Shouting

Slate iphone5

In what passes as technology journalism, 3 months = 180° turn. (Why this particular author changed his heart, brain, spleen and testosterone level for this particular story is a matter for another day.) What is worrisome here is that such fickleness of opinion has become excruciatingly common in online journalism. It pays to shout, shout first, shout often, shout loud, shout different, but most familiarly, just shout.

Shouting sells. We’ve known this for a long time. If companies are daft enough to let their ad buyers talk them into spending money on those who shout the most, then publishers would be reckless to leave money on the table. Some publishers say they would like to steer their publications away from yellow journalism, but in a compensation system based solely on pageviews and clicks, they are beholden to a Romneyesque principle: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

It’s far less important how one author feels about the iPhone 5 than the alarming fact that Slate let this author publish a 1,200-word essay about a device he hadn’t used, nearly three months before it shipped. Why? Because shouting creates pageviews and clicks, and…well, there’s nothing more to say: shouting sells. If this author or another wants to be in the game, sooner than later, he or she will have to start shouting, louder and louder.

Paradoxically, some of the most thoughtful people around work in journalism. And yet all efforts of transition from print-based to online publishing without reliance on pageviews and clicks have essentially flopped. The current crop ranges from VC-supported publicity outlets masquerading as online newsdailies to those whose contribution to civilization stop at copy-and-paste aggregation in a slide show.

While what’s new may not be fully satisfying, there’s no going back to the old either. Regardless, all around the world and especially in Europe there are calls to subsidize old print by taxing new tech:

Levy

Mind you, these aren’t really calls to incentivize companies to create new models of service delivery online but to subsidize and sustain their existing operating structures during transition to an online regime that expects them to inevitably adopt, yes, pageview advertising for survival.

Democracy

Nobody likes advertising, and yet we seem to be stuck with its corrupting effects on public discourse online. It corrupts news delivery, Facebook privacy, Twitter flow, Google search, Kindle reading and so on. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make profits online, or often just survive, without pageviews and clicks, and all the shouting that entails.

Sadly, publishing is not the only industry suffering the ravages of transition to digital. We want better and cheaper telephony, faster and more ubiquitous Internet access, digitally efficient health care, on-demand online education, 21st century banking, always-available music, TV and movies…

We believe the future is fully digital, and the future is now. And yet experimenting with new digital models not based on advertising at a scale that matter have not been successful. Entrenched players spend hundreds of millions to maintain their regulatory moats and leverage their concentrated distribution power. In Canada, just three publishing groups own 54% of newspapers. If allowed to merge, Universal and EMI would control 51 of 2011’s Billboard Hot 100 songs. Six Hollywood studios account for well over 3/4 of the market. AT&T and Verizon alone have over 440,000 employees. Predictably, the FCC remains the poster child of regulatory capture.

The un-digital camp is far from relinquishing their power. Models that can replace them aren’t here. Advertising online has been corruptive of user privacy and editorial integrity. I’m afraid it’ll be a miracle if the shouting subsides anytime soon.

10 thoughts on “Shouting

  1. Hi Kontra, been following your blog for a while, really great, thankyou!

    I’d be very interested to hear what you think of micropayments, like you mentioned, ‘It’s been The Year of Micropayments every year for two decades.’ Its something i’ve been thinking about for a long while, but it seems to me innevitable because:
    a) For any given content provider readership is heterogenous – some use a browser, some a tablet, some will pay a subscription, some wont. Offering micropayments as an option allows you to monetise a part of that readership that you couldn’t otherwise.
    b) ad-based model for quality content is unsustainable, paywalls cut out about 97% of readership
    c) transaction costs are tending to zero

    i think i’ve writtern about this somewhere at dfauchier.wordpress.com, but i wonder if you have an opinion as to why they’ve all failed so far?

    • The financial and cognitive costs of the transaction isn’t worth the effort given the amounts, most users think. Otherwise, micropayments has been working great at, for example, iTunes.

  2. “Regarding your previous comment:
    “But I think until some sort of a micropayments system comes into being, it will be very hard to get fine-grained matchups of the value of a particular news service to individuals.”

    I agree and would like to add that these systems are already starting to emerge. But their adoption is hindered in every possible way by traditional structures which are defensive to them.”

  3. Sometimes with the urgency of the moment, readers will fall into the trap of the “extremes” headlines; I know I have. Thanks for reminding that there are sources available who are consistent, grounded in their views, not changing to match the flow of the wind. As a writer,I’m going to pay more attention to the value and credibility of the specific journalist–and others– going forward.

  4. There is no hope for ad-driven content to return to sanity again. McLuhan predicted this 50 years ago. It’s not the people who simply prefer trash over quality. It depends on the medium – and the business models that work for that medium – those factors decide what works better.

    Asking for money (paywalls etc) won’t work.

    Society must gradually switch from buying to funding when it comes to information and ideas. Because intellectual property is one big contradictive concept. Nobody has ever succeeded in selling the ‘property’ part in IP.

    Flattr/Kickstarter/… are the first little experiments towards a ‘use these dollars to produce more content like this’ vs. ‘here is the money, now let me copy existing content’ digital economy.

    • Looks like your definition is a standard “tragedy of the commons” problem. I’m a big fan of public radio (not much of a TV viewer), but am skeptical that it’s much of a model, as it, too, is under attack—as the recent Big Bird controversy shows. While I believe publicly-funded education and information is a tremendous bargain to our society, I’m pessimistic of any breakthrough that’ll allow us to recognize fair value through public funding.

      There *IS* a market for high-quality information and opinion services, though. The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and others appear to be profitable. (And the WSJ, their editorials excepted, is a quite good newspaper.) But I think until some sort of a micropayments system comes into being, it will be very hard to get fine-grained matchups of the value of a particular news service to individuals.

  5. Perhaps you’re familiar with the 20th century invention “TV” and its recent takeover by shouters for the Right Wing, Beer, Cars, medicines that accommodate bad lifestyles, and various other Causes.

    By all accounts, some Americans seek out these types of opinions — often to enjoy shouting it down — while others simply ignore it. People get exactly the mix of shouting — and appropriate packaging around it— that they desire.

    While viewers may be somewhat naïve in expressing their preferences, that notion is heresy when applied to sponsors and producers of those shows. To be sure, they have to take chances, but they’re endowed with high-class tools to measure how they risk their monies in pursuit of more of ‘em.

    I try not to let my elitism get in the way of analyzing commercial activity, because I am paid that way. When all is said and done, however, I’m of the belief that trash begets trash, and people will tire of Mr Manjoo or MG Siegler, etc, or they will hang on because the writers provide some excitement, intellectual stimulation or cognitive consonance with readers’ lives. With those high-price tools in hand, the advertisers and their CPMs will follow.

    • “some Americans seek out these types of opinions” – what defines those? Participative behaviour and critical-thinking OR ignorance and self-indulgence are both learnable and un-learnable. Sure, the “TV generation” has its DNA, but still – changes are possible. I know many that were born with TV and then “switched off” after they transitioned to the net. Similar thing happens there too: net debates slowly but steadily change from shitstorming to actual discussion.

      Regarding your previous comment:
      “But I think until some sort of a micropayments system comes into being, it will be very hard to get fine-grained matchups of the value of a particular news service to individuals.”

      I agree and would like to add that these systems are already starting to emerge. But their adoption is hindered in every possible way by traditional structures which are defensive to them.

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