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Modern Day Greek Gods: Assessing Media Mount Olympus, Circa 2021

Bob Iger, Tim Cook, and Eddy Cue at Sun Valley
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
September 17, 2021

Any journalist worth their salt knows that there is the story, sure, but then there’s also the story behind the story. That’s the one that only the true insiders know: the principals, those on the call, the ones in the boardroom. We’ve all heard the story, for instance, that Bob Iger’s departure from Disney was long choreographed; that Sheryl Sandberg had fallen out of favor with Mark Zuckerberg and was imperiled at Facebook; that Donald Trump was a plague on the media.

The story behind the story is usually a lot more nuanced, sophisticated, and rarely as neat. Iger actually stepped down more suddenly, on his own preferential timetable, and to the disappointment of several board members, three current and former Disney executives have told me. (The announcement itself was so unexpected that the storied media C.E.O. fielded inquiries from people who feared that he was ill or embroiled in scandal—neither of which were the case.) Numerous well-placed sources at Facebook have provided ample evidence that Zuckerberg and Sandberg are indeed on very good terms, and that her future is quite secure. Trump was a media scold, and yet Jeff Zucker once poignantly and candidly told a room full of CNN employees that his presidency was a temporary stopgap on the otherwise irreversible decline of cable news. (Spokespeople for Disney, Facebook, and CNN declined to comment). 

The story behind the story is often at odds with the conventional media narrative. For all the rose-colored subscriber numbers that media companies publish in their quarterly reports, top executives at several streamers have confessed to me that these numbers are often inflated. And for all the public testimony about fair pay and much overdue enlightenment within the media, no fewer than six newsroom chiefs have told me that they resent the increasingly aggressive unionization movements within their ranks and are concerned about the power wielded by their more woke employees. 

Our culture is changing, so is the media, and the story behind it all has never been more fascinating. That’s why I joined Puck, a new media company that aligns with two core tenets that I believe in as both a student of the media business and a member of its rank-and-file. Puck is devoted to the inside conversation at the nexus of Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood—an intense, shape-shifting dialectic that is going to define the next generation of culture. And we’re also aligned with the creator economy, an important economic concept that puts journalists, in our case, at the center of our business model. The fusion of these two tenets is incredibly exciting because it allows me to tell you what’s really going on behind the scenes, not just what everyone else is saying.

I’ve spent more than a decade in journalism covering the media business, starting first in New York and Washington, then broadening the aperture to the influential halls of power in Silicon Valley and Hollywood. I’ve had the privilege of building relationships with top executives at companies like Apple and Facebook, Disney and Netflix, Comcast and the soon-to-be Warner Bros. Discovery entity. 

As importantly, I’ve developed relationships with the notable alumni of these companies and the people behind the scenes, the executives who are actually in a position to tell you what they really know. I’ve also had the honor of working for Andy Lack at NBC News, Jeff Zucker at CNN, and Jim VandeHei at Politico, as well as two of our era’s most notable media chroniclers: Ben Smith and Michael Wolff. As significant for me, if for no one else, were the internships under David Remnick at The New Yorker and Lewis Lapham at Lapham’s Quarterly.

Along the road, I learned a thing or two. For instance, journalism is often held as the paragon of transparency. It doesn’t always live up to that mantle. Many journalists feign expertise on subjects where they have quite little. Many of the journalists who cover business and politics and the other arenas of power don’t really understand those worlds. Others haven’t cultivated the sources who might explain to them what it takes to manage a company or close a deal. A fear of belying this inexperience often leads to watered down stories that don’t say all that much.

Unfortunately, the industry provides those journalists with crutches: Some draft off of the conventional wisdom, which their colleagues make readily available on Twitter. Others regurgitate pre-baked narratives that are plausible enough to their readers and harmless enough to the people they cover, rendering them effectively inert. Some take the easiest route, which is to build up their reputations by attacking soft targets. The economically self-serving grandstanding of some in this trade against politicians and business leaders is ripe for re-examination.

Then there are the journalists who do understand how things work because they take the time to embed themselves in the arenas they cover, cultivate sources, and gain access to the players on the field. They publish real, impactful news. Much of it is downright fascinating. And yet, due to the outdated conventions of their profession and the conservative sensitivities or internal politics of some of the organizations for which they work, a lot of the most insightful work never makes it into the finished product. In my experience, there are often two stories: the version that gets published, and the one that the journalist shares at a dinner party with close friends and confidants. The latter is always more interesting, and usually more honest.

I want to invite you to dinner, so to speak. I want to tell you what I know. I want to be honest with you—that’s why I joined Puck.

Puck has a simple mission: to break the fourth wall between readers and storytellers. In my case, that will mean giving you full access to everything I’m hearing and everything I know about the people who run the media, from Silicon Valley and Hollywood to New York and Washington. I will relay every relevant fact and interesting anecdote I can, offer my unvarnished opinion on how to interpret it, and be honest with you about what I know, as well as what I don’t. And not just in feature stories and newsletters, but also on podcasts and social media and, for those of you willing to pay a little extra, at private events and on exclusive calls.

I also promise to keep it interesting. Too much journalism is fat and gristle: one or two significant details, buried a third of the way down the story and surrounded by 600 or 800 words of mostly useless context. Some media outlets, most notably Axios, have tried to remedy this with a pure protein diet: just the relevant information in bullet-point form. It’s progress, but what’s still missing is the sauce. The drama and palace intrigue that you used to love to read about in print magazines, but has become all too rare in the digital age. I’ll try my best to give you something you’ll want to savor.

And there is a lot to savor on the media beat, an occasional tragicomedy of egos vying for power over each other and influence over our lives; for eight-figure paychecks and invitations to all the right parties, all amid a backdrop of chaotic transformation. Some of the most dramatic storylines will come out of the ongoing consolidation of the industry, which is nowhere near finished. After the WarnerMedia-Discovery tie up and Amazon’s acquisition of MGM, it seems only a matter of time before Shari Redstone sells ViacomCBS, or before the Murdochs sell Fox. Minnows like Lionsgate and AMC will almost certainly be consumed, or disappear. 

But the need for scale will catch up with bigger players, too. “We don’t need M&A,” Comcast chief Brian Roberts said after David Zaslav pulled off his merger and left many asking whether NBCUniversal needed more scale. But “don’t” doesn’t mean “won’t,” especially for an inveterate dealmaker like Roberts (and an acquisitive company like Comcast). After all, we are living in unprecedented times. For instance, one Disney executive has told me he believes that both his company and Netflix could be acquired within the decade. It sounds preposterous now, but things are changing—fast. In the meantime, someone will have to figure out how to effectively bundle all these streaming services so that we can stop spending half an hour looking for something halfway decent to watch. 

Broadcast television, meanwhile, will more or less disappear. Live sports and scripted dramas will find new homes on streaming, but the shift will hit news divisions hard. Morning shows, their profit centers, are losing hundreds of thousands of viewers every year, as I noted in a piece for NBC News. (I’m not sure Jeff Shell was terribly happy about that one; then again, network news matters less every year, so maybe he didn’t notice.) It’s doubtful these news divisions will be able to sustain their revenues once they make the leap to streaming. Most vulnerable is CBS News, a distant runner-up to its competitors. When Redstone does sell ViacomCBS, will the news division join its parent company or get spun off elsewhere? 

Digital players require scale, too, unless they’re so small and nimble that they can minimize overhead. And the landscape is changing before our eyes. Robert Allbritton seemed to recognize as much when he decided to sell Politico to Axel Springer this summer for $1 billion. It took 15 years and $50 million of Allbritton’s money to get it there. People laughed when Jonah Peretti posited that the web 2.0 conglomerates would need to band together to take on Google and Facebook. Now, years later, everyone seems to be looking for a dance partner. Wealthy benefactors, once the lifeblood of the business, are no longer sure things, either. The Atlantic is losing tens of millions of dollars a year and, as I’ve previously reported, Jeffrey Goldberg has privately expressed concern that Laurene Powell Jobs might grow impatient with the enterprise. 

In Silicon Valley, the fight between Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg over user privacy and the future of the internet—one of the most consequential battles of our time—will grow more intense, as will the antipathy between those two leaders. The outcome of that fight will have profound ramifications for how we consume our media, and how our media consumes us. Meanwhile, the major tech firms are hungry for content and have their eye on Hollywood’s M&A targets. All of this takes place against the backdrop of Washington’s slow and perhaps quixotic efforts to reform antitrust regulation and rein in big tech.

These are intriguing stories, populated by fascinating characters. Lewis Lapham once posited that celebrities were our modern-day Greek gods, a cast of “familiar spirits” projecting “images of wealth and power” to us mere mortals below. I would argue that the highest perches on Mount Olympus are now reserved for the bold-faced names above who wield a very real power over how we interact with, and interpret, the world every time we pick up our phones or turn on our screens. If you’d like a sherpa to take you up the mountain, you can subscribe here.