Is progressive new media doomed?

GB News thrives while The Overtake dies; it's hard to see a path forward for progressive new media...

The following is not really about podcasts, although it sort-of is. To channel Richard Nixon, it is my opinion that if I am talking about it, that means it’s about podcasts.

Here in the UK, media watchers are obsession about one thing: the launch of GB News.

GB News — when it hits screens at some point in the coming weeks/months — will be a news channel with a right-of-centre tilt, taking its playbook from the success of Fox News in the US and focusing on “original news, opinion and debate”. It’s funded by a variety of mass media companies, private investment firms, and Paul Marshall, who previously funded UnHerd, another sub-Spectator, free-speech obsessed right-of-centre outfit. Their big coup has been signing up Andrew Neil as a presenter and chairman. For those not in the know, Neil has long been the biggest political interviewer in the UK, so it’s a legitimately huge signing (though he has, in recent years, come under a lot of scrutiny for his impartiality as BBC presenter who is also chairman of the Spectator group, as well as being something of a crank on Twitter).

Even before its launch, the backlash is starting. A campaign for advertisers to boycott the channel has commenced. Their assertion is that, if GB News is anything like Fox News in the US, then we should try and ensure it’s dead on arrival. Neil has called the critics “woke warriors” and the campaign has only helped fuel the fire that the channel was already kindling: is it unfair to protest a publication before it has launched? What does balance look like in the British media system? Have progressives and leftists lost the plot? All questions I find quite uninteresting, and all inadvertently mainlining GB News with free publicity.

In the same week that Westminster hacks have been snapping pool cues and fighting over GB News, with much less ceremony or discussion, the small Northern-based investigative journalism outfit The Overtake closed.

The Overtake is/was different from most of the UK’s new media publications, in that it was based outside of London, had an explicitly progressive agenda, and invested in a small amount of well-researched and investigated content, rather than a deluge of cheap, cheerful (or not) opinion writing. In many ways, it’s easy to say that it was always going to be a financial disaster.

But in the past few years we’ve seen a couple of new media launches on British shores — in 2017, Unherd, and in 2018, Tortoise– who have ridden out both the turbulence of being a start-up and the continued problems in monetising the media landscape, on the back of fat sacks of private investment and venture capital cash. The fact that they’re both small-c conservative (Tortoise is the more progressive of the two, but very much in a sort-of David Cameron “I’ve rolled up my sleeves so I’m a man of the people” sort of way) is, I suspect, no coincidence.

Conversely, where there have been plenty of progressive publications launched, they’ve tended to go the way of The Overtake, faced ruinous legal challenges, or simply failed to break anywhere near to the mainstream of British media. Even the most successful of this cohort (and it’s a cohort that is far more voluminous in launches than its conservative counterpart), places like Gal-Dem and Novara Media, have to scrap for their existence, relying on micro-donations, Patreons and other voluntary subscriptions. No love from VC, no jam for tea.

So these separate pieces of news — moving in different directions, like barges passing on the Thames — got me thinking about whether new progressive publications will ever be able to elbow their way into the British media mainstream again. We have such a rooted, traditional landscape here — from our papers of record to magazines that have been around since before Queen Victoria — that new media start-ups are already facing a huge disadvantage. And those that come along, like Buzzfeed for example, tend to set-out with the best intentions of winning Pulitzers and righting wrongs, and end up with cat videos, dress colour controversies, and corporate mergers with other ‘fast’ news outlets. It is not an easy time to be challenging the establishment. Radicalism is an expensive occupation.

And The Guardian itself — that last great bastion of British progressive thought — is cutting jobs faster that Emily Gilmore dispatches maids. That’s the impact that an agenda that challenges the orthodoxies of capitalism, climate violence, structural racism… etc has on a legacy title, so it’s no wonder that the consequences are more brutal for pop-up publications. And romantic as the idea of grassroots funding — member contributions, donations, or crowdfunded journalism — is, it’s a surefire way to stay in the margins of the media landscape. It’s a funding strategy almost purpose built by media hegemons to keep new media subordinate. The BBC might occasionally bring a Novara staffer onto a panel, to act as a counterweight/shock absorber for a pundit from the Sun, Daily Mail, Spectator, Telegraph, Times…etc but, other than representing their viewpoint on the national broadcaster, what tangible value does that bring to these publications? Are they reaching new audiences? Are people going there to have their views challenged or confirmed? And if all that is magically and mysteriously happening, how are those people being converted into the lifeblood that is pennies and pounds?

To cut a long story short, I do not feel terribly positive about the future for progressive new media. Technology, which seemed to level the playing field briefly with social media, podcasts and YouTube — vehicles for creative messaging — is becoming less and less friendly to new media with each passing day. The truth is that the Next Big Thing™ will have to have a significant launch investment, and where’s that money going to come from if their agenda is to challenge the very systems that created that wealth? Perhaps the best chance is that someone might see investment as philanthropy; after all, so much of investment speculation is just giving a cheque to some lank-haired technologist in his late 20s and hoping he doesn’t piss too much of it away on craft lager, oatmeal lattes and harassment settlements. Why couldn’t this generosity extend to funding the noble failure of a few new magazines that want to save the world?

When GB News launches, I suspect it will entertain and inflame Westminster for a few months. And then quietly it will either become another bland establishment voice, recycling the same presenters and commentators we see on BBC, Sky, LBC, TalkRadio, Times Radio…etc, or it will become like Joe Rogan had a TV channel, publishing across platforms and dominating the right-of-centre conversation. Either way, it has a massive head-start in meeting the conditions for success.

Am I wrong to feel so pessimistic?

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NB: I use ‘right-of-centre’ in this article to refers, as a group, to publications that are either outwardly right-wing (ranging from alt-right to just ‘we love Margaret Thatcher’) as well as those publications who, in my opinion, have a more insidious establishment viewpoint, but would probably not enjoying be called right-wing. It depends, I suppose, on where you place the centre-ground of politics. I have placed it where I find it; you may well disagree.