Stung By Media Coverage, Silicon Valley Starts Its Own Publications

Jun 25, 2021
Originally published on June 26, 2021 10:59 pm

Many journalists who cover technology have no idea what Marc Andreessen, one of the most powerful investors in Silicon Valley, has tweeted lately.

That's because the co-founder and general partner of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz loves blocking journalists, along with critics of the tech industry and anyone else who might be seen as an antagonist.

"It's become a badge of honor to get blocked by him," said Sara M. Watson, technology critic and senior analyst at data firm Insider Intelligence.

As tech reporting has shifted from being dazzled by the latest gadgets and apps to concerned over its impact on people and institutions, Silicon Valley's elite have searched for a way to bypass the critical eye of journalists altogether.

Now companies and investors are trying to regain control of the narrative by launching their own media publications, with rah-rah stories that they hope will compete directly with news coverage of technology.

The most recent entrant into this trend is Andreessen Horowitz's Future, which bills itself as "the future of media." The site consists mostly of techno-optimistic articles written by people who have a financial stake in the ideas they are pitching, many from companies backed by Andreessen Horowitz. But Margit Wennmachers, operating partner at the firm, said perspectives from people who have skin in the game is a feature, not a bug, of the site.

"It features all kinds of entrepreneurs, academics. Some are in our portfolio, but many are not," she said. "It is idea driven, not 'Where do we hope to make our money?' driven."

Others question the publication's intent.

"If you're celebrating cutting out the media, then you're giving powerful people aircover to thumb their nose at impertinent questions that you, too, would probably like the answer to," wrote independent tech journalist Eric Newcomer in his newsletter, noting that Silicon Valley's latest publication "does make it easier for Andreessen to get his message out without facing questions from prying reporters."

It follows Andreessen Horowitz's investing heavily in two other efforts, the live-audio app Clubhouse and newsletter startup Substack. Both offer a "go direct" approach that lets speakers and writers get their messages to the public, while circumventing the media.

Is Future journalism or marketing?

There was a time, in the early 2000s, when it was easy to find stories in the tech press that fawned over startups pledging to change the world and product launches promising to change everyone's life.

But something changed a few years after the iPhone was introduced in 2007, Watson wrote in a paper for Columbia Journalism Review. Reviewers went from describing the iPhone as "sexy" to examining something tech optimists like to ignore: how new tech products and social networks may exacerbate the ills of society.

"It changed our entire relationship with technology," Watson said. "I think that's a huge turning point."

Another turning point came in 2016, following the presidential election in which misinformation, spread on social media, played a critical role. The tough coverage has intensified since then, with more journalists, researchers, political leaders and the public questioning tech's role in the siege on the U.S. Capitol in January.

"That is not the environment that Andreessen Horowitz or any other VC is used to," Watson said.

Neutrality was never the goal of Future, said Wennmachers. She dismissed criticism that the site looks like a public relations front.

"We are taking a pro-stance toward technology," she said.

Articles on the site include a piece about how the legal system should rely more on software. It was written by Joshua Browder, founder of an app marketed as "The World's First Robot Lawyer." A lawyer for cryptocurrency exchange Uniswap penned a 3,000-word article selling the idea of "decentralized finance."

"As the industry moves into its next act, tech coverage will likely change in response; the question is whether it will adopt and amplify the stories that venture-funded startups tell about themselves or chart its own path," wrote journalist Anna Weiner in the New Yorker recently.

Company content with the sheen of independent journalism

Tech companies from Snapchat to Uber have launched media operations. While the practice is common in other industries too, those publications do not have the same potential to reach millions of people instantly, say experts in the tech sector.

Longtime tech journalist Timothy Lee said the tech industry may have grander plans to disrupt journalism.

"They just see media as another potential industry where they might be able to come along and build something better than what was there before, the same way they did with taxis, video streaming and lots of other stuff," Lee said.

Yet online publishing platforms like Medium have long featured the kind of cheery takes on tech that Future now delivers. Watson says she does not see an existential threat to the journalism industry in the new publication, as much as an opportunity to snub the media.

"What I am more worried about is the way they are welding access as a tool of power," she said.

In other words, the site could give itself exclusive interviews or insider access, making big announcements through its own publication. While companies issue press releases all the time to highlight their achievements, Watson says stories that appear to be news articles can trick readers into believing they are written from an unbiased perspective.

Wennmachers said articles written by the tech industry can co-exist with those by the news media.

"People are like, 'There can't possibly be any good content coming out of a company,' and there are folks, admittedly in the technology business, who say, 'Oh, all reporters are completely unfair,'" she said. "I think both are wrong."

Most media, like NPR, receives financial support through corporate sponsorship or advertisements. But journalist Lee said it is an entirely different endeavor when company leaders are framing stories with their own point of view.

"How are they going to make clear to readers this isn't an independent news organization, versus this is an article that was written by an investor in the company?"

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Silicon Valley's elite love to complain about the media. In recent years, Big Tech has attracted a lot of scrutiny from how it treats gig workers to the spread of misinformation. Now the industry has come up with a way to control the narrative - by launching its own media publications. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Marc Andreessen is something of a kingmaker in Silicon Valley. He's the co-founder of leading venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has had huge success by investing early in companies like Facebook, Twitter and Airbnb. Andreessen thinks of himself as an ideas guy, but if a journalist writes a story he doesn't like, he'll be quick to block them. I spoke to longtime journalist Timothy Lee about this.

You've been covering the tech industry for more than a decade. Does Marc Andreessen have you blocked on Twitter?

TIMOTHY LEE: (Laughter) Well, I think - I can check. Is he still on Twitter? He's definitely stopped being active. Yes, I am blocked.

ALLYN: Silicon Valley doesn't like critical coverage because it wasn't always that way. In the early 2000s, journalists were wowed by shiny new gadgets and cool social media sites. But something shifted a few years after the iPhone was introduced in 2007.

SARA WATSON: And, you know, it changed our entire relationship with technology. So I think that's a huge turning point.

ALLYN: Tech critic Sara Watson says reviewers went from describing the iPhone as sexy to saying, wait a minute; what does this supercomputer in our pockets really mean for society? And the coverage kept getting tougher. Social media played a big role in the 2016 election and in the lead-up to the recent capital siege. Journalists have pried deeper and deeper into technology's role in democracy.

WATSON: And that is not the environment that Andreessen Horowitz or any VC firm is used to.

ALLYN: VC firms don't want to attract controversy because that could mean they lose a lot of money that they've poured into startups. So now Andreessen Horowitz has launched its own publication. It hopes to be the, quote, "future of the media." Margit Wennmachers is a partner at the firm and the public face behind the publication.

MARGIT WENNMACHERS: We are launching, the go-to place that's all about the future, how technology shapes it and how to build it.

ALLYN: Wennmachers says they are not hiding their bias.

WENNMACHERS: We are taking a pro stance towards technology.

ALLYN: Other tech companies from Snapchat to Uber have launched in-house media operations. Journalist Timothy Lee says while other industries have done this, too, the tech sector knows how we use the internet and has the ability to reach millions instantly.

LEE: They just see, you know, media as another potential industry like that where they might be able to come along and build something better that was there before the same way they did with taxis and video streaming and lots of other stuff.

ALLYN: Lee says tech running its own media helps avoid hard questions and lets them control the narrative. But more than that, it's aimed at getting people to have a more positive view of Silicon Valley. But it raises questions about fairness and accountability, two central tenets of journalism. Watson says they could break their own news and give exclusive interviews to their own outlet.

WATSON: What I am more worried about is the way that they're kind of wielding access as a tool of power.

ALLYN: Most media, like NPR, is supported by corporate sponsorship or advertisements. But Lee says it's an entirely different thing when the companies are editing and framing the stories with their own point of view.

LEE: How are they going to make clear to readers, this is an independent news organization, versus, this is a article that was written by, you know, an investor in the company?

ALLYN: Wennmachers says, why can't there be both articles from the news media and ones written by the tech industry?

WENNMACHERS: People are like, there cannot be possibly any good content coming out of a company. And there are folks, admittedly, in the technology business who say, like, oh, all reporters are completely unfair. I think both are wrong.

ALLYN: If you go to her site that says it's the future of media, you'll find articles like one on how the legal system should use more robots, and it's written by a guy who started a business that lets you hire robots as lawyers.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.