Compared to the political press, the technology media is a rank amateur. That’s what I kept thinking as I read this New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. The piece reveals how adept the establishment is at gaming social media and the write-post-click genre of media. Remember the movie Wag the Dog? Well, this is that, except on amphetamines! At least in tech we still have people writing pieces like Buzzfeed’s takedown of Zenefits and its shocking and fascinating insider view of Palantir. Yet the article is a great reflection on the insidious nature of the relationship between the press and the establishment. Deep down in the piece, Rhodes comments:
All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.
When you think about it, Rhodes might as well be talking about all media — political, celebrity, business, technology, science. The need for speed and cheap has turned everything into a race to post, providing little time for reporters to learn, curate and develop sources and original thinking. You can’t do that when you have to write 10 posts a day. It is completely disrespectful to treat your readers with such contempt that you offer them fluff with the nutritional value of Chicken McNuggets!
At Gigaom we didn’t push our reporters to do 10 posts a day. I always advised folks to write on an average 1,250 words a day. That could be a single piece, two pieces or four. More than 25 years of writing have taught me that if you keep writing more on a daily basis, you get sloppy and repetitive and lose your edge. You end up using the same words again and again. There is a blandness when you have to write 3,000 to 4,000 words a day.
In-person interactions and phone calls always lead to more ideas, fresh thinking and a careful understanding of the person and their body language. A good reporter can find these cues and make decisions based on them. These days due to the time crunch, reporters rely on emails, text messages and other such impersonal means to gather information. There is a lack of continuity in the media as younger reporters keep shifting positions and sometimes moving to different jobs. Burnout is a common complaint. In the end, if the media establishment wants to build a better future, it has to nurture the new talent and give them the same luxury of learning we old-timers had. The grind of the clickbait isn’t going to help anyone!
But instead the media establishment sits around and complains about the wrong things. Two foreign policy reporters are stomping their feet, upset about the insinuations of the New York TimesMagazine profile. Others are bitching about Facebook combining algorithmic editing with human curation in its Trending Topics newsfeed. They say Facebook is editorializing. I don’t see how it is any different than the editorializing by Fox, The New York Times, NBC or any other media outlet. Each one has its own agenda. But just because they call themselves “media,” their slant is okay! The front page has been put together in the past by humans. Except now it is an alogrithim that is doing the work, under the guidance of some humans who work for Facebook.
As Dave Winer says, “Gatekeepers have much less power.” Look, I am as distrustful of Facebook as anyone else, but there is no denying that it is now part of media reality. It won’t be long before it sucks all the attention — and then the dollars — away from television to Facebook Live. In the end, media groups will be squabbling with one another, looking for scraps.
Facebook is doing it right – adding just enough human touch to create trending topics in a world of unending amount of information!
May 10, 2016, San Francisco