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February 1, 2022

What a mess Spotify finds itself in.

On one hand, there’s Joe Rogan — the most famous podcaster in the world. On the other hand, rock legends such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell — with more sure to follow — are calling out Rogan for COVID-19 misinformation heard on his podcasts and pulling their music because of it.

And then there’s Spotify, stuck in the middle between one of their most popular talents and influential musicians who might have the power to influence fellow artists and fans to boycott the company.

That’s just at the surface. This is more than just a PR eyesore. Dig deeper and you get into arguments about free speech, the dangers of passing along falsehoods about a virus that has killed millions and what Spotify’s responsibility is in all of this.

Let’s zero in on that last question first. What is Spotify? Is it a media company or is it merely a streaming service that isn’t really responsible for moderating its content?

Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter about web culture, makes an extremely compelling point: Rogan isn’t just some random podcaster. He’s Spotify’s podcaster. Spotify is spending up to $100 million to exclusively air Rogan’s podcast.

Broderick wrote, “‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ is, in every sense that matters, a Spotify production. There might not be a Spotify rep in the room while they record, but Spotify is the only place you can hear it.”

Some have made the argument that Spotify is no different than, say, Facebook.

But Recode’s Peter Kafka said something similar to what Broderick said, tweeting, “The difference, which Spotify hopes you ignore: Facebook never signed a giant contract to be the exclusive distributor for a podcaster famous for hosting the likes of Alex Jones.”

The argument here is if you’re going to pay someone $100 million (or any amount) to exclusively air their content, you have now become a media company, and therefore are responsible for the content.

Spotify announced over the weekend that it’s going to add a content advisory to any podcast episode that talks about COVID-19, and that the advisory will include links to trusted sources about COVID-19.

Talk about splitting hairs. Spotify is acting as if it is doing the right thing, but also being careful not to agitate Rogan or, just as important, his listeners.

In a public letter, Spotify CEO and co-founder Daniel Ek wrote, “We know we have a critical role to play in supporting creator expression while balancing it with the safety of our users. In that role, it is important to me that we don’t take on the position of being content censor while also making sure that there are rules in place and consequences for those who violate them.”

Those are more hairs being split.

Ek also wrote, “… it’s become clear to me that we have an obligation to do more to provide balance and access to widely-accepted information from the medical and scientific communities guiding us through this unprecedented time.”

This isn’t just about Bill Simmons (another podcast star who sold his entire Ringer podcast network to Spotify) picking a Super Bowl winner. Rogan’s podcast — which draws an estimated 11 million visitors per episode — has featured guests who have said misleading or outright false things about a deadly virus and vaccines.

In a nine-minute video on Instagram, Rogan portrayed himself as an inquisitive interviewer who is just asking questions and looking for “all kinds of opinions.”

“I’m not trying to promote misinformation, I’m not trying to be controversial,” Rogan said. “I’ve never tried to do anything with this podcast other than just talk to people and have interesting conversations.”

He also pushed back against charges of promoting “misinformation,” saying, “Many of the things that we thought of as misinformation just a short while ago are now accepted as fact.”

Rogan’s hey-I’m-just-asking-questions act is what makes him both appealing to his listeners and, at the same time, incredibly dangerous, especially if he is unwilling or unable, because of lack of knowledge, to call out his guests for saying things that just aren’t true.

In a smart Twitter thread, CNN tech reporter Brian Fung tweeted, “Rogan exudes authenticity because he starts from a position of curiosity. It works because he brings the audience with him on his journey of discovery.”

Fung goes on to tweet, “The basic formula is, ‘So I had this question that was bugging me, so I asked this smart person to tell me about it, and here’s what they said.’ This is basically the core of good explanatory journalism. The issue is what Rogan does with what people tell him.”

Fung continues: “Your job as the reporter is not necessarily to *believe* what your source is telling you, but to toss it into the big bucket of other facts you’re holding up to the light and see if it is consistent with everything else. … And that’s what seems to be missing, at least from the perspective of this journalist, from Rogan’s process. But hey, do your own research.”

If Rogan isn’t going to stop bad information from getting out over his podcast, shouldn’t Spotify?

How does this all end?

So how does this Rogan-Spotify-musicians staring contest end?

New York Times’ technology columnist Kevin Roose writes that it’s “hard to say,” but here are three possibilities:

One, Rogan doubles down on COVID-19 and eventually crosses a line that Spotify cannot accept. Rogan and Spotify end their relationship. He goes off and starts his own company while complaining about cancel culture, woke mobs and so forth.

Two, Rogan fully apologizes and/or stays clear of controversy, perhaps putting COVID-19 talk away for a while.

“A third option,” Roose writes, “is that the whole controversy could simply fizzle out, like last year’s imbroglio with Dave Chappelle and Netflix, which began after the comedian was accused of making transphobic remarks during a special and ended, days later, with no real consequences for anyone. But this outcome doesn’t seem likely, given that boycotts have already begun and appear to be snowballing.”

Whatever happens, Spotify is in a mess.

Roose writes, “Spotify may think it’s gotten past the worst of the Rogan backlash. But we know from recent history that what looks like the end of a content moderation controversy is often just the warm-up act.”

MORE FROM POYNTER: Joe Rogan apologizes for vaccine misinformation and promises to ‘do better’

Taking a break

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in 2017. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Rachel Maddow is stepping away from her MSNBC weeknight prime-time show to work on another project for NBCUniversal. Insider’s Claire Atkinson broke the story.

On her show Monday night, Maddow said she is taking a hiatus until sometime in April to work on a movie adaptation of her Spiro Agnew book, “Bag Man.” The movie will be directed by Ben Stiller and produced by “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels. Maddow also will do work on a new podcast.

A rotating group of hosts will fill in during Maddow’s absence. Maddow won’t totally disappear from the air. She will return for breaking news or special coverage, such as President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address scheduled for March 1.

You might remember that Maddow signed a new deal with NBCUniversal last August. In that deal, it was reported that Maddow was going to be working on other projects outside of her MSNBC show. All along, the expectation has been that Maddow will cut back on her MSNBC show, and might eventually give it up completely.

Maddow said Monday night that she may take another hiatus at a later time. By the way, Maddow hosted Monday’s show from her home due to being exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Alden’s attempted Lee takeover heats up

For this item, I turned it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

After a holiday hiatus, hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s attempt at a hostile takeover of Lee Enterprises is heating up again. Recent developments:

  • The issue of whether an Alden affiliate followed the procedures in Lee bylaws for nominating a slate of directors goes to trial in Delaware Chancery Court on Feb. 7. Lee rejected the nominations as invalid. Unless the court sides with Alden, its effort to gain leverage on Lee’s board appears stymied for now.
  • Nonetheless, Alden issued a campaign-like statement Jan. 27 addressed to Lee shareholders. It is targeting the seats of former CEO and current chairman Mary Junck and Herbert Moloney III, two of eight board members. The Alden statement says both are past 70, entrenched for more than 20 years and unwilling to consider alternatives for running the company. (Alden had earlier announced a slate of three candidates but one dropped out.)
  • Lee set its annual meeting for March 10. It has issued its own statement soliciting shareholder approval of its slate, which includes Junck and Moloney.
  • Lee will announce its financial results for the last quarter of 2021 on Thursday. Though the report does not bear directly on the takeover fight, it will offer evidence of whether or not Lee is making rapid progress on digital transformation at its 77 dailies and 350 weeklies as management has claimed.

Alden made an unsolicited bid of $24 a share for Lee in November. Shares are now trading at roughly $36 a share in recent weeks, which makes $24 a non-starter. Alden could increase its bid, or someone else could come in with an offer. Lee’s board would be legally obligated to consider either.

The stakes are high as Alden and other hedge funds have gained control of a growing share of the industry in recent years. Alden has a record of deep cost cuts and selling off real estate at the outlets it owns, most recently those of Tribune Publishing, which it acquired last summer.

While Lee runs tight on expenses, newsrooms would almost certainly get slashed further if Alden buys the company. Its titles include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Omaha World-Herald and The Buffalo News.

US journalists at the Financial Times launch union drive

For this item, I turned it over to my Poynter colleague, Angela Fu.

Financial Times journalists in the United States announced Monday they are unionizing with the NewsGuild, the largest union of American journalists.

If they are voluntarily recognized by the company, the new union will have roughly 40 people. FT journalists based in the United Kingdom and editorial staff at the FT Specialist are already unionized.

The U.S. journalists say in their mission statement that they are seeking fair and transparent compensation, the elimination of racial and gender disparities, COVID-19 protections and improved working conditions. They also pointed out that FT’s editorial board has previously supported the right to unionize.

“Capitalism needs a reset, the FT has argued, because the long-term health of the system depends not just on delivering profits but also on meeting the needs of other stakeholders — including workers. The FT’s editorial board has cheered this holistic approach to business, while applauding collective action in other industries and deploring employers’ attempts to block workers from unionizing,” the statement reads. “It’s time for the FT to practice what it preaches.”

If the company declines to recognize the union, the workers will have the option of filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. In the past year, media workers have launched at least 35 union campaigns as part of a greater unionization movement in the industry.

It’s Times for Wordle

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

It’s called Wordle and it has become an internet sensation. And now it belongs to The New York Times.

The Times announced Monday that it has purchased the word game from its creator, Brooklyn software engineer Josh Wardle, for a price “in the low seven figures.”

The Times said the game will remain free for users for now. But you would think that, eventually, the Times will roll Wordle into its Games, which requires a subscription.

Wardle posted the ad-free game online last October. Players can play once a day. The object is to guess the word of the day. You are given five boxes. In each box, you type in a letter. Then you are told if any of the letters are correct and if they are in the right position in the word. You have to guess the correct word by the sixth try. The sooner you can get the correct word, the better. Players then can easily share their results on social media.

How fast has it grown? The Times said that on Nov. 1, 90 people played the game. Nearly two months later, 300,000 played it. Now millions play each day.

In a statement, Jonathan Knight, general manager for The New York Times Games, said, “If you’re like me, you probably wake up every morning thinking about Wordle, and savoring those precious moments of discovery, surprise and accomplishment. The game has done what so few games have done: It has captured our collective imagination, and brought us all a little closer together. We could not be more thrilled to become the new home and proud stewards of this magical game, and are honored to help bring Josh Wardle’s cherished creation to more solvers in the months ahead. As part of our portfolio of games, Wordle will have an exciting future with the help of a team of talented engineers, designers, editors and more, furthering the user experience.”

That last part would suggest that you’re eventually going to have to pay for it if you want to play, but we shall see.

Wardle, in a statement, said, “If you’ve followed along with the story of Wordle, you’ll know that New York Times Games play a big part in its origins, and so this step feels very natural to me. I’ve long admired The Times’s approach to the quality of their games and the respect with which they treat their players. Their values are aligned with mine on these matters and I’m thrilled that they will be stewards of the game moving forward.”

In the tweet of the day, New York Times sportswriter John Branch tweeted, “Weird thing is, now all NYT reporters have to write stories with nothing but five-letter words.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Correction: Lee will announce its financial results on Thursday.  

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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