In 1833, Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun as a “cash and carry” paper—employing hundreds of newsboys to hawk his product every morning on the street corners—and changed the newspaper business forever. Almost immediately, it ended the dominance of the subscriber-based party press and ushered in the era of Bennett, Pulitzer, and Hearst with their sensational, vicious, and rapid-fire “yellow papers.”
One small change in distribution changed everything, including how and what the newspapers wrote. Because newspapers were now sold on a per-issue basis each morning, the headlines of each paper went head to head for a finite share of attention. The most exciting, not the most accurate, won. In my book, I call this the One-off Problem.
The One-off Problem dominated the newspaper industry for decades, and ultimately was—according to many—responsible for everything from mob violence to the Spanish-American war. Its dominance lasted until the re-emergence of news-by-subscription, pushed by Adolph Ochs at The New York Times. As a result, thankfully, for the last three quarters of a century news has been governed by this stabilizer: Consumers pay by subscribing, and publishers protect subscriptions by delivering a quality, valuable product.
But blogs have brought the One-off Problem back.
Audiences don’t consume blogs like by subscription, they consume them just like they consumed yellow papers—whichever one catches their attention at that moment. A quick look at the traffic sources for blogs confirms this: Referral sources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other aggregators combine to dwarf the direct traffic that sites get. RSS is dead. The Huffington Post doesn’t arrive on your doorstep, you read it when people email you links (and then later you click the most titillating headlines and the “Most Read” and “Related” articles that come along with them).
Blogs compete on a per-article basis, and so here we are in 2011, on our fancy Macbooks and high-speed broadband, stuck with the same bogus headlines they had in the 19th century.
From today: Naked Lady Gaga Talks Drugs and Celibacy; Hugh Hefner: I Am Not a Sex Slave Rapist in a Palace of Poop; The Top Nine Videos of Babies Farting and/or Laughing with Kittens; How Justin Bieber Caught a Contagious Syphilis Rumor; Little Girl Slaps Mom with Piece of Pizza, Saves Life
Compare those with some classic headlines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: War Will Be Declared In Fifteen Minutes; Couldn’t Sell His Ear, Old Man Shoots Himself; Owl Frightens Woman To Death In Hospital; Bulldog Tries To Kill Young Girl He Hates; Cat Gave Tenants Nightly ‘Creeps’
As magician Ricky Jay once put it, “People respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago.” The One-off Problem is ugly, no matter what century. Only today, the headlines aren’t being yelled on busy street corners but on noisy aggregators and social networks.
Let’s compare two leaks. One from the era of subscription news and one from me, in the era of blogs.
A: In 1971, The New York Times titled its first story on the Pentagon Papers—leaked by Daniel Ellsberg—in typically understated fashion: “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says”
B: In 2010, I orchestrated a fake leak to the blog Jezebel, which is owned by Gawker. Pretending to be an American Apparel employee, I told them I had stolen some photographs from the company’s servers (in reality we couldn’t use them for legal reasons). Their headline: “Exclusive: American Apparel’s Rejected Halloween Costume Ideas (American Appalling).” Overstating has its rewards: The post drew nearly 100,000 pageviews—even though the content was nothing but some extra photographs from an ad campaign.
Granted, the stakes in these two leaks are hardly comparable, but my point is not the substance but the presentation. Imagine a blogger understating a headline because he or she felt the story was too important to sensationalize. They wouldn’t. That’s not their job. They exaggerate and deceive their readers, and are paid well to do it.
Their ideal, our nightmare