Out of the Layoff Ashes: Issues & Insights

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In the wake of layoffs of more than 1,000 journalists from BuzzFeed, Verizon Media Group (owner of outlets like HuffPost) and Gannett earlier this year, #LearntoCode became a controversial phrase tweeted at and about those who lost their jobs. One side argued it was harassment. Twitter took this view, suspending accounts of those using the slogan. Another side contended the phrase was a sardonic expression of just deserts for a class of professionals unsympathetic to the loss of jobs in industries like coal mining, thanks to clean energy ideals.

A month after these layoffs, Investor’s Business Daily quietly shuttered its own opinion section. This was the death stroke for an editorial team that had already suffered the loss of all but two staffers in 2016 when the conservative publication moved from a daily to a weekly print edition. Upon finding himself suddenly without a job, former IBD commentary and opinion deputy editor John Merline decided to learn to code, in a manner of speaking.

On April 22, Issues & Insights went live, staffed by several members of the team that for years wrote editorials for Investor’s Business Daily.

“Unlike other pundits and media celebrities, we do the hard work of reporting and researching stories before we offer our uncompromising viewpoints on them,” the site promises. “Our goal is to use our accumulated wisdom to help our readers better understand the events shaping the country.”

The team considers its efforts a service as well as a continuation of the work these journalists had always done. “There’s a hunger out there for more than Twitter snark,” Merline told me during an interview with most of the Issues & Insights editorial team. “So much of the discussion going is ill-informed. Among us, I think we have 100 years of journalism experience. Our approach is to bring that knowledge, perspective, and journalistic skills to the task at hand.”

The experience of the team is indeed deep. Prior to his eight years at IBD, Merline launched the opinion section of AOL News. He was also a member of the USA Today editorial board (where he still contributes).

Merline is joined by my former White House colleague and IBD veteran Thomas McArdle, whose journalistic pedigree includes a stint at CNN, managing editor of Human Events and national political reporter for industry lions Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. (Merline also interned for Evans and Novak.)

“The reportorial experience is important,” said McArdle. “A lot of the editorial writing you see out there is very short — in both word count and substance. I think it's in the bones of all of us here to dig deeper.”

Merline agreed, adding, “There's an unfortunate trend toward opinion first, facts later, if ever.”

There’s something bittersweet about a team of seasoned journalists of a certain age being so committed to their craft that they’re heading west even as the sun sets on a contracting industry. Issues & Insights has no single funder, relying instead on reader contributions to a tip jar to keep the site running. Each member of the team similarly donates his time and pen to the venture, relying on other freelance jobs to sustain his livelihood in true gig economy fashion. Lack of profit, however, has not translated into lack of traffic. In the seven weeks since the site launched, I&I has exceeded 525,000 page views with no promotion apart from word of mouth.

That isn’t to say the team wouldn’t welcome financial support. “We're hoping that it will become self-sustaining and profitable -- we are free market capitalists, after all,” Merline said. “But for now we are able to sustain it with almost zero costs.”

It’s a natural step for the team. “We've been championing entrepreneurship for so long, making the moral case for it and the free market in general, we decided to be a little entrepreneurial ourselves for once,” McArdle added.

“If you write it, they will come,” said Andrew Malcolm. I&I editorial board member is just one of his hats. He’s also a syndicated national politics columnist for McClatchy whose experience counts towards Merline’s estimated 100-year total. Before being poached by IBD, Malcolm was an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, having previously cycled through several gigs over 26 years at the New York Times including bureau chief and Our Towns columnist. After eight formal nominations for the Pulitzer Prize, he was a finalist in 2004.

Malcolm says he subscribes to “the old-fashioned way of writing commentary. Run the facts through an intelligent mind and then write it.”

No visit to the site is complete without a look at the latest “Ramirez Toon,” the work of Los Vegas Review-Journal editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez. The two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning artist (one of which was awarded during his stint at IBD) told me he shares his syndicated work with I&I because he believes in the site’s mission.

“My hope is that this important voice will be resurrected into the arena of politics and will have the same influence that it had before. It is needed more now than ever,” Ramirez said. “Hopefully, with enough exposure, some of the same movers and shakers who have felt the loss of the IBD editorial page and see I&I's value and influence will help it become a permanent structure on the landscape of journalism, a lighthouse to guide us in stormy seas, a beacon of truth for those who value freedom and liberty.”

In an era of suspicion and cynicism, this team is demonstrating another way. “We firmly believe that reasoned, intelligent, sober, sophisticated debate, free of insults and pettiness and hatred, is still possible in the U.S.,” the site proclaims. While other outlets lapse into clickbait and snide headlines, Issues & Insights is committed to being earnest and forthright.

One wonders at the source of their optimism. Their distinguished resumes are littered with the graves of journalistic ventures gone belly up. They’ve also witnessed the sinking of other ships, like The Weekly Standard, Mic, The Times-Picayune, and the opinion sections of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, U.S. News & World Report, HuffPost and Forbes, as well as swathes of journalists laid off at outlets like Mashable, New York Daily News, BuzzFeed, Vox, Vanity Fair, Vice, GQ, Vogue, Teen Vogue, Good Media Group, Glamour, The Outline, Refinery29 and many Gannett papers — to name just “a few.”

Having weathered these wrecks, venturing out in a vessel of their own making is either courageous or foolhardy. Yet, whether Captain Ahab or Lord Nelson, they’re lashing themselves to the masthead and going full speed ahead.

“In some ways, this is also liberating,” Merline said. “We are literally beholden to no one—except our spouses. We don't have to kowtow to a benefactor. We don't have to engage in click bait.”

“Right now, we're just doing this day by day.”

Anneke E. Green is senior director at the White House Writers Group. She served in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office. Email: agreen@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @AnnekeEGreen



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