Reporter: Guys, is this how it ends? Is this the sign of the death of music reviews?
Brooke Gladstone: With huge layoffs at the beloved music review site Pitchfork and at the LA Times, this year gets off to a bad start for journalism. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. Meanwhile, The Baltimore Sun was sold again. After the last sale, the hedge fund owners kept the paper staff mostly intact in order to go head-to-head with a local rival.
Liz Bowie: There's ego involved here, right? I mean, I'm guessing.
Brooke Gladstone: You're saying this was a bleep measuring contest.
Liz Bowie: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: The Sun's newest owner has Baltimore locals feeling less than optimistic about their paper's future.
Milton Kent: There was a tradition. In the summertime when you go pick up a dozen crabs and lay the newspaper on the table to crack the crabs on but I think The Sun has meant more to the people of this market of this city than just a place to lay your crabs on.
Micah Loewinger: It's all coming up after this.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. 2024 has been very hard on the news business, and it's only January.
Reporter: The Baltimore Sun has now been sold to David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcasting.
Micah Loewinger: Also this week, the Los Angeles Times announced yet another round of layoffs. The Times Guild bargaining committee tweeting Thursday, "Folks, this is the big one." The Guild called for a Friday walkout, the first such action since the paper started in 1881, to protest a projected 20% staff cut. About 100 jobs. This on top of a cut of 74 positions in June. Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated just laid off most of its staff, and then there's this.
Reporter: Guys, is this how it ends? Is this the sign of the death of music reviews? January 17, mark the day, Pitchfork has been folded into GQ.
Micah Loewinger: More on that one later in the show.
Brooke Gladstone: In recent years, billionaire owners have snapped up outlets like The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and others, with three of the top newspaper chains in the country are currently owned not by individuals or families but by private investment firms. According to Margot Susca, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Accountability, and Democracy at American University, we're currently in the private investment era of media.
Private equity firms and hedge funds may function differently in the marketplace but Susca says they have a similarly ravenous approach to buying up news outlets and selling them off for parts. Susca, author of Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy, debunks the notion that it was solely the dawn of the internet that failed local news.
Margot Susca: The loss of advertising revenue was devastating for the US newspaper industry, but in the early 2000s, and in the mid-2000s, newspapers could have competed with those sites. Instead, with that pressure from private equity investors, there was very little digital innovation. Rather than compete digitally, they merged and they acquired, and that put them billions of dollars in debt.
Brooke Gladstone: You've observed that the newspaper industry isn't in crisis because its business model changed. The newspaper industry is in crisis because the business models of the powerful private investment funds behind the industry have not changed.
Margot Susca: That's right. Profit has been part of the American newspaper system as long as we've had newspapers, but profit in the name of democracy looks much different than profit made in spite of it. What we've had from 2003 onward is a crop of investors and owners that care very little about how a newspaper functions in the community. Hearst and Pulitzer were very concerned about money and they made oodles of money but the ownership structure that we have now, it's profit with no consideration for quality journalism.
Brooke Gladstone: What defines the private investment era?
Margot Susca: Overharvesting which is just a focus on extreme profit, mergers and acquisitions, and then a massive amount of debt. People are the most expensive line item in any newspaper. It's no shock that to maximize profits, the number one thing to go out the door are bodies.
Brooke Gladstone: You single out three investment firms for a particular damage done to local news and you give them each a moniker. First, there's Alden Global Capital. You call Alden the vulture?
Margot Susca: Well, Alden is part of Randall D. Smith's financial universe. His hedge fund was described as "profiting from other people's misery by trading the stock and debt of troubled companies," but Alden Global Capital gets its negative reputation really through the efforts of The Denver Post staff. In 2018, the staff rebelled, and they ran a front-page story devoted to how terrible conditions were at that newspaper. They had a front-page color photo that showed the impact of the layoffs on what was one of the best regional newspapers in the country and they blamed Alden Global Capital. It was revolutionary at the time and it was a wake-up call for many in the industry to say Alden is a vulture profiting off of the destruction of newspapers.
Brooke Gladstone: How does it profit?
Margot Susca: Remember, when they buy up companies, they gain buildings, land, printing presses, assets that are worth in the tens of millions of dollars. They also profit off of what's left of ad revenue and circulation revenue.
Brooke Gladstone: For as long as it lasts, I guess.
Margot Susca: Well, the US newspaper industry gets described as this tired, dead business but publicly traded newspapers in 2020 generated $8 billion in ad revenue and another $11 billion from circulation.
Brooke Gladstone: The demands of shareholders for greater and greater profit meant that a profitable business simply wasn't good enough. It still had to be sold off for parts.
Margot Susca: We have to remember about hedge fund ownership, is that you no longer have to worry about shareholders. Under hedge fund ownership, you've got just a few guys. Yes, you're right. Is it a smaller pie than it was in 1999 or in 2002? Absolutely, but Alden Global Capital in 2017 made $170 million in profits. When you've got a company that's only a few people, that's a lot of money to spread around.
Brooke Gladstone: They're the vulture. They snapped up the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Orlando Sentinel. There's Chatham Asset Management, which you think is the least worst investment firm in the space. It bought McClatchy and the Miami Herald. Then you've got what you call the Phantom, Fortress Investment Group. Fortress bought the GateHouse Newspaper chain that was the largest in the US. In 2005, they openly said that they had no idea what they were doing running a media company and immediately started laying people off.
They went through this whole cycle of the private investment era. They would profit from cutting news. They would merge and acquire. They got into so much debt they had to declare bankruptcy, which the debt was then wiped out through Chapter 11 actions. Now, you point to how enabling our bankruptcy laws were to the Sherman's March to the Sea they were doing in the newspaper business.
Margot Susca: The bankruptcy law enabled GateHouse to emerge from its bankruptcy even stronger and even larger owner. The thing that's so fascinating is that after the GateHouse Gannett merger, Fortress Investment Group was able to collect tens of millions of dollars through both dividends and management fees from a company that laid off hundreds of reporters and claimed that it was in dire straits. These are functions and conditions of the market and we have an existing regulatory system that's designed to put guardrails on media ownership. That's designed to put caps on the number of TV stations and newspapers that one company can own in one city, but those have essentially been decimated.
We have an antitrust system that should be working to stop a very small number of companies from operating in one sector. That could be put into place. The Federal Trade Commission has merger guidelines. We need to enforce the structures that we have.
Brooke Gladstone: Why do you think local news was made a target by these firms? Aren't there more lucrative industries that they could parachute into?
Margot Susca: Newspaper companies still beat S&P 500 averages. They outperform the stock market, but I think that there are other reasons as well. Controlling the local news marketplace means that you get to control the narrative when it relates to other businesses that you might be involved in.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you have examples where exactly that has happened, because that's important?
Margot Susca: Fortress Investment Group, a private equity firm based in New York, is also very heavily invested in rail, and in Florida, there were two counties along the Atlantic coast that had filed lawsuits against efforts to expand rail. They had claimed public safety implications. There were environmental implications. Fortress Investment Group, which, of course, was the owner of the GateHouse Newspaper chain, GateHouse buys newspapers in Florida. That all but stops reporting on the public safety implications, the environmental implications of these rail deals. Those lawsuits ended up getting dropped. That's the real threat, I think, of having this kind of ownership.
Brooke Gladstone: You drew attention in your book to the death of Daniel Prude after an encounter with police in Rochester in 2020. It was months before the killing of George Floyd and it wasn't covered in the press there. You see the Prude case as one in which a well-staffed newspaper unencumbered by a corporate owner's profit margin could have pursued that story. If there had been a reporter, they would've had sources, bureaucratic paperwork to follow. There would've been neighborhood chatter after the incident. There was a videotaped encounter, an ambulance ride, a hospital visit, and even, by April of that year, an internal police report. None of that was covered?
Margot Susca: None of it was covered, and the case only came to light after his lawyers for his family filed public records requests to get access to the case. I'm not blaming the Rochester, New York Newspaper, which is owned by Gannett because they have faced layoffs. The point that I'm trying to make is that in a well-functioning press system, those are the kinds of stories that we learn about. Imagine cases like that nationwide that go uncovered, local corruption that goes uncovered because there's no reporter watching that meeting, filing the public records requests to make sure that those actions are being watched. That's a byproduct of a newspaper system that is completely broken.
Brooke Gladstone: Your research has found that there is profitability in local news. However, polarized people may be, they crave it.
Margot Susca: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: You concluded your book by saying, "What is clearer to me now than it was five years ago, is that whatever potential exists for newspapers to investigate and to address myriad issues on behalf of society cannot exist under private investment fund control. All eras must end." Meaning the private investment era. What kind of era do you propose?
Margot Susca: Well, there's a lot of hope in the nonprofit model, but when philanthropy goes away, it will eventually, we're going to need more audience support. We're also going to need to address, as a country, government funding to create a digital news ecosystem that supports objective civic coverage. The more I study, the more I visit communities, the more I talk to citizens, the more I believe that we're going to need an expansion of a public media system that supports civic engagement because, without it, we're really in dire straits.
Brooke Gladstone: Margot, thank you very much.
Margot Susca: Thanks, Brooke. I really appreciate your time.
Brooke Gladstone: Margot Susca is the author of Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up. As newspapers keep changing hands, the journalists who staff them are caught in the churn.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. Earlier this week we learned of the purchase of The Baltimore Sun by David Smith, the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group.
Reporter: The Sun reporting that deal also includes other papers, The Capital Gazette, Carroll County Times, and other papers and magazines in the area. Smith did not disclose how much he paid but said the deal is independent of the broadcasting company, which does own nearly 200 stations across the us.
Reporter: David Smith is known not only for his right-wing broadcasting network Sinclair but also for his supportive conservative causes and groups including Project Veritas, Turning Points USA, and Moms for Liberty.
Brooke Gladstone: Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab described the sale as "an exploration of whether there can be a worse newspaper owner than Alden Global Capital." This week, Smith met with The Sun staff. Mr. Smith, at one point, told reporters to "go make me some money." When asked about job security, Smith said, "Not so reassuringly that everyone has a job today."
Milton Kent: The new owner saying at a meeting of the staff that he hadn't read The Sun in 40 years and he found newspapers to be left-wing rags.
Brooke Gladstone: Milton Kent is a professor of practice in the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State University.
Milton Kent: John Oliver did a spectacular takedown a few years ago of how the word came down from Sinclair headquarters, which is here in the Baltimore suburbs. The word came down that they wanted an editorial to be read verbatim on each of its stations across the country.
John Oliver: Sinclair can sometimes dictate the content of your local newscast, and in contrast to Fox News, a clearly conservative outlet where you basically know what you're getting, with Sinclair, they're injecting Foxworthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors.
Reporter: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn?
Reporter: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta in pursuing the Russia investigation of President Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn?
Reporter: Did the FBI have a personal vendetta-
Reporter: -in pursuing the Russia investigation of-
Reporter: -President Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn?
Milton Kent: Whether they were in Baltimore, Phoenix, wherever, that's concerning.
Brooke Gladstone: Kent started his career at The Baltimore Sun. He even won a full tuition college scholarship from the paper.
Milton Kent: You could pretty much say that I owe my career to The Baltimore Sun.
Brooke Gladstone: After graduation, he worked there for over 20 years.
Milton Kent: What concerns me is that Sinclair seems to have an in for the city of Baltimore. One of their pet ideas is a thing called Project Baltimore, where they supposedly expose wrongdoing in the city school system.
Micah Loewinger: Baltimore City is the fifth most-funded large school system in America but from this investigation, we analyze state data and we found a lot of that money is going to educate students who are labeled whereabouts unknown but the school is still getting the money to educate that child, and it's a lot.
Brooke Gladstone: Kent and others found that the project reporting lacked vital context and facts that would've led to a less damning conclusion.
Milton Kent: I think every school system can stand a bit of scrutiny, but in this case, it seems almost personal. Alarm bells went off for me when I read that the new owner, David Smith, said to the staff of The Sun that he thought that Project Baltimore was an ideal model for how The Sun should operate going forward.
Micah Loewinger: A 2018 study by Emory's Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain found that stations newly bought by Sinclair cut their coverage of local politics by roughly 10% and boosted coverage of national politics by roughly 25%. A 2019 study found that Sinclair's political coverage leaned on dramatic rhetoric and partisan sources effectively pulling viewers to the right. Apparently, these new Sinclair stations weren't responding to any pent-up demand for conservative local news. On average, they lost viewers when they made these changes, but at no great cost, since national news is so much cheaper to cover than local news because one DC-based talking head can serve 100 markets.
Meanwhile, research shows that when local news declines or disappears, political corruption increases along with voter apathy. Journalism professor and former son reporter, Milton Kent, fears the dominance of Sinclair's national agenda could create a devastating ripple effect.
Milton Kent: In the summertime when you go pick up a dozen crabs and lay the newspaper on the table to crack the crabs on, but I think The Sun has meant more to the people of this market, of this city, than just a place to lay your crabs on. Many of us feared that Alden would shrink the paper down to a husk. I don't think any of us feared that it would be antagonistic to the city that it's supposed to serve.
Brooke Gladstone: Well, now they do. In recent years, there's been mounting interest and investment in nonprofit media. A trend scholar Brad Houston calls the Alden effect. Consider the nonprofit Baltimore Banner, a digital news outlet launched in 2022, in response to Alden's expected pillaging of The Baltimore Sun. This week, Banner reporters covered The Sun's newest potentially even more worrying owner, David Smith, among them Liz Bowie, who before joining the Banner worked for some 30 years at The Sun starting in 1986.
Liz Bowie: It was a huge bustling newsroom with seven or eight foreign bureaus, a large Washington staff. We had eight education reporters at the time, and we were considered a national publication.
Brooke Gladstone: Later, the Tribune Publishing chain, once owner of the LA Times and Newsday, among others, became The Sun's parent company, and Bowie watched as The Sun's staff shrank and shrank at the hands of the Tribune chain's new owner, private equity billionaire Sam Zell.
Liz Bowie: All of the real estate associated with these venerable institutions like The Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun and The Hartford Courant were sold out from under us and we had to then pave rent to the company. That money didn't go into supporting the journalism. By the time 2018 rolled around, there were only about 70 journalists left in the newsroom from about 450. It was a much-shrunken enterprise.
Brooke Gladstone: Still, The Baltimore Sun produced great reporting, Bowie was part of The Sun team that won a Pulitzer in 2020, about the same time that Alden came calling. Bowie launched a movement with her union to halt The Sun sale to the hedge fund called Save Our Sun.
Liz Bowie: I think everybody in The Sun newsroom was terrified when we heard that Alden was buying up the stock. I had been speaking over the years with some of the leaders of local foundations who were interested in buying The Sun, as well as Ted Venetoulis, a former politician who had a great deal of interest in the media. I called them all and I said, "This is my 911 call. If you guys are really serious about trying to save the paper, you have to do it now, because this is who's trying to buy us."
We started to meet in the early morning in a Downtown hotel in secret. We started Save Our Sun, and by May we had collected about 6,000 signatures. We sent the petition to the Tribune board and asked them to please vote against Alden. There was a strong local interest in bringing the ownership of the paper back to the city, and of course, they ignored us, but it alerted many people in the community to what was happening.
Brooke Gladstone: To the local hotel entrepreneur and philanthropist who fought for the ownership of The Sun. He tried to purchase the paper as well as the Tribune, the parent company.
Liz Bowie: Stewart Bainum is a hotelier and former politician. He began calling people all over the country and saying, "How do you run a newspaper? How do you make local news sustainable?" He then said, "Okay, I'm in," and began negotiating for the sale of The Baltimore Sun.
Brooke Gladstone: They offered too high a price, and he decided that instead of buying The Sun, he'd buy The Sun's parent company.
Liz Bowie: Right, just for The Sun, and then sell off the other papers to local owners in those cities who might be interested. Once he started going after Tribune, then Alden Global Capital came to him and said, "Oh, wait, maybe we'll sell you The Sun. How about we buy Tribune and we will sell you The Sun?" Then there was a tentative deal between Alden and Stewart Bainum.
Brooke Gladstone: Bainum should have bought The Tribune because, in the end, Alden wanted to squeeze him 12 ways from Sunday. Alden prevailed.
Liz Bowie: Then Stewart began to think about starting his own publication, and he began hiring people. He eventually hired Kimi Yoshino, managing editor at The Los Angeles Times, to run the operation in the fall of 2021.
Brooke Gladstone: Thus, the Baltimore Banner was born, where you are now a reporter. You've been there since the beginning, as have many of your colleagues from The Sun, but weirdly, something happened after Alden gained ownership, usually, hedge funds lay off reporters, but in this case, they offered reasonably generous buyouts and the layoffs never came.
Liz Bowie: The day after the sale went through, Alden offered buyouts to almost everybody in The Tribune Company. In the case of The Chicago Tribune, and many of the other papers, as many as 10% of the people who were offered buyouts took them. At The Baltimore Sun, no one took it. I think that was because perhaps we'd fought so hard for our newspaper.
Brooke Gladstone: Why did all Alden not slash and burn?
Liz Bowie: I think that Heath Freeman who heads Alden Global Capital, and Stewart Bainum, were in a very fierce competition, first to get The Sun and then to get Tribune. I don't think Alden wanted The Baltimore Banner to overtake The Sun. There's ego involved here, right? I'm guessing.
Brooke Gladstone: You're saying this was a bleep measuring contest?
Liz Bowie: Yes.
Liz Bowie: I don't know that for sure, but about 20% of the current staff of The Banner came from The Sun. Every one of them was replaced for a long time, it didn't cut into the number of journalists in The Sun newsroom for a while.
Brooke Gladstone: Recently, The Sun and The Banner were engaged in an old-style competition for a story involving the Catholic Church.
Liz Bowie: Yes, this spring, when the Attorney General released a report about sexual abuse by priests in the church in Maryland, the two news organizations competed to unmask a number of priests, their names had been redacted. What happened was, The Sun did half of them and The Banner did the other half. The community benefited from all of this competition, this rise in the number of reporters. What is really wonderful is The Baltimore Banner has really added a lot of reporters to the media ecosystem in Maryland.
What you have now is 76 more reporters who are writing different stories, who are writing the same stories as The Sun, competing with them. That means that readers will get their news faster, that the reporters on beats that are competitive will be more aggressive, working way harder because they don't want to get beaten. That story alone told us what happens when you have good competition and so many more reporters in one city looking at things and looking under rocks.
Brooke Gladstone: Now, The Sun has been purchased from Alden by David Smith, executive chairman of Sinclair. Tell me what you know about Smith and his company, Sinclair, you and your colleagues at The Banner have been reporting on this.
Liz Bowie: We know that Smith owns 200 television stations, including a Fox station in our area. Many of those stations have a very conservative slant. I think he will insist that there be a more conservative view in his newspaper.
Brooke Gladstone: Smith and his stations have been accused of leaning too far and have run afoul of federal regulators. They once racked up a record-breaking $48 million in FCC fines for deceptive practices during an attempted merger with Tribune. Jared Kushner said in 2016, that the Trump campaign would provide Sinclair stations with extensive access to Trump in exchange for friendly coverage that did not include fact-checking. Smith told Trump in a 2016 meeting, "We are here to deliver your message."
Liz Bowie: We don't know what's going to happen yet with The Baltimore Sun. We don't know how far he will go in interfering in the newsgathering. David Smith has bought The Sun independent of Sinclair, so Sinclair does not own The Sun.
Brooke Gladstone: That is true, but in the past, haven't they worked together to promote each other's material?
Liz Bowie: Yes, they have. I think we know that he has a record of doing journalism in Baltimore that I believe does not have context. I've seen journalists working for Fox45 who leave out very pertinent facts when they report a story. They often end up being inaccurate in the sense they don't give readers a whole picture of what's actually happening.
Brooke Gladstone: If The Sun did become more like Fox45, Sinclair's station, how would that alter the media landscape in Maryland? How would it affect how reporters at The Banner do their work?
Liz Bowie: I am very concerned about this. I worry that there then becomes a cloud of misinformation that spreads pretty widely, that polarizes our community. That all of the things that have happened with national news start happening on a local level, so that's very concerning. I think as a reporter, I would have to fight that misinformation in my reporting.
Brooke Gladstone: That does seem to be part of the job these days. Is the goodwill of very rich individuals the best hope for local journalism?
Liz Bowie: To some degree, I think it is. Stewart Bainum has definitely given us a big runway, but his philanthropy will end at some point. I think you may need a substantial amount of philanthropy to get you off the ground but what we're trying to prove is that once you get started, you can do it alone, sustainable at scale. Stewart Bainum said you have to create a large enough organization that the journalism is so compelling that subscribers agree to support it. What we are trying to prove is that if you create a big newsroom and a good product, that there is support out there in communities across the nation to sustain it.
Brooke Gladstone: It makes me feel so hopeful. There is actually still State House coverage in the city of Baltimore. It's missing in so many other cities across the country.
Liz Bowie: Yes. I have spent a long time in journalism now, I've been a newspaper reporter forever, it seems, and I have never been more excited or committed to what I've been doing. I poured every ounce of myself into trying to save The Baltimore Sun from a hedge fund owner, and it was an emotional rollercoaster that I will never forget. I am also so hopeful right now. I go to work really excited every day thinking that we may actually make this work. It's been one of the most joyful times in my life.
Brooke Gladstone: Liz, thank you so much.
Liz Bowie: Take care.
Brooke Gladstone: Liz Bowie is an education reporter for The Baltimore Banner.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up, the music criticism business is on the chopping block.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media.
Brooke Gladstone: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. As outlets across the country downsize, change hands, and consolidate, critics have often been among the first to go. After Alden Capital took over The Chicago Tribune in 2021, the paper lost Phil Vettel, at the time, the city of Chicago's last full-time restaurant reviewer. Late last month, Peter Marks, a respected theater critic at The Washington Post, took a buyout, taking at least for now, the paper's DC theater beat with him.
A couple of years ago, The Post laid off Pulitzer Prize winner, Sarah L. Kaufman, one of the country's few remaining dance critics. Then there is the world of music writing, which has been bleeding out for years. In October, Bandcamp, a marketplace for independent music and home to a stable of sharp writers, cut half its staff. This week, Conde Nast laid off much of the masthead at Pitchfork, the iconic music publication, and announced the site would merge with men's magazine, GQ. In other words, the end of an era. Started in 1996 by Ryan Schreiber, Pitchfork grew into a unique tastemaker known for highbrow writing about indie music of the aughts and onward.
Ann Powers: Ryan Schreiber really stands as an avatar and embodiment of the blog era.
Micah Loewinger: Ann Powers is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music.
Ann Powers: He is a guy who was working in a record store who started this site to publish reviews and publish opinion on music that he loved. Pitchfork was very associated with indie rock music at that time. The very opinionated reviews, the scoring system that became notorious, where they give a number score to new releases, and that blog-like constant stream of content is what made Pitchfork so important, and gave Schreiber and his team a chance to make it the influencer that it became.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, and tell me a little bit about some of the bands and genres that were elevated because of Pitchfork, or at least were the favorites of the cast of writers in its heyday.
Ann Powers: Well, Micah, I'm curious, what bands do you associate with Pitchfork? I bet you're a Pitchfork reader.
Micah Loewinger: I was a big Pitchfork reader when I was in high school and in college. The bands I associated with it were Spoon, or Phoenix, or Radiohead.
Ann Powers: Broken Social Scene?
Micah Loewinger: Animal Collective. Yes, Broken Social Scenes.
Ann Powers: Yes. Arcade Fire would be another one. These are really the leading "indie" rock bands of the late 2000s and early 2010s. Coming out of the indie rock tradition that in previous generations had given us bands ranging from REM to Nirvana. Really Pitchfork was the 21st-century flag bearer for the kind of music that Rolling Stone would've covered in the '60s and '70s, and Spin Magazine would've covered in the '80s and '90s. Pitchfork's strong association with that kind of music in the early 2000s is what made it such a potent brand and gave it that foothold that allowed it to truly show its influence.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, and to put even just a finer point on it, there was a 2006 piece in Wired titled "The Pitchfork Effect" that described the make-or-break power it had over that era of bands.
Ann Powers: Let's put this in the historical context of music magazines. Going back, even before the rock era, in the jazz world, for example, you had DownBeat. Its annual polls, its reviews, its articles had the similar effect on the jazz world.
Micah Loewinger: I want to ask you, though, about the style of writing, the voice. It wasn't just their curation, it was something else about how they wrote. Can you describe it?
Ann Powers: Well, the basic unit of Pitchfork is the album review. What is an album review? This is a philosophical question, Micah.
Micah Loewinger: What is an album review, Ann?
Ann Powers: Well, it can be something as small and simple as a little blurb that says, "Hey, you're going to like this," or it can be as long as a couple thousand words and really become an essay that considers music in many different contexts, or possibly, it could be a vehicle for personal expression, for memoir, for expressing ideas from a very opinionated place. I think one of the things that makes Pitchfork so important is that Schreiber and then the other editors, they have allowed writers to really develop a voice.
Micah Loewinger: Sometimes that voice was mean.
Ann Powers: [chuckles] Yes. Negative reviews. They're like the Thor's hammer of Pitchfork. Writers there and the editors there would wield those negative reviews as a way of proving their influence and a way of generating discussion.
Micah Loewinger: Some memorable ones that I've seen writers bringing back up in the recent days was its review of Shine On, the Jet album from 2006. This is like a meme basically. Here is this Australian pop-rock band that is on MTV, has generated a lot of buzz in the US, Pitchfork gives their album a zero. The review has no text. It's just an embedded YouTube video of a monkey peeing into its own mouth. Which is funny, but is that criticism?
Ann Powers: Again, I think we think of Pitchfork as inventing these forms, but if you go back and look at old issues of Rolling Stone from the '60s and the '70s, they were equally irreverent. This is a side of criticism that's existed since criticism has existed.
Micah Loewinger: Some of those 0 out of 10 reviews haven't aged so well. Matt LeMay had given Liz Phair's 2003 self-titled album a zero. At the time, he, I think, was maybe 18 or 19, and he didn't like that Liz Phair, who was an indie musician, had come out with a more pop radio-friendly album. Then in 2019, LeMay returned to his review and described it as condescending and cringey. He tweeted, "The idea that indie rock and radio pop are both cultural constructs, language to play with, masks for an artist to try on, yes, I certainly didn't get that. Liz Phair did get that way before many of us did."
Ann Powers: Kudos to Matt LeMay for engaging in some very constructive self-criticism, and kudos to Pitchfork, because I think one of the best things that Pitchfork has done in recent years under the guidance of Puja Patel, the editor-in-chief who was recently let go as part of these layoffs, is they have revisited old reviews. They have created a whole feature that allowed for them to review records they'd ignored from genres they weren't as interested in.
This self-examination and confrontation with the limits and problems of the Pitchfork approach, to me, that is one of the most inspiring aspects of what's been happening in music writing in the past decade or so. We have a much more diverse field of music writers now. Many more women, many more people of color, many more LGBTQIA people writing about music. That diversity has totally changed what we do, and I think it's great. Pitchfork has been a huge part of that.
Micah Loewinger: You've mentioned that as the publications aperture has expanded, they now cover a much more varied range of musicians. How has that affected the editorial experience, you think?
Ann Powers: Pitchfork covers pop, but they mostly cover pop and very mainstream artists in their news section. Yes, they will review a Taylor Swift record, for example, and certainly, a Beyonce record as any of us would. They are also covering very obscure electronic music, avant-garde jazz or avant-garde classical music, or Americana music. I think it's that diversity that makes the reviews section particularly so valuable because it is like going into a great, huge record store where you could hop in upon something you didn't expect. Let's be real, there's so much more to music than the cool new bunch of dudes in tight pants or whatever.
Micah Loewinger: Playing some growling guitars in Brooklyn.
Ann Powers: Look, I love that stuff, but I think it's great that Pitchfork grew up. Many of my favorite writers who've come through Pitchfork in recent years, they're diversifying the field. That to me is so crucial.
Micah Loewinger: Not everyone has been on board with the changes at the site. Writing in The Guardian this week, Laura Snapes responded to critics of Pitchfork who have "lamented Pitchfork's poptimist shift over the past decade." Poptimist. What is she referring to there?
Ann Powers: I'm glad you brought up that term, Micah, because it's one that drives me crazy. The word poptimism originated in response to an essay that Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New York Times called "The Rap Against Rockism." Kelefa's criticism of the world of music writing was that it was dominated by straight white men who liked guitar-based rock music made by straight white men, and that this had created a hierarchy within the music industry, but quickly, this critique created a space for some of us to say, "Hey, let's also take mainstream pop music seriously.
Let's take dance music seriously. Let's take these fields that happen to be dominated by African-American artists, by women. Let's make a space for that." Carl Wilson also wrote a really important book. It was about Celine Dion, but it was really about how our tastes form.
Micah Loewinger: Oh yes. This is A Journey to the End of Taste. Is that what it is?
Ann Powers: Yes.
Micah Loewinger: It's a fascinating premise. He basically says, "Celine Dion, one of the bestselling artists of our time, I hate her music, why."
Ann Powers: He was saying, "Okay, from my standpoint, as a fan of indie rock, as a white guy, et cetera, what am I bringing to the table when I listen to a Celine Dion record? Why do I think this is 'bad music?' Why do so many other people think it's great music?" That's the essence of what the poptimist project really was. It was not to promote mainstream music, it was to take seriously music that is very popular, music that rock critics scorned historically. I think Pitchfork's evolution from a site that embodied that scorn, to one that was fighting against it, was one of the most beautiful things that's happened in media in the past few decades.
Micah Loewinger: It's been interesting to see the evolution of Pitchfork land between all of these competing interests. I'm thinking of the 2020 review of Taylor Swift's surprise indie folk album, Folklore, written by Jillian Mapes, who wrote a pretty positive review of the album, but ultimately the site only gave the album an eight. She was sent death threats, constant harassment online.
Ann Powers: Jill was one of the people who was laid off this week, a terrible loss to the publication. Some fans were attacking her even now. What can I say? I've gone through this myself. I published a piece on Lana Del Rey, on one of her albums that insufficiently praised her or that she misunderstood. I went through a lot of online harassment for years, I have to say, after that review. This is truly something that does plague critics, reporters, media commentators now, organized attacks by fans. It's something we have to live with and sometimes it goes to horrible extremes. That's a separate issue in my view than whether or not poptimism is a valuable or even sustainable way of doing criticism.
Micah Loewinger: It's just fascinating to me that on one hand, you have people who bristle at the very fact that Pitchfork is reviewing Taylor Swift, and on the other, fans of Taylor Swift aren't happy with a critical review about her.
Ann Powers: The critic has always been an embattled figure in our society, both revered and utterly disrespected, both considered a nothing who only lives through the works of others, and someone that supposedly makes people tremble when they walk in the room. In a strange way, the critic is in a parallel relationship with the musician, who also is revered and scorned in our society. All of this says something about how we treat culture.
On the one hand, there are these attempts to sportify it, to quantify it, to make hierarchies, which always inevitably fail because encounters with art are personal. On the other hand, there is such a thing as aesthetic judgment. There is some value in saying, Stevie Wonder is one of the greatest artists who ever lived and this is why, because he could write amazing melodies, because he was one of the most technologically advanced musicians of his time, because he was both funky and sweet and cutting in his greatest songs all at the same time.
That's an aesthetic judgment as well as a personal one. I think that that combination of stepping back and being close at the same time, it's a complicated way to talk about culture, and it can be upsetting to some.
Micah Loewinger: Honestly, just hearing you speak right now makes the case for why cultural criticism needs to exist.
Ann Powers: Thank you.
Micah Loewinger: The fact is, with this alarming downsizing at Pitchfork, coupled with recent layoffs at Bandcamp, another site that helped support independent musicians that also hosted very, very smart, interesting writing about all kinds of music, much of it below the radar, it's hard not to feel that this criticism and its home on the internet is shrinking. Amanda Petrusich, who's a music critic at The New Yorker, wrote on X/Twitter that the Pitchfork News was "a death nail for the record review." Is this the end of music reviews as we understand it?
Ann Powers: The considered encounter between a devoted, intelligent listener, who is also an excellent writer, and a work of art, that will live on forever, because what a review does, is it creates space for a reader to have an encounter with a work that is guided by the encounter that the critic had. It guides you into a wider understanding. Maybe it's going to make you think about how the Boygenius record reflects attitudes about friendship in the 21st century. Maybe the reviewer can point out something that was just on the tip of your own tongue.
Then you have that aha moment, and that's what the beauty is of a review, is walking into the space of appreciating and loving art with a kind and thoughtful guide, and [laughs] maybe a kind of cruel guide. You can say, "Yes, this is BS." That role, I think, we still want. What form it takes as media changes, I can't predict, but I still think people want that time and space to think and feel with another person who also loves the art they love.
Micah Loewinger: Ann, thanks so much.
Ann Powers: It was great talking to you.
Micah Loewinger: Ann Powers is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. She's the author of several books, including the forthcoming biography, Traveling: On the Path of Joni Mitchell, which comes out in June. That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Candace Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant.
Brooke Gladstone: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.