Everyone knows that the media can be and is manipulated. The problem is that people assume that there's some guy like Robert De Niro's character in Wag the Dog behind the curtain. They think, If we can just catch that guy.
The problem is that guy doesn't really exist. Like with most kinds of negligence, corruption or racket, the problem is much more systemic than it is overt. In fact when you pull back the curtain, what you find is that the usually the media is the one manipulating itself.
Media manipulation isn't new, by the way; people have been complaining about bias and lies in the media since there was a media to complain about. The Internet just found brand new reasons the media is totally fucked. Reasons like ...
#6. Page Views, Page Views, Page Views
There's basically one way to make money in online publishing: advertising. Advertising is almost exclusively sold by the page view (and even when it's not--that's what you're actually buying).
This is the metric that blogs live and die by -- whether they're trying to make money or show growth to investors or possible acquirers. It's also how bloggers themselves are paid. The only problem is you've got to get millions and millions to make much of a profit.
Take Business Insider. They have a simple rule of thumb: Each blogger must produce enough page views to cover their salary three times over for the site to be able to pay overhead, sales, hosting, and so forth. In other words, if your salary at Business Insider is $50K a year (to live in New York, no less), you have to produce close to 2 MILLION page views a month or you're fired. That's slightly better than when Weblogs Inc used to pay bloggers at sites like Slashfood $4 per post, but it's still a fucking grind.
And leads to having to make some hard lifestyle sacrifices.
A few months ago, the Washington Post announced it was hiring a blogger. The job? Just a measly 12 posts a day. Other sites, like Gawker, don't play the volume game but give bonuses for hitting page view quotas. And they have a big flat screen TV in the office that ranks the writers and their articles by traffic. It's basically the same message: Hit your marks or get out.
Even Cracked, which is a pretty cool website that values quality, is subject to this mentality to some degree. You can bet if this article does seven page views, that's going to change whether I get asked back.
Is that going to warp what people write? Well, the next time you see a 16-page slideshow of celebrity underboob, you have your answer.
[Editorial Note: Hey, Ryan, we'll support you whether you get seven or 7 million page views, because we respect our writers here, but, anyway, is that "Celebrity Underboob" thing your idea? We'd love to have it for the site.]
#5. Conflicts of Interest
In 2011, a guy named Michael Arrington decided to start a venture capital fund to invest in Silicon Valley startups and tech companies. It's crowded space with a lot of smart people who have made a lot of money over the years. But Michael was convinced he had an advantage on all of them. That advantage? He's the founder and editor of a little blog called TechCrunch, which is basically the single most important and influential blog in the entire industry.
Some might call raising $27 million to invest in the companies you write about (as well as getting insider information about them as a journalist) a glaring and totally unethical conflict of interest. On the other hand, Jay Gould would have probably found the hustle delightful.
Bain News Service
Game recognize game. Always.
Anyway, basically every blog you read -- particularly those in the technology and financial space -- is similarly conflicted. Take the somewhat new blog PandoDaily, which covers startups and technology. Their investors? Guys like Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Tony Hsieh and Chris Dixon. To clue you in on who they are, they are the owners and investors of sites like PayPal, Zappos, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare -- or, you know, the exact companies PandoDaily writes about every day. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, just dropped $5 million of capital into Business Insider, which writes about Amazon constantly.
Of course, the real conflict of interest online is much more subtle but pernicious. If bloggers are paid by the view, then they have a financial decision to make each time they write and publish: Do I stick with the boring facts or do I spice things up? Will facts drive more clicks (more money) than an EXCITING and INCENDIARY or OTHERWISE UNDERBOOB-FILLED title?
In other words, every blog post is a conflict of interest.
#4. It's All About Provoking a Reaction
What's the best way to get page views? It's to write something that other people share on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, via email, wherever. That's why those big icons are there on every post and video you see. It turns out that as readers, we have certain buttons that make us press those buttons (see what I did there?)
Jonah Berger has done some fascinating studies on what makes articles go viral. It turns out that the No. 1 predictor of an article making the New York Times Most E-Mailed List is how angry it makes the reader. Not that anger is the only thing that works out; basically any extreme emotion will do -- really funny, really arousing, really awesome, really anxious, really afraid. Because think about it: When was the last time you read an article and thought, "Oh OK," and then proceeded to tell everyone in your life about it?
"The Royal Baby's name is STILL George? I HAVE TO TELL EVERYONE!"
Buzzfeed has basically reduced this to a science, as well. They know we love to share nostalgia, and they know we don't like to share sad things. So they produce their listicles accordingly. It's not a coincidence that the tags on the front page of the site are all Internet shorthand for viral emotions: LOL, win, omg, cute, trashy, fail, WTF.
So everything has to be controversial and provocative. Even when it actually isn't (like this fun Gawker headline when Obama did a Reddit AMA: "Obama Grants Interview to Racist Teen Nude Picture Website").
Provoking a reaction has another lucrative benefit for online publishers: It drives comments. The Huffington Post does something like 70 MILLION user comments a year (and, remember, to leave a comment you have to go to a login page and give personal info away). How do sites do it? By baiting you -- by making you so angry or so enthused with agreement that you simply must give them free content and page views by posting your opinion. In other words, that blog post about Trayvon Martin that really moved you? The writer doesn't actually care -- they just cared that you care.
Don't agree with me? Spout off in the comments!