media ate from the tree of knowledge

The media industry ate from the tree of knowledge

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The Tree of KnowledgeIn the Garden, there was the tree that was off limits. It was not the Tree of High Cholesterol, nor the Tree of Puns, neither that nor the Tree of Methamphetamines (though all of these should probably be avoided as well.)

It was the Tree of Knowledge. (עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע)

G-d knew that man could not be trusted with certain information, that he might wander from his true path, and so this tree was proscribed from man. And when man partook of fruits of Knowledge, there was he lost forever, cast to the sweat and toil and pain of eternity, waiting and praying for some sort of savior (מָשִׁיחַ) to sort things out.

And G-d created BuzzFeed.

I shall explain.

Ignorance of the audience is bliss

The Media, if you haven’t heard the caterwauling for years, is in Crisis. The Business Model, woe betide them, is Broken. There have been layoffs. The only way into the hallowed halls of the Fourth Estate is through numerous unpaid internships. Freelancer budgets are slashed. The fields are burned, salt is being sown into the soil – dark times indeed. Whither USA Today and Entertainment Tonight?

Surely the Internet would have disturbed the media business no matter what they did – after all, we are talking about a technology just as revolutionary as Gutenberg’s press. Yet digital distribution was not the most damaging disruption, even with the loss of advertisements. Nor can we blame the media’s own reaction, appalling as it has been for many outlets to assert that professional writing should only pay in “exposure.” The most corrosive effect of the Internet came after the Media was able to taste the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

Tragically, the media was able to learn what people clicked on.

Before, in the days of glorious and holy ignorance, the media produced a monolithic product in which Editorial was separated from Advertising. As a business looking for publicity, you either bought into the whole media outlet, or nothing at all. In the case of newspapers, you had to finance the front page, the opinion pages, the horoscopes, the sports pages, even the occasional “Weekend” section with all the skinny on all the Best Brunch Joints in Town. Nobody knew exactly which part sold the paper. Readers bought the whole thing, thus making editorial decisions a sort of magical alchemy. The recipe for a successful media outlet might be just the right combination of news, entertainment, hard data and opinion – but it was impossible to track eyeballs. Ergo – not everything had to be a profit center.

And then, they bit into the Apple, the juice running down their chin – just as you or I would have.

Suddenly, the editors knew on exactly which story people clicked.

The succulence of the fruit’s meat cascading down their throats, you could tell on which page the reader entered, how long they spent on the site, on which other articles they clicked.

Toward the Garden’s exit they hurtled.

The tyranny of the clickable

A friend of mine worked at a major news outlet in the early 2000s and told me of the shift in priorities. Two events occurred in rapid succession: the new and important U.S. Federal Budget was released, with major implications for policies of all sorts. Half way around the world, authorities claimed they might have caught a creepy looking guy who might have been Jon Benét Ramsey’s killer. The budget story couldn’t possible go on the front page of the news site because, “well, we would be giving away ad revenue.” Creepy Guy, as metrics soon showed, posted fifteen clicks for every pigeon-chested policy wonk who clicked on a detailed story about the budget.

This is not to say that editors were suddenly learning that sensationalism increased revenue; this is an industry that spawned the phrase “if it bleeds, it leads.” But it was the first time in which they were burdened with the exact knowledge of what didn’t make money.

Now, journalists would have to justify to management why they should run something that they couldn’t prove made money.

Worse – much worse – now advertisers could arrange to pay per eyeball. They were no longer bound to pay for the alchemy of hard news, engaging opinion, and a bit of fluff. Now, the equation was honed to a razor-sharp edge – we’re paying for clicks, not for your business to exist.

And Media was ejected most forcefully from the Garden.

Critical information cannot pay its own bills

We now live in a world where everyone can publish their own opinions, but the bulk of the population still imbues the brands of the 20th media complex with seriousness and authority. The business models behind those brands no longer share anything in common with the 20th century, the dollars simply having evaporated. As a result, media companies new and old are responding to this tyranny of the clickable, responding with the following tactics:

  • Slash cost of goods sold by reducing money paid to writers (all except for “stars” who will receive “what the market will bear”)
  • Finance the majority of the property with “clickbait” to guarantee eyeballs irrespective of substance (e.g. “20 Cats Having a Bad Day,” “Warren Buffett On How to Make Lots of Money,” “Is Sex Still Sexy?”)
  • Surreptitiously supplant corporate press releases and advertisements with the same masthead as your publication (as tolerable – avoid the Scientologists and/or Westboro Baptist Church whenever possible)
  • If you have extra time, do excellent work

Looking forward, it is difficult to imagine Big Media Companies, with their penchant for Class AAA office space in major coastal cities, escaping this new vortex. There is not yet a way to measure smart eyeballs versus cat-GIF-clicking eyeballs, and so the media that is supposed to counter the information streams from other official power is now indentured to All Title Case Clickbait. No doubt, ambitious journalists of 2013 and beyond will master the Clickbaitable before moving on to the underfunded and unappreciated art of speaking truth to power.

We do see attempts to split the difference. Buzzfeed is building on its mastery of clickbait to include longer form journalism, and some of it is quite good, even seated next to How To Make Boozy French Toast. This analysis of Yahoo’s play for Hulu? It’s punchy, brief and insightful. But it’s no doubt economically subservient to 10 Llamas Who Wish They Were Models. (Subtitle: “To Be Honest, EVERY Llama Wants to Be a Model.”)

We imbue media brands with a gravitas that was earned by other people in another era. In fact, the notion of one group of people under a masthead giving out The News is a distinctly mid-20th century concept in itself. As the media sweats and toils for its new master, clickbait, one dreams of the paradise left behind, where we were blissfully ignorant of the fact that critical information couldn’t cover its own bills.

We cannot give this Knowledge back. Yet I wonder if we could one day use it in the service of financing serious analysis – perhaps even better than before.