Today marked the launch of Future.com, a media outlet funded by the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Commentators, particularly media figures, have engaged in some justifiable hand-wringing about the implications of a venture capital firm starting an “owned media” operation. That anxiety has been heightened by a broader context of Trumpist skepticism towards the media, and a wave of tech-specific media backlash spearheaded by companies like Tesla and influential figures like Balaji Srinivasan.
After looking at the first wave of items published on Future.com today, I don’t think there’s much reason to panic about the site. In fact, there’s much to admire, including an abundance of smart and informative pieces on cryptocurrency systems. I hope other entities planning to open in-house media, including Coinbase, are taking notes – because while Future.com looks great, the risks of such an operation are still real.
Above all, it’s good that Future.com is explicitly an opinion and educational publication, not a news site. In broad terms, that’s important because there would be an inherent, deep conflict of interest to a16z reporting news about specific companies that it was invested in, or companies that competed with its investments. It would have strong motivations to distort or omit facts in ways that benefited it. I trust a16z enough that I’d expect it to run a clean operation, but even the perception of such conflicts would have made its content much less valuable.
Instead of news about the present, Future.com is focused on theories about, well …. the future. Its first round of articles includes incredibly deep thought pieces about hybrid work and the future of intellectual property on DAOs, for instance. These pieces cite information about specific companies, and some are authored by the staffers from Andreessen portfolio firms. But they’re primarily about problems or opportunities shared by many different companies.
The depth and subtlety of these pieces is another notable point in Future.com’s favor. This piece on the lessons of containerization in shipping from Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, for instance, clocks in at nearly 2,200 words (about nine printed pages), and includes wonky details about things like changing China-U.S. transit times and container ship size.
Speaking as someone with nearly a decade of experience in the news business, it’s very rare for content of this depth to find a home at for-profit media sites. For one, the business model often can’t support paying writers for the amount of work involved. Even commentary from people like CEOs, while often provided gratis to publications, is usually streamlined to cater to readers interested in speed, not depth.
From that perspective, Future.com models perhaps the best reason for tech companies to bypass the mainstream media – not to present their perspective to the general public, but to provide a level of mind-numbing, un-economical depth in which only insiders are likely to be interested.
The thing I would compare Future.com to most, in fact, isn’t a news site like CoinDesk or Bloomberg, but an academic research journal. The site isn’t peer-reviewed, but it shares much of the same insularity as journals. Margit Wennmachers, one of the heads of the project, told TechCrunch that it’s aimed at “tech people” and “the tech curious.” The contributors include tech CEOs, professional investors, and more than a few actual academics. The site’s presentation is almost aggressively low-key: As of now, for instance, there are no images on the site’s frontpage. That would be absolutely suicidal for a standalone news site trying to catch the eye of a casual observer.
This emphasis on dry, academic depth should be additive to existing news sites, rather than competitive. It also significantly reduces the possibility that its contents will be manipulative, for the simple reason that easily-manipulated people tend to have really short attention spans and little appetite for learning.
More abstractly, it’s also arguably a benefit to readers that they know not to expect objectivity from Future.com. A16z is an investment firm, and seems set on using the new site primarily to flesh out the thinking behind its own investments. In investment circles that’s known as “talking your own book,” and it’s pretty common and unproblematic behavior – as long as it’s transparent that that’s what you’re doing.
Future.com could definitely improve on its transparency by adding explicit disclosures of its investments to related stories. Currently its disclosures take the form of a boilerplate small-text block at the end of each story, without specific investments cited. But the kinds of readers willing to slog through 2,000 words on the future of robot lawyers would also take a moment to click over to the a16z disclosures page to figure out that it was written by the CEO of a portfolio company.
All that being said, there’s a larger context here that is still worrying. Tech companies publishing what are effectively their business theses seems fair enough, but it does risk reducing the traditional press’s ability to ask hard questions of the businesses themselves. This has already happened with Tesla, a company that can communicate directly with its rabid fanbase so effectively that it actually disbanded its public relations department in 2020. There’s literally nobody there anymore to answer questions from the press, a situation that ultimately increases the risk for Tesla stockholders.
Maybe Future.com will become influential enough that a16z companies also decide to go direct. And a16z, with its track record of backing operations like Facebook, Instagram, and Clubhouse, certainly knows how to reach and engage a truly mass audience.
But for now, that seems if anything to be the opposite of the thinking behind Future.com. Tesla was able to connect with a wide swathe of retail investors largely thanks to its flashy, charismatic and impulsive CEO. Andreessen Horowitz seems to know it can’t pull off the same trick. Instead, its operation is leaning hard into being, frankly, boring as hell for anyone who isn’t already extraordinarily well-informed. And that should be just fine by media professionals.
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