Tech vs. Journalism
New York magazine|May 10 - 23, 2021
Silicon Valley feels picked on by “woke” journalists “who can't code." Reporters feel picked on by petty zillionaires with anger-management problems. Inside the nasty clout battle for how the world’s most influential industry gets covered.
By Benjamin Wallace

Late last fall, the New York Times was preparing a bombshell article about Coinbase, a financial exchange that had become the largest U.S. company in the cryptocurrency industry and was just months away from a sensationally lucrative IPO. Nathaniel Popper, a writer in the newspaper’s San Francisco bureau, had spent months reporting a story about Coinbase’s alleged inhospitality to Black employees. (One former worker told him, “Most people of color working in tech know that there’s a diversity problem … But I’ve never experienced anything like Coinbase.”) With Silicon Valley increasingly the dominant force in American life, and during a national reckoning over structural racism, an examination of HR practices at one of the tech industry’s fastest-growing businesses— documented with firsthand accounts—was classic accountability journalism.

It was the kind of story to which Wall Street, Washington, and corporate America have long been grumblingly acquiescent. They might not like it, but they accept that such scrutiny inevitably shadows success; they take their dings and move on.

But Coinbase, led by CEO Brian Armstrong, who had recently instructed his employees not to bring concerns about racial justice into their work (“We don’t engage here when issues are unrelated to our core mission,” he wrote publicly), wanted to fight back. On November 25, with the Times story yet to drop, Coinbase moved to preempt the exposé, publishing an email the company had sent its employees designed to refute the expected allegations. It included the statement, “We don’t care what the New York Times thinks.”

Bravado from a company on the verge of an IPO? There was some of that. But looming over the Coinbase pique was its venture-capital backer, Andreessen Horowitz, which had lately become an epicenter of anti-media hostility in the Valley. A16Z, as it is known (for the 16 letters between the A in Andreessen and the Z in Horowitz), owned almost a quarter of Coinbase’s class-A shares; co-founder Marc Andreessen sat on the crypto exchange's board; and Coinbase’s head of communications, Kim Milosevich, had recently moved over after seven years at the VC firm.

The worlds of crypto and A16Z shared a fervent disdain for incumbent authorities. As self-styled meritocrats in the business of creating the future, they had little patience for heckling by humanities majors who had never written an if-then statement or started a business. And something had shifted: More and more, in the places where tech talks to itself— Hacker News, Clubhouse, Substack— you’d hear complaints that the dead-tree elites cherry-picked facts congruent with prefigured storylines, were out to get tech for “clickbait,” and were jealous that Silicon Valley was ascendant. And the Times was considered ground zero for this impertinent haterism.

Increasingly, Marc Andreessen felt there was a gap in tech coverage, and he decided that his own firm could create content that would be more future-positive and techno-optimistic—telling the tech story from the tech founder’s vantage point. Inside A16Z, one of Milosevich’s projects had been to build up an internal content operation to produce podcasts and blog posts, and the firm had invested in the fast-growing subscription-blog platform Substack. There was a feeling that the rules had changed: Why grovel to the hidebound gatekeepers when you could “go direct” and “own the narrative”?

After Coinbase’s first strike, there was some overheated media eye-rolling at the effectiveness of the strategy. “This attempt at a front-run is mind-blowing,” Popper’s Times colleague Mike Isaac tweeted in response to Coinbase’s defiant post. “They’ve guaranteed readership for the coming story AND torched any semblance of trust or relationship they had with the media.”

But the overlapping subset of tech-, VC-, and crypto-Twitter viewed Coinbase’s move as badass. The investor Michael Arrington weighed in with, “They will never stop attacking @coinbase.” When Popper published a follow-up article documenting salary disparities at Coinbase among women and Black employees, Naval Ravikant, a well-known investor and podcaster in the Valley, tweeted, “It’s only a matter of time until the narrative industrial complex comes after crypto.” And Balaji Srinivasan, the 41-year-old ex-CTO of Coinbase, ex-partner at Andreessen, and current Twitter media troll on Twitter, tweeted at Popper, calling him a “woke white who can’t code.” The hostilities have only ramped up in 2021. The antimedia tech crew recently delighted in Elon Musk’s response to a Washington Post reporter seeking comment for an article— “Give my regards to your puppet master”— screenshotting it and gleefully disseminating it on social media. In February, a prominent VC named David Sacks drew attention to a new app called BlockNYT that allows Times-haters to silence the 800-plus accounts of reporters and editors who tweet. The rise of Substack, where writers are untethered from institutions, has prompted pearl-clutching among journalists fearful of a brain drain from traditional media. (Mike Solana, a marketing executive at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, recently discerned in journalists’ carping about Substack “the same energy as incels complaining about the Tinder algorithm.”) The invite-only audio app Clubhouse has become a virtual salon of media-bashing, featuring rooms with names like “#BlockNYT or How to Destroy the Media,” “NYT vs. Rational Discourse and Free Speech,” and “Taylor L and Other U.S. Journalists That Should Be in Jail,” referring to the Times internet-culture reporter Taylor Lorenz. A handful of journalists have tried to mount a countercampaign, starting rooms like “How Journalism Actually Works. Featuring Real Journalists” and “What Tech Doesn’t Get About Media (+ Vice Versa).” When A16Z recently announced its plan to beef up its content operation, Jessica Lessin, founder of tech-news outlet the Information, declared the move “a call to arms.”

And so a war is on between the tech titans and a relentless generation of largely digital-native reporters looking to speak truth to power while racking up Twitter followers in the process. Depending on whom you ask, the great Tech vs. Media Standoff of 2020–21 is either a “fake fight” between “20 people and 500 other people,” all quick to take offense and thirsty for clout, or it’s a cataclysmic rift that threatens democracy or, at least, the accurate portrayal of the most important industry in the world.

It wasn’t always this way. “Back in the ’80s,” says Steven Levy, a veteran tech journalist and the author of Facebook: The Inside Story, for which he interviewed Mark Zuckerberg seven times, “there wasn’t this giant distance between who you were and who they were. Even Bill Gates would show up at your office in a cab.”

Tech was the sunny future. With the exception of Microsoft, which by the 1990s had been transformed into a monopolistic bogeyman, technology was covered by journalists who were animated largely by a spirit of wonderment: They came bearing tidings of a new world conjured into existence in the garages of Northern California. There was breathless gadget coverage. There were articles lionizing the microchip seers of San Jose. As the dot-com bubble inflated, the industry and its chroniclers were chummily adjacent and occasionally the same people. Red Herring was founded by Tony Perkins, a venture capitalist. Wired and The Industry Standard were the children of an entrepreneur named John Battelle, who hosted rooftop parties in San Francisco where media and tech folk happily commingled. “Everyone was part of one big stew,” recalls Sean Garrett, former head of communications at Twitter.

Even after the Web, 1.0 bubble burst, leaving some journalists convinced they’d been too credulous, there endured a robust strain of sycophantic reporting on the Valley. No funding round, product launch or logo redesign was too insignificant to merit coverage by TechCrunch, a fawning site co-founded by Arrington. Once a year, it hosted the Crunchies, where the likes of Zuckerberg were anointed with awards like Best Founder. “Obviously, this is a wonderful period of human history we are going through right now, and it is okay to celebrate that,” Arrington once said. In time, at least eight TechCrunch reporters would leave to try their hand at investing, a revolving door that became known as “the TC-to VC pipeline.” At Google in 2005, recalls one employee, “there were just hallways and hallways of framed covers.”

At the time, the fleece-wearing moneymen of Sand Hill Road tended to lurk in the background, quietly minting fortunes while letting the brilliant programmers they backed enjoy the limelight. Andreessen Horowitz, founded in 2009, reinvented the game. Marc Andreessen had once appeared on the cover of Time—he was one of the inventors of the web browser—barefoot and on a throne, and at A16Z, in the lobby library, he displayed bound volumes of past issues of the newsmagazine. He loved Twitter—partly because it was a good way to get into the minds of reporters—and personally invested in a handful of media properties, including Talking Points Memo and PandoDaily (as did Thiel). And with the help of Margit Wennmachers, who had founded the tech PR agency Outcast and whom he had recruited to A16Z, his company built its reputation through the canny management of relationships with journalists.

“A16Z is a media company that monetizes through VC,” one of its then-partners observed. Wennmachers would host what one reporter calls “salons” for journalists at her house, and Marc Andreessen was “dial-quote,” says Lessin, who before founding the Information covered Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal. Eventually, other VC firms followed A16Z’s lead. “There was a time, when I was at Newsweek,” Levy says, “I’d get these emails saying, ‘Peter Thiel is available for comment’ on issue x or issue y. Before he became who he is now, he was open for quotes.” The interests of journalists and VCs were aligned. It was a time when a VC could get away with claiming a mattress company was a tech company.

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