by Jeff Jarvis
A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.
Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”
Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.
I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.
At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.
But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.
In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.
Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.