“Education… has produced a population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.” - G. M. Trevelyan
On Friday, Buzzfeed published a post entitled “The Least Important Football Game Ever.”
Now, before I get into this, let me first acknowledge that I am not a Buzzfeed-hater. Their political coverage, for example, rocks. So this isn’t a “we hate Buzzfeed” story. It is, however, a story about my growing concerns about online journalism.
Buzzfeed’s account documented the previous week’s contest between Idaho and New Mexico State, devoting over a thousand words to a meaningless game with no competitive interest (both teams were a godawful 1-10 entering the contest). If the post had a point, it’s that it had no point: Neither university has a large or marketable fan base, none of the players had particularly good or bad performances, and the teams aren’t even rivals.
The writer didn’t even go so far as to ironically suggest that the game was interesting due to the sheer magnitude of its irrelevance, which the title more or less suggests. It’s almost as if he wrote the title and then found a thousands words to substantiate it, with little regard for whether or not there was any value in writing the piece at all.
So why do I care, aside from the letdown I’m feeling after getting my hopes up over an article that I thought might be funny?
I’m worried about online journalism
While online journalism has revolutionized the way we receive and process information — a shift that I would argue is, on balance, a good thing — “The Least Important Football Game” represents many of the problems I have with online media.
But first, so you can be sure that I’m not just some grumbling luddite, here are a few of the reasons why I think online journalism makes our society better (for a more thorough defense of Twitter, et. al., click here).
Simply by nature of the ways in which they are delivered, online and print media are bound to differ drastically. The most obvious difference is that print is limited: For example, The Kenyon Observer, which I edit, publishes a five-article issue every two weeks, with no article exceeding 1,600 words (two pages, given our layout and font). If a writer can’t condense their argument to 1,600 words, or if six people have great ideas for a given issue, that’s too bad; our budget only covers a certain amount of print per semester.
This limitation is one of the reasons why we started a blog to go alongside our print publication. Articles that don’t quite fit into the print issue, or time-sensitive reactions that will be stale by the time the print issue is actually published, can still find a home online. And this is significant: to paraphrase TalkingPointsMemo’s Josh Marshall, this means that no worthy story need die for lack of space.
While online journalism is useful for the writer, it’s also useful for consumers and society as a whole. With the advent of Twitter, journalism that was once aristocratic is now democratic. Instead of a section editor deciding which articles get cut and which get read, content is tweeted out and, if it’s good it’s retweeted, shared, commented on, and linked to. That fact that anyone with an Internet connection can blog and tweet has shattered traditional barriers to entry, as you no longer have to get hired to publish a good idea. Some post are read more. and some less, but every story and idea can be evaluated in the public sphere; this puts the readers in charge of which authors and stories (hopefully the most deserving) reach the widest audience.
However, and here’s where my issues start to arise, unfettered democracy in the media isn’t necessarily a good thing. The ways in which people select and process online information create a set of perverse incentives which further exacerbate problems that print journalism itself has always been in a constant struggle to avoid.
The Internet is too fast
Competition for readership means that “saying it first” risks becoming more (or at least as) important as saying it best, or even saying it right.
When America’s political class was waiting on pins and needles for the Supreme Court’s decision as to whether or not to uphold Obamacare, all it took was for one jerk to tweet out that the law had been struck down for both CNN and FOX to race ahead with a catchy, completely incorrect story.
Online, these mistakes are instantaneous; in print, it takes some time to make an error of that magnitude, extra time that prevents some (although perhaps not all) of the most egregious errors from occurring. (Though at least online you can quickly correct/delete the original error (though there’s no way to un-viral a false-fact that’s already out there) — no such luck with dead trees.)
Clicks over content
Aside from errors, the competition for eyeballs has always placed what I feel is an unfortunate importance on titles (as John Aravosis can attest, I’m terrible at coming up with them) and other methods of generating traffic. Since readers have a limited amount of time, they will naturally gravitate towards stories that grab their interest.
But once you’ve bought the Times, they don’t care which stories you read, taking away their incentive to dilute or misrepresent their content with headlines crafted merely for shock value. While the headlines in the printed New York Times are competing with each other at most, the Times’ tweets are competing with everyone else’s tweets.
On the Internet, revenue is based in part on the number of ads you can put in front of the reader’s face, which means that it’s based on the number of overall readers, the number of pages each reader visits, and how long they stay on each page (it’s big money, too: the Times’ website produces roughly $5 per second in revenue). The degree to which a title elicits an emotional reaction from the reader, regardless of the actual content of the article, determines the number of clicks an article gets and, by extension, how well the site performs financially. Content is easily simplified or distorted by a title that is catchy first and accurate second, which does a disservice to both the reader and the content itself.
Having said that, at some point you risk running up against the “once burned, twice shy” problem where people learn that your hyperbolic tweets aren’t reflected in actual wow-worthy content.
The informational fire hose
Click-based financing encourages publishing for the sake of publishing, as more posts equals more clicks equals more revenue.
Unlike print journalism, where some care must be taken in determining what is and isn’t news, or what is or isn’t a well-thought out argument, online journalism is a mad dash to say as much as you can as quickly as you can. While newspapers publish roughly the same amount of content every day, and are rewarded financially for attracting and maintaining a readership based on the newspaper’s quality (or at least they were — nowadays all media is struggling to survive), online outlets like the Drudge Report are rewarded financially for being a steady stream of something, whether or not that something is entirely accurate or particularly insightful.
This isn’t to say that online journalism is inherently bad. On the contrary, and as I noted above, on balance I think that the proverbial death of print has the potential to be good for journalism. The issues I see in the online world are still present, if not as prominent, in the print world, and online journalism’s biggest weakness – the incentive to publish for the sake of publishing – goes hand in hand with its biggest strength – the readers’ control over what content is rewarded by mass distribution.
However, journalism’s shift from paper to screen puts the onus on writers to take pride in their stories, with the understanding that more/faster isn’t always better.
If it really is the least important football game ever, then no title is going to be snazzy enough to save a story that should never have been written.