Sorry, Nick

I remember clearly, in Gawker’s early days, when my old friend Nick Denton insisted that what his new blog was producing was not journalism. He didn’t want to come speak at a journalism school. He refused to hire journalists, as they’d already been ruined for Gawker’s work.

But yesterday, in his eulogy for the devil baby he birthed, Nick draped Gawker’s casket in the flag of Journalism, waving the words journalist, journalism, and even journalismism 27 times.

Sorry, Nick, but maybe you were right the first time.

Don’t worry: I’m not about to launch into a J-schoolmarm scold about about Gawker violating journalism’s ten thousand commandments. No, I’m going to use this as a teachable moment to ask: WTF is journalism now? After Gawker. On the internet. In the age of Trump.

I had the honor of spending last week with our impressive incoming class at the CUNY J-school, trying to help them put journalism — their coming months of classes and their careers thereafter — in the context of history, business, and our role in society. I asked them each to begin by defining journalism. We discussed many thoughtful insights, including the idea that journalism exists to “cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.” We also discussed one definition that might as well have been Nick’s in his remembrance: that it is the journalist’s job to disrupt the status quo and bring down powerful institutions or people. That is certainly a common view in the profession.

Once having done our jobs afflicting the comfortable, do we ever ask, “What then?” Is it journalism’s job just to expose and destroy? Or to build and improve? Should we ask the same question of the net today: Is it the purpose of blogs and now social media to upend? Or to progress? Why are we here? Why do we bother?

In her more excellent elegy to Gawker, its founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, saw in Gawker’s life the larger story of blogs: “Blogging gave us everything we love — and hate — about the web,” said the headline. Right. We had freedom and attitude and reported to no one. In our existence and our worldview, we were the anti-institutions. Elizabeth writes:

We hoped blogs would democratize media and allow people to make real connections via the Web. We feared that power would accrue to a handful of sites or writers; that this small group of people would talk among themselves and exclude others; that eventually, inevitably, what we considered an art (sort of) would be degraded by commerce.
Yes, basically all the bad things came true.

Now I wonder whether the death of Gawker — not to mention the departure of Arianna Huffington from Huffington Post — signals the super nova of blogs and everything we held dear and every ill we caused. I don’t say this from atop a pedestal. In my day, I was down in the blogging trenches, snarking along with the rest of them. I had my share of feuds and fits. You could say I damned near brought Dell down. That all seemed like fun until it wasn’t. Now I long not for the return of the gatekeeper institutions, only for a path to civility.

What hath we wrought? Did blogs and their commercial, psychotic apotheosis, Gawker, open the door for the armies of trolls that have taken over social media? Did we cause Breitbart or can we blame that on Fox News and Roger Ailes? Should we blame Gawker for Trumpism and Twitter? In Advertising Age, Simon Domenco damned near does:

There was something downright proto-Trumpian about Gawker as it shifted from afflict-the-comfortable snark to take-no-prisoners drive-bys. In fact, these days, when Donald Trump really loses it and gets personal and goes absolutely nuclear on his targets — particularly when he attacks the family members of his targets — it’s hard for me not to think of the tone and tactics of Gawker at its worst.

It is often lamented that the Arab Spring proved good at tearing down old regimes but not at building new ones. Is that what journalism, news, and media have become? Are we simply too early in this process of disruption and destruction to expect more? Or is that precisely our problem: We expect too little. I return to my student Kate Ryan’s high aspiration for journalism:

It is a means to inform the public and, in doing so, cultivate an educated, empathetic, and engaged society.

Gawker did not have that ambition. In this election, cable news does not have that ambition. How much of journalism does? As I think about trying to save journalism, I ask first what we are trying to save. The answer can’t be snark, gossip, meaningless blather, and cruel destruction. We must be of value in people’s lives, helping them improve their communities and society. Or why bother? Therein lies the only hope of finding a new business model for journalism: raising it up, being of value.

In Gawker, we also saw the implosion — the symbolic last gasp — of the mass-media business model, in which Reach Rules, forcing us to do anything (and I mean anything) to get more page views, more traffic, for more ads and more pennies.

We know precisely where that leads: to the day when Gawker outed a private and married media executive being blackmailed by a gay escort. Gawker’s editors did that just because they could. They had freedom, remember? Freedom was Gawker’s ultimate value. But on that day, Nick finally found his limit and killed that reprehensible piece. His editors quit in protest, claiming freedom of speech. No, boys, freedom of speech does not mean that you have to publish everything you could publish. Freedom of speech also protects the right and necessity to edit responsibly. One of those editors, Max Read, wasn’t exactly contrite in his less-good obit for Gawker:

It would be nice to say that I struggled with the ethics of publishing the story, or that, even better, my maniacal and sociopathic boss pressured me into publishing it. But there was very little question in my mind: It seemed so naturally a Gawker story that I assigned it immediately. . . . I had gone out on the limb because I liked it out there. I liked being the villain, the critic, the bomb-thrower. If one of my bombs went off in my face, it was only my fault.

Gawker no longer brought down the powerful. Gawker became the power to be brought down. Enter Peter Thiel.

So now we come to the real lesson in Gawker’s death. Nick would have us believe that (sorry for the spoiler): “Gawker’s demise turns out to be the ultimate Gawker story. It shows how things work.”

Sorry, Nick, but the real moral to this story is banal, prosaic, obvious, and trite. Gawker’s editors and Gawker’s destroyer, Thiel, each teach us the exact same lesson:

Power corrupts.

Native advertising: Another false messiah?

I’ve been waiting for this: the leak in the native advertising balloon.

Tablets were going to save the news business. Not so much. Paywalls were our salvation, damnit. Nope. Native advertising is our future. Think again.

Digiday reports on the latest problem with the native advertising strategy:

Digital ad sales intelligence platform MediaRadar said the average renewal rate for sponsor content this year is 21 percent. Meanwhile, native ad tech company Polar recently described renewal rates as “weak,” with 40 percent of the publishers it surveyed showing renewal rates below 50 percent.

Native advertising isn’t going to cure all our problems because:

1. The ROI is debatable. Says Digiday: “Behind the low renewal rates is the fact that advertisers are uncertain about the return they’re getting on native advertising.” This has been my worst fear. We give the advertisers what our standards and ethics forever forbade — confusing our readers about the source of content — and then the advertisers wake up and say, ‘Well, that was fun. But we’re bored with that. What can you sell us next?’ Except with badly done native advertising, we’ve already sold our brands, our souls, our seed corn. We have nothing left. Jack, you gave away our only means of support for what? Magic beans?

I have long wondered whether native advertising would do what advertising is supposed to do: drive sales. What is the efficacy of replacing five-word banners with 500-word stories? Perhaps we are beginning to find out.

2. Competition is rushing in. Digiday: “Three years ago, there were about 15 companies helping brands produce sponsored content, according to MediaRadar CEO Todd Krizelman. Today, there are more than 600, and the number is growing.” I have long said that in media need to compete with creative agencies but we can’t imagine that they won’t fight back. Content is a commodity. Anybody can make it. That is the key lesson of the internet for media. So we surely couldn’t believe we’d hold onto the business of “telling brand’s stories” for long.

3. It’s expensive. It takes a lot of resources to make content for finicky advertisers.

4. It’s no longer enough to write a “brand’s story” and put in in our editorial space (barely camouflaging it as an ad). Media’s audience is insufficient. So media has to spend money (a) placing ads elsewhere to drive traffic to our native ads, (b) placing the native ads we make at other media sites, and (c) trying to buy social traffic. That, too, is expensive.

So what is the profit margin on native advertising after we are left marketing our services to replace the clients who churn out, after spending a fortune on making native advertising, and after spending another fortune advertising the advertising? Native ad distributor Polar says it’s a high-margin business still and that’s good. But where do those trend-lines fall given the news above?

This is the moment where you say, “Goddamnit, Jarvis, you shoot down tablets, paywalls, and native advertising, not to mention programmatic advertising (because it commodifies media) so what do you expect us to do?”

Mind you, I am not against doing native advertising well. See Quartz, for example. I am in favor of media companies competing with ad agencies for both creative and media business. What I object to is the idea that this could have been our sole salvation, any more than our earlier magic beans, without embarking on the much harder work of reinventing ourselves.

Our only salvation will be to question *everything* about our mass-media business models as we enter a new reality, starting with the value of reach in an age of abundance and endless competition. Yes, reach matters but only if we have something of value to convert all those folks to. We have to shift from reach to relevance, volume to value. We have to rethink the essence of what news and media are. That’s why I wrote this: to begin questioning and exploring.

That’s also what I said to our incoming students at CUNY’s J-school last week. At the end of our week together, the students listened to voters about their needs in this election and their proposed solutions didn’t look like content-based mass media at all. They’re all journalists but they are learning to question their assumptions. We need to do the same with business people and reinvent what they do. Instead, we’re grabbing the deck chairs on the Titanic hoping they will act as flotation devices.

* * *

Content.ly — a reputable native advertising company (with whom we are doing at study at CUNY) just released some further data on media’s behavior. 68% of publishers have editorial staff make native advertising. Nooooo! 45% think the biggest threat to native advertising is the lack of separation between church and state. Jeesh.

From Media to Memes: Lessons from Occupy Democrats

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I want you in the news business — and politics and brands — to learn from two media and political geniuses for the social age you’ve probably never heard of. They are Rafael and Omar Rivero, 29-year-old twin brothers and the founders of Occupy Democrats, a Facebook page that specializes in the creation of memes like those above and below: a gif with text and photos or a video (the “veme”), containing information, opinion, and a call to action. Thus they feed conversations all over the net. Their Facebook page has 3.5 million likes, adding 100,000 a week. The average meme reaches 1 million people. In total, Rafael Rivero says, they reach between 100 and 300 million impressions a week.

Oh, they also have a web site with posts and articles, like a media company, but that’s frankly “an afterthought” — even though it’s the web site that has the advertising that brings in high five-figures of income a month, which enabled the brothers to quit their work and hire help: “five of us in a living room.” The point of their enterprise is not making content or building a destination, in media terms. It is “affecting the national conversation.”

“We want to give people the ammunition to engage in meme warfare,” Rafael told me, “giving people the fodder to win the battles and ultimately the war. The battles are fought and won or lost on social media.” The battles are also informed or uninformed there and that is why news media should pay attention.

ocmeme 8

The reason I called Rafael is because I believe Occupy Democrats demonstrates a vital skill we must learn in media: feeding others’ conversations with information and arguments, adding journalistic value to the flow of information the internet enables. When I attended Vidcon, I saw that for YouTube fans, content is not a destination but a social token — something that speaks for them or informs and provides fodder for their conversations. We in media need to learn how to do that: how to take what we make to the people we serve, how to do that in a manner that is native to the platform and use case where these people are, and how to add value to their conversations and thus be valued for our contribution. Occupy Democrats does that. Sure, it’s partisan at its core. It’s not journalistic. But it has lessons to teach journalist.

The brothers launched Occupy Democrats a month before the 2012 election in response to the success of the Tea Party and to make up for what they saw as the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement — “outside the system, aggressively leaderless.” They started “just as a hobby, to be honest.” But it took off and started bringing in enough money that Omar, a Cornell graduate, could quit his job in finance and Rafael, a Swarthmore graduate, could give up his work running a vacation rental company and a furniture assembly business. “I always had an inclination to use the internet to fund my life,” Rafael said. “Ever since I was little, launching online businesses and online websites.” That’s the other thing media has to learn from them: entrepreneurship.

ocmeme7

Rafael says the hardest part of their job is selecting what to make into a meme. “When I look back at the first memes I made on Facebook, damn, I sucked. Media companies: they suck, too.”

Define “suck.”

“The meme must tell the full story. You can’t assume people know anything. You have to be able to tell the entire story in as few words as possible. You have to plug into the zeitgeist. The text has to pop and be 100 percent readable from 30 feet away. The image has to be compelling. The arrangement — it’s very hard to describe. It’s very intuitive. The statue is already in the block of marble and the sculptor just uncovers it. The meme is already there. You just have to find it….”

You might make fun of making GIFs as a media artform, just as I made fun of one of my CUNY colleagues some years ago when he said he wanted to teach the making of animated GIFs. I was wrong, dead wrong. These little media nuggets are portable and carry value. Rafael thinks hard about what people will do with them. “There’s something very personal about sharing a graphic on Facebook,” he said. “You’re not sharing with one person, with five people. You’re sharing with pretty much everyone you’ve met through your entire life. It says, ‘This speaks for me. This is how I feel on this issue,’ often a very controversial issue. People in the past were hesitant to discuss politics in person…. People have become much more willing to engage in political discussion because of Facebook. We give them the tools to do that.”

Yeah, I know, sometimes you wish people didn’t discuss politics online. But they do. We in journalism have an opportunity and an obligation to inform that discussion. And we in media have clearly done a bad job of that. So when you hear uninformed discussion, think about blaming us first.

Facebook et al give us new tools to do our job. Sadly, we keep thinking they exist to distribute our content, to drive traffic back to our sites, to generate page views and reach. When Facebook tweaked its God Algorithm a few weeks ago and announced the principles behind it, it was really trying to teach us in media that — though Instant Articles are nice — the real way to succeed on the platform is to give people things *they* will use in *their* way.

Occupy Democrats teaches us to do that. It also teaches us new ways to reach more people. Their claimed 100–300 million weekly impressions “puts some of the old media horses to shame, leaves them in the dust. It’s just insane,” Rafael said.

But reach isn’t everything. Damnit. Relationships matter. Impact matters.

I asked Rafael what he knows about the impact they’re having. So far, he sees it in terms of who’s copying him. “I created so much viral Bernie Sanders material when no one had any idea who Bernie Sanders was,” he said. “Someone in the Bernie Sanders campaign woke up and thought, ‘we can make our own memes.’ It can’t be coincidence that they copied our style. Sometimes when I get drunk I tell people I created Bernie Sanders as a political force.” He’s joking. In any case, Rafael is right when he says: “Bernie Sanders was basically the meme candidate.”

(By the way, the brothers were split politically: Rafael for Clinton, Omar for Sanders; now they’re both #withher. And by the way, the brothers are dual citizens of the U.S. and Mexico and so fighting Trump is extra delicious: “He fucked with the wrong pair of Mexican twins.” )

I was curious whether the campaigns have come to Occupy Democrats for help. Someone high in Sanders campaign wanted them to share Bernie’s memes. Rafael is not complimentary of the memeing in the Clinton campaign but he says they are talking with someone there. The campaign runs weekly calls for folks like these, sharing their messaging — that is, giving guidance rather than asking for it. The DNC? Nope. If they were right-wing, Rafael believes, the RNC would fund them.

What interests me more is whether media companies have come to the brothers to learn at their feet. One innovative company — Fusion — did because of the data they saw on social-media tracking service CrowdTangle: “Who the fuck is Occupy Democrats and they’re eating everyone’s lunch.” There was talk of a TV show but remember that the brothers are less impressed with big media than they are with Facebook. “We already are pretty busy. We didn’t see that it would add that much value to us…. The old-media landscape was what was said on Meet the Press. Now you’ve got to control the media narrative on Facebook.” In any case, points to Fusion and Univision.

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So how should news organizations incorporate these skills? Should The Washington Post have a meme desk? Sure, it should. The Post is hiring two full-time producers for Facebook Live alone. Others are hiring devoted Snapchat producers. Lots of media properties have email newsletter authors. More and more, I see calls for platform-native content creation (and that is making us ask questions about how we teach skills in a journalism school).

The problem with much of that so-called social-media work is that the goal is still to drive traffic back to the media site and that will be the case so long as we try to prolong the life of the volume-based mass-media business model and depend on volume. If we instead judge our value on how well we inform people and how much we help them solve their problems and meet their goals, then we will go to wherever they are and use the tools at hand to deliver value the best way we can.

Thus the meme desk would not create promotions for articles on web sites. It would not be an arm of the audience development department. It would not identify trending stories and jump on them by copying those stories. No, the meme desk would start by seeing what people need to know: what are they curious about or wrong about, what information do they need to know, what are they already talking about and how can we improve the quality of those conversations journalistically, with information, fact-checking, explanation, evidence, news? Then the meme desk would teach every journalist to do this and put itself out of business.

I was talking about all this today with tech journalist Charles Arthur, whom I’ve worked with at The Guardian. When I said that the newspaper front page and home page are dying because hardly anyone is going to them — demonstrating a lack of demand for our vaunted “news judgment” (for they exist to promote more than to summarize and inform), I also said the only exciting page 1’s I see these days are from New York Daily News editor-in-chief Jim Rich, who has reinvigoratec the form. Right, Charles said. That’s because they’re memes. Right.

daily news trump

Dear Morning Joe,

I watch or listen to you every morning and over the years have enjoyed it. But during the rise of Trump, you infuriated me. You took pride in seeing Trump’s potential to capture the nomination while everyone else did not. But you could not see then what so many others of us could see: that your friend (your word) Donald is uninformed, demagogic, bigoted, mean, unstable, possibly insane, and certainly unfit to serve in the highest office in the land.

I am glad, very glad that on this morning’s show, you recognized all this about Trump and said so — and that you all went further, trying to get Republican leaders, including at least one at your table, to repudiate their candidate for president.

But what if you had seen Trump’s potential not just for votes but also for danger from the beginning? Would the Republican Party and the United States be in this precarious position today? This isn’t funny anymore. It’s not show biz anymore. It never was. You said as much this morning when you questioned Ret. Gen. Michael Hayden about how easy it would be for President Trump to launch a nuclear missile out of pique — hearing only answers that gave no comfort. Worse, you revealed that in a one-hour briefing with a foreign affairs expert (when was that, Joe?), Trump asked three times why we (he) can’t use nuclear weapons. This is serious. It always has been.

When it mattered most, journalism failed utterly to inform the public about the clear and present danger of a demagogue and an unstable, unfit candidate getting to within a step of the White House.

Now I’m not trying to blame you for Trump and his rise. But because I watch you in the morning over the other guys, I need to use you to spark a discussion about what we must rethink in political coverage in American journalism and media.

For years, media natterers like me have lamented the horserace coverage of elections — particularly presidential elections — with journalists taking pride in predicting winners. This year, I’ve been frustrated to hear journalists (often on Morning Joe) taking it upon themselves to tell candidates what they need to do to win — that is, acting more as campaign consultants than correspondents. In both cases, this is a matter of journalists wanting to appear savvy, a syndrome NYU Prof. Jay Rosen diagnosed two presidential races ago. But that is the least of our problems now.

When it mattered most, journalism failed utterly to inform the public about the clear and present danger of a demagogue and an unstable, unfit candidate getting to within a step of the White House. Friend Rosen has argued that we in news media must bring new worldviews to this new situation. Yes, and new tools.

I often hear complaints about the ignorance and bile that characterize the public discourse in politics today. We blame the public for that. OK. But the fault for an uninformed public also lies at the feet of those whose job it is to inform the public. We in news and media are doing a terrible job.

Rather than predicting who will win — and calling the day done — journalists must concentrate on revealing the qualifications, experience, policies, assets, and deficits of those running so the public can judge: the profound job interview. In any rational equation, it should have been easy to question every such aspect of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Back to you, Morning Joe: Trump called in constantly. How often did you demand full and cogent answers about his policies: How will you do everything you promise to do. “How?” was the most under-asked question of this campaign. You say you know him. Surely you could have revealed his obvious narcissism if not his instability to the nation. That you did not — and that media as a whole did not — can only be a measure of our failure. Yes, sure, you’ll put Hillary Clinton through a job interview as well. But don’t even think of trying to talk balance: a few minutes on Khan and a few minutes on email. There is no such thing as balanced coverage of an unbalanced candidate. Because you know Trump so well, Morning Joe, you could have led our field in asking him the toughest and most revealing questions. That is our job.

Falling to these frightening depths — and remembering that we’re not saved from it yet — is an opportunity to rethink how we do journalism, conduct elections, run political parties, and govern. Let us get at least that much out of this fiasco.

Facebookmageddon? Not so soon

Only time, experience, and data will tell, but I wouldn’t be throwing out Facebook strategies for news quite yet.

Two things happened today: (1) Facebook for the first time outlined the principles that govern its decisions — that is, its News Feed algorithm — about what to select and show you. (2) At the same time, Facebook tweaked — we don’t know how much — that algorithm to emphasize friends and family more and news less.

But Facebook has *always* favored friends and family over news content. It is a *social* site. That should come as no surprise to anyone. The only question is how much weight each has.

Indeed, when Facebook’s execs told me their priorities in the past, they were (1) connections with people, (2) entertaining people, and (3) informing people. Its document today reversed the order of 2 and 3 in the narrative; I have no idea what the order is in the algorithm.

The shock at this news is, I suspect, a bit overdone. Says Farhad Manjoo in The Times:

Though it is couched in the anodyne language of a corporate news release, the document’s message should come as a shock to everyone in the media business. According to these values, Facebook has a single overriding purpose, and it isn’t news. Facebook is mainly for telling you what’s up with your friends and family.

Who the hell *ever* thought that Facebook’s single overriding purpose was news? No one. Ever.

So this is a matter of degree. It’s more transparent than it has been — which is what we have been asking for. It emphasizes that people want to talk to people on Facebook and if people want to talk about your news, you’re in luck. If they don’t, you’re shit out of luck. Always have been. Still are.

Let’s wait and see what the real data look like. And let’s follow Facebook’s example to serve people rather than merely serving content.