"An Ouroboros of Sh*t"

What Luke O'Neil has written for Esquire is, honestly, the manifesto for journalism in the age of Buzzfeed
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What Luke O'Neil has written for Esquire is, honestly, the manifesto for journalism in the age of Buzzfeed
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Yesterday I popped up a quickie post here about a piranha attack in Argentina that injured a bunch of people, including several children. I called it "my favorite story of the day," which it was only insofar as it gave me something I could easily write a crappy joke about on a day where I wanted to expend the least amount of effort possible. I'm still a firm believer that almost anything can be held up for a laugh, but I really went for the low-hanging fruit and looking back on it I feel cheap for having done so. No, my dumb crack didn't add insult to injury for those who'd been attacked by a school of killer fish in Argentina -- it doesn't change the fact, though, that I was cavalier with the suffering of others and believe it or not I'm human and can feel bad about that. So, yes, even if you weren't offended, I apologize.

The reason for the post was, in some ways, much more unfortunate than the post itself. The fact is that we work for a start-up site around here which means that we're constantly trying to drum up traffic while also keeping in mind that we'd like to do it by running smart content as opposed to any old bullshit people will click on. In other words, each of us here at the Banter is straddling exactly the same line every other writer on the internet is these days. We all want to write important, powerful copy that we can go to sleep at night feeling good about, but we also realize that it's often the pieces we spend the least time on and feel the least invested in that wind up blowing up. Unless you're a sorcerer like Neetzan Zimmerman, there's no formula for creating the kind of content sure to go viral and consequently to line your pockets with the money you need to pay the rent. It's always hit or miss, and you can make yourself crazy trying to figure out what will break big and then tailoring your writing to that end.

I bring this up because there's an astonishingly good piece running at Esquire right now that laments the state of online journalism in exactly these kinds of terms. It's called "The Year We Broke the Internet," written by Luke O'Neil, and it covers every fear and insecurity today's writers feel as they try to navigate the heavily mined waters of the digital age searching for that one sweet spot that will both take them to the heights of viral circulation and allow them to feel like they've made a difference in the world. What the author recognizes, though, is that often these two goals are mutually exclusive: that you can spend hours slaving over something you're passionate about only to have it flop or make only a minor splash and then turn around and bang out something you couldn't care less about and, by virtue of a snappy headline, have it bring readers in by the thousands. Because the internet is a cruel, stupid mistress.

The overall point of O'Neil's article, however, is to dissect what it means for journalism -- and for an informed public -- when the desire for clicks is the end that justifies all means. When even truth doesn't matter more than traffic-driving sensationalism. When the people creating content get sucked into the "publish or perish" vortex, with facts and details sacrificed on the altar of just not giving a damn as long as eyeballs are drawn. When the philosophy of Big Viral rules the market.

What he's written is honestly the manifesto for journalism in the age of Buzzfeed:

The media has long had its struggles with the truth—that’s nothing new. What is new is that we’re barely even apologizing for increasingly considering the truth optional. In fact, the mistakes, and the falsehoods, and the hoaxes are a big part of a business plan driven by the belief that big traffic absolves all sins, that success is a primary virtue. Haste and confusion aren’t bugs in the coding anymore, they’re features...

This is not a glitch in the system. It is the system. Readers are gullible, the media is feckless, garbage is circulated around, and everyone goes to bed happy and fed. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti admitted as much when explaining, that, when he’s hiring, he looks for “people who really understand how information is shared on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and other emerging platforms, because that is in some cases as important as, you know, having traditional reporting talent.” Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield seconded the notion. “We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgment.” ...

My hands are certainly not clean in all this. While I’ve primarily made my living as a (mostly) upstanding freelancer for dailies, weeklies, and glossies for a decade or so, like many others, I’ve also had to moonlight as a content generator for a wide array of websites—some high-minded and journalistic, others less so. I typically publish about twenty-five pieces a week, from reported features, to tossed-off reaction blogs, and the churn-and-burn pace of daily writing has lead to my passing along some pretty sketchy nonsense this past year—from the pastor who stiffed an Applebee’s waitress, to Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac trailer being accidentally shown to a roomful of kids waiting for a Disney movie, to the comedian who live-tweeted a breakup on an apartment roof, to any number of speculative gossip pieces about Amanda Bynes, Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, et al., which I often didn’t bother to double-check before firing off. Why did I do it? Because I knew everyone else was going to, and I wanted to siphon off the traffic. Like buying into an insurance plan, it’s a pooled-risk version of Internet writing: The sheer ubiquity of suspect stories provides cover for all of us...

Media malpractice like this didn’t trigger the collapse of traditional revenue models, but it’s hastening the job. Everyone wants everything for free now—news, music, movies, etc.—which means the companies don’t have any money to pay people to produce original work. None of this is anything you haven’t heard before, but it bears repeating. In order to make a living, those of us who had the bad sense to shackle ourselves to a career in media before that world ended have to churn out more content faster than ever to make up for the drastically reduced pay scale. We’re left with the choice of spending a week reporting a story we’re actually proud of (as I do just frequently enough to ensure a somewhat restful sleep every other night), reaping a grand sum of somewhere in the ballpark of two hundred to five hundred dollars if we’re lucky, or we can grind out ten blog posts at twenty-five to fifty bucks a pop that take fifteen minutes each. That means the work across the board ends up being significantly more disposable, which in turn makes the readers value it less, which means they want to pay less for it, and so on. It’s an ouroboros of shit.

When I first started writing online back in 2006, putting my career in TV news on the back burner before finally being thrust from it altogether, I got into a really good conversation with author and columnist Chuck Klosterman about where journalism was headed. His thoughts on it were both inspiring and disillusioning -- essentially that people valued something based on what they paid for it, and the more people came to expect media for free, the more expendable it would become. He paid me a compliment, which was that the material I was cranking out was very good, but he tempered it by saying that because people were getting it for free it meant they would psychologically value it less. There was simply no way around that. As O'Neil writes, the problem becomes compounded for those trying to make a living in media, since not only is content often being offered freely but that almost always translates into lower salaries for those creating the content. For most people working in media, the days of living like you're James Bond on a corporate account and fixating on every single word of a required two-pieces-a-week are long-since over. The new goal is just trying to survive.

And that means writing a whole lot of shit your heart just isn't in. I'm lucky in that I do something I love, but that doesn't mean this isn't a job -- one I typically put in 14 hours a day at, which is about average for a media gig these days. I've been honest in the past about the crisis of conscience occasionally involved in going from writing as a labor of love to writing for your life. All you can do is your best. All you can do is try to find the balance between writing what sells and writing what's fulfilling. The thing is, you can always do better. And that's what everyone here will aim for in the coming year. Whether or not we hit the target -- at least in one respect -- well, that is in fact up to you to decide.