Before I get into this week’s topic, let me make one thing perfectly clear: You’re never going to see me wearing a “Make Journalism Great Again” hat. Journalism has never been all that great. It’s had its moments, sure, but I’ve been in this news business for, I think, thousands of years now and I know it wasn’t better in the past.
Just one example: I saw lots of lawsuits in the 1980s over police shootings. There at least seemed to be just as many then as there are these days. Do you remember seeing just as many news stories about police shootings?
This may be because some of you were toddlers or unborn at the time, but you know what I mean. It also may be because I don’t remember the 1980s all that well.
And then there was the well-known editor who told me, after I’d explained there were a lot of inaccuracies in stories written by a columnist (who was not me), that he wasn’t worried. “If they weren’t dirty, they would have sued,” he said (or at least that’s what I remember him saying). He didn’t care at all about the inaccuracies (aka fiction).
Now we see lots of coverage of police shootings and exposés that, at least I hope, are reasonably accurate. Hardly a day goes by without a well-researched White House exposé.
Which is not to say there isn’t a downside or two to the news business of today. I bring this up because The Los Angeles Times last week ran a front page story about the naming of its new editor in chief that contained a paragraph that made me very nervous:
“D’Vorkin introduced online initiatives designed to save money and boost readership. That included paying outside contributors to write stories for Forbes.com based on the number of readers they attracted. Advertisers were invited to pay to provide content for the site under the ‘BrandVoice’ label.”
Is that how serious news organizations are supposed to work?
If you’re a starving freelancer, are you going to write an in-depth report on, say, water rights in the Central Valley or a concert pianist cat? Which story do you think will attract more readers?
An economist would say there’s an incentive problem here.
Now, I’ll admit that most editors I’ve dealt with in the non-specialized media have been more concerned with attracting readers than dealing with anything important, but it’s gotten a bit out of hand on the Internet. Anyone can be a click-baiting journalist these days, especially if you’re Russian.
And this BrandVoice concept isn’t helping matters. Check out Forbes.com to see for yourself.
Yeah, there’s a little warning that explains that the content is provided by advertisers, but aside from that, what you see looks like real news reporting.
Of course, the real problem these days is that anybody can post anything on the internet and at least half of them are Russians. A sizable percentage are also idiots – but idiots attract viewers.
I came upon an example of this last week in a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court against the creators of a YouTube video called “Embarrassing Billboard Prank on My Brother (He Freaked).” When I checked the other day, the video had more than 7.3 million views.
I have no idea why.
I’m not a film critic and I’m on the old side so maybe I’m missing some deep meaning, but I can’t understand why anyone would want to sit through this. Part of the video – the part that sparked the lawsuit – consists of a guy driving a truck around and honking a loud horn to scare people. You don’t get this kind of wittiness just anywhere.
In case you’re wondering, the plaintiff claimed his hearing was injured by the horn. I’m guessing he was one of the grumpier-looking people in the video.
He didn’t understand that sacrifices have to be made in the name of art.