January’s Baker’s Dozen

A monthly roundup of media winners and losers.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ⬆️

RFE/RL, launched by the CIA as a stealth Cold War-era means of provoking anti-communist fervor in the old Soviet Bloc, is growing. The organization, which shed its cryptic origins in 1971 and is now funded by the US Congress, each week reaches 40 million people across 23 countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reinforced its mission to deliver quality reporting, now mostly online, to areas where press freedom remains tenuous. On the back of that renewed vigor, and big audience spikes, RFE/RL is opening new offices in Latvia to host journalists covering the war. 

Maria Ressa ⬆️

In more good news for embattled press freedoms, Philippine journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted of tax evasion charges widely seen as bogus intimidation efforts. It was an encouraging sign that the new government, led by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., would ease attacks on Ressa and her news site Rappler, whose criticism of and attempted repression by Rodrigo Duterte’s regime became a symbol of growing autocratic censorship in the country.  

Rupert Murdoch  ⬇️

Amid investor pushback the mega-mogul ditched plans to merge Fox and News Corp., which would have reunited the two entities after almost 10 years apart…

The Wall Street Journal ⬆️

…a potential combination that unsettled some News. Corp/WSJ staffers wary of a hard-right turn toward Fox News-style provocation. 


Apple TV ⬇️

Over the past few years, streaming platforms went from film industry pariahs whose very eligibility for awards nomination was up for debate to dominating the awards circuit. Netflix nabbed more Oscar nominations than any traditional studio for three years running, and Apple TV+’s “Coda” last year took home the top prize for Best Picture. The Academy Award nominations announced this week left Disney the most lauded distributor, while streamers underperformed with a movie slate that by and large fizzled with critics and viewers. 

This may well be a temporary blip. Box office sales remain anemic for all but a handful of comic book movies, sequels and horror flicks. And streaming platforms continue to release movies by esteemed A-list directors. That they tended to be DOA last year could be the sort of fluke long common in show business. Yet the timing is odd given the millions of audience members who supposedly made the permanent move to exclusive home viewing during the pandemic. Streaming isn’t going anywhere, as evidenced by Netflix’s healthy 4Q earnings report. But its precise place in the Hollywood firmament remains unclear. 

Disney ⬆️

The Mouse House’s bounty of Oscar nods followed a concerted push by the company to block activist investor Nelson Peltz’s proxy fight to join its board. Spelling out its opposition in capital letters, the conglomerate in a presentation argued that Peltz did not have the media experience to warrant the spot. While this is a C-suite squabble, Disney’s assertiveness makes me hopeful that CEO Bob Iger will deliver on his pledge to re-empower creative-side staffers who felt belittled under previous top boss Bob Chapek. That move would come as a big relief to many Hollywood screen artists.  

U.S News and World Report  ⬇️

In the latest blow to USNWR’s popular higher education rankings, Harvard announced it would no longer submit data to the publication’s medical school list. The rankings “cannot meaningfully reflect the high aspirations for educational excellence, graduate preparedness, and compassionate and equitable patient care that we strive to foster,” said Dr. George Daley, dean of the faculty of medicine. 

Big Tech regulation ⬆️

The US Department of Justice this week sued Google over its alleged use of “anti-competitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies.” It’s another encouraging challenge by Washington again Google’s stranglehold on the sphere. And it will hopefully reverberate in the area of Big Tech’s unjust sway over publishers and the diffusion of the news they report. 

The Washington Post⬇️

Vice Media⬇️

Vox Media ⬇️

To longtime media observers it can feel like yesterday that brash digital upstarts were being hailed as the impervious heirs to creaky print stalwarts. How quickly times change. Vice Media, the erstwhile hipster bible that grew to a 2017 valuation of $5.7 billion, has put itself up for sale at what will almost certainly be a pale shadow of that figure. Meanwhile, Vox Media, which owns New York magazine among other outlets, announced a 7% workforce reduction similar in size to those affecting a scad of tech companies. And the Washington Post cut 20 newsroom positions and said it wouldn’t fill 30 vacancies.

A round of stalled subscriber growth and falling ad revenue reminiscent of financial crisis days reminds us that old and new-ish media alike can’t take success for granted, and that the forecast for journalism remains a gloomy one.