Just kidding, internet!
On a serious note, the explosion of these type of headlines on sites like UpWorthy and ViralNova is, at least in my opinion, one of the greatest threats to online journalism and the survival of genuinely good content. As Paul Waldman writes in The American Prospect:
With the rise of social media, the search for the perfect formula to make people say both “I have to read that” and then “I have to encourage as many people as I can to also read that” has become an outright frenzy.
The frenzy is driving scary amounts of traffic to companies that specialize in the viral content business. Buzzfeed, for example, announced that it 130 million unique visitors in November – a truly amazing amount of traffic that now puts it up there with the Huffington Post. Not bad for putting listicles up about awkward looking cats (and please don’t click the link – it only encourages them).
It seems everyone these days are taking their cues from the viral content generators. Glenn Beck’s site The Blaze started out as a place solely for right wing conspiracy theorists, but it has now turned into yet another platform for sensationalist drivel designed to get clicks. Here’s a featured piece on the site today:
Sadly, the Huffington Post isn’t much better. From the front page today:
When the HuffPost and The Blaze are running indistinguishable headlines, you know there’s a serious problem.
The competition for online eyeballs is ferocious, and media outlets now hire writers to pump out as much viral stuff as possible to compete. Journalists and writers can no longer file a story a week and expect a full time salary. ‘Content generators’ have to create story after story after story on a daily basis to justify their existence, and the trend is clearly resulting in a lack of quality and a reliance on viral content to make up the page views.
I am in no way saying that The Daily Banter is completely immune to this. We post our share of funny videos and attention grabbing headlines that aren’t exactly highbrow stuff, but often do well in terms of traffic. I spoke with Chez Pazienza about this over the weekend as part of a general discussion about where we’re at as a site, and we agreed that as long as we do it in an intelligent and funny way (and don’t do it too much), there’s nothing wrong with keeping our audience entertained with some of the random crap that flies around the internet. After all, relentless coverage of the NSA, economics and the country’s fracturing political culture is quite exhausting.
But the race to the bottom is very real, and at some point, it will surely backfire on those who are building an entire business out of it. Continues Waldman:
Even on the web, it takes an act of will to resist when you see a headline like that. The danger is that the formula only works for so long. Once you’ve clicked on a few posts that promised to make you cry or change your view of the world forever but didn’t deliver, your default assumption will become that when you see something like that , it means somebody’s trying to get you to be a part of something artificial. It’s one thing to send something truly inspiring or outrageous to your friends or Twitter followers and brighten their day for a moment, but nobody wants to be a tool of someone else’s phony marketing campaign or mean-spirited hoax.
This model is now being used by advertisers to get their products ‘viral lift’, making articles and advertising virtually indistinguishable – an apocalyptic scenario for the art formerly known as journalism. As Andrew Sullivan wrote about Buzzfeed journalists:
All I can say is that I don’t think they [Buzzfeed journalists] have fully grasped how being part of an entertainment/public relations site whose core mission is making money can in any way be compatible with the profession formerly known as journalism. Just because you wish it to be so does not make it so. Only when they put their actual journalism in a clearly separate space than their entertainment, and only when they stop deliberately blurring advertizing with editorial, will they be able to retain a journalistic soul. But that, of course, would end their business model entirely.
While this model might work right now, the long term prospect of the media industry surviving as one gigantic viral video distributor is close to zero. Articles designed to scam readers will just end up pissing them off. Just as The National Enquirer became completely irrelevant in print, so too will companies like UpWorthy and ViralNova online. If Buzzfeed survives, it won’t be because of its posts on cats – it will be because it invested in serious journalism.
Ultimately, good content will survive online because intelligent people want to read it, and not spend their entire day watching videos of Dolphins masturbate. The New York Times paywall is now bringing in $150 million in revenue, and they are adding digital subscribers at a rate of around 100,000 a year. The Times isn’t in the clear yet, but the numbers are improving year after year showing that people are willing to pay upfront for serious journalism and good writing.
The pressure for institutions like the Times to start churning out Buzzfeed type content must have been immense, but thankfully they’ve stuck to the time tested tradition of not treating their readers like idiots.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.