Rule #1: Don’t Be A Profiteering Asshole
Sometimes I hate my old profession. I mean really hate it. Yesterday was one of those days.
Amidst the tragedy and chaos that was the 2013 Boston Marathon, several tech blogs did what tech blogs do: raced to get stories up. I didn’t think I’d have to explain to anyone why this is sleazy at best and immoral at worst — I thought a Tweet would suffice — but apparently I do.
After my Tweets, a bunch of people responded with explanations/excuses along four basic lines of reasoning:
1) Who am I to say what someone can or cannot write?
2) But the coverage was pretty good because it was fast.
3) But there was a tech angle.
4) We cover everything!
The first point is fair. I cannot stop anyone from writing anything they want to write, nor would I want to. But I also have the right to call them scumbags if they write posts that are clearly meant to ride on a wave of panic sweeping a nation.
To be clear, I’m not saying that all the tech sites out there needed to sit in complete silence as events unfolded. I actually believe it would have been helpful to use their large followings to direct attention to the best sources of accurate information out there. This could have meant Tweeting out links from their main Twitter accounts. Or this could have even meant putting a banner up on a their sites showing the news and linking to the best coverage elsewhere.
The problems arose when these sites tried to publish their own “coverage” of the event. Which is what many of them did. The ones I noticed were TechCrunch, The Verge, and, of course, Mashable. There were plenty of others as well.
Rather than directly send their readers to other places doing actual reporting, these sites all wrote at least one post (and in the case of Mashable, something like a dozen shameful posts) simply embedding, copying and pasting, or regurgitating others’ information. And guess what they all got as a result? Pageview gold.
Now, I’m only privy to TechCrunch’s data,which showed that, guess what? The Boston Marathon story was the most popular story yesterday. But I have little doubt that the situation was the same for everyone involved: pageviews galore.
And guess what that means? Not only stat-padding, but advertising dollars.
Of course, no one will admit to running such stories to juice pageviews and/or revenues. But why the hell else would they run them? Which leads to point two.
“But the coverage was pretty good.” The argument here is mainly centered around the notion that the tech sites were good at embedding Tweets and Vines quickly. Of course, they could have done this just as well, and probably even better on a service like Storify (which Mashable actually used for one story, but made sure to embed it on their own page with, wait for it: ads galore). Or even more efficiently, just using Twitter itself. But that would have meant no pageviews.
As Jordan Golson noted earlier on Twitter, did any of these blogs re-publishing Boston information actually break any news or really add anything to the story beyond curation? No.
So I ask again, why were these stories on these sites?
The third notion: that there were tech angles to this story, is undeniably true. And actually, some of the stories elaborating on that information today have been quite good. But none of the sites that were publishing in the heat of the moment yesterday were interested in that. Nor did any of them have the appropriate reference points at the time to cover something like that coherently. They were all just rushing to get any and all information — including some that was inaccurate — published as quickly as possible.
Further, it’s not 2007 anymore. Noting the news is unfolding on Twitter is not itself news these days. All news unfolds on Twitter in 2013. That’s now nothing but a pathetic excuse to write a story to juice pageviews.
The fourth point: we cover everything, is just ridiculous. Okay, so you’re a tech blog that doesn’t want to be considered a tech blog (or even a blog at all). So where’s the coverage of the situation in Syria? Cyprus? Pakistan? The Iranian earthquake? Surely there are tech angles for each of those things too.
Oh wait, not a tech blog. Forgot.
At some point, you’d hope that bloggers, as human beings, would be shocked and appalled enough by what’s unfolding before their eyes that they would lay down their keyboards and stop playing the pageview game, if only for a few hours. Instead, I’m afraid the opposite instincts kicked in.
To paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park: they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.
It was almost exactly two years ago, when Mashable decided to use the death of Osama Bin Laden to attempt to game Google, that I wrote the following:
Exploiting Bin Laden’s death is one thing. Just wait until we have a real national tragedy that the tech blogs contort themselves to exploit for the pageviews.
Is there any question we’ll see that? Hell, some of these guys are probably rooting for it.
Welcome to the sad state of our industry.
And here we are.