This year has been a brutal one for online media, from mass layoffs at BuzzFeed and Vice earlier in the year to the recent shuttering of Splinter and exodus of talent from Deadspin (after the disastrous decision of management to orient what was formerly known as the Gizmodo Media Group away from journalism and toward supplying the maximum possible amount of autoplaying video advertisements to an increasingly frustrated readerbase).
But the loss of every site is not a tragedy. Soon to join these publications in media purgatory, I hope, is the new Comcast- and Bank of America-backed startup The Recount, which bills itself as “A new approach to video about politics that won't waste your time or insult your intelligence,” which turns out to mean they summarize political news in snappy, shareable five-minute videos. Unless you just stepped out of a time warp from 2013, this idea probably seems anachronistic to the point of self-parody, akin to if someone suddenly had the bright idea for a device that plays Netflix on your TV or a documentary about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. It is a company based on the idea of pivoting to video. We are at a point where the phrase “pivot to video” is no longer even used facetiously, because by 2017 or so the debate over whether it was a promising business model gave away to a consensus that it was unprofitable and based on false metrics. Not all media people, it appears, got the memo.
The idea for The Recount seems ridiculous even when its founders, journalist John Heilemann and media entrepreneur John Battelle, describe it in the most positive possible terms. Last month, Heilemann told Vanity Fair that they are “focusing, initially, on professionals in the information economy who are really busy and just want to get dinner-party smart on what’s going on in politics. The key audience we’re going after is very, very large and very underserved.”
But people who want to watch short videos summarizing the news on Facebook are not, in fact, underserved, but relentlessly pandered to by clueless media heads. Battelle told CNN that he and Heilemann “started developing it because we were hungry for something we couldn't find in the current media landscape: a place featuring political news and analysis that's easy to access and watch on the go; that's concise, intelligent, and entertaining; and that doesn't waste your time or bury you in bullshit or bad faith.” This statement, which is rich coming from a centrist horse-race campaign reporter and a guy who coins buzzwords about the tech industry, has become something of a company credo. “No Bullshit. No Bad Faith. In 5 Minutes or Less,” the site’s tagline reads.
Unless you just stepped out of a time warp from 2013, the idea to summarize the news in snappy five-minute videos probably seems anachronistic to the point of self-parody.
Heilemann and Battelle are truly from another era of the internet. They are the platonic ideal of guys you do not want starting a website in 2019: highly credentialed Web Gurus who were moderately successful during the dot-com boom and then spent the 2000s explaining to corporate boardrooms what “weblogs” and “search engines” were. Heilemann published a book in 2001 about the Microsoft anti-trust case called Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era, which based on the title I’m sure has aged fantastically, and he hosted the 2008 Discovery series Download: the True Story of the Internet.
Heilemann eventually pivoted from superficial Silicon Valley analysis to superficial campaign coverage, working with the canceled journalist and alleged non-consensual boob-grabber Mark Halperin; the Washington Post rather charitably described them as “the golden boys of American political journalism.” Heilemann and Halperin published two books together, 2010’s Game Change and 2013’s Double Down, both comprised entirely of useless campaign-trail gossip; they also produced an awful Showtime series with the truly lamentable title The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth. Before Halperin was accused of sexual misconduct by nine colleagues in 2017, the two were the purest embodiment of empty horse-race journalism. Heilemann has clung to his place in the public sphere and is now one of MSNBC’s least-distinguished political talking heads, while Halperin has fallen so hard that his recent book How to Stop Trump sold only 502 copies.
Battelle, meanwhile, was a co-founding editor of Wired magazine before leaving to start The Industry Standard, another online publication about how crazy the internet is and how many companies there are on it; it went bankrupt in 2001 when the dot-com bubble burst. A 2001 San Francisco Chronicle article has some interesting quotes about his time there. Battelle told the site’s staff that he expected it to reach a $1 billion valuation and that it was his “dream and vision to become the next Dow Jones” and “a media conglomerate for the Internet economy.” Shortly before it ceased to exist, the company was expensing “free massages, day trips to Napa and excessive parties” and throwing “cocktail parties drawing the digerati to the Standard's rooftop,” which is so similar to a gag in a 2004 episode of The Simpsons about the dot-com bust that I am almost certain it was its direct inspiration. After that, Battelle founded the Web 2.0 Summit, which shuttered in 2011, and NewCo, “a mashup of an artist open studio, a tech conference, and a music festival, all focused on innovation and the vibrant cities that nurture change.” Cool.
Reviving the art of Saturday morning cartoons, one animated explainer at a time. This week: If you’re going through impeachment, make sure those around you are indicted first. pic.twitter.com/YkvE4R8P3L— The Recount (@therecount) November 9, 2019
As of this writing, The Recount is fairly barebones, even three months in. The website consists of a playlist of videos averaging three minutes in length which, for the most part, do not distinguish themselves in any way from those by NowThis or Vice News or any of the other media outlets that have been producing this exact same content for years. There’s the cheery stock music, the frequent swipe cuts, the minimalist graphic design. The videos go through a bullet-point list of three or four headlines from different publications, and each one gets 45 seconds or so of related TV clips in such rapid succession that individual anchors only get a word or two in before the next edit.
The viewer becomes no more knowledgeable about a topic like “Mulvaney denies subpoena” or “2020 Democratic Sparring” after watching a Recount video than if they were to visit the CNN site and skim the headlines. It is simply a barrage of News Media, more alienating and bewildering than just about any other way of finding out what Donald Trump said on any given day. No unique insight is provided that warrants a five minute time commitment from people “who are really busy” when there are quicker and less abrasive ways to get the same information.
Despite the seemingly easy and endless method of content farming this framework presents, the site still has to scrape the content barrel. Some of the videos are just outtakes from Heilemann’s Showtime series, and many bear the label “RAW & UNCUT,” which means they are unedited five minute blocks of C-SPAN with chyron and all. The worst thing on offer is their “animated explainers,” which feature the worst animation since the NewGrounds era and filled me with unbearable secondhand embarrassment when I saw them. The most recent one, titled “So your’e [sic] getting impeached,” is supposed to be a parody of a ’50s instructional video (?) combined with a pharmaceutical ad (?) but also doesn’t resemble either. What it is is a voiceover explaining what impeachment is over the worst-drawn Trump of all time animated in a frame rate so low it gives me AlbinoBlackSheep flashbacks while the same stock music as every other video plays in the background. It should be a crime to make things like this.
Crucially, The Recount’s metrics are not very good at all. Its Twitter account with 14,000 followers routinely gets two to 10 retweets on videos that are meant to be shared rapidly before the end of the 24-hour cycle, even though both founders have more than 200,000 followers and Heilemann has a TV show. When its content is posted on Facebook, the site is lucky to get one share per post. It is possible that untold numbers of people are visiting the actual website to watch the videos in secret, but outlets like this typically get most of their engagement through social media. This does not bode well for the future of the company, which expects to eventually introduce a paid model and provide a return on the investments of Bank of America and Comcast. We will have to see.