If you’re a founder or a venture capitalist, it’s comically easy to get positive press. Just ask Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit founder turned VC. All Ohanian needed to do to get free press for his portfolio company AdQuick, which sells billboard ads, was create a poorly designed billboard ad asking people to social distance during the Covid-19 pandemic. (It wasn’t the first time Ohanian used billboard ads to get free press for AdQuick). When Ohanian stepped down from the board of Reddit, Ohanian got more free press, because he asked Reddit to appoint a Black board member as his replacement. Reddit appointed Michael Seibel, Ohanian’s Y Combinator buddy. The press coverage largely didn’t mention Ellen Pao, the former Reddit CEO and a woman of color who was pushed out of Reddit in part due to a sexist harassment campaign.
2020 has not been a good year for journalism. This makes me sad as a freelance journalist who still harbors dreams of finding fulltime employment as a journalist. Declining ad revenue and declining numbers of people with jobs that allow them to pay for subscriptions means, predictably, that publications close and that journalists get laid off. The few publications that are growing, like the various tech/productivity newsletters, tend to be extraordinarily positive about tech. (As an aside, many of these newsletter also exist to market scam courses). From a business perspective, tech has won: Google and Facebook are growing by the minute while the publications whose content fuels their algorithms, for free, are dying.
All of this is to say, Silicon Valley won the war against the press. If you’re a VC or a founder and you want positive press coverage, all you need to do is shut up, play the game, and avoid getting caught up in a scandal. Reporters are happy to write fawning coverage of startups; some reporters like Josh Constine will even help founders plan pool parties in between writing said fawning coverage. There’s a long tradition of tech reporters transitioning to cushy jobs working for the founders and VCs they covered; Josh Constine became the latest example of the journalism to VC pipeline when he left TechCrunch and joined SignalFire. It’s not clear what more a VC could want from the press.
But for Silicon Valley, winning is not enough. Many VCs and Founders have been dissatisfied with the press, in part due the small number of journalists who have begun writing negative articles about tech companies. These articles represent a fraction of the article written about tech companies—there are vastly more positive articles than negative articles. Many of these articles are about genuine scandals, such as the articles about Lambda School that revealed fraudulent metrics, inadequate curriculum, and a psychopathic founder. But fundamentally, this is not about how many positive stories have been written, this is about an industry so filled with sycophants that it believes that it is above any sort of public scrutiny.
A few days ago, New York Times Styles reporter Taylor Lorenz became a target of tech twitter when she posted a tweet critical of the former Away CEO Steph Korey. (Last year, Steph Korey was the subject of one of the few negative articles about a tech founder, which detailed, among other things, how Korey canceled the vacation time of her employees as a punishment). Taylor Lorenz is an odd choice of a target because she often writes pieces about tech companies that would not be out of place on a company blog, such as Are Your Parents on TikTok? Lorenz is also willing to give venture capitalists, such as the aforementioned ex-TechCrunch reporter Josh Constine, quotes in her articles even when they don’t particularly merit it. All of this is to say, Lorenz is an excellent reporter but is very much a part of the tech press’ deferential coverage towards Silicon Valley.
After her tweet, Lorenz was attacked by FDA commissioner candidate/seasteading enthusiast/former Andreessen Horowitz partner Balaji Srinivasan on twitter, who described her as “disgraceful” and “incoherent,” before calling her and other journalists “sociopaths.” Srinivasan has long been opposed to mainstream journalism—he gave a talk in 2013 criticizing the “paper belt” (i.e. Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, an analogy for the rust belt). Lorenz responded by accusing Srinivasan of “constantly trying to destroy my career on the internet and in private” despite being unable to “name a single story that I’ve published.”
What followed was a bizarre exchange where Lorenz asked Ben Horowitz, Srinivasan’s former employer at Andreessen Horowitz, to speak to Srinivasan on her behalf. Andreessen Horowitz, the firm Ben Horowitz founded, was the Softbank before Softbank of Silicon Valley; its founders said the firm was “pro-megalomania” and it had a reputation for sky-high valuations. Horowitz’ father was described by the Southern Poverty Law Association as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black movements,” and Horowitz himself has compared violence in prison to new hire orientations. To put it mildly, it’s not surprising that Horowitz declined to reign in Srinivasan.
The entire debacle came to its ugly conclusion when several VCs congregated in Clubhouse, the exclusive invite only audio conversation app, to criticize Lorenz and journalism in general. Ironically, Lorenz had written a more or less positive article about Clubhouse for The New York Times. Various incoherent claims were made in the call. Srinivasan claimed that Lorenz was racist (“Is Taylor afraid of a brown man on the street? Then she shouldn't be afraid of a brown man in Clubhouse”). Other VCs, such as Andreessen Horowitz’ Nait Jones, accused reporters of fishing for clicks by attacking tech companies (“Because those stories were so popular and drove so much traffic, they also created a market for more of those stories. They created a pressure on many reporters to find the next one of those stories inside of a fast growing tech company”). The worst comment was not attributed to any particular person (this is why it’s important to have actual journalists, not former tech employees posting on twitter), but allegedly someone said “why does press have a right to investigate private companies, let the market decide, I don’t understand who gives them that right.” (The first amendment comes to mind).
It’s disgusting that Taylor Lorenz has to deal with harassment from prominent investors. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if the obvious contempt firms like Andreessen Horowitz have for the press is related to the obsequious coverage they receive. The press is supposed to hold people to account when they do bad things, and and maybe if publications like The New York Times covered tech in a more critical fashion, people like Srinivasan might not have the positions they have today.
It’s difficult not to draw parallels between the tech press’ coverage of Silicon Valley and the press’ coverage of Donald Trump before he became the president of the free world. Like many in Silicon Valley, Donald Trump ran a series of unprofitable businesses. And, like many in Silicon Valley, Donald Trump was able to cultivate an image as a successful businessman in part due to fawning media coverage. Even as Donald Trump ran for president, it’s not clear that the media took him seriously. Now that he’s president, his attacks on the free press have been abhorrent, but the media has squandered chances to hold him accountable.
Now, the tech press faces the same juncture that the political press faced four years ago. The harms of big tech companies are becoming more and more obvious. Facebook is an unusable cesspool but makes money hand over fist in part due to its role as a platform for spreading pro-Trump misinformation. Amazon said a Black labor organizer was “not smart or articulate” after multiple warehouse employees died from Covid-19. After playing a large role in destroying one of the main revenue sources of the press—advertising—tech leaders are harassing journalists directly. Will the Clubhouse conversation cause a shift in how the press covers tech? Or will publications continue their deferential coverage, until the press loses to competition with platforms like Facebook, and there’s no one left to hold tech to account? Either way, when journalists like Taylor Lorenz get harassed despite writing positive coverage of tech, it seems like the era of the deferential tech press is at its end.