Could new media moguls really stop looking at web traffic?

Ina Fried of Axios, a news website, made a compelling observation after Jack Dorsey’s exit from Twitter last week. She said that tech founders are losing interest in social media. It’s not that they don’t understand the political problems that social networks created. They just don’t want to work on trying to solve them. They would much rather devote their time to the next technology trends. Dorsey wants to work on the blockchain while Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg dedicated his company to the metaverse. 

You cannot force people to work on the problems that matter to you, even when the technology they put out helped create those problems in the first place. But you can at least be a little less perplexed about Facebook’s new name. If you care about media, Zuckerberg’s “Meta” announcement sure felt as if Joseph Pulitzer had announced he was leaving his newspaper to work on the next generation of printing presses at the height of the circulation wars in 1900. 

Pulitzer made no such decision. Instead, before starting the presses he read the galleys of his own paper, the New York World, in the dark of night with such obsession that he went blind in his fifties. He then had secretaries read it aloud to him. For Pulitzer, to be in media was to be in politics. He remained involved in city, state, and national politics until his death in 1911, once fighting a political rival with a gun when young and taking a quarrel with President Ted Roosevelt all the way to the Supreme Court when old. He was a media pioneer and that made him one of the wealthiest persons in America. He used his fortune to start the Columbia School of Journalism and the Pulitzer Prize, convinced to the end that independent media was essential to a free society.

What to make then of these new media pioneers with no interest in politics? They also made fortunes but renounced the influence. As power players of all kinds rush to fill the vacuum, their automated systems have become a gallery of horrors. It’s a problem technology can’t solve. The most efficient way to keep yourself well-informed and connected or engaged in “meaningful social interactions” in the Meta jargon, is to turn you into a raging monster. From the Facebook files we learned that confronting the problem would require renouncing not politics but business. Zuckerberg said no. Would you say yes? 

You can “follow” Pulitzer. He could be arbitrary in the exercise of his power, but he also showed restraint. For example, he would not attack his enemies when they were down. For Pulitzer business came first in a literal way: he bought his first newspaper in Missouri only to immediately sell it at a profit, which he then invested in a project unrelated to media. Once he had enough money, he combined two evening papers in St. Louis, where he had arrived a few years before as a Hungarian immigrant, penniless and without speaking a word of English, to create his first media success. He applied the same principles when he was finally able to buy the World, and he created the biggest media outlet of his time. He then thought of using his fortune to promote the journalistic principles that made him rich. 

You might not be rich yet, but thanks in part to technology, money has never meant less. For example, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said she could take time off work to make her case because her cryptocurrency investments had multiplied her savings. Like Pulitzer, she knew what she wanted. Her case shows that if technology can’t buy you happiness, it can still help you be a better human being. It’s up to you.