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.
It can also get a lot more direct. Because I am both an online ad buyer and a publicist, I am able to effectively buy coverage on many sites. On the same day a blogger might be emailing me about a rumor he or she heard, it’s very likely that their publisher may also email to ask if I want to increase the size of my ad buy. Or, more often than not, I only get one email—because the publisher and the writer are the same person. The second my ads start appearing on their sites, blogs become very receptive to the stories I “pitch” them.
Believe it or not, you can actually pay to send traffic to articles via services like StumbleUpon, as a way of making sure the piece hits the “Most Popular” lists (which bloggers then wrongly interpret as a sign of having written a hit). However primitive these tactics are, they produce a consistent and reliable result that has never disappointed me.
The speculation frenzy
Bloggers have to churn out dozens of posts a day. A recent lawsuit filed against Reuters revealed that bloggers were required to write more than eight posts a day, and clock as much as 20 hours a week of unpaid overtime to do it. Bloggers have repeatedly told me that their daily quotas hang over their heads and influence almost every publishing decision they make.
Their editors have made it this way. GigaOm founder Om Malik brags that he’s written more than 11,000 posts and 2 million words in the last decade. When even the boss is churning out three posts a day, you know that the pressure is real.
As a result, no topic is off limits, no source too sketchy, no story too speculative if it will result in an extra post. Veteran bloggers John Biggs and Charlie White put it well in their book Blogger Bootcamp, when they reminded aspiring bloggers that there is “no topic too mundane that you can’t pull a post out of it.”
People like me have incredible luck getting coverage just by sending fake, anonymous “tips” to bloggers about the things we want them to write about. No one has the time, and few have the interest, to verify before publishing. Michael Arrington, who parlayed dubious scoops on his blog TechCrunch into a $25 million acquisition by AOL, said it himself: “Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.” You can’t tell me it’s not easy to manipulate someone so transparent about his self-interest.
Once, during a very public lawsuit, I introduced a narrative into the media (that bloggers had refused to pick up and research when I tried to sell them on it) by composing a fake internal memo, supposedly leaked by an employee of one of the companies in the suit, and sending it to bunch of blogs. The same bloggers who were uninterested in the facts when I informed them directly, gladly put up posts about it that screamed “EXCLUSIVE!” and “LEAKED!”
The poet Hesiod once wrote that rumor and gossip are a “light weight to lift up, but heavy to carry and hard to put down.” Speculation and iteration for blogs is much the same. Publishers and marketers are addicted to it, and it’s this addiction that can leveraged and is exploited every day.
Distribution defines content