Why social media is like a parking garage

4 key takeaways from "The Night Light" Subscriber Preview

On Wednesday, May 31st, I held an hourlong webinar about the show: why I’m doing it, what to expect, sample segments & topics I’d like to cover, and the benefits to subscribers at each tier. It’s all part of an effort to build something I think we desperately need: a space for transformative connection. So often we worry about unity in this country, and rightly so, but the prerequisite for unity is connection. I have to see you as you are before I can decide whether to align with you. (Or, at least, I should see you that way — many charlatans have made a good living behind very thick smokescreens.)

Here’s a guide to the webinar, with direct links to each section:

0:00 - preshow graphic (skip this)
3:22 - hello & welcome
4:46 - who I am
5:55 - why connection drives my work
9:01 - this is a show about democracy
11:03 - why we can't trust social media to do this work
13:46 - what is "The Night Light"?
15:52 - my guiding principles & ground rules
20:46 - what if you don't want to hear "the other side"?
23:00 - what to do about media silos
24:38 - why the “culture wars” aren’t real
25:53 - a few taboo topics to cover & segments to do
30:26 - why the media needs to “Stop Scaring My Mama!”
31:31 - how I can be a one-man newsroom (for now)
32:49 - how subscriptions will work
35:20 - what you’ll get for subscribing
40:15 - my short- and long-term goals
45:12 - when “The Night Light” will launch, and how to subscribe
47:26 - how life in Las Vegas is going so far
51:19 - Q&A
1:04:38 - let’s build what we want for ourselves

If you don’t have time to watch, here are a few key points from the presentation:

Talking about democracy = Talking about connection

Connection has driven almost everything I've done as a journalist. One of the first things that MSNBC had me do was help with COVID coverage. I moved to New York in February of 2020. The city shut down in March. And because of the work I had done on NPR, they asked me to help put together viewer Q&A broadcasts about coronavirus. It began to ease the terror people had about COVID, and it validated the work I had been doing before as the host of 1A.

In 2022 NBC News sent me to Dallas to moderate a focus group reacting to the State of the Union address. Rather than the typical split of half Democrats/half Republicans, I suggested we speak to a diverse array of small business owners. Reason being: they just need things to work, and if something isn’t working, you know it right away as a small business owner. At no time did I ask these folks what their party affiliations were. I just wanted to know whether or not the President’s agenda worked for them in whatever way they needed. My career has brought me to a point where viewing people as a “D” or an “R” is boring as hell. There’s more to life, and both the anchors & the focus group members said they appreciated me giving them a more nuanced persona.

Focus group of small business owners in the Dallas area, watching the State of the Union Address with me for an NBC News NOW segment, March 1, 2022.
Focus group of small business owners in the Dallas area, watching the State of the Union Address with me for an NBC News NOW segment, March 1, 2022.

When you get down to it, this is a show about democracy. In my view, the issues we have in our democracy are really issues of connection. Framing the show this way allows us to ask, “How the hell am I gonna live in America… with them?” We may vary on who “they” are to us, but everyone has a “they”, whether we’d like to admit it or not.

The Night Light is about the things that make us connect, or disconnect, and the impact that has on whether we feel America still has room for us. We cannot live peacefully side by side unless we connect to some extent. We need one another. We have to understand one another. We don’t have to like what we see, but we ought to at least know what we're looking at.

The Night Light is a mission-driven talk show, guided by key principles

I envision this as a talk show about news and culture. I plan to drop two episodes per week, each 45 to 60 minutes long. Episodes will eventually be available both as audio and video — including a live-streaming show — but the audio will be the first step. You can enjoy either or both as you see fit. The show will include interviews, essays written by me about topics of interest, and plenty of your questions & stories.

This show is nonpartisan. I do not do punditry. Occasionally I’ll have strong views on issues, but I am not here to give you my hot takes on what this party or that party is doing. If that's what you're looking for, I'm not your guy. I'm here to be a moderator, not a commentator.

I plan to release one episode on a weekday (probably Wednesday or Thursday) and one episode on a weekend (probably Saturday), 40 to 45 weeks a year. That's to give me time away from show production to do reporting, editing, producing and research. If you're coming for breaking news, you’ve got a lot of other sources for that. I’ll be responsive to the big stories of the day, but this isn’t a newscast. Also, frankly, this schedule allows me to catch my breath and take breaks from the news cycle. I figure if I'm my own boss, I might as well give myself a great vacation package.

The Night Light is built around a few key principles:

  • Empathy

  • Candor

  • Hospitality

  • Delight

  • Courage

Regarding that last one: some subjects can be excruciating to talk about, but I like going into difficult subjects. I've had people describe me in the past as being an optimist. I look at myself more as an explorer, in the Star Trek sense. When you sign up to serve aboard starships, you know you might not make it back. You know that this mission might fail, and that red shirt might be on your back… but someone's gotta go.

I think that willingness to Boldly Go into spaces that are difficult, dangerous, uncharted or uncertain has always appealed to me. We can do things that we believe in whether or not they seem easy or logical just because we're committed to them, and because we believe they will build a better America and a better world.

I also operate under certain ground rules:

  • The Golden Rule (if you don’t like it done to you, don’t do it to others or to me)

  • Stories > Opinions

  • Don’t Get Critical, Get Curious

That last rule matured for me during my time at NBC News, having gestated during my time on NPR. I learned to avoid attacking ideas or arguments that I didn't like. My suggestion is that when something bothers you, don't get critical. Get curious. Don't attack it: interrogate it. Figure out what the idea is inside the thing that’s bothering you, and then interrogate that idea. Any attacks thereafter will be more effective, because they’ll be well informed.

Running shows this way helps create a judgment-free space where everybody knows that they're welcome. That way, even if you walk away not liking what someone had to say, you know precisely what it is that you don't like rather than defaulting to assumptions and stereotypes.

Social media isn’t advancing democracy… but whoever said it would?

In the weeks to come I’ll be much less active on social media than I have been in a long time. Over the years I’ve built a following of wonderful people who reflect my values back to me: especially kindness, positivity and thoughtfulness. We have defied the expectation that online discourse is just a digital dumpster waiting to catch fire. Still, I don’t think social networks are the best space to base The Night Light. Hence, my move to Substack which, so far, has proven to be the right choice.

Much has been made of social media’s failure to be more consistently prosocial, to act in the defense of humanity and connect people together. But let’s get real for a minute: who said social media companies were going to do that? They marketed themselves that way, sure, but how much do you see that bearing out where it matters most?

I compare social media to a parking garage. Expecting it to benefit humanity is like going to a garage and expecting the attendant to fix your engine. That's not what they offered. At no time did they say they would do that. The job of a parking garage is simply to hold your car, and to hold it for as long as possible. Why? Simple: the longer you stay, the more money they make.

Expecting social media to benefit humanity is like going to a garage and expecting the attendant to fix your engine.

To carry the comparison further: not only have garages not promised to make your vehicle better, they warn you that it could come out worse. Ever read the claim ticket from a garage? “All vehicles are parked at owners risk. No liability is assumed by management for loss or damage by fire, theft or any other cause. PLEASE REMOVE ALL VALUABLES.”

Social media is like a parking garage: it’s there to hold what’s valuable to us for as long as possible. And as every claim check clearly states, it might be worse when we get it back.

Many social networks pride themselves on a laissez-faire approach, but that means we have to fend for ourselves. Since we cannot rely on Silicon Valley to do this work (even though standing up for humanity created the very society that allowed them to become incredibly rich in the first place), and we decreasingly can rely on mainstream media to do it, we have to do it for ourselves. The media industry is evolving, and I’m not sure where it's headed. I greatly appreciated working for the networks and stations that employed me, but now I'd rather work for you: as intimately, meaningfully and joyfully as possible.

How to subscribe to The Night Light and what you’ll get for it

Working in public media taught me the power of memberships. Many people can benefit from the leadership of a few who are willing to step up and invest in values-driven programming. That’s what I’m counting on today: that people who believe what I believe are willing to do what few others will. They’re willing to lead. They’re willing to put their money where their mind is, and create more spaces for everyone to connect.

If you choose to become a paid subscriber ($8/month, $80/year), here’s what you’ll get:

  • Access to all posts (otherwise, access is limited to recent weeks)

  • Commenting on posts (I’m limiting comments to paid members in hopes of cutting down on trolls)

  • Merch store discounts (anyone will be able to purchase merch once the store is up, but members will pay less)

  • Podcast episodes ad-free and early (shows will unlock for paid members before the general public, and the free versions will have ads)

  • Submit comments via text, audio or video (anyone can submit text-only comments)

  • YouTube live streams with audience engagement (only paid members will be able to submit comments during live shows or take part in live polls)

  • Monthly Q&A “Ask Me Anything” episode

  • Other bonus content & episodes throughout the year

The highest tier of membership is what Substack calls a Founding Member. For $240/year, you get a premium version of these benefits, and more:

  • Complimentary gift (mug, keychain or tote bag)

  • Merch store deeper discounts

  • Podcast episodes earliest (Founding Members will have first crack at episodes)

  • Quarterly check-in with me (to update overall progress on The Night Light — Founding Members will get 2 guest invites to give potential subscribers)

I plan to drop the first episode of The Night Light no later than June 22nd. Hope to see you then.

The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
The Night Light with Joshua Johnson
Joshua Johnson