Pondering the End Game of the Changing Nature of Online Media

20 Feb

Remember the dotcom bubble?  Remember the metrics that largely drove the ridiculous valuations of those firms?  Things like pageviews, clickthroughs, etc.  Remember how all that worked out?

Now, every web media outlet is rushing to get on the Search Engine Optimization train, hell, even former stalwarts of the 4th estate are constantly more engaged in a race to the bottom (line, or so they think).  Information that would traditionally be presented within an article as bullet points is now displayed in annoying slide shows to drive up page views, ad impression, etc.  Everyone’s doing everything they can to drive up their metrics, but they’re not using the right ones the right way, and advertisers, shareholders, and ad agencies all seem like they were in a deep, deep coma during the dotcom boom/bust.

Oh, and don’t even get me started about Demand Media.

These trends are scary, and unfortunately only seem to be picking up steam.  In this author’s humble opinion,  one of THE most important purposes of journalism is to make people aware of things about which they didn’t already know, and more importantly, things they didn’t know they wanted to know about.

A while back I wrote a piece that the SEC’s Division of Financial Innovation, Risk, and Strategy has, since inception, a vacancy in the Office of Data Analysis, namely, the head of the Office (whether there’s ANY staff in the office is still a question).  Very, very few people care about the details of and the goings-on in our financial regulatory apparatus and the reform thereof.  It’s pretty dry/boring – I get it – but in my opinion, most journalists and their editors largely do a pretty crappy job explaining to readers why its so important and why they need to care.

The main-stream Financial media (and some blogs) spend so much time and effort painting a Wall Street v. Main Street picture, hating on the banks and their various wrongdoings, but these so-called wrongdoings happened under the so-called watchful eye of the regulators.  You can’t paint one group as the villain when the other was complicit!

My post about the lack of resources at the SEC didn’t get very many views, under a thousand if memory serves correctly.  I’m 100% certain not a single MSM Financial Media outlet read it and decided it was worth sharing with their readership.

So, while tens if not hundreds of thousands of people care about a garbage column from Gretchen Morgenson about how the evil banksters at Goldman caused Greece’s financial troubles by getting them involved in CDS (at issue were FX Swaps, but facts have no place in the annals of history, apparently), a column that was so obviously and painfully wrong in so many ways, but no one cares that the department at the SEC tasked with staying on-top of Wall Street’s shenanigans has NO DATA ANALYSIS DEPARTMENT HEAD? Are you freaking kidding me?!?

Those running the web-sites of the MSM – best exemplified by the likes of  Demand Media and the SEO-worshippers – think SEO etc is the holy grail, the saving grace of a slowly-dying and desperate industry: If you know what people are wondering about, you can (try to) make your content the first thing they read, and you want to make sure that when people search for content, they find yours.  The problem is that these approaches eschew that one fundamental purpose of journalism I mentioned earlier; to inform people of things they didn’t know they wanted to know.

Because outlets like the NYT (not that they’re alone in this practice, not hardly) have made such an extended and targeted effort to paint the “banksters” and the financial services industry as a whole as evil, selfish, greedy bastards out to get rich regardless of the consequences of their actions, most people have largely come to believe such half-truths.  Perhaps the worst part of the NYT’s (etc) populist pandering is that they represent themselves as having “the greatest journalism in the world” and just like Fox News, claim to be fair and balanced.

Gimme a freaking break!  Both the liberal and conservative Main-Stream Financial media is (with few exceptions, e.g. FT Alphaville and a small handful of smart, dedicated journalists) about as fair and balanced as a bout between myself and Mike Tyson in his prime.

If these outlets were really interested in being fair and balanced they’d tell the whole story, and they’d tell it right.  Unfortunately, much of the time, not only do they only tell (the) part of the story they hope will generate the most pageviews, emails, retweets, facebook status updates, etc, but in so doing, facts constantly get mangled, manipulated, and totally ignored altogether!

At least Demand Media is upfront about what they’re trying to do and how they go about doing it, which is less than I can say for outlets like the NYT and many others.  In fairness, some “content farms” and even blogs written by financial/legal/etc professionals are sometimes guilty of the same things as the MSM (*ahem* Naked Capitalism *ahem*).

The handful or two of journalists with whom I speak on a regular basis are aware – to varying degrees – of these trends, and are not very happy that “the powers that be” to whom they answer don’t understand the unenviable position in which they’re putting their staff. Nor do these “powers” seem to understand the longer-term implications of their short-sighted business and editorial decisions.

I can guarantee the trends we’re seeing now – the shift towards creating content likely to get the most pageviews etc – instead of creating content that The Public needs to know about, will end in tears.  I fear the brunt of these tears will most likely be from the journalists (and those aspiring to become ones) whose jobs are slowly being replaced by a growing cadre of free or very-poorly compensated bloggers, syndicated content, etc.

I expect the brain-trusts making these short-sighted business and editorial decisions will eventually realize – probably not until after it’s too late – the possibly irreversible damage they’ve done to the news and journalism industry.  If these trends continue, everyone will suffer and we’ll move that much closer to the idiocracy I fear I may see within my lifetime.

There is a possibility – albeit a small one – that SEO and demand-driven content will increase media revenues enough that they can afford to maintain their own journalism operations (while fostering relationships with people like us financial pros who create our own content).  It’s possible, but even if that ends up being the case, newsrooms are still going to shrink, content is going to be even more dumbed-down than it already is (ugh), and stories that change industries, countries, and the world are going to become ever-more few & far between.

I am not exactly the biggest fan of current or even traditional “journalism,” but compared to the crap we’re seeing and the crappier crap we’re going to see if things keep going as they are, I’ll take traditional journalism any day!

Let’s just hope my fears are unwarranted, for everyone’s sake…

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3 Responses to “Pondering the End Game of the Changing Nature of Online Media”

  1. eradke February 20, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    The rise of blogs and twitter and social media has leveled the playing field as far as distribution. The recession has brought out the worst in media. Do I blame the media? Not completely, they are reacting to what the market is telling them. The market is saying quantity is better than quality. Consumers want the information and they want it fast. It takes a lot of time and understanding to deliver that.

    I have written a few hundred posts at this point. Some of my best posts were hardly read and others that took me 5 minutes got massive traffic. That is why it does not matter how good a post is, just that it is there.

    As far as traffic and SEO goes it matters. It has a compounding effect. Eventually quality does rise to the top. Media, IMO, is looking at it in terms of science when it is an art. People understand and can sense when you view them as a science experiment.

  2. Christian Brucculeri February 25, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughts. I agree that the benefit to curated content is the discovery of non-algorithmic (i.e. a human thought about it) suggestions of what to read, not simply giving people bad copy on topics that they put into a search engine. I actually wrote about on this topic this morning.

  3. Matt SF March 2, 2011 at 11:39 pm #

    I with you, but while I’m long term bearish on SEO as an industry, I’m still short term bullish. The majority of corporate retail sites, newspapers re-branded as content hubs, and even a few bloggers, have figured out that SEO is the steroids that boost their performance far beyond what their natural abilities ever could.

    Problem is, now that “everyone” is doing it, “everyone else” feels the pressure to respond in kind just to keep up. Then the negative feedback loop feeds upon itself.

    In that sense, SEO, gaming Alexa rankings or any other web metric to track a website’s popularity is a lot like QE… once it goes away, the folks who are relying on it to keep them afloat will be toast.

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