When “saying it first” becomes more important than “getting it right”

“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

Boredom via Shutterstock

The least important article ever, via Shutterstock

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.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • I know what you mean. It was weird, when I lost the ability to care or empathize with sporting teams or even individuals whom I didn’t know. I’m positive I’d feel differently if I was watching a friend or family member playing.

    On the upside though, I also remember the first time I caught the end of a Steelers game and they’d lost — and I realized, “Hey, I honestly don’t give a damn. That’s great! Their losing didn’t ruin my day! Woohoo!”

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Good points. Spectator sports are kind of like having pets — you get out what you put in. The more you care, the better you feel when “your” team wins, and the worse you feel when “you” lose. (There are also the transcendent moments when I think people generally care regardless of their investment, but those don’t happen that often.) It’s easy to be cynical about the relationship between the actual participants and the fans. I’m a 20-year fan of a college team from a college I didn’t go to just because an alum and friend of the family started taking me to games. I don’t feel the same relationship as those around me because I feel like I don’t have to suffer through the losing years and can bail at any time, while the alumni generally feel obliged. But the suffering is what makes the wins feel good, makes you high five strangers, makes you relive the good plays for days.

    It’s all relative, of course — at a high school reunion I heard some former players reminiscing about some of their big plays from that era, and I thought it sounded sort of pathetic :)

  • Even those. I don’t enjoy watching other people compete in sporting events. It’s boring. I can’t bring myself to care about them or the team.

    Many years ago, it was different. I followed ‘my’ teams — the Steelers and Pirates out of Pittsburgh. Until one day, I watched a Steelers game, and a friend yelled, “We won!”

    Something clicked over in my brain. ‘No, ‘we’ didn’t win anything. The team did. We had nothing to do with it. We just sat here in front of the TV, stuffing our faces with nachos and Mountain Dew.’

    Thereafter, I couldn’t un-hear my revelation, and found myself caring less and less about the games I watched out of habit. Until one day I realized I’d been continuing to watch out of habit, out of some misplaced sense of “supposed to.”

    After that, I gave up all spectator sports and never regretted it. The only sports I’m interested in are the ones in which I myself am a participant.

  • Thanks. I guess one thing is, that I love to research. So when a topic catches my attention, I’ll go look up more information on my own and try to respond from at least a somewhat educated position. I just don’t know where to start from to write something from scratch on my own.

    It’s so easy to participate in a blog, and just throw out sarcasm or rants, or repeat the same thing over and over – which I can’t deny, I find myself tempted to do a lot as well – but when you can actually add more to the discussion or broaden the discussion to directly related topics, it’s just seems like it improves the whole conversation. I’d rather be seen as that person who people know will generally respond with something pertinent, than that person who everyone can pretty much already guess what they’re going to say, and is just waiting to gloss over their repetitive screed.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    The Olympics? Lots to choose from.

  • I prefer that as well. I’m almost always multi-tasking, so it’s nice to be able to digest a section, and wander off to do something else, and then come back to the post and continue reading and know exactly where I left off. I also like it when things are broken up, like Gaius does, into a series of interconnected posts, so the topic gets more fully explored.

  • Strepsi

    Great little Maclean’s article on why we click on outrageous headlines by Canadian lesbian Emme Teitel


    I always hated that in the pioneer of click-generating keyword-based headlines, HuffPost:

  • Indigo

    Knee-jerk shouting is the leading factor in every public lynching. We don’t actually hang people by the neck until they are dead any more but we certainly take a delighted glee in dragging their names and reputations and even their economic foundation through the mud into penury and disgrace. That electronic media take the lead doesn’t say much about the quality of electronic media, that’s a fact, but it’s also a fact that tells us something we should always keep in mind about the electronic media. It’s habitually misleading. Handle with care.

  • I think at least part of the might be the 24/7 news cycle, probably at least in part a product of electronic media, but most obvious in broadcast news: they have to report something, even if there’s nothing to report. (I’m not even going to mention the travesty known as Fox News — they never report anything but speculation anyway, even if it’s just their own.)

  • I’m the opposite: I’m great at titles (usually have the title before the piece, sometimes a title waiting for a piece to happen), but I can’t write the piece until I have the lede.

  • Of any kind, yes.

    I’d rather read a good book.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Of any kind? I honestly feel sort of bad for you — the best sporting events can be like watching a great movie where the end is a surprise to absolutely everyone.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    The point about headlines is spot-on — they didn’t start it but Upworthy sure seems to have advanced the art of the breathless click-inducing headline, like “This kid was bullied by classmates. When you see what he did in response you’ll never think of green beans the same way again.” At some point the terms incredible, unbelievable and world-changing start losing some meaning. And yet I have to click.

  • SkippyFlipjack

    Here’s a recent thread where saying it first precluded getting it right: americablog.com/2013/12/video-shows-cnns-mistake-crashed-obamacare-web-page.html

  • Well, ya got me. ;-)

  • Drew2u

    Speaking for myself, I like it when there are subheadings in a lengthy post. The break-up of a single article into digestible chunks makes it easier for me to pause and think about what I just read in addition to giving me a breather-beat before I start the next section.
    Usually if I have multiple points as a commenter, I’ve tended to enumerate them; though I’ve done it less frequently as of late.

  • Yep, has to be something you care about, and second it helps to be something you know about. That’s what they always told us in writing classes in college – write about what you know. At a certain point in life we all have wisdom. Well, most of us anyway :)

  • Coming from you I have to smile, because you’ve been consistently one of the most interesting commenters here, in terms of really well written, well thought out comments.

  • LOL that’s funny. And it’s not unique to you. Lots of people don’t alway realize the gem they have buried in their writing – that’s why we have editors. Now if I could only find myself one :)

  • Ah, but that’s the first lesson of all: Don’t write for other people. Write for yourself. The only thing that’s important is it’s something you care about.

    Fortunately, that was a lesson I’d absorbed a long time ago, and the written word is my dearest love. What you folks here is only a fraction of the stuff I actually write, much of which never sees the light of day.

    I’d urge you to do the same: Take off the fetters and just write what’s in your heart. Write for YOU.

  • The biggest part of my problem was always coming up with something that people would want to read about in the first place. Keeping a reader interested through to the end was never even a strong consideration. Especially when it’s something opinion-based. Even when just commenting here, every time I put type a word to the screen, I repeatedly ask myself “would anyone else even care that you’re saying this?” I only actually click ‘post’ on about half of the comments I actually start writing. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing to actually seek an audience.

  • Hue-Man

    Who will do the investigations to generate the facts to support the writing? Many blog posts are linked articles written by someone else with a vanishing number of reporters actually attending the Least Interesting Football Game Ever. It’s easy understand why there have been so many plagiarism cases in recent years – research is hard, copying is easy.

    Here, the CBC English and French TV and radio networks can devote resources to read through the Snowden documents to generate headlines like this from today: “Canada set up spy posts for U.S., new Snowden document shows” http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-set-up-spy-posts-for-u-s-new-snowden-document-shows-1.2457299 Will only the largest media outlets be left standing to create original content or will we have to be satisfied with news that consists of cute videos of kittens?

  • 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)…

    My worst blogging habit, as John has correctly and repeatedly pointed out when I write my posts, is I ‘bury the lede.’ I’ve had to take to writing in capital letters at the beginning of it as I write the post, “COME BACK HERE AND WRITE SOMETHING INTERESTING WHEN DONE.”

    I’m okay but not great at titles, but for some reason, until I’ve written the entire piece, I simply can’t write a catchy beginning.

  • “The Least Important Football Game Ever”?

    I laughed out loud at that because my immediate response was, “What? You mean all of them?”

    I so do not enjoy spectator sports of any kind. Without exception.

  • We now live in a media environment in which “reporters” would rather speculate about what might happen next than cover what is actually happening and putting it in context. Explaining what’s actually happening would involve going out and talking to real people rather than being exploited by powerful “sources”. There is virtually no “journalism” happening these days and no repercussions for being flat out wrong on a story or failing to ask questions. Look at the reporting leading up to the Iraq War if you have any doubts about what a crapfest our 21st century media environment has become.

  • Drew2u

    Here’s how I see it:
    Reporting: The act of telling the public about an action or an event that took place, is taking place, or will take place (i.e. Football games, Populace uprisings, election results, holiday bake sales)
    Journalism: The act of exploring the nuances of events and how they pertain to however many groups of people that act will or has affected.
    Speculative Bluster: could fall under Journalism, but essentially is a played-out straw man; such as speculating who will run for what elections in what offices in 2020 or 2120.

    If “being first” is related to reporting when that squirrel will water ski, then have it; bathe in that bloodbath. Otherwise if it’s pertaining to journalism, then actually put that Columbia University degree to work and provide something of substance; that’s something the evening newspaper at least got right.

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