Mike Hudack, an executive at Facebook, went on a bit of a rant about the state of US media and how it is being slowly chipped away. He is right, mostly. Not surprisingly, his post got picked up across the social web and eventually became a poster child of the churnalism he was mocking.
Mathew Ingram, did a good job of capturing the reactions from some of the more sober voices on the pro-media side of things, but I wanted to raise a couple of points. I am a voracious reader and over the years have optimized my reading experience that is less judgmental about people’s opinions, instead focusing mostly on the quality of the work.
Sure, quality is all subjective — what’s the point of taste if it is not individualistic — but given the success I have with my email newsletter and the click throughs on the links shared via “What I am reading posts,” it is safe to assume that I am doing something right. My friend Dave Pell writes the Next Draft newsletter, a smart curated take on today with links to stuff that is worth reading and has found success with it. Same is true for Jason Hirschhorn’s MediaRedef newsletter about media and Internet.
To me what these examples show is that there is a lot of good journalism happening around us, except it is unevenly distributed. Sadly, it also gets drowned out in the noise that is the social media. ProPublica, for instance, is among the new groups that have published some great investigative and it is a gift to the modern world. Similarly, I find independent publications, say N+1 or Aeon, produce good thoughtful stories and bring some uneasy topics to our attention. LA Weekly, Texas Monthly and the Boston Globe are all publishing and doing exceptional journalism, too.
I suspect, the rate with which good stories are being produced has gone down but the mission to do good journalism hasn’t left the newsrooms. Even click-hos of the modern Internet are hiring serious journalists to bolster their quality. However, what we have failed to do, is to figure out smart ways to surface quality and instead have been victimized by the simplistic algorithms of social media and a biased search engine that now lives to fill the whimsical demands of quarterly revenue and earning targets.
One of the biggest changes over the past decade has been the shift in how media was made and consumed. Media creation used to be firmly in hands of professionals, with readers (or viewers) being essentially passive. Lately, everyone is a media creator. On the web itself, we have gone from the idea of destination web to a more disaggregated web — a sharp decline in the importance of The New York Times home page is a rude reminder of that trend. Content has gone atomic, optimized for consumption is already attention-starved human minds.
About four years ago, I pointed out that it was “only a matter of time before these two sources [Facebook and Twitter] become major web content discovery engines.” And as such they are different from the previous content discovery mechanisms — radio, television, magazines and newspaper front pages. It was a world of choices made by others — editors or producers. And not surprisingly these discovery engines, however are optimized for the lowest common denominator.
The social web amplifies what is essentially human nature, and most (if not all) of us want a momentary titilation, a quick dopamine hit that comes from a listicle or some random set of photos. We all for a few brief seconds want to feel happy by watching a video on Upworthy. And we like, share, retweet or favorite what we know is essentially, the non-essential. Whether it is Mickey-D or Shake Shack, we know it is not good for your body, but we still chow down on that stuff.
Hudack is outraged because the media business has started to optimize around these algorithms whose sole focus is to get as many page views, which are essentially the only way ad-based media companies can make money. Unless we change that, it won’t matter — news media companies are in competition for attention with others who have much more tantalizing and alluring attention seeking ploys.
PS#2: Dave Winer has some good thoughts about the media landscape changes. “Unbelievably, there’s still time, because Facebook hasn’t really arrived in news, and Twitter is just sitting there, as paralyzed, apparently, as the news industry.”