Best of the Week: Why Elon Musk's Twitter takeover will probably fail; bad faith publishing
Welcome to Unmade, written while you were sleeping on Thursday morning.
Happy International Bat Appreciation Day for Sunday.
Today’s writing soundtrack: Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.
This edition of Unmade went to our paying supporters on Friday morning, and to the rest of our readers on Saturday.
‘It’s not a threat’
So is Elon Musk pranking everyone, or is he serious about buying Twitter?
Last night, Aussie time, Musk had a little surprise for Twitter’s board, who he’s been tormenting for months.
Having offered continual uninvited feedback on the running of the social platform, earlier this month Musk revealed that he had bought a nine per cent stake in Twitter, and was invited to join the board. He agreed, then changed his mind. Now we know why.
Last night he revealed that he wants to buy the whole thing and take it off the New York Stock Exchange.
Being the weed aficionado that he is, he made his offer at a price of US$54.20 per share (420, geddit?).
That’s well above the $46 the company was previously trading at, but also well below last year’s $77 high. Thanks to his enormous Tesla wealth, Musk could comfortably afford the $35bn company.
There's an argument it might be better off in his hands. For years, the company drifted with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey at the helm as a part time CEO while he also worked on payment platform Square.
While Google and Facebook grew into money generating machines unlike anything seen before, Twitter was mostly left behind. It made a half billion dollar loss last year.
The platform is not powerful enough as an advertising offering to be mandatory for marketers in the way that Facebook and the Google advertising network are. And the Twitter Blue subscription tier has been underwhelming so far.
As a product guy (as well as Tesla, think SpaceX, Starling and The Boring Company), Musk is once-in-a-generation. He’s Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne without (as far as I know) the vigilantism.
He understands and loves playing with the platform as a poster. Remember when he claimed he was about to take Tesla private? He’s delighted in sending the price of crypto currency either up or down with just a single tweet.
That might be why, at the time of writing, the Twitter share price didn’t move as much as you might have expected. It jumped up a little on opening and fell back to about $45 - well below his $54.20 offer, and below the previous day’s close of $45.85.
A clue why people are not buying as enthusiastically as they usually would when a hostile takeover goes into play comes in Musk’s filing to the US Securities and Exchange Commission. It included a script of the call he intended to make to inform the Twitter board that they were in play.
Anyone who watched The Sopranos knows that “it’s not a threat” means precisely the opposite. For “reconsider my position as a shareholder” read the implied threat of “sell my nine per cent stake and tank the share price”.
I’m not sure it will be great for the world if Musk gets his way. He’s a free speech absolutist. Twitter played its part in helping Donald Trump foment the January 6 Capital insurrection and only kicked him off the platform afterwards. It should have done it years before.
Under Musk anything would go.
Saudi Arabian media investor Prince Alwaleed Talal, a long term shareholder, has already come out against the deal, with Musk quickly trolling him about freedom of speech in the Kingdom.
More likely, I guess, will be for Musk to walk away. He got in trouble for failing to disclose his initial investment early enough, and will struggle to get to the 90% ownership threshold he’ll need for a hostile takeover. Perhaps this week’s episode is about him finding a face saving way of selling that nine per cent again.
Is Musk the next owner of Twitter? I don’t think so.
The trust deficit
Last week I was on a panel for the Castlemaine Dialogues writers festival. We were invited to discuss the loss of public trust in public institutions, including in politicians and the media.
The star of the show was broadcaster John Safran. During the conversation, he argued that one of the reasons the public is losing trust in the mainstream media is because they have been trained to expect to be let down. Every time a reader responds to a clickbait headline, only to be learn they’ve been tricked, they trust news outlets a little less.
Making observations about clickbait is nothing new, but once you start looking at everything published while asking yourself the question “Will this make the reader trust the masthead more or less?” it’s a depressing process.
Popular in the clickbait genre is the rogue asteroid coming “close” to earth. Anyone who’s been online in recent years will be aware that the tried and true formula includes a final paragraph that eventually mentions the asteroid will pass harmlessly at millions of miles separation.
There was a classic one of those just this week from UK-based paper The Independent, as it happens.
The example Safran used was a different, very Australia-specific version of clickbait: “Stories about ‘Karl walking off the Today Show set’ when actually he’s just joking.”
He was presumably thinking of the occasion back in 2013 when Karl Stefanovic staged a walkout (with cable-ready cameraman standing by for a quick spot of outside broadcasting) from Nine’s old Willoughby studio during the build up to State of Origin.
Or perhaps last year’s stunt…
I can’t blame Stefanovic. It always generates press and entertains the viewers, so why not keep doing it? On Wednesday, five days after Safran’s comment, he was up to his usual tricks…
And as usual, came the paragraph, buried at the end of the news coverage, after the click had translated into reader engagement:
Really? You don’t say.
As a journalist who loves journalism, it’s throughly depressing being on Twitter these days. There’s a wall of negativity, cynicism and often abuse towards the entire profession, and particularly those involved in covering politics.
The attacks come from those understandably venting at partisan coverage of the election by the News Corp tabloids. But some of those same Twitterati will demonstrate equivalent anger towards ABC presenters who ask challenging questions of their team during inquisitorial interviews. This week, 7.30’s Leigh Sales was driven off the platform by the abuse, just as News Breakfast’s Lisa Millar was last year.
Those who try to engage in good faith - like Millar’s co-presenter Michael Rowland did this week when a portion of Twitter went into meltdown upon learning that journalists get invited to drinks receptions with politicians - cop it too.
Michael Rowland @mjrowland68A man gatecrashed private media drinks the PM was hosting in Sydney last night. The man, who describes himself as a 'progressive activist', called Mr Morrison a disgrace before he was removed from the event. More soon on @BreakfastNews #auspol https://t.co/P7qUVG7mvI
His Radio National colleague Patricia Karvelas got a similar response.
And that was one of the more moderate bad faith replies.
The problem for the profession of journalism is that there are so many examples of bad faith reporting it’s no surprise that the audience can no longer tell the difference.
And once you make good faith / bad faith a filter, it goes beyond tabloid tactics.
Take this weekend’s edition of The Australian Financial Review (which is among my favourite Australian papers, by the way - so I’ve no axe to grind).
Because of the Easter holiday, Thursday’s edition of the AFR will be on sale all the way through the long weekend.
The front page is dedicated to analysis of the early days of the election campaign.
“Australia’s undecided voters are leaning towards Scott Morrison is the belief he is the least bad option come the May 21 election,” political editor Phillip Coorey informs his readers in an article labelled “exclusive”. The article continues on half of the editorial real estate on page two, and is then rehashed as a full page feature on page 19.
The newspaper informs its readers: “The lack of any real enthusiasm towards both candidates, and Labor’s inability to inspire voters to abandon the government, has led pollster Ipsos to conclude the election will be a lot closer than some polls suggest, with Mr Morrison the potential beneficiary.”
The references to polls and pollster would make the casual reader - or one who isn’t close enough to the process understand the difference between focus groups and polling - to draw the wrong conclusion about the quality of the data.
Particularly because there was an important piece of context missing from the hundreds of words. Instead, it was provided later by The Guardian’s Peter Hannam.
Michelle Grattan @michellegrattanV interesting story from Coorey in afr but can people not call it a POLL. It is not a poll, it is focus group research
So the entire article - was based on the views of ten random punters. Back in my days on the Crawley News we’d have buried that vox pop on a left hand page.
Well run focus groups have their place in research, of course. They offer qualitative insights not available when mass polling for quantitive data. Commissioning them was potentially a good idea to add some colour.
But the AFR failed to disclose to its readers anywhere in the articles the relevant detail that the articles were based on the views of a tiny number of Australians.
What one cannot know from the outside is how that fact came to be left out. Was it because the story would have seemed weaker for readers knowing - the upmarket version of “the scenes appeared to be in jest”? Would it have been harder to justify putting on the front page? It feels like a publishing decision made by people whose approach comes from a time before the two-way world of social media. Particularly when faced with an early pre-Easter press deadline. A decade ago, before the rise of social media, it might have gone unremarked.
Or it could have been one of those things that mistakenly fall out in the sub editing. On balance, I think I’d prefer it was a subbing cockup rather than cynical omission.
Whatever the explanation, it becomes just one more piece of evidence for those suspicious of the mainstream media’s motivations. The benefit of the doubt may no longer be there.
Nine’s newspapers have faced claims that their “Independent. Always” ethos has been under attack since the ill-advised decision of then CEO Hugh Marks and chairman Peter Costello to host a Liberal Party fund raiser in 2019.
It may be too late for mainstream journalism to regain the trust of its audience. If there’s any chance at all, it relies on behaving in good faith - including giving the readers all the facts.
It was a good finish to the short trading week for The Unmade Index of ASX listed media and marketing companies.
Seven West Media had a particularly good day, with shares up by 4.6 per cent. HT&E, parent company of radio company ARN, was the only player on the index to see a fall.
Time to let you enjoy your long weekend.
Depending whether you’re a paying supporter getting this on Friday morning, or receiving it 24 hours later on Saturday, I’ll either be just about to face the hell of British bank holiday traffic, or still in recovery.
There’ll be no Best of the Week podcast to kick off the coming week, by the way. In part that’s because of Easter, but also because my colleague Damian Francis has joined the Covid club (Get well soon, Damo).
But if you do want something mediaish to listen to instead, I had an enjoyable conversation with Juan Mendoza for his Making Sense of Martech podcast about the recent history of media disruption in Australia. Do give it a listen.
Have a great Easter break.