Journalism’s Surrender, Ctd

A reader writes:

Thank you for continuing to cover the state of journalism today. I thoroughly enjoyed what you had to say about Time Inc’s remodeling – a development that I would not have known about were it not for the Dish – as well as your continued attention to the Mike Allen fiasco. It is disturbing that the media hasn’t covered the rise of revenue-based journalism more, and I’m glad that you keep drawing our attention to the issue.

To pile on, I just read the Playboy article by BuzzfeedBen about how social media – by which he really means Buzzfeed, with its tens of thousands of viral, share-worthy listicles – will “save journalism,” and I’m very much looking forward to your take on it. I say that not just because you’re mentioned briefly in that piece (as one of the pioneers of the political blogger revolution), but because he has some truly interesting defenses of Buzzfeed’s journalism/business model, including one section where he says that sponsored content is like the “beautiful, well-produced” advertizing one might see in Vogue and actually enhances the product rather than detracts from it. In another section, he seems to compare – bizarrely – the popularity of lists like “108 Reasons Corgis Really Are That Great” to the renewed interest in long-form journalism.

Of course, BuzzfeedBen doesn’t actually address any of the arguments against sponsored content (other than noting that it is “controversial” in some parts) or the virality-at-all-costs mindset of sites like Buzzfeed. The only criticism that he spends any time considering is the reader preference for sharing warm, fuzzy, inspirational news over more sobering items, but he also pooh-poohs that away as a “small-bore complaint” – because hey, in the end, Buzzfeed hires a lot of journalists and gets people to read a lot of “news,” and that’s what we all want for the industry, right?

To that end, I found Luke O’Neil’s Esquire essay, “The Year We Broke The Internet,” to be a great companion piece for the Playboy article. (O’Neil’s piece actually came out about a week before BuzzfeedBen’s, but I found it more informative to read Smith’s first, and then O’Neil’s.) Whereas BuzzfeedBen insists that Buzzfeed still values the same things old journalism valued – speed, hilarity, accuracy, originality – without ever acknowledging how that site’s business model has compromised the latter two values in favor of the first two, O’Neil skewers Buzzfeed’s hypocrisy (while admitting that he has also played a part in this race to the bottom). My favorite quote from his piece:

Among all the things I’ve written this year, the ones that took the least amount of time and effort usually did the most traffic. The more in-depth, reported pieces didn’t stand a chance against riffs on things predestined to go viral. That’s the secret that Upworthy, BuzzFeed, MailOnline, Viral Nova, and their dozens of knockoffs have figured out: You don’t need to write anymore – just write a good headline and point. If what you’re pointing at turns out to be a steaming turd, well, then repackage the steam and sell it back to us.

So much of the O’Neil essay encapsulates what bothers me about the accountability-free, pageviews-first mentality of Buzzfeed, even if the site does have some credible journalists who do good, original work (a point that O’Neil also addresses). I enjoy and am grateful for Chris Geidner’s tireless coverage of LGBT issues, for example, but I absolutely hate when he churns out some listicle whose sole effect is to pull eyeballs away from another journalist’s work, like his 13 highlights of Jennifer Senior’s New York interview with Justice Scalia – which was literally just a bunch of screenshots off the NYMag site, with no extra commentary.

Anyway, that’s the end of my rant. Happy New Year to you and the rest of the Dish Team! I’m really looking forward to another year of excellent coverage from you guys, and I’m definitely going to re-subscribe in February.

Meanwhile, another reader smells something fishy from another corner of the Internet:

Just in time for the new year, here’s another addition to the hall of shame of “sponsored content” posing as online journalism. The top spot on the new, confusingly re-designed website for the online magazine Slate features a story by one Jordan D. Metzl with the fast-breaking news that exercise is good for you. The story’s content usefully summarizes a new book on the subject by none other than … Jordan D. Metzl. In case the reader misses the mentions of the book in the article itself, or in the blurb about the author at the end (all with links to the book’s page on Amazon), the text is accompanied by a large photo of the book’s cover, which is also clickable to the Amazon page, and features a smiling photo of … Jordan D. Metzl.

Nowhere is this piece of blatant puffery tagged as “sponsored content,” yet it is impossible to believe that Slate paid money to its author.  And so the insidious infiltration of online journalism by prepaid material continues.  We should all resolve to exercise more in the new year.  But I’d like to hope that Slate, which was such an early pioneer of online journalism, would make a new year’s resolution to back away from this pernicious practice before its credibility with faithful readers like me is lost forever.

Update from a reader:

The reader who considers the Jordan D. Metzl article in Slate to be a kind of “sponsored content” is all wet. Authors summarizing their arguments or excerpting from their new books in periodicals are taking part in a time-honored practice that benefits everyone. The author gets a chance to sell a book. The magazine gets some potentially valuable content. Readers get the chance to learn about a book they may want to read in its entirety, or to learn after a few paragraphs that it is a turkey to be avoided, or to absorb the essence for free and decide that’s enough. No one is pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. Such stories are a feature of the magazine form, now extended to the web.

Another also doesn’t seem a problem:

Oh, come on, this kind of promotion is at least the second oldest profession. Remember when so many featured articles in Tina Brown’s New Yorker were outtakes from upcoming Random House books, a company run by her husband Harold Evans?  It’s everywhere, all the time. I find it useful: it saves me buying, borrowing or even reading the book.