Recently, I landed the tech-journalism equivalent of a Thomas Pynchon interview: I got someone from Twitter to answer my call. Notorious for keeping its communications department locked up tight, Twitter is not only the psychic bellwether and newswire for the media industry, but also a stingy interview-granter, especially now that it’s floundering with poor profits, executive turnover, and a toxic culture. I’ve tried to get them on the record before. No one has replied.
This time, though, a senior executive from one of Twitter’s key divisions seemed happy—eager, even—to talk with me, and for as long as I wanted. You might even say he prattled. I was a little stunned: I’d been writing about tech matters for years as a freelance journalist, and this was far more access than I was used to receiving. What was different? I was calling as a reporter—but not exactly. I was writing a story for The Atlantic—but not for the news division. Instead, I was working for a moneymaking wing of The Atlantic called Re:think, and I was writing sponsored content.
In case you haven’t heard, journalism is now in perpetual crisis, and conditions are increasingly surreal. The fate of the controversialists at Gawker rests on a delayed jury trial over a Hulk Hogan sex tape. Newspapers publish directly to Facebook, and Snapchat hires journalists away from CNN. Last year, the Pulitzer Prizes doubled as the irony awards; one winner in the local reporting category, it emerged, had left his newspaper job months earlier for a better paying gig in PR. “Is there a future in journalism and writing and the Internet?” Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl,wrote last January. “Haha, FUCK no, not really.” Even those who have kept their jobs in journalism, he explained, can’t say what they might be doing, or where, in a few years’ time. Disruption clouds the future even as it holds it up for worship.