provide embedded media, like the first edition’s accompanying “mixtape” on 8-Tracks, or the embedded video, I’m not aware of any links to anything outside the publication at all.  Even the inaugural comic simply asks us “Is social media the media?” which seems a bit like a leading question. There’s a kind of disinterest in the web that some might be forgiven for suspecting that it rises to the level of hostility to the web; the first edition seems to say to us: “We’re only on the web because we couldn’t find a big enough mimeograph machine.”
  • It’ll all be different next time.  Pelly says “each issue [will be] coded on its own to serve specific articles and artwork.   This seems like a nod to early web publications like The Fray, which essentially created small individual websites to accompany each story, each one with a distinctive look.
  • There is no CMS! — Most websites, including the one you’re looking at now, have a database underneath them; blogs and most online news sites have a piece of software called a CMS that A) talks to that database B) lets you enter new content and C) presents that content online in the form of web pages.  FvckTheMedia is not substantially different to the first websites I coded in 1995, when I was learning HTML; the coding is so efficient that it almost seems as if the designer, Matt Orlove, was challenging himself to use as few HTML tags as possible; after popping the hood with View Source and counting the ones in the body of first page I found even fewer than I thought — nine: <a> for tags; <img> for images; <table> and its children <tr> and <td> for tables, <div> to bring styles from the minimalist CSS, <p> for paragraphs, <em> for italics, and <font> to bring in the retro Cooper Black of the headlines.  Gist.  There is no database, no CMS, no comments.  The calendar is a JPG of a hand-drawn calendar.  One upshot of this: it is not searchable.  It is a return to the time when once you threw out last week’s copy of the altweekly, it became impossible (or at least extremely time-consuming) to find that article again; the only memory was your own memory.   That can be a kind of commentary about what’s important: and what’s important is what’s in front of you right now.

I like FvckTheMedia and I wish it and its creators the kind of unconventional success that tells its creators, and maybe us, something new.

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