One thing has been conspicuously absent from all criticism of online media and the future of news: an understanding of incentives. Incentives explain behavior. They explain nearly every major issue facing online media—from over-aggregation to speculative, iterative journalism, from pagination to the dearth of investigative reporting.
I understand these incentives intimately for a simple reason: It’s my job to exploit them. As a media manipulator for controversial media figures—billion-dollar brands like American Apparel, best-selling authors like Tucker Max and others who prefer to remain nameless—I use the Internet, specifically bloggers, to make and control news. I am asked to create fake scandals, get names in the news, launch products, spread disinformation, and protect against misinformation—all of which relies on an understanding of what makes blogs, and the web, work.
My former occupation is not easy to stomach, I’m sure. But I am asking you to put that aside, because we share the same goal: reform.
After watching my friends and clients get ravaged by shoddy online press, I eventually began noticing work like mine appearing everywhere. My job was so easy that it scared me. I remember one day, during dinner conversation, I mentioned some scandal, one that I knew was probably fake. I did it because it was too interesting not to pass along. I was lost in the same unreality I’d helped create. To borrow from Budd Schulberg’s description of a media manipulator in his classic novel The Harder They Fall, I was “indulging myself in the illusions that we can deal in filth without becoming the thing we touch.” I no longer have those illusions. That’s why I decided to write a book—Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator—in which I explain what I do and why it works.
When I say “blogs,” I’m referring specifically to online sites from Gawker to Business Insider to The Huffington Post. But I also don’t think it’s a stretch to include everything from Twitter accounts to major newspaper websites, web videos to group blogs with hundreds of writers in this indictment. I don’t care whether the owners consider themselves a blog or not—collectively they are all subject to the same incentives (advertising revenue and traffic) and they fight for attention with similar tactics (from click-friendly headlines to rushed, real-time stories). They play the same game, just to different degrees.
The pageview imperative
Blogs make money by selling advertisements, and these ads are paid for by the impression (generally a rate per thousand impressions). Regardless of who sells it or who buys it, what matters is that every ad impression a site does is monetized, if only for a few pennies.
The pageview counters that publishers and advertisers use don’t differentiate between the types of impressions an ad gets. A consciously perusing reader is no better than an accidental reader. As long as the page loads and the ad is seen, a click is a click.
The business model for blogs encourages publishers and writers to value the click above other potential goals, such as truth, accuracy, or fairness. Consider the famous AOL memo that outlined what writers must consider before publishing on AOL’s online properties:
How many pageviews will this content generate? Is this story SEO-winning for in-demand terms? How can we modify it to include more terms? Can we bring in contributors with their own followers? What CPM will this content earn? How much will this content cost to produce? How long will it take to produce?
No mention of quality or accuracy. This is the new reality. A seasoned blog publisher like Nick Denton of Gawker knows that being evasive and misleading is one of the best ways to get traffic, traffic that increases his bottom line. In a memo to his bloggers in 2010, he gave specific instructions on how to best manipulate the reader for profit:
When examining a claim, even a dubious claim, don’t dismiss with a skeptical headline before getting to your main argument. Because nobody will get to your main argument. You might as well not bother You set up a mystery—and explain it after the link. Some analysis shows a good question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation point.
I’ll be very blunt: A system where top media executives and owners explicitly acknowledge their preference for money over a quality product is a manipulator’s dream. For example, one of the most effective ways to get positive online coverage is to dangle the promise of tweeting out or promoting the article after the blogger writes it. If a company has 200,000 Twitter followers, a blogger will consciously decide to pull his punches so the company will send its fan base to the blog. Call this an indirect bribe.