The Tyranny of the Click

A 1942 War poster. Ironically, it was referring to unions

Do you even know what’s happening to your news? Media companies are tracking the hot terms that people are searching for from minute to minute, and when those terms come up on their computers, there’s a little button. Hit that button and a new rough draft is created with those search terms as the topic. That way, by focusing on coverage of what’s hot, “news” organizations catch viewers.

You don’t hear about things because that thing is necessarily important. You often hear about it because people are searching for it on Google today. This way, Nicole Richie’s wedding is covered more than Richard Holbrooke’s death.

Until a few years ago, your newspaper would send someone to cover the City Council meeting because it was an important service to the community. Not everyone would read that story about the meeting. They might flip right past it on the bus or in the coffee shop. But the City Council members watched their step because a journalist was watching. That’s what they called journalists: watchdogs.

Not anymore. Once media outlets gained the ability to actually know how many people click on each story, the temptation was too great. Rather than presenting news because it’s sometimes the best thing to do for our country and our communities, the news has been nearly completely monetized by corporations. And, as we know, pretty much every news brand is owned by a corporation.

Recently, Nikki Usher, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, took a contrary point of view in her post “Why SEO and audience tracking won’t kill journalism as we know it.” The crux of her argument was this: “…journalists, for too long, have been writing about what they think their readers ought to know, and not enough about what their audiences want to know.”

I wonder if she’s a parent, and if she is, whether she raises her kids that way.

Let’s not paint a misty picture of that dinosaur, the old-fashioned newsroom. Even newsprint men wrote a lot of stories merely to feed the appetite of what people wanted to know. Too many. That’s been one of the pillars of the paper since the days of Yellow Journalism, when Helen Jewett’s hatchet murder was the crap du jour.

So Usher has conveniently edited her portrait of historic journalism. She also doesn’t quash any of my SEO fears; she affirms them. She merely looks down her nose at the healthy watchdog function of traditional journalism the way a 7-year-old sniffs at spinach. She also unwittingly succumbs to one of the oldest journalistic tricks in the book: Be contrary, and you’ll be read. Perhaps it’s the same impulse that makes me want to contradict her on my blog.

It’s certainly true that newsrooms are catering to clicks. Yes, journalists in even the best newsrooms craft news they feel is important. It’s a critical function of editors and writers — and merely by choosing what’s important enough to cover they reveal, by definition, a bias that cannot be removed from journalism.

I know there’s an overclass of largely educated, information-hungry people who swear Twitter is uncovering the world’s great ills and revolutionizing revolution, but I would argue that most of its successes have been at shining additional pinpoints of light on areas already in the spotlight. It’s certainly not reaching a wide enough audience to right the wrongs of the local City Council, and there’s no one behind it who can dive into a sleazy corporation’s file cabinets and come up a month later with redemption clutched in their fist.

And since Twitter posts only reach the people who have elected to follow their chosen writers, until there’s a wayward re-tweet to filter out to a new audience, posts actually serves to isolate people in their own bubbles of self-interest. I wrote about the growing intellectual dangers of “personalized” content here last fall.

When you make news too social and slavishly desperate for clicks, the watchdog stuff doesn’t get seen. Oddity wins, not boring old justice, and great stuff gets lost every day. You’d have gulp many gallons of the social media Kool-Aid to think that the much-touted “democracy” of the Web solves all ills. It doesn’t, just as unchecked capitalism can create some pretty hefty poverty problems for the lowest rungs of society.

And the City Council meeting goes uncovered, and the greedy government and corporate ravens rampage without notice. Even if a writer gets the whiff of shady back-room deals or wrongdoing masked by by a thicket of impenetrable paper, the low margins of the Web mean that no one’s paying anyone to put the time and elbow grease into an investigation. When writers get $15 a post, how could they?

Click-derived stories and social media gossip are rapidly leading us to an even larger echo chamber than the one we’re living in now, where newsrooms pump out stories on topics they see appearing on Google Trends, to masticate regurgitated topics of proven tastiness, and to chime in, not break stories. Hollywood began subsisting on recycled rehashes a half-decade ago. Now it’s the news’s turn.

American news coverage has always struggled between profit motives and watchdog service. But the Web made response measurable. Now pure capitalism rules all, and there’s no room for that do-gooder parasite, the watchdog.

Be careful, America. Darwinism is not democracy.

Left to our own devices, we're seduced by the latest ones

3 Responses to “The Tyranny of the Click”

  1. Rob

    From my perspective as a complete outsider to journalism it seems fairly straightforward to me. Could something like the diplomatic leaks happen before wikileaks? If all that information had landed on an editors desk what would he have done? Would he said, right let’s get all this out of the door asap or would he have sat on it, content in the knowledge that he’d just made his career, with his new insight he could have written on current events with a deeper knowledge of what was happening than anyone else, or struck a deal with the whitehouse for exclusive access in return for ignoring certain parts of what he had, keeping it out of sight. Or he could have been outright pressured financially and legally on what he dare print.

    And would he have printed the foibles of Gadaffi? Or how much the Tunisian presidents extended family were pocketing, what relevance was that to his readers? When he had so much more relevant content to go with first. Would middle east dictatorships be falling like domino’s now if all that had been put in the “slow news day” tray?

    You worry that the important stories will go unheard, I think they always have because there were only so many journalists to tell so many stories. Now there will be thousands of whistleblower sites from local ones to international ones, tens of thousands of blogs which will amplify and add context, what traditional journalists have to do is sit on the top of that pile and sift through all that information/opinion/ravings in order to find the important stuff and then apply proper journalism to it.

    • Jason Cochran

      Totally agree about the *potential* of some tweets to influence news, but they have no ability to investigate and process it (and even then, only the sexiest, loudest topics, like government rebellion, get much traction with a mass audience). But I’m really talking about the state of professional, editor-assigned journalism. Wikileaks isn’t in that model. And even its vigilante findings have not been deeply investigated and plumbed by journalists because there are none being paid to perform investigative journalism. Instead, it’s raw data. Which in a way underscores the collapse of American news’ ability to process and contextualize events and place the results before a mass audience.

  2. Timp

    I agree with much of what you say. I also think part of the problem is that everything in America is now seen as a simply a way to make money. It’s no longer the medical field, but the Health Industry. Greed isn’t just good, it’s now the only thing.

    There is no often no other reason to do work because you enjoy it, but to make money. Is everyone like that? No. But there has clearly been a shift to more and more people doing something only to make money. I don’t know how many times after completing an illustration someone tells me how I could make a bunch of money off it, selling it on mugs and t-shirts and more (and funny how those images I do put on such things, those same friends expect a freebie).

    Everything is an industry, nothing is a service, or profession or even just a company.