The Ark and the Flood

Can viral content and serious journalism co-exist,
or is the competition for eyeballs drowning them both?

By James Robert Douglas
Illustration by Daniel Gray

In May this year the American news publication Mother Jones reported on the sale of the faltering weekly magazine Newsweek to an online organization called IBT Media, named after its flagship website International Business Times. Jones alleged that IBT is owned (and, to some extent, run) by a mysterious Christian sect known as the Community, which is led by Korean pastor David Jang.

According to Jones’ reporter Ben Dooley, Jang views the Community’s media publications — including Newsweek, International Business Times, and its earlier properties Christian Today and Christian Post — as a kind of biblical ark: “[t]he world has entered the period of a second flood”, Jang told his followers, “[b]ut instead of the rain that bedeviled Noah, humanity is being drowned in information.”

Within the ranks of the Community, according to Dooley, it is commonly accepted that Jang is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (a notion that he publically denies). Whether or not this is true is a matter for a religious debate, but what does seem clear from Jones’ article is that Jang — like all contemporary news media publishers — lags behind the original Jesus in the miracle stakes. Whereas Jesus was said to have turned water into wine all by himself, Jang relies on the efforts of his followers to turn news into money. In 2006, Community members were told to pray for IBT to make “one billion dollars this year”. A circulated list of prayer topics told them to click — “click constantly!” — on the Community’s many websites.

Even before major news media publishing organisations were in such a depreciated financial position as to be bought cheap by mysterious Christian sects, there was a kind of faith-based leadership in place. The capacity of the internet and digital publishing to absorb and dismantle existing news business models has long been understood, but reactions from corporate leaders have been slow or confused. Digital media has leeched readers off daily newspapers by providing an enormous quantity of content, with varying degrees of quality, at a near-instantaneous rate, for the low price of zero – the flood, that Jang claims to guard against. The slow dispersal of the readership has been followed by reductions in advertising revenue, while the financial bedrock of the conventional newspaper — the classifieds — has migrated online to places like Craigslist and Gumtree.

In an article published in The Monthly last year, Eric Beecher (publisher of Crikey), describes a board meeting with Fairfax’s directors that took place in the mid-2000s. Having just sold a publishing venture to Fairfax, Beecher advised that the potential loss of classified advertising to the internet — a “catastrophic scenario”, in his words — required decisive action from the board. As Beecher describes it, Fairfax Chairman Roger Corbett “walked to the head of the board table and picked up a copy of one of Fairfax’s hefty Saturday broadsheets, bulging with classified ads, from a nearby pile. He didn't want anyone coming into that boardroom again saying that people will buy houses or cars or look for jobs without “this”, he told his fellow directors. He then dropped the paper onto the table with a thud.”

This sort of magical thinking has borne devastating results. As reported on ABC’s Media Watch, Fairfax’s flagship publications The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald now have a circulation reach of merely 130,000, while print advertising revenue for these papers has dropped by $100 million in a single year. Total revenue for News Corp papers in the final quarter of 2013 dropped by $120 million from the previous year. As newspaper revenue plummets, their capacity to fund, research, write, produce, and publish according to traditional standards of quality journalism seems increasingly slim.

The recent emergence and success of sites like Buzzfeed and UpWorthy seem to represent a strong model for financially viable web publishing. In their promulgation of ‘viral’ content — and consequent advertising sales from their substantial page views — they appear to be overtaking newspapers in the modern attention economy. This is to the consternation of advocates for traditional journalism, who see viral content — like the famous cat videos — as the antithetical competition to hard news.

Cartoon by Ben Juers

But if these ‘click bait’ websites represent one end of the spectrum and newspapers represent the other, there has been much movement towards the middle. News websites have plainly taken to copying the presentation (and, to some extent, the content) of viral sites, while publications like BuzzFeed and VICE have been making forays into ‘serious’ journalism.

The bellwether for this tendency was the appointment of Ben Smith, a well-regarded American columnist for the political news website Politico, as BuzzFeed’s Editor-in-Chief in December 2011. Under Smith, BuzzFeed began covering the 2012 US presidential primaries, garnering the attention and curiosity of more traditional news outlets in the process. On Buzzfeed’s News subsection, it is now unremarkable to see a headline like ‘Gaza Mortar Kills 4-Year Old Israeli Boy’ sit beside one like ‘Here’s What Happens When You Try to Watch ‘The Simpsons’ for 24 Hours’.

Some observers seem to want to succumb to the perception that the economic relationship of news content to ‘click bait’ content is a replica of that between ‘serious’ newspaper journalism and classified advertising. This view might have something to do with the recent tendency of viral sites to publish deeply researched, so-called ‘longform’, works of reportage — the closest analogue to the serious, in-depth magazine article in the digital sphere — alongside their more conventional click bait pieces. In late 2012 BuzzFeed appointed Steve Kandell, former Editor-in-Chief of SPIN magazine as its first ‘longform editor’. Locally, the youth-targeted site Junkee published a 7,000-word article on the successful re-election of WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlum.

But the idea that viral publishing is the ark that will keep serious in-depth reportage afloat belies the evident economic advantages to publishing long pieces. There is evidence to suggest, for instance, that long pieces garner a higher ranking in Google search results. Content and social media analysis site BuzzSumo calculates that posts of 2,000–10,000 words receive almost twice as many ‘shares’ on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest than posts of under 1,000 words.

A glance at some of the longform pieces published on BuzzFeed is instructive. Although ‘hard-news’ stories seem well-represented — as in this 7,000-word article about a drone strike that killed twelve people at a wedding party in Yemen — there are also such pieces as an in-depth investigation of legal conflicts behind the movie Flashdance, and a 7,000-word essay on night terrors, titled ‘Can You Die From a Nightmare?’ That the first long piece published under Kandell’s tenure was a 5,000-word history of the video game Pong might be telling as to the tenor of BuzzFeed’s general ambitions for the essay form.

At any rate, it seems clear that longform will not unambiguously prove to be the new home for serious journalism. Rather, the long essay is now a new genus of click bait. If cat videos really are here to save journalism, then it does not seem as though this will be in the sense of it charitably subsidizing traditional hard news pieces. Rather viral websites offer a governing logic to which journalism must submit itself if it is to survive.

In an article published in Journal of Marketing Research in 2011, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman from The University of Pennsylvania discuss an analysis they made of 7,000 New York Times articles in order to determine what sorts of content led to an article appearing on the Times’ most e-mailed list. Berger and Milkman find that an article’s “valence” — that is, whether it is positive or negative in content — has an effect on an article’s popularity, with positive ideas proving more shareable than negative. Additionally, this tendency is mediated by the emotional response an article elicits, with “high-arousal” emotions — like “awe, anger, or anxiety” — proving more shareable than “deactivating” emotions, like “sadness”.

This research has been parlayed into a platform for instructing publishers how to make their sites more successful. By following his principles of virality, including emotional valency and activation, Berger says, producers will have a recipe for making their content “more contagious”.

Viral success is not just a matter of cats or cute animals. Rather it seems that there is a definite formula to shareable content, and as this formula takes economic precedence in the digital marketplace, it will inevitably shape the development of all areas of web publishing, both entertainment and news.

If virality is to be the mechanism that ‘saves’ journalism, then perhaps journalism’s champions will not enjoy the transformation that follows. Berger’s formulas may make content economically viable, but it cannot be said with confidence that they will make for good, serious news reportage.

An emphasis on emotional ‘activation’ and positive valency hardly corresponds to the model of dispassionately informed ethical rigour that has been typically applied to the ideal of the journalistic mission. The dry business of public accountability and scrutiny that, in Beecher’s analysis, once made newspapers the “pillars of the Australian democratic infrastructure”, will have some difficulty being sexed-up for this new age of virality. Civic mismanagement, lapsed campaign promises, and budgetary malfeasance do not make for the most emotion-activating, shareable topics; and if they do so once, they will not do so indefinitely.

VICE media, another digital empire that has made inroads into news publishing, has become notable for the space and resources it devotes to ‘serious’ subjects, like North Korea, and to logistically ambitious reporting, like embedded dispatches from combat zones. But its news and cultural material both belong to a very distinct aesthetic — in which a story about surviving a Khmer Rouge massacre can slot next to one about undergoing a psychedelic trip on DMT — that limits its attention to ‘extreme’ behavior and situations. This narrowing of focus is part of a current status quo in which news publishers must increasingly restrict their content to economically viable strictures.

Cartoon by Ben Juers

Of course, there have always been economic imperatives behind print journalism, as well. But the marketplace once allowed newspapers the luxury of being a ‘big tent’ medium, in which content of different kinds, and with different targeted audiences, could exist within the same pages, secure in the financial cushion of the classifieds. But with the digital floodgates now open, news publishers must force themselves to adhere to an identifiable brand or aesthetic — and to logic of virality, more generally — if they are to stay visible in the current attention economy.

So what of the David Jang’s media empire, and its attempts to float atop this digital flood? Well, the spiritual efficacy of IBT’s work is perhaps for him to determine, but to the outside observer it seems that the content published by the Community’s subsidiaries is indistinguishable in character from the competition. According to Dooley’s article, the company has been insatiable in its pursuit of click bait. Management would issue untenable demands for performance, like a minimum of “10,000 hits per article”. One journalist called it “an incredibly demoralizing place to work”.

News publishers all over are likewise searching for a way to shepherd their content through the current digital glut. Lately, the message has been that click bait strategies will carry news reportage atop these turbulent waters; that if publishers and journalists can secure themselves aboard the viral ark then the grand old newspaper tradition will sail on. But as the logic of page views and virality exerts ever more economic precedence, the qualitative difference between serious journalism and the viral content that floats it seems liable to collapse. Journalism’s champions will realise too late that the ark and the flood are one and the same.


James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.

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