For a publisher, an ideal blog post strikes several nerves: It’s provocative, it has a simple hook, it generates links and traffic, and it leaves enough out for follow-ups. In other words, it is overstated, polarizing, and incomplete. And it must fulfill these conditions cheaply and at the lightning speed of the web. The divergence of interests is clear: what is good for online publishers is bad for their readers and, cumulatively, for culture itself.
Having studied and observed blogs from deep in the trenches, it is obvious to me that they are assailed on all sides, including but not limited to the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and the marketing manipulation of people like me. Under this duress, their incentives become our reality.
In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the dominant cultural medium determines the culture itself. Today, blogs and social media are that dominant medium.
Unfortunately, they worship a single god: traffic. The central question for the Internet is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Will this get attention?” “Will it spread?” And it happens that almost everything that blogs do to get traffic, keep traffic, and profit from traffic puts them at odds with the truth, good journalism, and serving their readers.
That’s the world I operate in. This world exists primarily because it is so poorly understood—too commonly dressed up in the cyber-utopianism of the Jeff Jarvis crowd, or lost in the out-of-touch complaints of old-school journalists like David Simon.
I can’t tell you what can be done about all this—it’s too soon for that. All I can say is, this is what people like me do behind the scenes, this is how it’s possible, and these are the results.
I hope that’s enough.