How the chase for clicks and analytics-based reporting may simultaneously kill the media and elect Trump

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Finding our way back to a Dark Ages of information one click at a time.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

In the old media Dark Ages, only the office flu went viral. Articles were shared by passing them across the breakfast table. And liking something meant, you actually liked it—not that you felt you needed to in order to placate someone looking for attention.

But that’s all changed. Now there are numbers, lots of them—and very specific ones at that— attached to everything. And everything has a pre-assessed and post-assessment value. These very words, probably around 1,345 total when you reach the bottom, are infinitesimal values that I have the ability to scrutinize, gerrymander and analyze to pinpoint to their exact worth.

For decades, Macy’s bought 5/6th of a page next to Herb Caen’s daily bread of 1,000 words of notes, ephemera and other stuff Bay Area readers really didn’t need much of (I always liked when he’s spend a paragraph on someone’s vanity plate) but welcomed anyway. Due to his sheer volume of work, probably more than 3,000 column inches/year in his prime, Caen threw some clunkers—that’s for damn sure. Most days, especially from the late ‘80s till his retirement in 1995, you could tell the gin had caught up with him by the time he sat down at his Royal Standard that afternoon.

But it didn’t matter. People didn’t read him because they knew every day was going to be a tour de force of breaking news, intelligent analysis, pithy one-offs and a re-shaping of the world they lived in. They read him because he was diner hashbrowns, eggs and bacon; the satisfaction of grabbing the first cup of work coffee from a fresh pot; the mid-morning down time in stall three between meetings. It was good to catch up, even if for just a few minutes, with an old friend.

The Sacamenna Kid, were he to get his start today, would be content-generating for a SEO farm based in Elk Grove trying his best to find out how to get his clients’ key words: water hook up services countywide to trend.

Because that’s the world we live in.

I’m not decrying the use of analytics outright. I use them every day. And I know enough to know that putting the word ‘Trump’ in a headline (even if, especially if, it’s essentially an anti-Trump piece) is going to bring 3 or 4x the number of clicks that a piece not about Donald would. Throw an expletive in that headline and multiply traffic by three or four more. Boost the post on Facebook and you’re at 8x.

The point is it’s all about traffic—or at least that’s what they make you think (more on that in a sec). Being consistent or even being consistently inconsistent is a thing of the past. Look at most news or news aggregator sites. When’s the last time you were able to land on a landing page and know EXACTLY where to find your favorite columnist? I’m waiting. Still waiting. Can you think of one?

Now, some have split off into verticles (Think Bill Simmons’ Grantland or Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight for ESPN). But even those sites are now a sort of warped version of the original branded authors’ original intent. Bill Simmons was dismissed from The Network in 2015 for wanting $6 million/year and Nate Silver’s actual byline on his site is a more rare sighting than Homer Simpson in a Jenny Craig spot. Other partnerships to leverage a name, think Matt Taibbi/Pierre Omidyar’s disastrous annulled marriage for Omidyar’s The Intercept, never get off the ground.

And you know what? It’s no longer a big deal whether a site’s content is generated by a known quantity. There’s always one-off content to be generated and clicks to round up—nobody, in other words, ever read Buzzfeed for the byline.

Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman recently did a heart wrenching spot for AJ+ (<- as an aside; Al Jazeera America earlier this year shut down and laid off hundreds of journalists) in which she postulates that the mainstream media is so obsessed with putting Trump stories up for those clicks that it’s missing the point of having a Fourth Estate in the first place: to root out corruption, to explore the issues and to help everyday citizens, busy with work, carpool, meal prep, dishes, bath and bedtime, sort out who really is qualified to say—run the biggest listing good ship capitalism in the world.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iIUMxyEgxCo&w=560&h=315]

So why are the medias not doing ANY of the stuff they should do?

Analytics.

I’m no SEO guru—even though everyone who does do SEO seems to claim they are—but I do know my way a little bit around a marketing campaign; and I do know enough to know what’s going to work. SEO is simple and there are two ways to go about doing it that—in spite of what big SEO firms and blogs will tell you—hasn’t really changed in the last decade:

  1. Buy your way to the top. You want prominence on google? You want that page-one hit? Spend spend spend mutherfucka. Google isn’t sitting on a $65 billion cash surplus (most of it hidden overseas btw) because people aren’t paying for placement. And while Google does a lot of marketing in its own right to convince you their algorithm remains a secret, the simple truth is any improvements there have been to help reward those who spend the most with them. Period.
  2. Put something out there people want to see/read. Google can’t ignore millions of likes or shares and if you get off the couch and do something totally brilliant, you may, in effect, carve out your own niche. Just google ‘Move to Mountain Town’ and see what that’s done for this website. But at the end, it’s rare that something connects with folks to the point where it has staying power, and if it’s mainstream media we’re talking, when EVERYONE is writing the same or similar headline and vying to buy the same space—it really is up to them to see who can combo buy/write their way into winning the Trump sweepstakes.

But here’s the rub: Because media is solely reliant on the untenable model of clicks and shares that result in impressions—impressions which everyone, including this site, gets paid a fraction of a fraction of a cent for by the thousand. It’s a constant beast you have to feed but never quite tame.

And those who still do make an attempt at actual journalism, are only able to do it as non-profits. Here, a nice snippet from Mother Jones’s April drive to raise $175k to keep its doors open:

Here’s the thing: It was not hard to see this coming. For years now, smooth-talking guys (yes, mostly guys) with PowerPoint decks have offered up one magic formula after another to save the business of news. Citizen journalism—all the reporting done by users, for free, with newsrooms simply curating it all. “Brand You”—each journo out there on her own, drawing legions of followers to her personal output. (Even Andrew Sullivan couldn’t make that work.) Viral headlines—every news shop Upworthy-ing its way into the Facebook swarm. Aggregation, curation, explainer journalism, explainer video, branded content, text bots, video, branded video, branded virtual reality video…each fueling the hope that here, at last, was the way to make news profitable again.

See that? None of the shit works. Google set the barrier to making your money back so high, thereby devaluing the actual thing that keeps them going—content—that if you’re everyone but them, you’re not making money.

No current business model is sustainable beyond filling out that 501(c)(3) paperwork. The mainstream media, which doesn’t have the luxury of doing this part-time, is at the end of a technology-fueled bender attempting to stay relevant until we go the way of a new media Dark Ages that features no actual original news or reporting and a washed-up, combed over reality star for president.

We’re getting close to it now.

 

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