Home News How Max Tani Became the Go-To Guy for Horrible News About Media Layoffs

How Max Tani Became the Go-To Guy for Horrible News About Media Layoffs

by News7

The Media

How Semafor media reporter Maxwell Tani became the go-to guy for news about media layoffs—and where he thinks journalism is headed next.

Photo courtesy of Max Tani/Semafor

Maxwell Tani is known for his work on an obituary beat of sorts. A media reporter at Semafor, he always seems to be the first person to break news whenever something terrible happens for journalists at one outlet or another.

He’s been busy: According to one tabulation, more than 500 journalists were laid off just in January. A scroll through Tani’s account on X surfaces a glut of executive memos, couched in corporate-speak, informing staff that they’ll soon be laid off—at Business Insider, Engadget, the Messenger, Vice, and the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes he shares the news of an impending layoff before these memos even go out—and before employees have been informed.

Slate spoke with Tani about what it’s like to document the worst moments on the media beat, and how he feels about his place in the news-about-the-news ecosystem. We also tried to diagnose the ills of the industry—and find bright spots ahead. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How did you get interested in the media beat? Was that always your intention?

Maxwell Tani: It was not. I didn’t realize that there was a job where you could write about media. I’ve always been interested in politics—that’s where I thought my career would go. [Tani was a Slate Political Gabfest intern early in his career.] But I was working for Business Insider, and a lot of my job involved hitting 1 million page views per month, which is a lot—even then, when Facebook was giving voluminous traffic to digital publishers. I did a lot of writing up viral moments on cable television because those were the things that could get you traffic really fast if you framed it in the right way and beat others to the punch.

Through that, I started to really pay a lot closer attention to the big players who were breaking news and writing interesting stuff and began forming opinions about who I thought was reliable, who was doing a good job, whose stuff was kind of weird, and who’d get a lot of pushback. And I often reached out to people who had been written about, or who had been part of a crazy cable news moment. I started to break small bits of news, which was really fun for me. I hadn’t broken news before. And at the same time, I met up with a lot of journalists, and a lot of my friends were in journalism. We were all in our early 20s, and I would go out to bars and gossip about various things in media, and on occasion someone would say something and I would read it two weeks later in a trade publication or in the Journal or the Times, and it dawned on me that there was a job covering media. And here we are, almost 10 years later.

You seem to have developed an expertise in breaking terrible news about media companies—layoffs, closures, ominous sales. How do you think about that facet of your job?

Yeah, it’s really strange and depressing and sad. It’s an element of my job that I think makes me somewhat uncomfortable, and maybe increasingly so. I’ve gotten a lot of those scoops because those are really difficult narratives for companies to control because there’s really no good way to announce them. The news tends to travel very fast, and it’s hard to keep a lid on it.

My first scoop about layoffs was a story about Mic laying off a few dozen staffers in 2017. And I remember being really excited about breaking that news, which I think is pretty terrible in retrospect. I’ve probably broken news about—well, I couldn’t count the number of media companies. I no longer get any sort of high or reward. It feels terrible every time.

But the continued transition and collapse of the previous generation of digital media is a huge story. I have to write about the cuts and doom and gloom, and frankly—as fucked up as it is—that’s also something that people are tremendously interested in. People in the industry are interested because they’re wondering what it means for them. People in advertising and marketing are curious because they need to know where they’re going to pitch or buy ads. Political operatives are worried about how they can shape the narratives around big political stories. Malicious political actors oftentimes are very overjoyed to hear about these cuts. I’m not doing it for all of those groups of people equally, but think that the bad stories are important.

I will say one more thing: Increasingly, I want to make sure that I’m not just that guy.

You said you feel uncomfortable. What aspect of being “that guy” makes you uncomfortable?

It makes me uncomfortable to feel that there are people out there who think that I’m only interested in those types of stories. And as messed up as it is, you could write every single day on this beat about how bad things are at different media companies and choose your company of the week. After doing that for years and years, I think that while it’s an important and necessary part of coverage, I want to challenge myself to try to diversify the types of stories that I’m doing. And it doesn’t make me feel good that oftentimes the days that I am busiest are some of the worst days for my colleagues and my peers in media.

I want to write a lot of different types of media stories. I want to break big stories. By nature of where I’ve worked, they’re not necessarily outlets where people feel, Oh, this is going to be in front of all of our investors or the largest possible group of people. Oftentimes, those scoops [from powerful people who want to get news out] tend to go to the Times or the Journal, and that’s fine. That’s no knock on any of those places. Obviously, I would love to write those types of stories, but I understand why, a lot of times, people bring scoops to other places. I have to look for stories, and I have to work to find out what companies don’t necessarily want to talk about. And so that leads me to a lot of these kind of doom-and-gloom stories.

I’ve seen complaints when media reporters—yourself included—break news about layoffs before journalists are informed by their bosses. Is that something you feel bad about?

I’m sure it’s unsettling to learn about layoffs from some guy on Twitter. I do think that if I were in those people’s positions, I would also be like, Whoa, what the fuck is this? But that’s not necessarily what really makes me feel uncomfortable, because it’s my job to find out news before anybody else has it. If that’s great news about how much a company overperformed relative to expectations—I recently wrote about Slate, actually—that’s great and that’s awesome. And if it is about layoffs, it’s obviously news and it’s interesting and it’s important, so I don’t necessarily feel bad about getting that news out there.

I do try to be careful about what I am putting out there. I don’t want to be alarmist. I talk to people on a pretty regular basis who are like, Well, there’s layoffs coming at this place and that place. But I wait until I have something solid, whether it’s a memo, or a solid number, or a recording of a meeting where it’s announced.

I think the message of this interview is that people need to send you good news too.

Please give me good-news media scoops. To be clear, I do want to say, I love running at thorny complex media messes. That stuff is so interesting. It’s so fascinating to me, and I think it’s really kind of what gets me going. I’m increasingly interested in what’s working in media at a time when a lot isn’t.

Let’s talk about that. How do you diagnose the big problems leading to all of the chaos?

There’s a few overarching problems. While there still is plenty of advertising money flowing into news, most of the advertising that used to be funneled into news now goes toward Facebook and Google, which are very good at advertising.

And for a lot of the cable and broadcast network news companies, which have long had some of the biggest budgets and news outside of the New York Times, things are looking increasingly dicey for them as cord-cutting starts to shrink their business. I think over the next 10 years, they’re going to be facing a lot of hard questions about the future of their business.

Then, also, there’s a lot of just individual issues that are specific to different digital media companies. Some took investment and grew too fast, with a big expectation that they would become major media companies—and that bet didn’t pan out.

You’ve grown up in digital media—at Business Insider, the Daily Beast, Politico, and now Semafor. What’s actually going to work in the next five years of digital news, in your opinion?

Because pretty much everyone, except for the New York Times and a few others, can’t achieve the kind of scale that advertisers are looking for with massive audiences, most digital publishers now are focused on the eyeballs and the ears that they do have and how they can better monetize that attention. The next generation of digital media looks like it’ll have a greater focus on niche audiences and figuring out how to better serve the audiences that are already addicted to and interested in your content. A lot of people spend a lot of time reading and engaging with news in some sort of way. That attention is just increasingly kind of fragmented across niche publications, niche podcasts, niche newsletters.

We are entering into this new era of media much more humble and with smaller budgets and smaller staffs and lower expectations. But I think that in some ways allows for more sustainable growth. And I think that you’ve seen that with a lot of the success of smaller-to-mid-size digital media players that are just focused on How do we better serve our audiences? And I think that there is some success. I think Puck is an example of that. Obviously, I feel that we at Semafor are, but I’m biased. 404 Media is another great example. People are still interested in news, but it just might exist in a different form than we’re used to.

Trends in media are cyclical—there’s expansion and contraction. You’ve covered enough boom-and-bust cycles that I’m wondering what you’ve learned from the current moment that’ll help you better cover whatever good times are ahead.

For a while, people worked in digital media when there were lower interest rates and a lot of investments in these digital media companies. If a lot of money was raised and there were big paychecks, big salaries that were offered—I think that people were willing to take them and not ask so many questions.

Nowadays, when you see some grand proclamations about the audience size that these new places are going to get—the number, the amount of revenue—I am much more skeptical because we’ve seen that it’s very hard to live up to these really grand expectations. Media is so volatile and somewhat unpredictable. I’ve learned to look on some of that stuff more skeptically and learned to see some warning signs when a media company is talking about how big their audience is going to be and how they are hiring lots of people and spending in ways that don’t seem sustainable.

From my time working at Semafor, and being on the ground of a new media startup, I better understand how much it costs to run a media organization. I think that I don’t want to toot our own horn too much because I’m not here as a PR person for Semafor, but I think that the people who run this company have done a really good job of managing our costs and being smart about how we’ve used the resources that we do have and how we’ve focused on developing audiences in specific niches.

We want to both write for an insider audience and give them a little bit of something that we think is interesting, but we also want to write for a broader audience too. That’s a tremendous challenge: I’m writing for a much broader audience than I’ve written for at other places, ironically. So I think that now, especially working with our editor-in-chief Ben Smith, who I think brought a pretty big audience from the New York Times, the challenge that we have is to be a lot of things to a lot of people and to be a definitive source on media. So we try to be broad every week, but also write things you won’t find at other places.

At Semafor, writers separate out news and opinion in their pieces—you have a section in your stories that is blocked off and says “Max’s View,” where you share your take on the hard facts you’ve just told the reader about. What’s it been like to use that format?

Maybe some readers think that it’s goofy, but I think that it’s been a pretty fun and useful tool. It does unlock me a little bit more than I think I felt at past publications, just because I don’t have to bake my view into my summary of what’s going on. I can really stick to the facts upfront, and then I can kind of get a little bit more personal and play a little looser in the second part. And I also think that it’s allowed me to feel more comfortable expressing things that otherwise might’ve been more challenging if I was still at, say, Politico.

I think back on an article that I wrote for Semafor about a year ago, about this war inside the Guardian over its coverage of issues related to trans people. I felt personally disturbed by some of the things that were being said by some of the gender-critical folks. And so the Semafor format allowed me space to say, This doesn’t sit right with me.

I need to ask you about artificial intelligence. What do you think it could mean for journalism?

I think that the rapid developments in large language models are pretty frightening in some ways and exciting in others. I think that A.I. presents challenges that are obvious and opportunities that are less obvious. But as long as people are interested in the views of others—the views and expertise and perspective and reliability and trust of other people—we’re going to have jobs in media. Until you can invent an A.I. that can pick up the phone and develop, over years and years, relationships with my sources, gain their trust and shoot the shit with them for hours, until eventually some little tidbit comes up that I realize, Oh, this should be reported, then I’m not really too worried that A.I. is going to take the most essential part of reporting.

I think that because the process of reporting itself is actually such a human enterprise, A.I. for the moment can’t get on a plane and fly to Southern California to go and interview this fascinating, interesting Substack character who has become a part of the Trump inner circle. Nor could it execute that story with the kind of finesse that you need to, given the polarizing subject matter.

But of course, I do think that there are a lot of obvious areas for disruption that are pretty worrisome if you’re in the journalism industry. If you’re a copy editor right now, obviously A.I. is a huge threat. We already use A.I. for some copy-editing at Semafor. It’s not perfect. It misses things, but it catches things too. And you have to imagine that it’s going to get even better.

But I actually also do think that if A.I. floods the internet full of misinformation and disinformation and garbage shit, that actually gives us as journalists a job to do again, which is to sift through a lot of this, to really figure out what’s true and what’s not. If bad actors are using A.I. to pump bad information into the information ecosystem bloodstream—I think that actually in some ways it could present another renewed opportunity for people who are dedicated to seeking out the truth.

We talked about a lot of bad stuff, so I want to try to end on a good note. What’s giving you hope on your beat right now?

There are so many good, interesting independent podcasts that there’s no way that they would’ve existed 20 years ago that can kind of just be started by a curious person in their apartment. And I still read a lot of great newsletters every day from independent people who are just passionate about certain topics that I think are just so valuable and cool. I was reading a piece in 404 Media about A.I. and Tumblr that I thought was really interesting. They’re a really cool new media startup that’s not investment-backed. It’s just people who are passionate about it. I listen to the Search Engine podcast, hosted by PJ Vogt, which I think is great. I’m a 31-year-old guy, kind of interested in clothes, so I read Blackbird Spyplane, which is just a brilliant newsletter. The Found newsletter is this really cool New York newsletter for interesting restaurant culture and real estate intel. It’s mostly aimed at people who make a lot more money than me, but I still find it to be interesting. I’m listening to The Town, which is the Puck podcast they do with the Ringer. I read Embedded, Kate Lindsay’s fantastic newsletter. There’s just all this cool, interesting independent media that seems pretty sustainable to me, and I get excited every time there’s a podcast that drops or a newsletter that drops.

While the industry may be incredibly volatile, and while it may not be as lucrative as maybe some people imagine that it might be, there’s still so much cool shit that’s being produced every day that people make a living doing. That gives me a lot of hope that there will continue to be cool stuff that exists and that people will be willing to pay for and that we can read or listen to.

Artificial Intelligence

Journalism

Jobs

Source : Slate News

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