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.

I saw more screens as I walked into the central work space, where more than 50 young writers sat side by side at their computers, as if in a coffee shop, at three big tables that ran the length of the room. “How much do the writers think about the rankings?,” I asked Denton after saying hello. “Let’s ask them!” he said, and we went to the back corner of the room where Gawker.com’s writers worked.

“I usually just check the board when I walk by,” Brian Moylan said. “You have an idea of what’s going to be big and what’s not.” He and his colleagues agreed that a story’s popularity could be predicted—but only to a certain degree. “You can’t get a big one every day,” he added. His strategy: “I just try to figure out, if I were to go to a party, what would everyone want to talk about? And that is what I’d want to write about.”

Across the table from him, Maureen O’Connor emphasized that every item was a crapshoot. “I feel like the biggest breakaway hits are always surprising,” she said. The day’s surprise hit was hers, about the rearranged dates for zodiac signs. “That was a smallish thing that nobody had picked up from the Minneapolis Star Tribune,” she said. “I threw it up at the end of the day because I wanted to put up one more post.” It took off instantly. (The “reporting” that staff writers do is almost all online.) In February, O’Connor had a predictably huge hit with her article, including a shirtless picture, that led to the resignation of the “Craigslist Congressman,” Christopher Lee. “Serendipity is an important part of the operation,” Denton added. “The job of journalism is to provide surprise.”

That afternoon, Denton and his associates talked me through the other refinements they had learned in what people want—not what they say they want, nor what they “should” want, but what they choose when they have a chance. Some might seem obvious—video everywhere, a Web site with what Denton called a “rounded personality,” meaning one that gives visitors the option of being outraged, amused, diverted, even inspired, as their moods dictate. Others were more surprising.

In the first New York profile, in 2007, Denton had said that an active “commenter” community was an important way to build an audience for a site. Now, he told me, he has concluded that courting commenters is a dead end. A site has to keep attracting new users—the omnipresent screens were recording the “new uniques” each story brought to the Gawker world—and an in-group of commenters might scare new visitors off. “People say it’s all about ‘engagement’ and ‘interaction,’ but that’s wrong,” he said. “New visitors are a better indicator and predictor of future growth.” A little more than one-third of Gawker’s traffic is new visitors; writers get bonuses based on how many new viewers they attract.

As for the science of Web-site headlines: “I’m against verbs,” Denton told me, even though that day’s greatest-hits list included several exceptions (“Rat Crawls …”). “It’s almost as if you’ve got to get the whole story into the headline,” Brian Moylan said, “but leave out enough that people will want to click.” “You can kill a story by using a too-clever headline,” Maureen O’Connor said. “The public is not very forgiving of wit in headlines,” Denton added. “Or irony. You can get away with one opinionated word, if the rest is literal and clear.” O’Connor said she had a further rule: “It can’t be more than two lines on the home page. Your eyes can’t take it in. You want the dumbest headline possible!” That said, one of the most popular headlines of the previous year had been anything but obvious. It was “Эй, вы можете прочитать запрещенную статью GQ про Путина здесь, or, “Hey, You Can Read the Banned GQ Story About Putin Here,” for an item on a story about Vladimir Putin not included in GQ magazine’s Russian edition. John Cook, the Gawker writer who showed it to me, was emphasizing that headline writing was still as much guesswork as science.

Denton said that other journalists would compliment him on snarky items, but those didn’t bring in enough new readers. Neither did print-industry gossip, which had been Gawker’s original staple. “We put scoop ahead of satire,” by which he meant things like the O’Donnell story, photos they had just acquired that day of Mark Zuckerberg’s new house in California, and “Favregate.”

“If I were running The New York Times,” Denton said, “the first thing I would do is put numbers next to every story,” as Gawker does on its home page—not just include a most-e-mailed list but fully embrace the concept of giving readers more of what they want. If he felt compelled to do “good” for the world, Denton said, he would set up “offshore Gawkers” serving capitals where speech is limited, like Riyadh, Beijing, Tehran. “Zero political content—you don’t want to be seen as a ‘democracy advocate’ at all,” he said. “Just good, juicy, scurrilous gossip stories about nepotism and corruption and mistresses and Swiss bank accounts. Pictures of their houses! You would want to be seen as having wicked fun. And if you did that for 20 years …”

Of course, Denton was omitting good-for-you, public-service-style stories for outrageous effect. In my first “interview” with him for this story, conducted over the course of nearly an hour through an instant-message exchange, he said that a market-minded approach like his would solve the business problem of journalism—but only for “a certain kind of journalism.” It worked perfectly, he said, for topics like those his sites covered: gossip, technology, sex talk, and so on. And then, as an aside: “But not the worthy topics. Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor does anyone want to pay [via advertising] to encourage people to eat their vegetables.” He continued:

Nick: But, anyway, look at me. I used to cover political reform in post-communist Eastern Europe, which had been my subject at Oxford.

And now I tell writers that the numbers (i.e. the audience) won’t support any worthiness. We can’t even write stories about moguls like Rupert Murdoch or Barry Diller unless it involves photographs of them cavorting with young flesh.

(I used to enjoy [doing] those stories in the old days, before web metrics.)

But naturally even he admits that the “worthy topics” have their necessary place, and when pressed, he had a surprisingly earnest list of ways to make sure they were covered, from local volunteer efforts to donations by philanthropists.

“I know this is scary for the high-end American journalist,” he said when I was about to leave, with as little condescension as he could manage. “If you come from the U.K., it doesn’t seem alien.”

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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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