‘We get the media we can afford’
Good sites are finding ways to present good stories and journalism in ways that attract real, three dimensional readership or viewing.
The term ‘clickbait’ offends many journalists and others trying hard to use digital techniques to grab the eyes and time of increasingly digitally overloaded consumers. David Fisher, the Herald’s worldly-wise investigative reporter, quipped at the Auckland Writers’ Festival panel on the media that he instead uses the term “Content Readers Appreciate.” CRAp for the uninitiated.
Do we get the media, the journalism we deserve? Another panellist, blogger Giovanni Tiso, reckoned we get the media we can afford. I took that to mean the lower level of judgment, the less nutritious fare, the random and hasty flashes, are down to a stressed news industry cutting costs and losing its way.
A founder of the excellent Politico site, Jim VandeHei, caused waves in April when he blasted the news industry for falling into ‘crap trap’ journalism aimed at winning audiences at the expense of substance.
“They’ve deluded themselves that the better play was to go for the biggest audience possible, using stupid web tricks to draw them in. These include misleading but clicky headlines, feel-good lists, sexy photos and exploding watermelons.”
VandeHei, no old-school legacy media apologist, was hopeful of change. “Here’s the good news. This era is being flushed away. Some companies feel self-conscious about the trash they are producing. Many others realise it’s simply not a good business model.
“The savviest ones see a very cool reason to change. A content revolution is picking up speed, promising a profitable future for companies that can lock down loyal audiences, especially those built around higher-quality content.”
Joshua Topolsky, a Bloomberg digital journalist, has a similar view. His message to online publishers (and he includes new ventures as well as old mutton-dressed-as-lamb websites) is:
“Your problem is that you make shit. A lot of shit. Cheap shit. And no one cares about you or your cheap shit. And an increasingly aware, connected and mutable audience is onto your cheap shit. They don’t want your cheap shit. They want the good shit. And they’ll go to find it somewhere. Hell, they’ll even pay for it.”
He had encouragement for markets like ours, too, I think. “The truth is that the best and most important things the media has ever made were not made to reach the most people – they were made to reach the right people.”
Marketers, advertisers and custodians of brands will recognise that song.
And in the New Zealand market, there is hope on a number of fronts that journalism that presents society with a real, moving snapshot of itself and the things that matter within it will live on.
Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, put it well in a speech to communications graduates at Temple University in the United States. “Communication, people to people, is in a state of breakdown. Too often we are inclined only to talk. And as we all talk we have raised the volume – to a level where we can scarcely hear each other.
“A lower volume would allow us to hear better and then to really listen.”
Time to whisper
In the New Zealand market, the potential merger between the two big legacy news publishers, NZME and Fairfax NZ, presents an opportunity for us to turn the volume down. Not to scream for attention but to entice, persuade and convey the news.
It is possible that a joint company will retain the mass-populist stuff.co.nz site and then play the nzherald.co.nz site as a venue for a journalism not manipulated by the sugar-rush that audiences can fall for and then regret later. A higher-quality – read that as a broader, deeper reporting of public issues but always holding to the value that dullness is our enemy – nzherald.co.nz could be the ‘good shit’ Topolsky identifies.
At the same time the merger will prompt other journalistic digital ventures to expand or surface. They might not compete on scale with the big two but as minority audience alternatives, with consumers’ needs foremost and their own tone and spirit, they will be outlets for journalism.
An existing example is thespinoff.co.nz. I declare an interest here, having contributed articles to the site this year. But I contributed them because it was doing journalism, giving people meat, adding to debate and at all times not taking itself too seriously. It’s fun. It understands the zeitgeist.
Fine work is also being done at radionz.co.nz, at Richard Harman’s politik.co.nz which is a paid-for politics and economic news and views site, and by Bernard Hickey at his hivenews.co.nz and interest.co.nz platforms.
All of this change is in the lee of the great floating Ark of audience-time globally, Facebook. Its algorithms which vet, rate and highlight the news feeds you choose to have on your timeline can be as addicted to the language of clickbait as the next homepage editor. More so at times.
Yet, it is possible Facebook is one reason journalism and broad public debate and understanding won’t die any time soon. By ensuring Facebook users see a breadth of news types, not solely the superficial, the network could well limit the danger of people relying on poorly conceived echo chambers – sites telling them only what they agree with.
And Facebook has of course lowered the cost of entry to content creators looking to reach an audience. Hell, you don’t even need your own site or ‘home’ for your content now. Via Instant Articles you can reach out – or be spread out – to readers without anyone landing on you.
It is true that contrived angst and manufactured outrage still litter Facebook feeds. But as John West wrote in Quartz in March, “To combat the hot take, we need personal experience and real reporting. We need to understand that our metrics are broken and our methods of tracking insufficient.”
He seeks a ‘panacea of empathetic investigative journalism, which presents nuance and depth as virtues rather than merely striving for the most strident take imaginable.
“We have the antidotes. We need only allow ourselves inoculation.”
- Tim Murphy is an Auckland journalist who was editor and editor-in chief of the New Zealand Herald from 2001 to 2015.
- This story first appeared in the Media edition of NZ Marketing.