I’ve spent the last eight years building the case for using audience data in newsrooms and the tools and culture required to make it a force for good. So reading Franklin Foer’s piece When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism was a deeply bizarre experience. Over the first four years of my work at the Guardian, I encountered almost every possible objection to what I was doing and I thought long and hard about each one. At that point a great deal of my job was about making sure that my instincts, processes and arguments were genuinely robust. Foer’s piece is a collection of the most ill-considered objections I saw, blended into one long, unappealing cocktail.
To be clear, there’s the odd thing here that I agree with. It’s obviously true, for example, that publishers need to be more robust in dealing with technology companies (although ironically one of the things we should be asking of them is more data). It’s also true that homogeneity can be dangerous. But the intelligent application of data can also help us spot where this is doing damage.
But most of these arguments, prejudices masquerading as arguments, childish hopes that everything can just go back to ‘normal’ and windy emotional appeals are zombies. They’re dangerous, stupid and they have no business climbing out of their grave and causing damage in 2017.
Technology isn’t an amorphous lump of stuff
The single biggest problem with the piece is the tendency to take anything that went wrong around the New Republic and the wider industry, gather it up and shove it in a big bucket labelled Silicon Valley or Technology. At various points Foer covers the use of data, data itself, platforms, algorithms, selling advertising, advertising itself, revenue, virality and search engine optimisation. Considering the experience he went through, the absolute conviction dripping from each line and his expressed commitment to good journalism, it’s surprising that he seems to have given so little thought to any of these specific issues.
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Audience data isn’t just page views…
We would resist the impulse to chase traffic, to clutter our home page with an endless stream of clicky content. Our digital pages would prize beauty and finitude; they would brashly announce the import of our project — which he described as nothing less than the preservation of long-form journalism and cultural seriousness.
Considering this stated aim, why the hell is the only metric mentioned in this epic piece page views?
. . . .
Growing audience doesn’t have to be a con trick
People clicked so quickly, they didn’t always fully understand why. These decisions were made in a semiconscious state, influenced by cognitive biases. Enticing a reader entailed a little manipulation, a little hidden persuasion.
Here’s another failure of imagination and thought (not to mention a pretty contemptuous view of the capabilities of readers in the 21st century). Buzzfeed’s viral strategy is basically inapplicable to serious journalism, as partly evidenced by Buzzfeed News’s difficulties in replicating the audience of the broader company despite great journalism. Equally, Upworthy’s aggregation and headline testing approach just doesn’t relate. In both cases the nature of the content is as important as the method of delivery. But using audience data to spot when a story you care about isn’t connecting with readers is a hugely positive thing. There’s a world of difference between writing misleading headlines and making a headline work well in a digital environment. Part of resisting that first impulse is to do with monitoring time spent on page, a metric Foer never mentions.
Link to the rest at Medium
When PG read the initial piece referenced in The Atlantic, he dismissed it as a rant written by someone who didn’t understand modern communications technology (who was also the former editor of The New Republic who was fired from his job because he didn’t adapt well to new technology).
This Medium article does a good job (in PG’s disruptive opinion) of disassembling the original Atlantic essay to more fully demonstrate that author’s lack of understanding of modern communications technology.
PG also suggests that Big Publishing is dominated by people who don’t understand modern communications technology.
When PG wrote the preceding paragraph, he had a sudden vision of the executive offices of a major New York publisher with little orange Amazon warehouse robots scooting around the hallways.