Is the Need for Speed Leading to McJournalism?

Bekah Grant must be feeling better.

The former reporter for VentureBeat blew a head of steam with a post that tells the insider’s tale of the influential tech blog and the PR people who want to influence its coverage. Having left the publication, Grant decided to let the naïve entrepreneurs and the flacks who support them know just how tedious and annoying their constant haranguing can be. It was one of those posts that made me shake my head, not because it wasn’t valuable or well written (it is both), but because it is, sadly, a tired story that nearly every tech journalist has– at one time and in one way or another – told.

The bottom line: journalists don’t like hack PR people and begging for coverage of a non-story isn’t going to get you anywhere. So it has been; so it ever will be.

At about the point in the post that I wanted to congratulate Grant for joining the choir and with my mind flashing back to David Churbuck opening a mountain of press releases in front of a roomful of PR account managers while describing just how ineffective they were, Grant hit on something that really did need to be said:

Online publishing is a horse race and speed is critical.

When a story breaks, you could take a couple hours to do research, call to sources, and write a contextualized, edited piece — but by that time, 5 of your competitors will have posted on the story. You will look slow and readers will have moved onto the next thing. The reality is that original reporting and careful editing fall by the wayside in the desire to be fast.

Volume is also key. Most of the tech news sites post something at least once an hour and throughout the night, even when there isn’t news. Fresh content keeps people coming back to the site again and again, regardless of its quality.

The need for speed and volume is primary driven by one thing — pageviews. Pageviews are what sell advertisements, and advertisements are what keep most online publications running — particularly the small independent ones. Are they a good barometer for quality? No, but the reality of online journalism is that you need pageviews to survive.

In other words: real journalism has been lost in the fight for pageviews, which news organizations and apparently the audiences that frequent them prefer over solid sourcing, thoughtful commentary, and, well, actual news.

Let me just say it now:  I love Cheetos. And popcorn. And Terra Chips, which I somehow feel smug about when I choose them over Cheetos.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a balanced dinner of vegetables and lean meat.  But has anyone ever really binged on a braised chicken breast.  I think not. And when given the choice between a bag of chips or a 30 minute wait at a sit-down cafe, I just might have Cheetos for lunch.

For those of you too polite to say it, this habit of junk over substance is evident on my ass.

Why am I telling you this? Because, oddly, it’s the same for news. Why sit down with the New York Times, or your local metro paper, when you can nibble on your Facebook feed?  Why read the Wall Street Journal when the snarky post of Techcrunch are so much more entertaining? And who needs any real experience when any of thousands of listicles will tell you how to become an intuitive, highly-productive, wealthy, funny, happy, anxiety-free, younger-looking, thinner, better-looking, creative and seriously sexually-fulfilled totally awesome person?

It’s junk food journalism and it’s making our collective brain look flat.

But because the market values the things we can count – like pageviews — the media delivers more junk so that an audience of increasingly over-fed, under-nourished media junkies can stab there stubby fingers at yet another link to another banal cat video.

The VentureBeat that Grant wrote for may still be far from junk food journalism, but the constant pressure that pushes a young journalist to write 10 stories a day is certainly driven by the impulse to keep up with the Joneses who are jonesing on listicals, retweets, and click rates.  Over email, Grant told me that she and her colleagues “constantly discussed this topic at VentureBeat.”  She went on to say:

Quality versus quantity is a perpetual balancing act that we struggled with every story, every day, every week. I think it is a question each publication has to wrangle with on their own.”

News organizations have wrangled with this question forever, balancing the fruits and vegetables of politics and city council meeting stories with the chips and candy human-interest pieces and funny pages. Back in the day, they could do that more deftly because 50 cents bought the whole paper so you got sugar-sweetened cereal alongside your oatmeal and fresh fruit.

Not so much anymore, where every story is an individual taste sensation and media organizations make more money selling junk than they do selling journalism.

That’s why new publications like Jessica Lessin‘s The Information and the new news aggregation site Newspeg are so interesting. They are two experiments in giving readers what they want, while enabling audiences to opt for quality information. In the case of The Information, the site teases out important stories, and puts the must-read long-form substance behind a pay wall.  Here, there is the potential to generate ad revenue from information snacking (although that is not the current model) and subscriber revenue from substantial journalistic nourishment.  Newspeg functions as more of an information pantry, allowing readers to stock their intellectual larders as they see fit, yet like modern-day labeling making it easier to identify the nutrient value behind the click.

Ultimately, news organizations are going to have to decide whether they will make money by emulating Big Food or Whole Foods.  And as McMedia taunts us toward intellectual obesity, someone’s going to have to champion the journalistic equivalent of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative.

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2 thoughts on “Is the Need for Speed Leading to McJournalism?

  1. Dan Lyons says:

    Hey Chris, great article. Have you seen this article about the Verge not letting reporters see their traffic ##s, so they don’t start chasing traffic?

    http://ajr.org/2014/03/19/analytics-news-sites-grapple-can-see-data/

  2. […] that is fundamentally restructuring the business environment in which they work. The pressure to perform for clicks is immense and the old model that separates journalists from the economics of the media business […]

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