The Algo-pocalypse: Journalism in the digital dystopia

Photo illustration by Neil Francisco/Mic

Facebook ostensibly announced a major change to its News Feed algorithm via a push notification from the New York Times. A notification heard ‘round the media world, with news that was intended less for it than for the 2 billion-plus humans that spend time on the social media platform. Facebook was getting back to its roots, to its original mission of connecting friends and family. It wanted to create more “meaningful social interaction,” as opposed to, we can only assume, non-meaningful social interaction. Read: no more viral publisher (or brand) “space junk” — seemingly random, purposeless, churned-out content — floating in the Feed. If implemented as such, this should be celebrated, full stop.

The unbelievably difficult art of committing acts of journalism, in an environment that in many ways is diametrically opposed to its health, is a miracle every single time it happens. And I am here to tell you that these miracles are possible and certainly worth it — even in this perceived algo-pocalypse.

The massively misunderstood “pivot to video,” or as some see it, the gold rush to creating space junk instead of legitimate storytelling, has been a little controversial, to say the least. One side argues that the platforms reward cheaply made content that serves little purpose and has an overblown audience (i.e., huge numbers of view counts that show most engaging for fewer than three seconds — not enough for any journalistic impact or to monetize). The other side counters that even reaching so many people is a privilege, that the opportunity to convert that reach into real impact is unparalleled for most publishers, and there’s no reason not to do your best work in the process.

No matter your position, it’s fair to say that in these go-go-go platform moments, we’ve lost any sense of relative scale. The thinking goes: If you don’t go viral, you don’t matter. So Facebook is the one getting sober first, and now publishers must admit they’ve had a bit of an addiction problem themselves. It’s time to come to our senses on both sides, and to the table together — with platforms (looking at you, Zuck) and publishers (legacy and new entrants alike) working together to broker the right connection. Let’s do some actual business that helps us both, as we have long known it’s a symbiotic relationship.

External referral traffic to text articles, video, slideshows, etc. over the last 12 months via Parse.ly, an analytics company that measures over 2,500+ sites

There are multiple facets, market factors and X factors that can help or hinder the production of what I would refer to as “real journalism.” And by no means do I mean just fancy investigative reports. My definition of this realness includes works both big and small, so long as they reveal and verify important and relevant information to audiences that need and want it, form factor notwithstanding.

Good journalism has always been hard work. Admittedly, it’s been more tacitly encouraged in better structurally secure environments (i.e., higher profit margins, settled distribution strategies). So today that hard work takes even more work. The hurdle is that much higher. Below are a few pieces that form the puzzle that the modern publisher must battle to create and distribute meaningful work. And for those of you that are already doing it, you certainly deserve more credit.

Platforms as distribution. The early question was whether to go all in on distributing content, or to just dip your toe in, offering your content catalogue up piecemeal to the algo gods — remembering that consistent existential threat of cannibalization to legacy players. Distributed platforms offer an undeniable opportunity to reach large groups of people, particularly if you are a young publisher without an established audience. It’s also a way to easily begin to drift and direct your content strategy to one that the platforms reward. (See above, space junk.) Again, this is likely to be the great sobering. The hard job is to create something you’re proud of and really want audiences to see even at the risk that, because of a quirk in the algorithm, they may not. This requires digital editors who are smart both journalistically and strategically, who make these daily decisions balancing all aspects — and who do not underestimate their impact.

Revenue required. It’s impossible to untether this from the above, given that wider distribution, and any given publisher’s ability to get it, generally equates to more revenue. Money, that baseline requirement for making real journalism (someone has to pay your staff), is one of the things we often forget to consider. Hard news, the kind that advertisers don’t always love to cozy up next to, has always been a difficult product to monetize. So when there are opportunities to find audiences and to potentially monetize them, even if only as a subsidy to your less monetizable work, you begin to justify the reasons you play to the platform. It’s possible to make this work to the good (of your brand vision and on the revenue side), but it takes a real vigilance and focus on making sure you are not pushing your overall report and brand into a place that feels unrecognizable. There must be an alertness and an alignment of the commercial side of your organization with your editorial.

Journalistic artistry and subject-matter expertise. Storytelling is a craft. It takes experience to develop that craft. And it takes good editors. In environments where staffs have been reduced and pay is not at its highest, it is hard for the work to develop into something meaningful. Telling good stories also requires subject-matter expertise. That simply requires time. All of these things are in short supply, particularly in digital-only houses. There is no greater existential threat, in my view, to the future of journalism. We must invest in developing beats, expertise and reporting ability across the board. And we have to figure out how to do this within financial constraints, for they are our reality. This requires a leadership team devoted to protecting a craft while at the same time building it for the digital-only future.

Audience, not “traffic.” Finding and developing audiences is also a craft. Going viral… well, I would consider that a tactic, certainly never a strategy. The platform paradigm has created great opportunity to find users, readers, viewers — and to find them en masse. It’s been much harder to hone and truly develop them into cohorts of loyal consumers, understanding their relationship to our journalistic brands and, very importantly, to the work itself. However, it is possible. In many ways, this is one of the most difficult and slippery jobs within our worlds. It is tedious. It requires a focus on quality over quantity. And to do it right, it may require us to excommunicate the term “growth hacker” from our vocabulary. But remember, the pull of revenue, which generally comes from distribution, will always be a force. So it takes balance.

[Less] media navel-gazing. In many ways, we are our own worst enemy. A media executive once told me, “We cover ourselves at the same newsworthiness level as the Tiananmen Square protests.” Aware that I am part of the noise in writing this piece, I have to agree. Twitter has become a place of the media elite, where we snarkily bandy back and forth on how wrong everyone else has it. We confuse our own conversation for what audiences actually think. There is no shortage of blogs, trade publications and conference circuits where we talk ourselves to death about the evils of industry and each other. Without dwelling, I will just say, the only way to do real journalism is to focus on the story — and the story, as we all learned with Trump’s “surprise” win, is not about us.

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