The first Saturday after the 2016 election, I sat down with my kids to eat breakfast at our kitchen table. Cheerios and bacon. It was a Saturday morning dad breakfast if ever there was one. I did my best to engage them in conversation but I was a distracted. The election was on my mind. I had a few thoughts I wanted to put down and post on my then small but growing political blog. So, after they cleaned up their plates and wandered off, I opened up my laptop and took about thirty minutes to cobble together a few paragraphs that captured how I felt about the previous few days. I did a too brief once over to proof read it, hit the publish button, closed my laptop and went about my day.
A few hours later, on a hike to the local park, I handed over my phone to my youngest so that he could play Pokemon Go. He quickly handed it back to me in frustration. The app had frozen up. I was being bombarded with Twitter notifications, over a thousand new followers that hour. Confused and a little concerned, I checked out my site. Over a quarter million people had visited that day. It was only noon. And that was five times more people that had been on the site since I opened it a year earlier.
The 30-minute post breakfast mind dump had gone viral.
The next few days were a little crazy. I was contacted by multiple media outlets to ask if they could republish the article. I let them. A few podcasts reached out to ask if I could come on. I was afraid and said no. The WordPress people contacted me and asked me why the hell I turned off the ads the previous year. People were sharing my article back to me without knowing it was me who wrote it. Famous people were re-tweeting it on Twitter. And over night, I went from a hobby blogger to a successful one. People had found my site. And they liked it.
I have an audience now. It’s not huge. But every time I write something thousands of people read it. Sometimes tens of thousands. Sometimes more. A collection of the essays from the early days of the blog are going to publish with a small, but real, publishing company later this year. But as much as I’d like to think that it’s all because I’m a brilliant writer, I know, deep down, none of that would be true if I hadn’t written that one article.
If you’re wondering by now, yes, there actually is a point to all my self-congratulating. It’s this: There’s a sickness in the free press of America and other places like us. The Fourth Estate has got problems. And the experience I’ve had generating content has made it painfully clear to me why.
That 30-minute project and all the things that have come with it are, in a very dangerous way, the unstated goal of the business side of the distribution of modern journalism. I don’t just mean the closet bloggers like me or fake news conspiracists that seep into our Facebook feeds every day. I mean all of them. From the New York Times to Breitbart. Like software apps, YouTubers or consumer products, the modern marketing strategy for journalism is the “share” button. Nothing else comes close. That’s new. And when that’s the goal, it’s nearly impossible to avoid generating a certain type of content.
The article that got me the platform I have now wasn’t, in my opinion, my best work. It certainly wasn’t the most informative. It definitely wasn’t the most researched. And it didn’t really tell anybody anything they didn’t already know. But after reflection on 125 articles, two years and two-million or so visitors, I can tell you that article hit every sweet spot for a potentially viral event.
It was about a thousand words. No More.
It was about THE news story that happened within the previous 72 hours.
It was about and included a picture of Donald Trump.
It was harshly critical of a very specific political affiliation. (which one isn’t material)
That’s it. Those are the four things. That’s the secret sauce in 2017 America. Directionally, its the same recipe that’s always been used, if you swap Trump for whoever matters at that time. What is new, is the way it’s shared and how effective that recipe is for sharing.
I didn’t do it on purpose. I just wrote what I felt. But I’m a data guy. So when this one popped, I was curious as to why. And what I found when I did a deep dive on my historic traffic was that, of the things I’ve produced that received way more run than the level of work that I put in to them, all included that formula. Like clockwork.
Which means that tomorrow, if I want this article to go viral, I’ll throw a picture of Donald Trump on it, and a headline that says something like, “The Real Truth About What’s Wrong with the Liberal Media.” And if I’m really, desperate, maybe I’ll add “This Vet Tells the Liberal Media…”
Throw a 10X multiplier on whatever steaming turd comes after either of those headlines.
I don’t mean to denigrate the work I did that morning. It wasn’t garbage. Quite the contrary. It was emotional and honest and it put into words what many were feeling at that moment in history, perhaps like not many other people could. I’m proud of it. But I also know the forces it revealed to me. And even though I don’t do this for money and if it ended tomorrow the only impact it would have on my daily life would be my ego, I have felt the seductive pull in that direction. And had to cautiously guard against it. And I know, that if I were responsible for putting eyeballs on screens, and that’s how I fed my family, it would impact what I produced or promoted, at a very minimum, subconsciously.
Which brings us back to a regrettable reality. People don’t share the types of things that align with the highest best purpose of a free press. They don’t share things that inform them or make them more effective participants in the democratic process. They share things that emotionally stir them or enable them to signal things to others. They share things that align with their world view and create a displayed portfolio of their values. Posting to our Facebook Newsfeed was originally called posting to our “wall”. Because that’s what we were and still are doing. We’re posting things that establish our personal brand, like the Han Solo poster I had (maybe still have) on my wall as a kid.
Contrary to the headlines, the most troubling problem with social media and journalism isn’t fake news. It’s the lack of sharing of real news. There always has been and will always be buffoons who believe nonsense. But when the business model of modern journalism requires sharing, get ready for real journalism outlets to start sounding a lot less like the Fourth Estate and a lot more like a guy eating cheerios and bacon with his kids.
It’s fair to ask the question. Have things really gotten measurably better for the democratic process since the rise of social media and the existence of a half dozen 24-hour news outlets focusing on the politics of the Federal Government? I can and will argue that they haven’t. And it’s not because journalism is dead. It’s because there’s not enough eyeballs that care about real journalism to make it profitable from an opportunity cost perspective to the endless army of corporate entities horny for the share button. So it gets crowded out. It’s not that no one is writing it. It’s that no one is sharing it. So we’re writing way more crap along with it. And that’s all that’s getting read.
Perhaps, it’s time for a contraction in the market.
If every single cable news outlet in America folded tomorrow, what important things would we no longer know?
What if all that was left, was real journalism. By real journalists.
Would you read it?