In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday traces the history of modern journalism through three phases: the party press (political parties informing their supporters), yellow journalism (newspapers being sold on street corners), and the modern subscription model (think the New York Times or the Washington Post).
Ryan contrasts the yellow journalism era with the subscription era. With yellow journalism, consumers didn’t have any brand loyalty. They didn’t subscribe to particular papers. Instead, they bought a paper only when a headline caught their eye. The newspaper editors knew this and it drove bad incentives: They exaggerated headlines. They played to peoples’ basest emotions and impulses. They wrote what they knew would sell: gossip, sex, violence, and outrage. Does any of this sound familiar?
When citizens became sufficiently disgusted with that status quo, a new business model emerged: subscriptions. When you pay for repeated news from the same source, then incentives change. The paper’s prime focus is no longer luring readers in, it’s keeping subscribers. Any exaggeration or deceit will hurt their credibility. Headlines become descriptions rather than advertisements. Stories become the point of the paper rather than playing second fiddle to the headlines.
Blogging (think BuzzFeed, Gawker, The Huffington Post) is in many ways a return to yellow journalism - but worse. Stories appear on Facebook, Twitter, and aggregators like Google News. They once again have to sell themselves with their headlines. The moment you click, the website makes its money, even if you then click away in disgust.
Unlike a newspaper, a blog doesn’t have to fit its stories onto physical pages. More posts mean more money, so time spent writing each post falls to nothing. Quality and due-diligence are sacrificed as underpaid writers scramble to meet their quota of 12 posts a day.
A newspaper really only needs “clickbait” on the front page. The rest of the headlines can be reasonable and descriptive. With a blog, every story competes on its own, against all other stories. They each have to lure readers in.
But it gets worse:
Web analytics are easy to set up and incredibly profitable, and so blogs are able to test which stories and headlines are most likely to be clicked, systematizing the pursuit of clickbait.
Anger, it turns out, is the most profitable emotion to evoke in a reader. Is it a surprise, then, that so much of what we read (particularly the political) causes us to become angry, upset, or outraged? Statistically, that’s what makes us click and share, which drives advertising revenue.
Citizens get a sense of the state of the world through their news. How much damage is this system doing, by writing story after story on the smallest negative event, while not covering massive wins because it’s unprofitable to do so?
The whole situation reeks of Moloch. Set up a system with incentives and a large reward, and that system will optimize away everything you hold dear in order to maximize what’s incentivized (in this case, clicks).
Of course, not all blogs are like that. Some blogs follow something closer to a subscription model. They prioritize satisfying recurring subscribers at the expense of the massive spikes in traffic that are possible from going viral. But because they’re not playing the game, they’ll never be as large and influential as those who do.
I’ve read Trust Me, I’m Lying twice now. I’d highly recommend it. It covers a number of other topics, including tactics that PR professionals use to fool blogs into giving companies and individuals free press coverage. Many of them are too Black Hat for me to ever use, but still fascinating to learn about.