Ben McGrath’s profile of Gawker Media’s head-honcho, Nick Denton, in this week’s New Yorker, is a fascinating window into the world of professional blogging, where the pageview is king. (Gawker owns the sports site Deadspin, along with, in order of popularity, Gizmodo, Gawker, Lifehacker, Kotaku (video games), Jezebel, io9 (science fiction), Jalopnik (cars), and Fleshbot. In this list Deadspin would rank behind Kotaku and ahead of Jezebel.) Less informative but equally entertaining is Bill Simmons’s most recent column, which recounts the circumstances that led to his “accidental” tweeting of “moss Vikings” roughly thirty minutes before Fox Sports’s Jay Glazer formally broke the story of Randy Moss’s potential trade to the Minnesota Vikings. These pieces form the backdrop for my points below.
1. Pageviews, hits, unique visitors — these will drive the news and what articles get written, and not just for blogs.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
- Samuel Johnson, The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell.
It’s often said that the internet is the most democratic of all technologies, which may be true, but it is certainly true that it is the most capitalistic of technologies — products will be designed to meet the public’s tastes. One reason for that is that the internet reduces transaction costs, as exhibited by the ability of sites like eBay and Craigslist to connect buyers and sellers for really any products at all. But this is also because the internet allows the measuring of such tastes like never before, whether it’s products recommended by Amazon or movies by Netflix. And online writing is no different:
Paying bonuses for traffic meant not only keeping statistics about what readers did and didn’t like but sharing that information with writers—a supreme journalistic taboo, as it could easily lead to pandering. Pandering was precisely Denton’s aim, and he took it one step further when he started publishing his traffic data alongside the stories themselves. It almost felt like a sociological experiment designed to prove the obvious: that readers are herd animals, that heat begets heat. A photograph of an unidentifiable mammalian carcass on a beach, cleverly dubbed the Montauk Monster, is viewed two million times: go figure. “I think people are sort of waking up to it now, how probably the biggest change in Internet media isn’t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability,” Denton told me. “Which is actually terrifying if you’re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like.”
It is terrifying. Most good bloggers I know try to have a kind of code duello, where although pageviews (which, at least on some level, especially for full-time internet writers), has to be the goal, there is still room for “ethics” in the sense that things won’t be done gratuitously or without sufficient support. But this line is hardly a clear one, and it’s difficult to compete when the other side unabashedly will do anything for digital eyeballs.
Denton’s receptionist sits beneath a large digital screen known as the Big Board, which lists the ten best-performing posts across the company network; these are determined by the number of new readers—as opposed to returning obsessives—in the previous hour. Denton says that the primary purpose of the Big Board is to encourage competition among his writers. A few months ago, he told the Times, “Sometimes one sees writers just standing before it, like early hominids in front of a monolith.”
And make no mistake, Gawker is taking not only eyeballs but advertising revenue from traditional media, who have increasingly gone online — where their content is measurable. Can they resist the temptation to pander? Are they supposed to?
2. “Sources” doesn’t mean what you think it means. The internet has done some interesting things to how stories are “broken.” If something is released by press release, wire service, tweet, or other official medium of the sender, no website, media company, or blog can lay any claim to having broken it — it just happens too quickly. Organizations that want to keep credibility tend to break information this way — when have you ever heard of a Supreme Court decision being leaked early? Of course, most stories are not broken in this way, and that’s because if you have an inside tip you now have power. I’ll let Bill Simmons explain:
With every media company unabashedly playing the “We Had It First!” game, reporters’ salary and credibility hinges directly on how many stories they break. That entices reporters to become enslaved to certain sources (almost always agents or general managers), push transparent agendas (almost always from those same agents or GMs) and “break” news before there’s anything to officially break. It also swings the source/reporter dynamic heavily toward the source. Take care of me and I will take care of you.
So that’s how it works — not all the time but occasionally, and only because of everyone’s obsession to be first. On the surface, this annoys me to no end. Who cares? It’s not like we have some giant scoreboard keeping track of everything. But my reporter friends all say the same thing: It’s not about one scoop but the entire body of scoops (not just for the reporter, but the company that employs them). Think of Ichiro grinding out 200 hits every season. Yeah, most of them are mundane singles … but they add up. For readers, that volume turns it into a “feel” thing….
So yeah, there’s no official scoreboard for scoops. We just subconsciously keep score. As do editors. As do media companies. Some will do whatever it takes to pad their stats, whether it’s pimping every decision someone makes to get repaid with information later, playing the odds by reporting something they hope is true (and if it is, they look like a stud), spinning every angle against someone who once butted heads with a favored source, whatever. The best reporters maintain relationships, avoid agendas, craft good narratives, never stop cultivating new sources and — occasionally — break news simply because it’s an outcome of being good at their jobs. That’s what should matter. And that’s how they should be judged. I wish that were always the case.
Of course, “payment” doesn’t always come in the form of leaking certain stories in the future or spinning a column a particular way. Sometimes payment means, well, payment:
Denton’s greatest publishing feat, objectively speaking, occurred about six months ago. “It was the ultimate story,” he told me. “There is no comparison. ‘Obama Caught on Camera with Tranny,’ maybe. Or ‘Global Nuclear War.’ ” The story, which appeared on Gizmodo, was about a guy who lost his cell phone in a bar. The phone in question was a prototype of the iPhone 4G, which had not yet been released, and the guy was a software engineer at Apple who was out celebrating his twenty-seventh birthday. Another bar patron found the phone, and, instead of returning it to Apple, attempted to recover his beer money by selling it to the media. Denton, ever eager to scandalize the J-school puritans by indulging in checkbook journalism, offered five grand—and was rewarded with roughly twenty million page views. (His rule on “bounties,” as he calls them, is that you should be willing to pay ten dollars for every thousand new visitors you hope to attract.) Thirteen million of these came from the initial post, “This Is Apple’s Next iPhone,” which was straightforward gadget porn, featuring photographs of the device from every possible angle. A few million more views were captured when Gizmodo posted a gloating play-by-play account of the transaction, in the process outing the unlucky birthday boy (“Those beers may have turned out to be the bitterest of his life”).
Aside from being part of the Gawker empire, we know Deadspin pays for stories, including this latest Brett Favre brouhaha/bro-ha-ha.
Setting aside the ageless question about whether any news could ever be trusted, knowing what we know about sources described above we know we should trust very little of what we read in the media now, or at least should heavily discount most sources as biased. Now, there’s a difference between hard facts that may be leaking early (like whether so-and-so will play and thus affect your fantasy team this week) and soft or gray-area discussions concerning behind-the-scenes dialogues and decisionmaking, or he-said/she-said stories, a la Favre and Roethlisberger.
3. The above two points are not entirely bad. I wouldn’t go around saying that being slave to the herd and having biased sources is a great thing, but it’s not entirely bad and it’s not entirely new, either. Speaking personally, when I go to the New York Times’s website the first place I click is “Most Popular.” Although imperfect, I generally believe in the wisdom of crowds, especially in the world of ephemeral sports writing. Sports and other games are, by definition, arbitrary and without larger meaning, and serve a purpose, if at all, simply by entertaining and by providing a welcome diversion to the rest of our lives. Following the herd here can only be fine because it can’t really be wrong — it’s a bit like complaining that Fruit Loops have insufficient nutritional value.
Similarly, whether a source who leaks something as meaningless as whether a backup defensive tackle will play in a game or whether a sports star sent lewd photos of himself to someone else you’d forgotten about is really of no moment, because the standard remains the same: Am I entertained?
Fortunately, this being a sports site, I don’t have to opine on whether these trends — which are germane to all online writing, not just sports writing — have a more pernicious effect in other fields, like debates on policy. One datapoint that makes me feel better about such trends is that, although we have an ideal of the unbiased press, I can name a significant period when the press was completely biased, untrustworthy, and unscrupulous: the period of the founding of the United States. It was not uncommon (as it is not uncommon now) for relatively reputable newspapers to run fabricated stories, and for pamphleteers to be paid by a given party or politician to write screeds decrying the other side on their behalf. (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson’s friendship famously ended because of their bitter — and public — political fights.) And yet out of that period we got some of the best and clearest political thinking to have ever been produced, including America’s gift to government, the Federalist Papers.
4. Just because the above trends are harmless (at least with sports), doesn’t make them good, though, either. If the trends described above can’t really hurt us — because all sports are arbitrary — then what do they matter? I’d argue that they do have an effect: they make the game less fun. This touches on something Will Leitch wrote about after the LeBron debacle:
Loving sports, by definition, requires a certain suspension of disbelief and logic. We are all pouring our hearts and souls into cheering for men (and women) who do not care about us, who are not like us, who are not the type of people we would ever associate with (or even meet) in real life. We deify them because it is hard to find people to deify in the real world: Sports spans every age group, ethnic group, political persuasion, and all else that serves to divide us, separate us. We cheer for athletes because sports does not matter, not really. We cheer because sports is, ultimately, harmless.
Eat. Eat. Consume. You like it. You love it. You’ll always come back for more.
They’re surely right, of course. But never has it been laid more bare, and never did it feel so empty. It felt like a break, the moment when the tide crested, when we looked at the games, and their players, and ourselves, and wondered: Why in the world are we watching these awful people? It was a question impossible to answer.
LeBron James, thanks to this debacle, will never be the same. (That he appears unable to understand why is the precise reason why.) ESPN, it feels, will never quite be the same: There were surely thousands of employees there who rubbed their eyes, aghast at what they were watching, guilty to be a part of it. The NBA, the hunger laid bare and the wound gaping for all to see, may never be the same.
This is surely right, and is insightful because it links the athlete to the medium — in LeBron’s case, ESPN — and an instance where the smarminess overtook the sport (and again, here, there wasn’t even any sport, just LeBron switching teams). But this was an instance easy enough to dismiss: an entitled twenty-something who by had every right to “take his talents” anywhere he wanted, but handled it in a silly, concocted fashion. More disturbing, and tougher to dismiss, are the results of the pageviews: We, apparently, care a lot about stuff like Brett Favre’s shenanigans or the other stories pushed to the top of Gawker’s big board, and that isn’t a statement about LeBron, it’s a statement about us.
Maybe we can’t complain about the digital media coverage we get because it’s no longer in the bloggers’ or journalists’ hands, and instead is increasingly determined by algorithm, based on our viewing habits. In other words, maybe we don’t get the high-brow sports coverage we think we want, because, instead, we simply get the sports coverage we deserve.