media

The Fourth Estate

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?

Categories: media

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10 replies »

  1. Sean, you are a writer for the times. You hit it again, thank you for being so honest, I am not sure if I am one of those who found you that way, but I love your posts. You are literally outstanding, and you have moral authority. I am glad you realize your power and trust you will use it wisely!

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  2. I think this is a little hysterical, if I’m being frank. This history of the American newspaper looks a fair bit like the current state of journalism (electronic journalism, rather), on a smaller scale. Newspapers have always been deeply politicized, and the endgame of that was often to sell newspapers– and push an agenda, of course, but the two went hand in hand, much of the time. 24-hour cable news is certainly a new phenomenon, but I would argue that it’s really the *only* one unique to our time. We see the internet as this brand new thing, and in some ways, it is– but not in the ways it chooses to sell its news. It’s foolish and nostalgic to imagine that there was some golden age of news, or an accompanying golden age of American news consumers– there has always been muck and drivel, and there has always been real journalism, and there still is. The market for both, similarly, exists. Your own “viral” post is also, likely, more than the sum of the reductive parts you stripped it to, but that’s another conversation.

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    • I was going for only a little hysterical. Which isn’t easy. Three thoughts to add. 1)The rise of cable news is at least 51% of the point of my argument. Maybe more. It’s responsible for a major shift in where people get their news. Nearly a third of us use it as their primary source. And it’s mostly nonsense. 2) The low behavioral friction behind the share button is new. It represents a shift in what is considered a “successful” piece of content. If you take a half turn towards how quickly online outlets can now simply cite another story as their news piece and bank the revenue from digital adds, something that used to take a minimum of a day lag that made it less profitable, you add a multiplier to the effect. That’s also new. 3) Corporate structure and profitability pressures, not just in journalism but in business as a whole, are vastly different then they were even 40 years go. That drives extreme short term behavior. Again, not at all unique to journalism.

      I’m in violent agreement that there was no “golden age” of journalism. Only a sliding scale of standards relative to consumption. We’ve probably had lower standards at some point. But never relative to the level of consumption we have now. The point being that we’ve wandered into a lower standard for a given consumption than is helpful to serve the purpose of an informed public.

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  3. These are not ordinary times for our politic! A search for political truth is more critical than ever in our lifetime! We would be foolish to ignore this reality. While there is some truth to what you have assessed, journalists had better pay attention! I truly enjoy your thought- provoking discourse! ( forgive my grammatically incorrect overuse of exclamation point- but it serves my feelings about the critical-ness of our times)

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  4. Keep on thinking, and keep on writing. I don’t think I share your politics, but your introspection and the lens of your life experience make for quite decent written work. Question to ponder: is this blog social medium, or is it journalism, or is it news commentary? I’d like to see your ideas on these divisions. Dig deeper!

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  5. Investigative journalism and corporate profit models will ultimately result in conflict. That is assuredly part of what has been lost in the last decades. It was a game-changer when broadcast news programming was merged with entertainment.

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  6. This is my first time reading your blog. I was vectored to it by another USNA grad.

    Traditional and contemporary Americans have always looked for and respected one thing: the “Honest American.” Washington’s, Adams’, Lincoln’s , (T) Roosevelt’s, Coolidge’s, Truman’s, and Eisenhower’s legacies. There will be arguments about recent and current American presidents, but the essential quest is the same: tell it like it is, don’t blow sunshine up our posteriors, and we’re fine if you have an ax to grind so long as you’re up front about it. The working class, Heartland, raise-your-kids America have only cared about that, in the end.

    I think our current [Cadre] Media is at a low point. But I have only historical accounts of pre-Civil War and the era of Yellow Journalism to compare it to. Living in the “now” gives current perceptions greater personal resonance: that was then, but this is NOW. I’m not in support of anything collectivist, and I have grave suspicions for anybody who starts talking about “global
    concerns.” I have only one “identity” in politics that I care about: American.

    If current new outlets folded, I’d follow various social media posts by people in high office. Until they tried to sell me on something, instead of why they believed in it and why they would commit their families to it.

    If all that remained was “real journalism,” then, yes, I’d read it. Right now, your blog is filling part of the bill. It’s the good part of Social Media.

    Thanks, and Go Navy, Beat Army.

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