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Our Conversation With Berny Belvedere, Founder of Arc Digital

“People who read us will gain a better perspective overall of the issues that we produce. Why wouldn’t we want to be as influential as possible?

On Wednesday, February 20th, Merion West’s Henri Mattila was joined by the founder  of the online commentary platform Arc Digital, Berny Belvedere.

Arc Digital is a young but increasingly influential outlet for political and cultural commentary, with a focus on delivering penetrating takes from a variety of viewpoints. For example, one of the five columnists at Arc describes himself a “Strident homosexual,” while another a “Conservative feminist.” Berny, the Editor-in-Chief, himself is a devout Christian. This unlikely mix of voices makes for a particular, yet engaging, reading experience unrivaled in the so-called “intellectual Dark Web.”

Can you walk me through your personal journey to starting Arc Digital?

Absolutely. Arc was born out of the conviction that intellectual conservatism is a rare breed, at least when it comes to representation at the level of journalism. Ryan Huber (Arc’s cofounder) and I had a desire to have something that produced very high-quality conservative thought. From that point on, it very quickly took on a life of its own, and we realized the inner structure of what we were longing to produce was more like a marketplace of ideas type of site. A place that sort of legitimately fulfilled The Atlantic’s slogan, “No party or clique,” in a way that The Atlantic isn’t fulfilling now.

I think we recognized pretty early on that we weren’t interested in just one side of the conversation. We were actively seeking out positions from all over the political spectrum. We allowed that sentiment to guide us and shape the public forum going forward. This was in 2016, so we went about a few months with this early phase. And then we said, “You know what? We really want to do a thing where we have a public forum presenting views from all over the spectrum, representing the major, most durable traditions out there.” So, we wouldn’t necessarily actively seek out weird fringe positions that people haven’t been convinced by.

We would say, “These positions have been durable for a reason. There’s an intellectual energy that produces worthwhile arguments from within them. Let’s have a public forum where they can come forward and give their take on some topic.” And the topics have been expansively large. Everything that exists in the world can fit into one of our categories: politics, economics, world, philosophy, society. It’s a huge site, and we want a huge amount of perspectives to come in and give their takes to our readers. That’s where we landed early on in the process, and where we’ve been ever since.

You said you deliberately aim for ideological diversity?

We do! We deliberately aim for that. We seek out perspectives that give a contrary position to ones we already accepted or published or are in the queue ready to be published. We deliberately seek out diversity of thought because the project, Arc, is self-consciously conceived of in this way where we wanted to be a public forum, a publication that is host to different perspectives in dialogue with each other.

We think that an epistemic openness to the possibility that some durable tradition might get some answer right on some topic or some policy or some issue is, I think, a necessary position to take today. It’s not an epistemic openness that says, “Well, you know, any position out there is just as likely to be as true as any other.” Instead, it says, “Out of the durable traditions, out of the ones that have withstood the test of time, and have a number of adherents and an inter-developmental process to the ideas, what do they have to say about this topic?”

Maybe a reader doesn’t go all-in on accepting that perspective, but at least they learn something. And whatever they learn from that article, which they don’t fully buy or accept, they nevertheless imbue some of that into their overall synthesis of their own views on something. I think there’s a lot of good that can come out of a process like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean creating converts from one position to another; it can just mean an overall enrichment of your own position by being in a dialogue with the views of others.

You mentioned you are a conservative, but you publish all kinds of perspectives. Do you have evidence that, say, people who lean to the left on the political spectrum are reading articles that argue for the conservative position and have had their minds changed, and vice versa?

I think that the idea of ideological conversion is a somewhat simplistic way of understanding the value of a public forum like ours, or a site like Merion West and what it offers. I don’t know that ideological conversion or someone going from one position all the way to another is the metric of success there. If I say I’m a libertarian, and I come across a really respectable socialist argument for something, what success looks like from our perspective isn’t necessarily this person becoming a socialist. Instead, it’s this person saying, “Huh. That’s a perspective I wasn’t really familiar with before. There’s an element within this that I’m going to see as important now, or there’s an argument that I’m going to look into because it seems convincing.”

It’s an intellectual process that goes on by being in conversation with other perspectives. I think that if our site can assist in that process, where the trajectory is going upwards in terms of your own thinking, your own growing, and your own engagement with this aspect of reality, then we will have done our jobs. The point isn’t necessarily to convert people from one position to another. Instead, the point is to enhance the conversation in a way that is intellectual productive. Right off the bat, I would challenge the premise of toggling back and forth and having readers go from one position to another. Instead, we want to ask, “With anything that we publish, will this enrich the mental lives of people who read this?” I think that even if you don’t buy the overall perspective of the author, you can still gain something valuable from it. That’s what we’re going for.

To your earlier point, I don’t see much evidence of people self-consciously embracing this attitude of, “Well, I don’t agree with the other side, but let me still take a look at some of their arguments.” I think it’s much more natural for us to coalesce around and long for arguments, articles, and information that sort of reflect our antecedently held positions. We want that reflected back to us in what we read. There’s a cognitive story you can tell here about how happy it makes us when we read something that aligns with our core beliefs, and how challenging it is from a neurological or cognitive process where, when we find something that clashes with [our core beliefs] we seek to run away from it or shut it down.

I’m not immune to that. This is more of a recognition of its importance without it necessarily being an immediately gratifying thing for me to see. Don’t get me wrong: we publish stuff where I’ll look at the article and say, “I definitely don’t agree. This is completely different from what I believe.” At a more visceral and immediate level, I disagree. But then I think of the overarching aim of what we’re doing, and I think that’s where its value comes from.

I don’t use my own core beliefs and seeing if something aligns with them as a metric. Instead, I think about a project like this, and I look at certain benefits that can come from it, certain ways that content produced within it is taking into account the fact that it is a big tent.

Let’s say there’s a rabid conservative who writes for us. Just the fact that they know there’s going to be a liberal audience, the fact that they know the next article we publish chronologically after them is going to perhaps be from a different perspective—that challenges their own writing process in some way, in a good way I would argue. They think to themselves, “Well, if I’m just preaching to the choir, I can just assume this, that, and the other. But now, I’m coming up against an article that perhaps might take a different view. It’ll be exposed to readers who totally disagree. Let me see if I need an extra argument for this assumption here, or if I need to sharpen my thinking in this other paragraph here.”

It makes demands on your intellectual product that I think are worthwhile and good, because you realize that this is a pluralistic project. You want to convince people, and you can’t take assumptions that other people would cheer you on for but wouldn’t be substantive. I think that there are all sorts of benefits attached to this, but you’re right when you say it does not come naturally to us.

Studies show that an increasing number of Americans think that the mainstream media is becoming more divided along partisan lines. Do you agree with the sentiment that the mainstream media is becoming more polarized?

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Is the media becoming more polarized? I think it is. I think when you only have a mainstream media like it was for a long time, and there are all of this niche outlets—if you were a communist back in the day, you wouldn’t get any crumbs tossed your way at all, so you had to have your own magazine with a circulation of 113, and each one of them could get the perspective they wanted.

Nowadays, we have the proliferation of media outlets and they take a certain angle. If you have certain views, you could find a media outlet that really corresponds with what you think. Because of the presence of certain intentionally polemical media outlets, like some hardcore right-wing outlets or some left-wing ones, the mainstreamers have been forced to adjust to that and say, “Well, if we want to capture some of these viewers, we’re going to have to have a perspective that is as bold and as good as this or that.”

It’s put a pressure on, for example, Fox News to be the right-wing media outlet, and MSNBC wants to just capture the viewers that lean left. There’s also a space to try to do something in between in the way that CNN styles itself to be. People look out there at the marketplace of news consumption and they say, “Where do we sit? Who do we want to reach out to?” We’re certainly not exempt from this process. We have the same kind of questions, although I will say that for us, what we were feeling and thinking was primary and only secondarily did we wonder if there was a market for this. It was just something that we thought was right, and the marketing aspects came after.

I do think that there has been an increasing trend toward polarization, and interestingly enough, it has been part of the media that has helped shine a light on this.  So, what would you do in the past if you saw televised coverage of some event and you thought it was skewed toward the liberal perspective? You might talk with a couple of friends at work and say, “Huh. I’m not sure about how they reported that one,” but that’s as far as your complaint would go. Now, you would have all sorts of right or left-wing personalities proclaiming a distortion of coverage, and there could be a galvanizing effect where an entire infrastructure on either the left or right is pointing out how The New York Times got some issue wrong.

For example, the left will criticize how sometimes, for example, [the media] won’t call Trump’s comments a lie, and the right will say, “Why are you only characterizing Trump’s negatives and never throw him a bone at all?” This will be amplified by media outlets, and what you have is a polarization that has grown there, so people prone to think in leftward terms will say, “Oh yeah, The New York Times, mainstream media, they’re really skewing toward the right in the wrong direction,” and the right will have powerful voices that say, “Yeah, look how much they’re leaning toward the left.” These organs of partisan news will assist in the polarization.

I do think that even if those organs weren’t there, even if you didn’t have these agitators online screaming at instances they didn’t like, you could still detect the left-leaning bias to mainstream media. Now, I think there are a couple of caveats to this. I wrote a piece that some conservatives got mad about, but here’s my point: there’s news, and there’s opinion. We call it the “News and Opinion World.” I think the bias obviously comes out more in the opinion part of the whole operation, where people are just obviously giving commentary and taking a position. It’s more explicit. I think that it does sometimes bleed into the news coverage, and I think that’s a more legitimate complaint. If you’re going to be a mainstream outlet, let it not be the case that your reporting—even if you’re a liberal person—sees these assumptions enter critically into your investigative work. It’s a problem when that happens.

For example, if you’re prone to think that Trump is the worst thing ever, you might enter a rally and see that few people are there early on and tweet a picture and say, “Look how few people showed up today!” If you were sympathetic to that figure as a reporter, you might hold off on that tweet until later: “Oh, what if there’s some other event in town, or what if they’re having some trouble people to come in?”

For reporting, it’s really important that the investigative reporting and news aspect sees reporters undergoing constant and continual self-checking on this point, where they’re not letting their assumptions and personal ideas filter into how they interact with their subject of coverage. But I think at the commentary or analysis level, I think it’s fair to come in and say, “These were huge mistakes, the analysis is wrong here, Trump’s comments just don’t accord with reality.” At that point, you come in and address it, but not when you’re just covering what someone is doing.

I think news is observation-centric: you observe, and then you report. Then commentary and opinion come in, and we’re a commentary site. Commentary, opinion, and analysis come in and they say, “Okay, here’s why what you observed as a reporter or what anyone else observed represents an egregious mistake.” The reporting itself should be more like the way a video camera works as opposed to the way that an interpreter works.

Arc Digital has enjoyed a lot of growth in the past two years. Where do you see your platform going in the near-future? Are you planning to expand into new areas?

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I’m happy to have an amazing team around me, and we’re always talking about how to fulfill and realize this vision even better moving forward. One of the things we’re going to do is to come out with different forms of products—another way of calling it content. So, we’re going to have podcasts debuting very soon, and I want them to be substantive, I want them to be engaging, and I want people to end an episode and say, “Damn, I just learned something important.” That’s going to be the goal of the podcasts that we come out with.

We’re going to continue to seek partnerships that could fund what we’re doing and enable us to pay for writing and editing without the revenue streams that others go for. This isn’t a judgement of anyone else who has embraced it, but we personally detest ads for text-based content. We think it’s the worst. When I’m reading, my experience is ruined if I see an ad with motion on it and I’m just trying to read text and follow an argument. It’s not conducive to being able to just enjoy and gain a lot from a piece of writing. So, we have rejected ads for text-based content. In the future, we may have ad partners for podcasts. I’m not sure.

We’re also going to have video stuff. I’m happy to say that Cathy Young is going to be doing some chats with folks and just go at it on important topics. We’re going to throw it up on our YouTube page, which we haven’t even created yet! We’re thinking about a lot of stuff. Our main thing is securing partners who align with our project in ways that would enable us to grow in the way that we want. If I could give an ideal version of where we would be in the future, it would be—and this is ambitious, it might seem a little naïve—playing an Atlantic-type role in terms of influence and position within the industry, within the commentary space. That’s what we want to do. We think what we have to offer enriches the conversation. We think people who read us will gain a better perspective overall of the issues that we produce. Why wouldn’t we want to be as influential as possible? That’s what we’re shooting for.

How does Arc Digital maintain itself from an economic standpoint?

In addition to rejecting advertising, we have also rejected a community-funded model paying for our operational costs. We’ve rejected the Patreon-style of funding. Again, without any judgement in my voice, we’ve got to figure out what’s best for us, and we’re hoping for people who care deeply about our project and think that it is good for society who have the financial backing to propel us forward. Like a smart partner. That’s what we’re looking for, that’s what we hope to find.

Right now, I’m happy to say that Medium (the platform Arc Digital uses) has been a great partner to us and likes what we’re doing. Medium has reacted to 2016 the same way we have, which is, “We need a better media,” and they like the fact that we had perspectives from all over the spectrum. They said, “We can support you at this level,” so we get a little bit per month from Medium, and that’s how we’re able to pay writers.

Thank you for joining me today, Berny. I enjoyed the conversation.

Thanks for having me, Henri.

You can follow Berny at @bernybelvedere.

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