Note: This post was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
It’s a relatively innocuous job ad on LinkedIn, looking for an executive editor. It says things like “our editorial mission is to be the go-to place for understanding technology, innovation, and change, as it impacts all of our lives” and “we are unapologetically pro-tech, pro-future, pro-change.” Pretty anodyne stuff, typical of half a dozen tech publications. Except that this job isn’t with a magazine or news website — it was posted earlier this month by Andreessen Horowitz, a leading Silicon Valley venture-capital firm known for its early investments in companies like Facebook, Airbnb, and Slack. As first reported by technology writer Eric Newcomer and tech insider publication The Information, the company is hiring an executive editor and an opinion editor.
Andreessen Horowitz already publishes op-ed style pieces on its website, with titles like “It’s Time to Heal: 16 Trends Driving the Future of Bio and Healthcare,” and it has a well-regarded podcast hosted by Sonal Chokshi, a former Wired editor. But the new hires appear to be part of an aggressive expansion of the firm’s editorial efforts. The job ad says Andreessen plans to “dramatically scale our editorial operation across coverage areas and mediums.” In a blog post, Margit Wennmachers, the architect of the firm’s media strategy, said the company plans to create a standalone media entity, and named the new executive editor: Maggie Leung, a former journalist who has worked for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN.
Many companies, including a number of venture-capital firms, produce their own editorial content, as a way of promoting the companies they have invested in, and also of marketing the insights of their founders so that others will come to them for financing. But Andreessen Horowitz has arguably done more of this than just about anyone else. One of the firm’s former analysts, Benedict Evans, has described it as “a media company that monetizes through VC.” And the strategy has intensified over the past few years, observers say, as the prevailing mood towards Silicon Valley and technology giants like Google and Facebook has changed from fairly uncritical boosterism to what some tech founders seem to see as hyper-critical attacks.
According to a number of technology reporters, the firm has largely stopped cooperating with the media, even off the record. “I’m leery of any company that thinks regularly talking to journalists is beneath them, and so I’ve been really disappointed by A16z’s inward turn over the past couple years,” said former Verge writer Casey Newton. Meanwhile, Newcomer says Marc Andreessen “has taken to dropping in on chats on the firm’s portfolio company, Clubhouse,” an audio-chat platform that is rumored to be looking for new investment at a $1 billion valuation. His comments about the press “have raised eyebrows. How much of the firm’s silence is tactical? And how much simply reflects an anti-media ethos that has penetrated the firm’s leaders?”
There’s been a growing sense of antipathy between Silicon Valley and the mainstream media for some time, industry watchers say, in part because of what some technology players saw as an increase in critical — and, in their view, poorly informed — coverage of both startups and established companies like Facebook. For some, it started with coverage of Uber and its former CEO Travis Kalanick, who gained infamy in media circles for surveilling reporters who were writing critical stories about him. For others, it was coverage of Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which many tech insiders felt was overblown, even as it helped lead to Congressional hearings and ultimately to an antitrust lawsuit against the company.
The explosion that widened this rift was the revelation that the lawsuit that drove Gawker Media into bankruptcy was bankrolled by leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, part of what turned out to be a decade-long vendetta against the company for publishing personal information about him. Journalists were shocked at what they saw as an end-run around the First Amendment, while Thiel’s supporters in tech saw it as a prominent investor standing up for himself, and using the system’s built-in safeguards against a bad actor. Not long afterward, Thiel was reported to be planning the launch of a Fox News-style conservative media outlet, and one source with knowledge of his current plans says he is hiring editorial staff for his own media venture. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, meanwhile, fired the company’s PR department in October, and seems to run everything from his Twitter account.
Given the increasingly tense relationship between the media and Silicon Valley, then, it’s not surprising that Andreessen Horowitz’s job posting would make a point of mentioning that the firm is “unapologetically pro-tech.” The ad goes on to say that the company is looking to host a mix of fresh and expert voices, “not just internal but external — to help argue what the future looks like, and/or share how to build that future (e.g., company-building content that is not served by bloggers and business schools).” Some of this is clearly marketing for the firm’s partners, but it also feels like more than that. And some of it seems to be driven by Andreessen’s view that the media itself needs to be re-engineered, and he is just the man to do it.
Tad Friend’s profile of Andreessen in the New Yorker in 2015 paints the billionaire as someone who had a relatively unfulfilling upbringing in the wilderness of Wisconsin (something Andreessen refuses to talk about), who became convinced that technology had to reinvent not just music or movies or software, but virtually everything — education, politics, government, medicine. This would eventually become the theme of his influential op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2011, entitled “Why Software is Eating the World.” So if technology — and those visionaries who fund it — is reinventing everything, then shouldn’t it reinvent the media as well? (Andreessen is far from alone:
In a Twitter thread in 2014 (which has been archived on the firm’s website), Andreessen talked about how one of the things that has been holding traditional media back is the “Chinese wall” between the editorial side and the business side. “Paying attention to the business doesn’t equal warped coverage,” he wrote. “There are many businesses that balance incentives and conflicts all day long.” In terms of strategy, he mentioned The Atlantic and Wired as success stories, as well as Business Insider and Talking Points Memo (both of which were funded in part by Andreessen). The a16z founder also mentioned during a panel in 2013 with Thiel how “it causes me a certain amount of pleasure today watching the New York Times Company try to cope with the consequences of the technology they laughed at,”
How well Andreessen’s strategy works remains to be seen. If the company publishes op-eds from the usual suspects in tech about how revolutionary their cryptocurrency-powered food replacements are, the impact it will have on the broader media landscape is probably minimal. But at a time when traditional media outlets are struggling to publish, someone like Andreessen could lure away talent quite easily by promising venture-style compensation. And that might have a long-term effect. Non-cooperation may be a good strategy for Andreessen Horowitz, but is that good for society? “Isn’t there value in engaging with an independent press, Newcomer asks? Maybe Andreessen will address that on the company’s next podcast.