Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 17 February 2024


What the News and the Pews Have in Common

Illustration of a person looking at a personal digital device while kneeling at a pew.
Credit... Alain Pilon
Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

You’re reading the Ross Douthat newsletter, for Times subscribers only.  The columnist reflects on culture and politics, but mostly culture.

In the past few weeks, both The Atlantic and The New Yorker used the phrase “extinction-level event” to headline stories about the fate of the media business. Both pieces, one by Paul Farhi and the other by Clare Malone, emphasized the dire implications of watching layoffs and closings sweep over the news industry in what is otherwise a high-employment economy. Both implied that we’re nearing a point where it makes sense to talk about, as Malone wrote, “the end of the mass-media era.”

And what lies beyond that endpoint? Farhi talks hopefully and implausibly about tax incentives for news gathering. Malone focuses on precarity and uncertainty, the industry’s inevitable reliance on “rich idiots” and the hope that idealism and curiosity will keep sending people into journalism. Meanwhile, Politico’s Jack Shafer, likewise playing around with mass-extinction imagery, emphasizes smallness: “Like the animals that persisted after the great comet struck the earth, most publications will be tiny and eke out an existence in the shadows.”

Bleak stuff, this. But I’m not sure pure bleakness quite captures the full transformation. And I think there might be an interesting similarity between the media’s current trajectory and the unfolding fate of American religion. Like the legacy media, institutional Christianity in America is facing serious disruption, with formerly powerful religious bodies losing members and influence at an accelerating pace. And as with journalism’s challenges, the emptying of American churches has prompted a lot of anxiety about the implications of the trend and what to do about it — along with a lot of indifference, shading into schadenfreude, among those who think that either the mainstream press or the country’s major churches deserved a reckoning.

Alongside simple religious decline, however, there’s also religious transformation, as more and more people who do practice a faith are moving out of the traditional denominational structure of American Protestantism — making “nondenominational” Christianity grow rapidly even as the Southern Baptists and the United Methodists follow the Episcopalians and Congregationalists into decline.

And if there’s at least an interesting resemblance (if not a precise parallel) between the fate of the Protestant mainline, long a taken-for-granted pillar of the American social order, and the tribulations within legacy media, there’s also some resemblance between the growth of nondenominational religion and the flourishing of personalized, individually branded, deinstitutionalized media.

Take two representative media success stories of the internet age: Joe Rogan, the populist enthusiast who dominates the podcasting world, and Heather Cox Richardson, the liberal historian who dominates the Substack rankings. They aren’t often considered together because their fan bases couldn’t be more different, but they are both examples of what you might call the “nondenominational” trend in the commentariat: They’re like megachurch pastors who run their own start-up churches without any connection to the traditional world of Presbyterianism or Lutheranism, seminaries and general conventions and the like. And they aren’t doing a small business: Rogan is the bigger figure by far (he recently re-signed with Spotify for a reported quarter-billion dollars), but Richardson’s daily newsletter has well over a million subscribers.

Most independent media figures don’t have that reach, of course, just as most nondenominational churches aren’t especially big outside their local communities. But just as nondenominational Christianity as a whole is getting bigger than many established churches, the overall audience for “nondenominational” media content adds up to something much larger than just a few mammals skittering in the postapocalyptic landscape. Taken together, the world of newsletters and podcasts and YouTube content creation has a potentially sweeping, society-spanning reach.

But Shafer’s line about this world being “in the shadows” still seems apt, since one of the key features of the new media landscape is what you might call its illegibility — meaning the difficulty of ever knowing, via some reasonably quick survey, what kind of narratives most people are absorbing, who is really influencing public opinion, what forces and figures are shaping what Americans believe.

Big institutions are good for legibility. In my youth, you could still read a few newspapers, subscribe to a few key magazines and political journals, watch a few news programs and basically have your finger on the pulse of what both elite America and mass America thought was happening at any given moment. In a similar way, as a writer who often covers religion, I’ve always found it much easier to limn trends and important developments within my own hierarchical and centralized Catholic Church — and when I’m writing about Protestantism, it’s easier to cover debates within the Southern Baptist Convention or the Episcopal Church than to make definitive statements about the entirety of what we call Evangelicalism or Pentecostalism.

So the emerging nondenominational landscape, to say nothing of post-Christian forms of spirituality — the complex of paganism and pantheism and spiritual-but-not-religious explorations that I also try to write about — is making any coherent sense of what’s happening in American religion ever more elusive. And the same is true of a journalistic landscape where a historian on Substack has a bigger audience than many voices in traditional media. The media as a feature of American culture doesn’t have to face an extinction-level event to become much harder to analyze, generalize about and reasonably critique.

What I’m describing with religious phrases is similar to the distinction drawn in a recent essay by the critic Ted Gioia (another Substacker), who describes how the old America of “macroculture” doesn’t understand the new America of “microculture” — meaning, mostly, that big lumbering enterprises like movie studios and media companies and Ivy League universities are working uphill to adapt to a world where a YouTube star they didn’t know about till yesterday can matter more than Oscar votes, a well-reviewed book or a Harvard imprimatur. At one point, Gioia paraphrases another critic, Ryan Broderick, arguing that there’s increasingly a “real internet” and the “media’s idea of the internet,” implying that traditional media isn’t working hard enough to understand or learn from the microcultures that are quickly taking over.

But what Gioia and Broderick frame as a critique of old-media myopia seems more like an inherent feature of the emerging landscape, an inherent problem for cultural critics and corporate executives alike. From whatever vantage point, it’s going to be harder to look out across a very online, very post-institutional society and grasp either the whole of things or pick out the most important features of the landscape.

You can find some purchase by focusing on the remaining places of consolidation, which often look even bigger by comparison with their microcultural surroundings: Just ask Taylor Swift or the N.F.L.

But when it comes to understanding the nondenominational tangle or the realms of bespoke spirituality, or keeping track of all the YouTube stars and TikTok trends, I don’t think it’s just my middle-aged cluelessness that makes it hard to generalize, or know which generalizations to trust.

The internet makes everything much more visible but considerably less legible. We see our own culture through our screens, darkly, and the things that matter most may be somewhere back in the shadows, just beyond our sight.


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Paul Griffiths rejects human flourishing.

Keith Gessen keeps his marriage vows.

Kat Rosenfield defends difficult men.

The daffy genius of Dakota Johnson.

When Hobbits make you cry.

I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a base line expectation — sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized takeaways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument — skills I used to be able to take for granted.

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