The Twitterverse loves congratulating itself over the speed and reach of its favorite toy, but it leaves out one important fact: There’s a lot more bad journalism now than there was before the social media revolution.
While social media has the power to spread snippets of potentially useful information far and wide, many of the updates link to some truly awful reportage. That is, if people click on the link at all. Analyst Dan Zarrella found that tweeted links have a less-than-10% click-through rate, meaning fewer than one in ten people bothers to absorb more than a headline. The number of people who bother to read more than a sentence or two on Facebook is similar.
With numbers like this, it’s hard not to begin to see poorly executed social media as gossip, refined.
Because much of the time we only see information 140 characters at a time, we don’t realize how wobbly are the underpinnings of the headlines. Even on the relatively rare instances when we click through on a link we read, we’ve become so habituated to scanty details that we some of us have never grown up with the ability to discern a professionally researched, ethically sourced story and something slapped together to harvest a click.
The bulk of our news is now bulk news. These are the post mills.
Corporations have laid off their full-time reporters by the thousands. They devote no resources to deep investigation, or if they do, it’s only to a few figurehead hires. Rarely did someone who works at the site you’re reading actually pick up a phone to validate the story it is recycling. Instead, you will notice, it passes the buck and links to where it found it. And thus, Web rumors circulate daily. A significant chunk of the New Media machine disseminates squibs and filler in a mandate to crank out topical information, harvest clicks while the getting is good, and move on.
These sites require writers to pump out five or more posts a day — not enough time to properly research, and not enough time to even leave their desks to sift through government files, attend press conferences, or cultivate contacts.
I won’t name names. I don’t need to. Here are 10 warning signs that your site may be a post mill that trades in glorified gossip.
A post mill:
— Links to original reporting another site did. Usually the writer places not so much as a single phone call to get a response or to fact-check. They might quickly consult a website. With post mills, you’ll often find yourself clicking backward from site to site, Escher-like, before you can finally locate the one that reported the story to begin with. Let’s hope it did it properly, because it can be hard to find the beginning of the research trail.
— Doesn’t pay its writers, or it only pays a few of them. If it does pay them a living wage, it may make a show of it to ward of a reputation as a post mill. Some of the aspects of the post mill, such as relentless working conditions for the young people hired to staff them, are not evident on the home page.
— Has high writer turnover. This is sometimes a sign that websites pay (if they do) according to how many views their posts attract. Given the post mill’s onerous daily quota, writers burn out faster. Commission systems also create an incentive to dangle scandalous or scary posts that are designed to stir reader fears or outrage, which in turn has them reposting them in alarm, delivering the post mill the clicks it craves.
— Often covers press releases. These can be collected and processed with a minimum of effort. Readers won’t often recognize the story as a press release rehash, but if a bunch of sites post the same story on the same day with the same details, it’s usually because a miller turned PR puff into news. Or they “aggregated” it from another site. Either way, the emperor has no clothes.
— Front-loads hot, SEO-friendly words in the headline and early grafs. During the writing process, the editors probably consulted Google Keywords to tip potential clicks in their favor, or its editors know what works. This isn’t necessarily a bad practice. Newspapermen do something similar all the time with their headlines, of course, but sexy headlines that attract clicks are a primary M.O. of a post mill.
— Gravitates toward crime and weirdness. Controversy and weird videos are a sure sign a post mill is click-baiting. I see several of the major “travel” sites trafficking mostly in airplane mishaps and airport infractions, posting very little industry and destination expertise at all. Highlighting controversy because people click on it does nothing good for public discourse, and in fact, it often gives power to idiotic arguments that don’t merit endless debate in a society with plenty of real problems to confront.
— Frequently wanders off topic. A post mill often has a lax editorial directive that enables what I call search trapping, which is posting anything, often with not even tangential connection to the theme of the site, to cash in on the hot subject of the moment.
— Often keeps posts really short. The less reporting, the shorter the writing time, the quicker a mill can search trap. If you finish reading a post and you have some basic questions unanswered, if there were no quotes that aren’t attributed to some other publication, or if you have to click from that brief story to someone else’s website to get the full details, you might be reading a post mill.
— Publishes top 10 lists with no methodology. If you’re not finding new stories, you have to rehash old ones, and if you list 10 subjective things, you have 10 chances to pop up in Google searches. They’re also highly shareable because readers are now used to the unchallenging buzz of the meme. They’re not all bad, and I have written quite a few of these myself for reputable publishers such as the BBC and Travel + Leisure; you can recognize the milly ones for their utter lack of factual meat.
— Has lots of sister sites. This is a sign that a publisher is trying to corner a bunch of topics at once, and a business with a split focus like that is more likely to be financially, and not journalistically, obsessed. Not a sure sign, but like everything on my list, it could be a flag.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all post mills are bad. Some do a very good job of aggregating news that would otherwise escape wider notice. There’s also nothing wrong with using tools to get more clicks. There is something wrong, though, when there is precious little expertise, reporter access, or eyewitness validation supporting the content.
Post mills can undermine the Fourth Estate, allow marketing and PR departments to manipulate our media as their mouthpiece, and leave the watchdogs sleeping. An entire generation of people is growing up without an understanding that the people who bring them their news have hastily recycled it, without checking how it got to them. Even the esteemed news outlets devote minutes and column inches to recycling what Joe Blow said about a topic on Facebook or Twitter. Gossip and news are becoming indistinguishable.
We have developed a news system in which everyone assumes that someone else is doing the heavy lifting. Somewhere, we think, there’s a group of people who vetted and researched what we read. In actuality, a lot of it just came off the grindstone.