In recent days, Mr. Musk jabbed on Twitter at the
and National Public Radio and weighed in on the accuracy of certain news outlets. And Twitter began limiting how Substack Inc. integrates with the social-media company after the digital-newsletter platform announced it was preparing a social-media rival.
The billionaire entrepreneur has long held a dim view of news outlets, saying they are driven by getting “max clicks” for their articles and are beholden to advertisers. With the purchase of Twitter Inc., he is now casting them as rivals that are trying to protect their “oligopoly on information” as he seeks to position his social-media platform as a real-time news source fed by “citizen journalism.”
“We want it to be…fundamentally the place you go to learn what’s going on and get the real story,” Mr. Musk said last month at a conference.
Twitter doesn’t look or act like traditional news outlets. Mr. Musk isn’t employing a newsroom full of reporters and editors to create articles. Instead, the seemingly aspiring media mogul relies upon users and their tweets, and a system of fact-checking that aims to ensure accuracy through a crowdsource-like approach. And, he says, it is all happening live.
“If you contrast that to what’s happening in a newspaper: They have to learn the information, propose an article to their editor, get it approved, write the article, get it edited, figure out which day it is going to get published on,” Mr. Musk said last month. “The news is actually—the thing that happened—is being reported on…three, four days, sometimes a week late.”
Mr. Musk, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has in the past touted what he sees as special insight that he has into how the newspaper industry works from his time almost 30 years ago with a startup he co-founded called Zip2. The company counted the New York Times, Hearst and Knight Ridder as both investors and clients for building out digital platforms aimed at trying to save some of their print ad businesses as the World Wide Web began to explode.
Traditionally, social-media companies have balked at being lumped together with typically lower-valuation old media. “I consider us to be a technology company,”
told Congress in 2018.
To refer to what Mr. Musk is doing now with Twitter as journalism is a concern for some observers.
“It’s very dangerous territory to allow anybody to say whatever they want, and not have an ability to have a layer of verification and alternate points of view that are carefully curated and selected, so that the reader really gets a much more balanced point of view as opposed to just a bunch of voices shouting at them,” said
who worked with Mr. Musk at Zip2 in her role as an executive with Knight Ridder.
The company was once one of the largest newspaper chains in the U.S. before it was acquired in the midst of a widespread shift away from printed products to digital offerings.
Mr. Musk has lofty plans to turn Twitter’s financial house around, looking at ways to make it less dependent on advertising and aiming for a valuation someday of more than $250 billion by putting it at the center of users’ lives as an app that would also be the world’s largest financial institution.
In the weeks after he took over Twitter in late October, Mr. Musk cautioned that the traditional media world would push back against him.
“As Twitter pursues the goal of elevating citizen journalism, media elite will try everything to stop that from happening,” he said on Twitter. “Mainstream media will still thrive, but increased competition from citizens will cause them to be more accurate, as their oligopoly on information is disrupted.”
Mr. Musk recently stripped the New York Times of its verification on Twitter after the media company said it wouldn’t pay for that designation—part of Mr. Musk’s plan to raise more revenue—and he compared the newspaper’s social-media feed to diarrhea. On Tuesday, the social-media company began labeling NPR, which has also said it won’t pay for Twitter’s blue-check verifications, as a state-affiliated media organization in line with Russia’s RT network and China’s Xinhua News Agency.
Days later Twitter began limiting postings involving Substack, the newsletter publisher popular among independent journalists, which announced Wednesday plans for its own tweet-like competitor.
The New York Times in a statement reiterated that it won’t pay for “check mark status” for its institutional accounts, while
NPR’s chief executive, has called the labeling unacceptable. Substack called the change affecting it a reminder that writers deserve a model that values and rewards them and that protects the “free press and free speech.”
On Saturday, Mr. Musk suggested that Substack’s issues came in response to moves Substack made to “bootstrap their Twitter clone” that rendered its internet address untrustworthy. Substack Chief Executive Chris Best disputed that contention, saying the company believed it was in compliance with Twitter’s terms of service.
Twitter has never been a financial powerhouse, posting an annual loss in eight of the 10 years before going private. Its influence came from an outsize reach among the media, politicians and celebrities.
While it remains to be seen whether Twitter can overcome the established players and regulatory hurdles to achieve its lofty goals, Mr. Musk in the interim needs to protect the current asset of Twitter that he aims to monetize—its hundreds of millions of users—and ensure that they are engaged.
At the conference in March, Mr. Musk touted Twitter’s 250 million daily users and pointed to its top ranking as a news app. On Friday, Twitter ranked No. 1 on
App Store among free news apps, beating Reddit and sitting many spots ahead of CNN and Fox News.
“I’m not sure what the legacy media does…at this point,” he said in March.
A risk is that his battles with media companies and other high-profile users could alienate them. Twitter once spent time trying to get such high-profile users on the platform and verified, according to Nathan Hubbard, a former vice president for global commerce and media at the company.
“The reason the Twitter Media team existed was because *almost all* of the engagement on Twitter happens with tweets from high profile people/organizations across government, sports, music, business, news, whatever the Kardashians are, etc.” Mr. Hubbard tweeted last month. “They’re the lifeblood of the platform.”
Some news outlets take issue with Mr. Musk’s suggestion that their journalism is influenced by advertisers, saying that they have long had divides between the business and editorial sides of their operations and that many have robust subscription revenue.
After being labeled a state-affiliated media, NPR stopped tweeting from its main account and changed its bio to read: “NPR is an independent news organization committed to informing the public about the world around us. You can find us every other place you read the news.”
Back in the late 1990s, when Mr. Musk was working with newspapers’ business sides at Zip2, he showed little interest in the editorial sides of his partners’ operations, according to former colleagues. “I never saw a newspaper in front of him,” said Jim Ambras, who was Zip2’s vice president of product development. “He was always reading books.”
And, those colleagues said, Mr. Musk had little patience for newspaper- business executives, calling them dinosaurs and stupid.
“From the beginning, he never thought there was anything to learn from us,” said Ms. Yates, the former Knight Ridder executive who worked with Mr. Musk during that period.
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Zip2 was acquired in 1999 for about $300 million, giving him the initial money to invest in what would become his business empire years later. But Mr. Musk always harbored bigger ambitions for Zip2 and, according to those former colleagues, he thought it could have been worth much more as investors poured money into dot-coms.
“We wound up beholden to the newspapers,” Musk told a reporter a few years after the fact. “They were investors, customers and they were on the board—and they basically forced Zip2 into a position of subservience.”
Twitter might just give him a second try.
Write to Tim Higgins at firstname.lastname@example.org
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