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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?”