‘If Mark Zuckerberg Wanted to Tilt This Election, He Could’: Peter Rojas on the Future of Media
Few people know tech and media better than Peter Rojas.
The co-founder of Gizmodo, Engadget, Joystiq, and gdgt is a legend in tech blogging, a man with an uncanny sense for what would work next. Today, the serial entrepreneur finds himself on the other side of the equation at Betaworks, identifying promising seed funding opportunities in media and technology.
Earlier this month, we connected to discuss how he’d start a publication today, Facebook’s incredible power, and how to build real trust and relationships with readers.
I’d love to start with something that you said on the panel we were on together a couple weeks ago—that if you started a site like Gizmodo today, you’d publish exclusively on social platforms. Can you elaborate on that?
I’m not sure it would be exclusively, but I would think of it as a distributed product rather than a centralized product. If you think about that era of the web, the goal was always how we get people to come to you. One of things that I figured [out] with Gizmodo was that if you feel comfortable sending people away, then they’ll actually keep coming back to you.
I would be building stuff native to all the different platforms, whether that’s Facebook Instant Articles, Twitter Cards, Snapchat, Tumblr—just anywhere that you have people that are interested in reading, listening, or viewing what you create. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to do it in the context in which they’re already engaging or hanging out.
That probably makes you a fan of what BuzzFeed is doing right now.
Yeah, I really like what they’re doing. I’ve been a big fan of Jonah [Peretti, BuzzFeed founder] for a long time, and his idea of trying to conquer content native to the platforms. There’s obviously a lot risk, and you end up not having as strong of a relationship with the user. Maybe they’re really a Facebook user and not your user. The reality is you have to kind of work with the ones you have, not the ones you want. It’s about being where people are, not trying to pretend that they’re going to always come to you.
Do you think that everyone’s freak-out about BuzzFeed missing its revenue targets by about $80 million was a bit overblown?
There’s a lot of people worrying about what happens to the media right now. You could look at BuzzFeed as a bellwether. It’s the one company that has figured this out better than anybody else, and if it’s going to have trouble, what does that mean for everybody else who might not be quite as savvy or sophisticated as BuzzFeed? I would say that it may be a little bit overblown in the sense that I don’t think it was catastrophic or that BuzzFeed is in trouble.
It does mean that this stuff is never easy, and it’s always a lot of work and very hard to build successful media businesses. Unless you’re willing to be super, super smart about it and try to do all the things that traditional media companies have not been good at in terms of volume development. Even companies that are good at it are going to struggle, so if you’re not doing as well, you’re really going to struggle.
Are there any particular concerns you would have about platforms screwing media companies over? That’s the big concern right now, right? That Facebook is going to offer this reasonably sweet deal with Instant Articles, video, and Live, but then somehow pull one over on media companies?
Absolutely. We’ve seen how this stuff has worked before. Media companies that were entirely dependent on search traffic from Google, for example. The thing you have to keep in mind is that Facebook and Google are not charities. The fact that people discover or visit your site through them is a happy accident. Their job is not to subsidize your existence. Their job is to deliver to their users the best experience that they believe they can offer but also maximize their revenue.
I think that a lot of media sites are not asking themselves the tough question which is: Are you actually creating something great in the first place?
I think it’s a real risk, and we’re already seeing how Facebook is starting to reduce the reach that publishers are getting. And brands, right? Expecting them to pay to extend their reach rather than just get the sort of free lift that they’ve been getting from social distribution.
Nothing surprises me about that. I think that it does make things more difficult if you are a media property that can’t afford to pay. Ultimately, you have to work that much harder to create really great content or great experiences that people want to engage with, share, and read. I think that a lot of media sites are not asking themselves the tough question, which is: Are you actually creating something great in the first place? That’s why Demand Media basically got screwed by Google changing the search algorithm. A lot of people didn’t really mourn, because demand wasn’t really creating anything good at the end of the day.
I felt my job was just create awesome shit. If you can’t do that, then do something else.
To me always the No. 1 question that I asked at my job that I was doing at Engadget was “Is this great?” not “Is this going to get traffic?” or “Is this going to be the number one search result tomorrow?”
I felt my job was just create awesome shit. If you can’t do that, then do something else. There’s a lot of ways to make money in life. To me, I’d rather make something that I think is really great in the process.
That brings up the interesting question of the line between a tech company and a media company. Take Facebook’s Trending Topics controversy. Everyone was debating whether Facebook is a media company that can make editorial decisions, or is it a tech company?’ How do you see that line between the two?
The question of whether Facebook is tech company or a media company, I’m not sure it’s a meaningful question at this point. What would that accomplish in terms of helping us understand Facebook?
The truth is that if Mark Zuckerberg wanted to tilt this election to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, he could do that.
Facebook is a better platform through which an enormous percentage of the world’s media now flows, whether you like it or not. The idea that Facebook is neutral or that its algorithms are neutral, I think anybody who believed that was just kidding themselves. No company is ever neutral.
Facebook’s advantage is to try to diminish the perception of how much power it actually has, but the truth is that if Mark Zuckerberg wanted to tilt this election to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, he could do that.
Another question is what responsibilities do they have? That’s where you’d want at least some transparency or some, I don’t want to say, accountability. That’s not quite the right word, but entities like this have power, and for all of us to pretend that they don’t is just silly. For them to pretend that they don’t is sort of silly also. One hundred years ago, newspapers helped us get into the Spanish American War, right? I don’t think anybody pretended that newspapers didn’t have that power.
We all know that oil companies control the direction of the world, so why shouldn’t Facebook or Google or Apple have similar abilities?
A couple of months ago, Facebook employees had a poll where they were trying to pick one question to ask Zuckerberg during their giant employee meeting. One of the questions getting votes was whether Facebook had a moral obligation to try to stop Trump in this election. I think that’s a really interesting question of whether the same way that, say, The New York Times kind of reflects the views of the people who work there—whether Facebook has some obligation to reflect the views of the people behind it and whether that’s okay, even though a lot of people are saying it isn’t.
Let’s say they decide to exercise this power, right? Obviously they exercise some power in some respects, because there’s no way for them to be this completely neutral vessel that has no impact on the rest of the world.
Let’s say Mark Zuckerberg came out and said, “I’m going to tilt this election,” or he just decided, “I’m going to throw this election to Hillary Clinton because that’s the right thing to do not just for our site but for democracy.” Maybe he did it quietly, and then it got out. Then it becomes a question of, what else does he have an obligation to support or help enable? I think that becomes a slippery slope.
I think that’s the thing they’re trying to avoid, where everybody feels like Facebook has an obligation to support or facilitate all sorts of causes. I think that’s what they’re worried about more than anything else. If you were going to do it, you should do it as quietly as possible. Obviously it’s in their interest not to expose or be very up front about the power they have, but I don’t think the rest of us should stick our heads in the sand and pretend that they don’t.
That makes sense. What did you think of Gizmodo’s story overall, breaking down the reporting that they did?
I think that, obviously, Gizmodo was initially inflammatory. It didn’t really surprise me that much that there were editorial decisions made about Trending Topics.
It seems like a lot of people were surprised because it became such a national story, a matter of congressional interest.
I think the people who were surprised by it were people who hadn’t really thought about Facebook before in that way. I think that’s the mistake.
What’s your opinion of Gizmodo right now?
I have a policy to never comment on that stuff. I can tell you that I’m proud of the work that I did there, quite proud that they’re still around, but I don’t have a comment on that.
Would you have any comment on Peter Thiel’s campaign against Gawker Media?
I’m going to pass on this. This is a no-win situation for me to comment on.
What about just the state of tech journalism, then? I see a lot of recycled press releases these days.
I’ve been in tech journalism long enough to think there’s never been a golden age of tech journalism. Journalism could always be better at holding people accountable and be more accurate and transparent to readers, but there’s always people doing great work, and there’s always a lot of great stuff to read and a lot of great writing. But there’s always been a lot of nonsense and terrible writing and horrible access journalism.
You were never afraid to make enemies. What advice would you have for a young tech journalist who thinks that they have to do access journalism or else they’re going to lose their job?
If you want to make your mark on the world, you have to be honest with yourself and honest with your readers about what you’re saying and what you care about. The thing that was liberating for me when I was doing Engadget was saying I’m just going to become true to myself, the way that I wanted to write about tech, and the way that I wanted to think about it. My goal wasn’t to be an asshole. I think for the most part I wasn’t, and my goal wasn’t to sit there and be a contrarian muckraker.
A lot of people don’t even remember the names of the sites that they end up on from Facebook.
I approach it from the perspective of someone who’s really passionate and enthusiastic about tech, but also cares a lot about this stuff being good and not being afraid to piss off a company or a CEO by saying what I really think.
That comes back to what we were talking about earlier, in terms of just being able to gain readers’ trust, and that’s how you’re going to keep them coming back and succeed in this distributed platform world.
Ultimately, what people care about is being trusted and respected. One of the things that Facebook does is it starts to uncouple the relationship between the publisher and the reader, the writer and the reader. You don’t have to go to the website. A lot of people don’t even remember the names of the sites that they end up on from Facebook.
It’s a little harder to build up that trust, to build up that relationship. That’s actually one of the challenges around distribution. It’s harder to establish that deeper relationship with your audience. I think it’s one of the things that would make doing what I did with Engadget a lot harder now. I still think that’s a critical piece to it, and I think it requires writing up to the audience rather than writing down.
With Engadget, I said I’m going to write up. I’m going to assume that the audience is a lot smarter than me, and I’m going to try to impress them, try to do the best job of assuming that they’re smart and that they don’t need to have their hand held. It’s a harder road and not necessarily the most lucrative road to be on, but if you want to create a really long lasting brand, you have to do that.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.