Samuel Axon

Feb 21 2011

Former Engadget and Mashable Editor: “Web Journalism Is a Joke”

There’s a Twitter-bait headline for you.

There are several reasons I amicably quit Mashable, but one of the biggest is this: I’m not a journalist and I don’t want to be. From the beginning I made it clear that I was solely interested in producing entertaining and profitable content, as a writer and in other roles.
This is because I believe that journalism as it must be understood is fundamentally impossible on the web as it functions today.

10 months ago (more current references are coming shortly, web addicts) an Apple employee lost a valuable prototype iPhone in a bar, and that phone was delivered to an Internet publication. The publication, Gizmodo, illegally purchased Apple’s stolen property and shamelessly profited from it.
They tried to claim they were immune to the consequences because they were acting as journalists, even as they plastered every iPhone-related article with video embeds and links intended to initiate revenue-generating new readers looking for more gadget-related entertainment.
Gizmodo and its defenders confused commerce, entertainment and journalism. That’s a mix-up I want no part of, but the web’s current infrastructure requires anyone who attempts to make a living as a journalist to conflate those directives.

The folks at Mashable are fantastically talented and intelligent people. Most of them understand the complicated mess that is digital media, and I love the work they do. It’s some of the most responsible and constructive web writing you’ll ever see. I was nevertheless weary of trying to live up to the label of journalism, given the nature of incentives offered by Google, Twitter and other web tools social and new media enthusiasts praise unconditionally.

Those enthusiasts include a bulk of Mashable readers, but you’d be surprised at the variance in opinions among the people working there. I actually believe the Mashable team’s media theory diversity creates a system of checks and balances that contributes to the brand’s success.

Ultimately, though, I felt that the winning voices were those I didn’t fully agree with — voices saying we were still journalists. As good a job as the Mashable team has done, no one could possibly do a good enough job in this industry to call it journalism. I cannot be satisfied until things far beyond Mashable’s control are changed.

I’ve heard the argument that we’ve “redefined” journalism, but semantics aside, we’re either profit-seekers or truth-seekers. We’re either entertainers or informers. No one can be both unless the game rules are changed. I’m tired of seeing TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington and Huffpo’s Arianna Huffington claim otherwise in their crusades against “old media.”

For all the flak they get, at least AOL’s Tim Armstrong, Demand Media’s Richard Rosenblatt and Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis aren’t lying through their teeth. They’d be the first to tell you they’re mass-producing commodities tailored to consumer demand, just like Gap or McDonald’s.

And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Wise people place their bets based on the cards they’re dealt. On the web we’ve all been dealt a shit hand for journalism, such that the only way to win the long game is to fold.

Instead, we have opportunities to use our resources to entertain, to shape the public and popular culture, and to generate financial opportunities for ourselves and others. Stop calling it journalism. It’s not, but it’s a rewarding way to make a living. Maintaining that distinction is vital to the critically endangered future of real journalism.

Look, I’m not going to say the recently-leaked “AOL Way" is good for journalism (it certainly isn’t if it drives away exceptional editors like Paul Miller) but if it’s executed properly (big if) there’s a lot in there that’s good for business. It’s not AOL’s fault that this new media we all celebrate so much incentivizes practices that are bad for journalism, journalists and consumers of media in general.

You don’t have to know much about economics or business to know that you create a product to meet a demand. That’s what the AOL Way is: a set of processes for creating monetizable products to meet consumer demand.

Don’t blame Tim Armstrong or other people in AOL management for the situation; they’re doing exactly what the market demands they do. Instead, blame search engines and social media — the very things everyone was heralding as saviors for journalism just a couple years ago.

Incentivizing responsible journalism

As we all know, Google used to have the motto, “Don’t be evil.” But look at Google as a critical component in modern journalism and another Internet slogan comes to mind: “epic fail.”

Almost everyone uses Google to find out more about news that’s happening right now, whether it’s tech industry stuff, celebrity breakups, or political revolutions. Because of that behavior, search engine optimization is vital to success on the web.

Unfortunately, the rules Google uses to determine which websites gain strong rankings — and thus frequent traffic, high impressions and strong ad revenues — betray journalists and the people who need them at every turn.

Google’s algorithms and the blog linking customs built around them favor those who write first, not those who write accurately. Media outlets have almost no financial incentive to produce articles about anything that won’t produce a keyword-heavy headline.

Readability, accuracy and quality are not considerations. The only way to profit (apart from being a prophet or building a time machine) is to respond to what people are searching for. But do people always search for what they need to know — what journalists have a responsibility to tell them?

Among other things, we write our headlines to match the reader’s perception of the story, not to inform it. We have no choice, because we must react to search trends and terms to succeed financially.

Again, I have no qualms about producing entertainment and other products to meet demand. It’s what I’m doing with my career. But journalism must not function this way if it is to remain useful.

Social media is the future, but not a bright one

At Mashable and other similar sites, social media shares have eclipsed search engine-driven traffic. Sadly, Twitter and Facebook are no better for the tenets of responsible journalism.

Advocates of Twitter as a media publishing and aggregation platform argue that the old media is slow, but no one has ever explained to me why any tech blog readers besides day traders benefit from having inaccurate and truncated information five seconds after an event occurs, instead of thoughtful coverage six hours later.

We want to know about the new iPhone now instead of later this afternoon because that ever-changing, on-the-minute news cycle is entertainment. We are not ultimately better informed for it in any practical way.

But this is how people get their news, so here we are writing 140-character posts (minus the link length) with Twitter trend words included before we’ve had time to come to terms with the information we’re reporting.

Once again we are incentivized to offer what people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Call it democratization of the press all you want; I don’t believe the groupthinking mass of Twitter users is qualified to determine what journalists should report.

Moving on

My friend and former colleague C.K. Sample III recently asked me to say what must be done to incentivize responsible journalism online.

The responsibility lies with Google, Twitter, and other tech media companies that provide the infrastructure in which would-be journalists work. Mashable, AOL and The Huffington Post are all powerless to change anything.

Maybe a model akin to The Daily will take hold. I’m not against it. We’ll see. But if we want the open web to be a place for journalism, then Google and Twitter have to make some bold and substantial changes. Consider them called out. God only knows if they perceive their own incentives pushing them in that direction.

As for me, I’ve redirected my professional energies away from tech journalism. I’m commited to producing and monetizing high-quality digital media content of all other kinds.

Even though I acknowledge that mass production of web content has its place, and even though I’ve given up on the notion that journalists can do their jobs on the web, I do believe it’s possible to produce and profit from quality content that entertains and enriches. That’s what I’ll be working on. I’ll let you know how it goes.

[Image credit: Keir Briscoe Photography]

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