Mar 292011

Crappy job postings: Ernest Shackleton's ad solicited some 5,000 responses anyway

You’re going to think I’m nuts. But I’m growing convinced: The Web has trashed the American economy.

Back in the ’20s, mass production transformed the way we made and bought things. Henry Ford and his magnate brethren learned how to make vast quantities of consumer items quickly, and to sell those consumer items, they had to advertise to the masses. A symbiotic relationship was born and, in tandem, production and advertising became the twin cylinders of our economic engine. By the 1950s, our consumer society reached its apogee. Today, the capitalist formula is so perfect that many Americans would rather live deep in debt than within their means. Gotta have the latest stuff, or at least die pretending you do!

And then the Web came in. Online shopping mushroomed and today, it’s taking over. Last Cyber Monday, online shopping hit a new high of $1 billion in sales on single day. While we were busy chattering about what a novelty digital commerce was, it was sticking daggers in Mom and Pop’s backs.

Observers like to claim that newspapers and magazines are dying because Web journalism and social media are making them irrelevant. But I think they’re wrong about the true nature of what’s happening. They’re distracted by the shiny new baubles of Twitter and Facebook, and mistaking demolition for revolution.

Yes, the Web has impacted print media. Of course it has. But I think it’s because the Web eliminated advertising as a crucial medium. Why would a wicket manufacturer want to spend tens of thousands for display advertising when it could spend nearly nothing and simply appear at the top of the heap in a Google search? The great ad man, once an archetype of American business, is now something of a hobbyist. Advertising positions are skewing more toward marketing ones in which companies learn not how to master the art of the ad, but how to manipulate free social media gossip to work in their favor.

The end result: Far less money is now changing hands in everyday commerce.

Without advertising, one of the legs has been kicked out from under our economic dinner table.  Without advertising, too, millions of Americans will suffer from lost work: journalists, writers, actors, producers. Without big-ticket advertising, the few surviving media outlets that remain must hack budgets so far to the bone that previously professional positions will be filled by people getting bony wages. More businesses expect to be able to do things for free, and that includes staffing.

cart keyboard button online shopping

All the advertising a business needs these days

If you think that’s a scary prophesy, I hate to tell you it’s already true: An editor of one of the nation’s biggest travel magazines got up in front of the Society of American Travel writers conference last spring and said he’s getting away with paying writers 50¢ a word when a few years ago they got $2 a word. They’re lucky. One of the biggest “news” sites in the world doesn’t pay most of its contributors a cent. In a masterstroke of mining low self-esteem for profit, it tells writers that their payment is the opportunity to see their name on their website for free. All this is now reality because advertising is becoming a memory.

About six months ago, a friend of mine, who has worked in TV, newspapers, and in digital media, said something ominous to me: “I think the dirty little secret of Internet journalism is that no one really knows how to make money from it.”

Six months later, she was laid off by the troubled media corporation that employed her to save it. She was replaced by a kid right out of school whose chief skill is the mastery of SEO. In a downshift analogous to American commerce as a whole, another high-level position became a cottage-industry job, and standards descended with it.

First we were hit by outsourcing. Now we’re being slammed by downsourcing.

Even when I go to brick-and-mortar stores, I find the retail clerks have capitulated to the Web. So often these days, when I look for something that’s not in stock, I’m answered with a passive shrug. “You can find it online,” they tell me, absolving themselves of making a sale despite the fact I have cash in hand.

I would like to know if anyone has ever done a study to see how much money American businesses lose each year because customers refuse to return home, order the item online, pay the shipping, and wait.

The reason no one knows how to make much money off Internet journalism so far is that there are few advertising dollars behind it. Readers and businesses alike are finally used to getting everything for free. In a world where consumers can find what they’re looking for without outside assistance, they’re just not as necessary as they used to be.

Half the engine of our economy was removed even as we’re rocketing down the highway at 95 miles per hour.

It’s mad, man.

Feb 242011

A 1942 War poster. Ironically, it was referring to unions

Do you even know what’s happening to your news? Media companies are tracking the hot terms that people are searching for from minute to minute, and when those terms come up on their computers, there’s a little button. Hit that button and a new rough draft is created with those search terms as the topic. That way, by focusing on coverage of what’s hot, “news” organizations catch viewers.

You don’t hear about things because that thing is necessarily important. You often hear about it because people are searching for it on Google today. This way, Nicole Richie’s wedding is covered more than Richard Holbrooke’s death.

Until a few years ago, your newspaper would send someone to cover the City Council meeting because it was an important service to the community. Not everyone would read that story about the meeting. They might flip right past it on the bus or in the coffee shop. But the City Council members watched their step because a journalist was watching. That’s what they called journalists: watchdogs.

Not anymore. Once media outlets gained the ability to actually know how many people click on each story, the temptation was too great. Rather than presenting news because it’s sometimes the best thing to do for our country and our communities, the news has been nearly completely monetized by corporations. And, as we know, pretty much every news brand is owned by a corporation.

Recently, Nikki Usher, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, took a contrary point of view in her post “Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it.” The crux of her argument was this: “…journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.”

I wonder if she’s a parent, and if she is, whether she raises her kids that way.

Let’s not paint a misty picture of that dinosaur, the old-fashioned newsroom. Even newsprint men wrote a lot of stories merely to feed the appetite of what people wanted to know. Too many. That’s been one of the pillars of the paper since the days of Yellow Journalism, when Helen Jewett’s hatchet murder was the crap du jour.

So Usher has conveniently edited her portrait of historic journalism. She also doesn’t quash any of my SEO fears; she affirms them. She merely looks down her nose at the healthy watchdog function of traditional journalism the way a 7-year-old sniffs at spinach. She also unwittingly succumbs to one of the oldest journalistic tricks in the book: Be contrary, and you’ll be read. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that makes me want to contradict her on my blog.

It’s certainly true that newsrooms are catering to clicks. Yes, journalists in even the best newsrooms craft news they feel is important. It’s a critical function of editors and writers — and merely by choosing what’s important enough to cover they reveal, by definition, a bias that cannot be removed from journalism.

I know there’s an overclass of largely educated, information-hungry people who swear Twitter is uncovering the world’s great ills and revolutionizing revolution, but I would argue that most of its successes have been at shining additional pinpoints of light on areas already in the spotlight. It’s certainly not reaching a wide enough audience to right the wrongs of the local City Council, and there’s no one behind it who can dive into a sleazy corporation’s file cabinets and come up a month later with redemption clutched in their fist.

And since Twitter posts only reach the people who have elected to follow their chosen writers, until there’s a wayward re-tweet to filter out to a new audience, posts actually serves to isolate people in their own bubbles of self-interest. I wrote about the growing intellectual dangers of “personalized” content here last fall.

When you make news too social and slavishly desperate for clicks, the watchdog stuff doesn’t get seen. Oddity wins, not boring old justice, and great stuff gets lost every day. You’d have gulp many gallons of the social media Kool-Aid to think that the much-touted “democracy” of the Web solves all ills. It doesn’t, just as unchecked capitalism can create some pretty hefty poverty problems for the lowest rungs of society.

And the City Council meeting goes uncovered, and the greedy government and corporate ravens rampage without notice. Even if a writer gets the whiff of shady back-room deals or wrongdoing masked by by a thicket of impenetrable paper, the low margins of the Web mean that no one’s paying anyone to put the time and elbow grease into an investigation. When writers get $15 a post, how could they?

Click-derived stories and social media gossip are rapidly leading us to an even larger echo chamber than the one we’re living in now, where newsrooms pump out stories on topics they see appearing on Google Trends, to masticate regurgitated topics of proven tastiness, and to chime in, not break stories. Hollywood began subsisting on recycled rehashes a half-decade ago. Now it’s the news’s turn.

American news coverage has always struggled between profit motives and watchdog service. But the Web made response measurable. Now pure capitalism rules all, and there’s no room for that do-gooder parasite, the watchdog.

Be careful, America. Darwinism is not democracy.

Left to our own devices, we're seduced by the latest ones