by Alex Pareene
The Awl’s John Herrman brings us his take on Takes, the online media phenomenon wherein nearly every single outlet that produces “content” finds itself compelled to produce some sort of content related to some sort of news (or pseudo-news), despite having no original reporting or intelligent analysis to add. The problem is that generating actual news is difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Writing incisive analysis requires time to process, reflect, and refine one’s arguments. But the Internet needs those Takes now, while the topic is trending:
Take creators might have caught themselves saying things like “that, my friends, is why you never take nude photos of yourself,” or “just a reminder that, actually, sex is natural.” There were Takes on privacy and gender and consent and free speech issued with and without conviction. Everyone with an outlet—or, really, everyone, since the great democratization of Take distribution tools coaxed previously private Takes out from bars and dining rooms and into the harsh sunlight—found themselves under the spell of that horrible force that newspaper columnists feel every week, the one that eventually ruins every last one: the dreadful pull of a guaranteed audience.
The “we need to have something on this” impulse leads to the worst (professional) writing on the web. We all learn this anew each time some poor 20-something content producer writes some exceptionally dumb take, and everyone spends a few hours piling on the outlet that published it. But the attention-grabbing Offensive Takes only obscure the fact that all the inoffensive takes – the ephemeral, aggregated, feather-light blog posts telling people who already know that something happened that something happened, produced solely in the hopes that the post will, through luck and a bit of dark magic, win the Facebook algorithm lottery – are the most depressing pieces of writing on the web, for the reader and the writer.
The Internet media is exploitative and unkind to its greenest employees. Most of the Takes are written by 20-somethings making a (comparative) pittance. The Take is barely, if at all, edited. The young Take-producer is given no time to learn to report, or to read anything other than Everyone Else’s Takes. Dozens of aspiring journalists now have clips files that consist of hundreds of these awful aggregated units of completely disposable Content. Here’s 80 words on something James Franco did. Here’s 100 words on ISIS. This is my link to a Daily Mail story about long-lost twins who married each other.
The Takes wouldn’t be produced if they weren’t profitable – or at least aspirationally, potentially profitable – to the publishers, but the defining feature of modern web publishing is that the Takes are ruining the Brands. When your worst, laziest, least-polished writing is also the most frequently published content at your publication, that writing defines the voice of your site. BuzzFeed would love to be known for its journalism, but the economics of journalism mean that there will simply always be more quizzes than reported stories. And BuzzFeed is actually an outlier: They have a lot of money and a massive editorial staff, meaning no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head forcing them to churn out lists. (In other words, the most alarming thing about BuzzFeed is that its dumbest material isn’t produced in haste out of necessity.)
This isn’t simply a problem for fast-and-cheap New Media – your Mediaites, Daily Callers, and (yes) Salons – it’s an issue at nearly every print publication with a regularly updated web site. Rolling Stone still produces a lot of Quality (expensive) journalism. Its politics page does its best to highlight it. But there, over in the siderail, are the aggregation and takes, published far more frequently than the actual magazine: “Watch George W. Bush Get Doused for ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” “T.I. Writes Powerful Posts on Ferguson Aftermath.” “Kevin Spacey Pranks Clintons in ‘House of Cards’ Spoof.” “John Boehner Uses Billy Joel Pubs to Blast Obama’s Jobs Plan.” All of that stuff was already everywhere else before each of those posts was published (indeed, the fact that they were everywhere else is why they were published). Amusingly, it is all under the utterly dishonest rubric “BREAKING.”
A large number, if not a majority, of editors and publishers understand how untenable and embarrassing this is. But the Takes won’t stop until Facebook turns off the traffic fire-hose for good, at which point we’ll all be out of work anyway.
Update: Pareene’s Round Two on the subject is here.