Not too long ago, Phil sent me a link to an article in The Atlantic about how an obsession with maximizing clicks through analytics “broke” The New Republic.
By the way, I know where you probably think I’m going with this already, and it’s a reasonable direction to take, but it’s not the one I’m going to take.
Anyway, here’s the passage that gets to the heart of the problem:
One of the emblems of the new era in journalism haunted my life at the New Republic. Every time I sat down to work, I surreptitiously peeked at it—as I did when I woke up in the morning, and a few minutes later when I brushed my teeth, and again later in the day as I stood at the urinal. Sometimes, I would just stare at its gyrations, neglecting the article I was editing or ignoring the person seated across from me.
My master was Chartbeat, a site that provides writers, editors, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article. Chartbeat and its competitors have taken hold at virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog. With these meters, no piece has sufficient traffic—it can always be improved with a better headline, a better approach to social media, a better subject, a better argument. Like a manager standing over the assembly line with a stopwatch, Chartbeat and its ilk now hover over the newsroom.
This is a dangerous turn. Journalism may never have been as public-spirited an enterprise as editors and writers liked to think it was. Yet the myth mattered. It pushed journalism to challenge power; it made journalists loath to bend to the whims of their audience; it provided a crucial sense of detachment. The new generation of media giants has no patience for the old ethos of detachment. It’s not that these companies don’t have aspirations toward journalistic greatness. BuzzFeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post invest in excellent reporting and employ first-rate journalists—and they have produced some of the most memorable pieces of investigative journalism in this century. But the pursuit of audience is their central mission. They have allowed the endless feedback loop of the web to shape their editorial sensibility, to determine their editorial investments.
Once a story grabs attention, the media write about the topic with repetitive fury, milking the subject for clicks until the public loses interest. A memorable yet utterly forgettable example: A story about a Minnesota hunter killing a lion named Cecil generated some 3.2 million stories. Virtually every news organization—even The New York Times and The New Yorker—attempted to scrape some traffic from Cecil. This required finding a novel angle, or a just novel enough angle. Vox: “Eating Chicken Is Morally Worse Than Killing Cecil the Lion.” BuzzFeed: “A Psychic Says She Spoke With Cecil the Lion After His Death.” TheAtlantic.com: “From Cecil the Lion to Climate Change: A Perfect Storm of Outrage One-upmanship.”
Neither one of us thought it was something we would blog about at the time. It was just an interesting (and sad) window into the current state of journalism. But in the last 48 hours, I have noticed that my various news aggregators have been filling up with stories that featured some variation of the phrase “giant inflatable Trump chicken” in the headline. The genesis is that a Fox News reporter standing near the White House got photobombed by this:
Here’s a sampling of recent headlines:
- “This is Why a Trump Chicken Was Near the White House” (The New York Times)
- “Meet the Man Behind the Giant Inflatable Chicken Mocking President Trump” (Time)
- “Video: Giant inflatable Trump chicken poses outside the White House” (Belfast Telegraph)
- “Chicagoans are crowdfunding a giant inflatable Trump chicken” (TimeOut Chicago)
- “Two giant inflatable Trump Chickens likely to appear at San Francisco Tax Day March” (SFGate)1
- “Chinese Balloon Factory Welcomes Lunar New year with Giant Trump-Inspired Cocks” (Yibada)2
- “Giant, vaguely Trump-like inflatable roosters are selling fast” (CBS News)
It goes on and on.
Every way of earning a living has inherent conflicts of interest that can deform behavior. Phil and I certainly struggle with ours every day in our weird combination roles of consultants and analysts. Even individual employees have them. Taking a stand against your manager or employer can be risky. People tend to do the things that enable them to continue to earn a living and avoid doing things that jeopardize their livelihoods. The giant inflatable Trump chicken problem is a consequence of a conflict of interest inherent in selling ads online.3
I’m writing about this for two reasons. First, I want to see what happens. We would never use this strategy to determine what we write so we have no experience with it. As a matter of curiosity, I want to see if our viewing numbers change. (I may have missed the giant inflatable Trump chicken/rooster/cock bubble, so I might try this experiment a second time.)
But also, I’m curious about whether any of the ad-funded publications that cover ed tech do this sort of thing. Whether there is any—let’s call it Google flocking”—in our corner of the world, or whether ed tech is just to niche-y for that. So if you see any signs of something like this, please let us know.
- I particularly like the way the SFGate editorial staff decided that Trump Chicken is a proper noun.
- There seems to have been an unfortunate English translation mishap here.
- See how I did that? Inserting the phrase “giant inflatable Trump chicken” into the body of my text? I just goosed my SEO rating a bit.