Everything is Broken
My old writing teacher, Tony Earley, lives in a wonderful little house in Nashville on a leafy green street. He has a little hutch out back where he writes. He’s got a couple of kids, a great wife, a nice life.
When I last saw him a few years ago a small spark of anger rose up in him as I told him about what I was seeing online.
“These folks didn’t earn it,” he said when talking about all of the self-published authors, the bloggers, the writers who got — or aimed for — fame and fortune outside of the traditional publishing world. He, himself, was lucky. He made a name for himself in the heady days just before the rise of the Internet when publishers sent you out on book tours and the printed page was sacrosanct, when a fresh paycheck from a bad job meant a trip to Borders or Barnes & Noble to pick up a stack of new ideas.
Now he writes — beautifully — and teaches and lives a life of the mind. But what did we all lose between that first drop of Guttenberg’s ink and the latest Trump-tinged pixel? What made him so mad? So frustrated? And what, ultimately, is driving today’s media mad?
Media, as an organism, is sick and has been sick since the it caught the blogging bug in the early 2000s. Pageviews, a metric as full of vanity as follower count, ruled the day and because there was nothing better and we went along. Non-writers often think writers want to create clickbait. Aside from a few mercenary shysters, this is untrue. Clickbait becomes clickbait because it is interesting, not because it is engineered for maximum eyeballs.
But the metric that incited the call for clickbait did something quite damaging. It devalued the reader. A pageview was, in theory, a reader visit and these reader “visits,” in the olden days of newspaper and broadcast, meant a few things. In print it meant you had a subscriber or a subscriber to be. In broadcast it meant someone in your geographical vicinity and with some means was hearing your voice. Through these old tools you were at once intimately entangled with your audience and also disassociated. You had the odd crank who would write in to complain about a story and threaten to pull their subscription but most of the time you became a minor town celebrity, separate from the reader but also delicately entwined.
In the case of Internet-based content, however, the devalued medium was the devalued message. It devalued both the reader and the creator. The smartphone encouraged nothing more than a swift dose of oxytocin as we skipped from headline to headline. Readers did not exist or were, as William Gibson described them, “best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed.” The reader was valueless and advertisers paid a penny or less for each one.
This, in turn, forced publishers to expand rapidly in odd ways. A successful blogger either posts twice a day or sixty times a day. There is no middle ground. Some sites win with brevity because of their longevity and audience. Others win by being a constant gnat in the ear of the reader, appearing over and over in a feed of interesting things. Publishing ten things a day isn’t enough. Publishing one a month is suicide.
The rocky middle ground is where things break down. The value of a pageview is impossible to quantify below a certain number. Even unique visitors offer no information. Further, Facebook and Twitter took most of the long-tail ad traffic, ensuring that those looking for something weird and interesting won’t find it in someone’s writing but below a rant about Trump and the Blood Moon. In short, the very people Tony Earley was angry at are now about to suffer a great reckoning.
We’re already seeing it. New journalists are bought and tossed like coconut water boxes. Media pivots like a wobbly bike tire yanked by the invisible hand of marketers. Facebook gives traffic and takes it away. From Mother Jones:
But Facebook has not just given aid and comfort to propagandists. It has hurt the antidote to fake news — real news. Review, briefly, the recent history of our industry. First, starting in the 2000s, came the giant migration of advertising dollars from publishers to Facebook and Google. Today, the two control an estimated 58 percent of the US digital ad market, with Amazon, Microsoft, and the like dividing up the rest and publishers representing barely a rounding error.
In large part as a result, there are now roughly 24,000 journalists working in America’s daily print newsrooms, down from some 56,000 in the early 2000s. And more and more of them work for hedge-fund owners who milk what remains of newspapers’ profits — mostly through layoffs — while further degrading coverage. Here in the Bay Area, all the daily papers except the San Francisco Chronicle are owned by one of these hedge funds, Alden Global Capital. There were once more than 1,000 journalists working for these papers, including 440 at the San Jose-based Mercury News, then one of the nation’s strongest regional outlets. Today there are 145 left across more than two dozen publications, covering a region of 7.6 million people.
Maybe I’m old fashioned and crochety. “Modern media is such a new man’s game that I worry about your old biases,” someone told me last week. Maybe that’s true.
But an audience is worth something. Respect for their attention is what drove the original creators to build better news organizations. Respect for ideas is what drove the original presses.
We are at a crossroads in media. There are a great many solutions proffered — Brave is the most popular right n ow— but they are all built by people who don’t understand audience or media. Further, the general consensus is that journalists are lying or stupid or both. Finally, there is Tony Earley’s problem: if everyone can publish then what’s worth reading? Curation has become a crime even as creation is suspect.
I write this on Medium because I know I have an audience. I don’t know most of you, but I prefer it sometimes because it was earned through my writing and not through the efforts of any outside entity trying for pageviews. But I get nothing for this post except audience. I’m disincentivized to create because creation is not valued. Imagine trying to build a business on Medium? Or on Facebook? Or on Twitter? Or on Instagram? What will you have to give up to get audience and what ethical boundaries will you skirt to win?
Things will change but it requires a few things. First, content cannot be free. Second, advertising and media has to begin valuing the viewer again. Third, we have to realize that things have changed drastically and the old models, the old formats, and the “old men” need to think differently. I’m trying.
We live in an era of constant propaganda. Journalism — what we now call media — is a source of truth. We’ve hamstrung it nearly to a point of no return. What is left when everything is broken?
I, personally, don’t want to find out but I think we’re seeing the results of this break now and it’s not pretty.