Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media

Everyone from President Obama to Ted Koppel is bemoaning a decline in journalistic substance, seriousness, and sense of proportion. But the author, a longtime advocate of these values, takes a journey through the digital-media world and concludes there isn’t any point in defending the old ways. Consumer-obsessed, sensationalist, and passionate about their work, digital upstarts are undermining the old media—and they may also be pointing the way to a brighter future.

Nick Denton, the founder, owner, and CEO of the dozen or so Web sites that make up Gawker Media, revels in his role as the unembarrassable and highly publicized bad boy of today’s New York media scene. Twice in less than four years, New York magazine has run lengthy features about him and his latest offense against good taste. During last fall’s midterm election campaign, Gawker paid a 25-year-old man from Philadelphia, whom it left unnamed, for 15 photos from a one-night stand (unconsummated) he had had three years earlier with Christine O’Donnell, who was running for the U.S. Senate in Delaware and was best known for her “I’m Not a Witch” ad campaign. Gawker posted the pictures with the headline “I Had a One-Night Stand With Christine O’Donnell.” Everything about Gawker’s choices in that case violated normal journalistic ethics, from paying a source to spotlighting material with a lot of titillation value and only the faintest possible claim to being “relevant” in public-interest terms. But Denton told me that his only regret was bothering to justify the decision. A follow-up post, signed by “The Staff of Gawker.com,” said that O’Donnell’s pro-abstinence, anti-masturbation campaign made her fair game:

She lies about who she is; she tells that lie in service of an attempt to impose her private sexual values on her fellow citizens; and she’s running for Senate. We thought information documenting that lie—that O’Donnell does not live a chaste life as she defines the word, and in fact hops into bed, naked and drunk, with men that she’s just met—was of interest to our readers.

“I don’t believe we should have done that defense,” Denton told me when I spoke with him at Gawker HQ on Elizabeth Street in Lower Manhattan early this year. “It’s helpful when someone is a hypocrite, but we should have just said that our interest is voyeuristic. ‘We did this story because we thought you would like it. We thought it was funny, so we thought you’d think it was funny, too.’ And there was a tidal wave of traffic and attention.”

In his mid-40s, tall and louche, Denton was unshaven and wearing jeans and an untucked shirt when I visited him in an open-plan office filled with people half his age (I in corduroys and blue blazer over a V-neck sweater and Jos. A. Bank shirt, personification of Mr. Square). I had known and liked him in an earlier incarnation, when we were both based in San Francisco and he had started an early news aggregator called Moreover Technologies. And I am interested in him as a pure type. He combines a familiar figure, the Fleet Street rogue (he grew up in London and went to Oxford) willing to tart up and shake up stuffy American newsrooms, with something entirely new: the most refined tools ever created for knowing exactly what an audience wants to see and read, as opposed to someone’s opinion of what it should want or “needs” to know. Denton’s shtick is to be outrageously impolitic. (“What annoys me about the U.S. media? Generally the pompous liberals. I suppose they’re useful, but they’re such losers, with their endless hand-wringing. They don’t know how to fight.”) His enterprises, and his rationale for them, present a distillation of the model toward which the news business is trending.



Slideshow: Inside the nerve center of Nick Denton's media empire.

Giving people what they want as opposed to what they should want is a conflict as old as journalism, certainly as it has been practiced in this country. My capsule history of journalism is that for more than a century after the Civil War, American readers and viewers were in various ways buffered from getting exactly what they wanted from newspapers and, later, radio and TV news shows. News, like education, aspired to be as interesting as possible but to have an uplifting civic intent.

Regulations, from the “fairness doctrine” to a requirement for “public service” programming, affected radio and TV coverage. And technological and geographic constraints had already played a crucial role in the evolution of newspapers, many of which could operate as regional monopolies or duopolies. You couldn’t get the New York papers if you lived in Dallas, so the Morning News and Times Herald had the whole of Dallas as their audience. Like their counterparts in Atlanta, Los Angeles, or Minneapolis, the families who owned these newspapers valued them not just as (good) businesses but also for their cultural and political roles. When there were only three nationwide broadcast networks, they could have a statesmanlike agreement on covering worthy events, like presidential press conferences, and treating their nightly news shows as prestige loss-leaders aimed at telling a broad Middle American audience what it needed to know. “I grew up when broadcast news was a duopoly,” the longtime anchor Tom Brokaw told me, referring to the relative dominance of CBS and his own NBC over ABC news until at least the early 1980s. “I figured I would be one of the people with the hands on the lever in deciding what mattered. It worked for me!”

That’s all gone, as Brokaw and everyone else knows. One by one, the buffers between what people want and what the media can afford to deliver have been stripped away. Broadcast TV was deregulated, and cable and satellite TV arose in a wholly post-regulation era. As newspapers fell during the rise of the Internet, and fell faster because of the 2008 recession, the regional papers fell hardest. The survivors, from The New York Times to the National Enquirer, will be what British newspapers have long been: nationwide in distribution, and differentiated by politics and class. The destruction of the “bundled” business model for newspapers, which allowed ads in the Auto section to underwrite a bureau in Baghdad; the rise of increasingly targeted and niche-ified information sources and advertising vehicles; and the consequent pressure on almost any mass offering except for sports—all of these are steps toward a perfected market for information of all sorts, including news. With each passing month, people can get more of what they want and less of what someone else thinks they should have.

Every news organization recognizes this shift. For instance, a strategy document leaked from AOL just before its acquisition of the Huffington Post said that its route toward survival was to drive the average cost per unit of content down to $84 (from the current $99) and use “search engine optimization” and other techniques to attract an average of 7,000 page views per item, up from the current 1,500. The Atlantic is now profitable in part because traffic on our Web site is so strong. Everyone involved in the site understands the tricks and trade-offs that can increase clicks and raise the chances of a breakout “viral” Web success. Kittens, slide shows, videos, Sarah Palin—these are a few. For us and for other publications, they are complications. For Gawker, they’re all that is.

The first thing you see on entering Gawker’s loft-size open work area is a huge screen that looks like a nicer, higher-def version of what you might see in a brokerage house. The top part of the screen shows live views of the home pages of the main Gawker properties—Gizmodo, Jezebel, Lifehacker, Deadspin, Gawker itself, and others (excluding Gawker’s sex-oriented site, Fleshbot, which accounts for about 5 percent of the company’s total traffic). Together, according to Denton, the sites bring in some 32 million unique visitors worldwide a month, about the same as The New York Times and twice as many as The Washington Post. Meters display the second-by-second traffic to each site. As users log on to a site, and leave, the needles on the meters go up and down to register its popularity. The bottom part of the screen lists specific stories from each of the Gawker Media sites and across the company as a whole, ranked by how many people are viewing them at each moment—and those numbers are listed. As you watch, the stories switch places on the screen, each with a green arrow if it’s trending up or a red arrow if it’s heading down. When I arrived, “Your Horoscope May Have Changed” still led the chart for all sites but was heading down, while “The Horrible Life of a Disney Employee” was in second place and on the way up. “Loose Rat in New York City Subway Car Crawls on Man’s Face,” with a 26-second amateur video of exactly that, was the lead item on Gawker.tv, and “The Greatest Scam in Tech,” from Gizmodo, was the most popular technology item. (It was about a “free” mobile-phone service called PeepApp.) “The Hilarious Agony of Watching a Computer Illiterate” was in second place among tech items. Two weeks after my visit, as I write this story, “How Good Is Charlie Sheen for a Porn Star’s Career?” is No. 1.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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