It’s the morning of November 10, and as far as I can tell, none of the editors and publishers responsible for the clickbait style of Internet reporting have fallen on their swords. I’m not sure what they’re waiting for. It’s possible, I guess, that they’re feeling triumphant today, and that they view the election of a human piece of clickbait as a sick validation of their methods. But that kind of self-aggrandizement would be unlike journalists, even terrible ones. If they’d had any imagination or mental agility or even pride, they wouldn’t have been pumping out clickbait in the first place. I think it’s more likely that they’re still in shock; slow to realize the depth and dimensions of their public humiliation.
So to all you clickbait-site editors and publishers, content aggregators and Facebook share-hunters, let me make this crystal clear: everybody hates you. Everybody. The people who lost this election hate you for sullying journalism and making it impossible for real reporting to flourish. The people who won this election hate you, too — in case you didn’t notice their rhetoric, they think journalists are lowlifes who ought to be abused and/or jailed. People who are apolitical hate you; you’re ruining their Internet experience. The celebrities whose asses you kiss in your attention-grabbing headlines hate you — they see you as toadies and pushovers, and they’re right to. Your own writers toiling away on the content farm especially hate you. They’ve got brains and voices and critical faculties, and you’re wasting all of that in your single-minded pursuit of clicks. You’ve taken journalism to the lowest point it’s ever been in my lifetime. Nobody respects you, nobody trusts you, nobody thinks you’re irreverent or funny or ahead of the curve or even a part of the future. You’ve got to go. Now.
A real journalist doesn’t care about likes. A real journalist doesn’t even care if she is liked. She is chasing the story not because there is audience demand for it, but because nobody has told it yet and it deserves to be told. This is what we depend on her for. Your job — your entire job — is to facilitate that chase. You are there to help her bring what she’s found to the attention of the public. If your new business model won’t allow you to do that, or if it directs you to engage in some other distracting, smoke-blowing b.s. practice, or if, God forbid, it forces you to get in her way, then it is worthless and you are worthless.
It is true that the media biz has always needed to grab the attention of reluctant readers, and has often resorted to gauche methods for doing so. But the sensationalism of the past always had something real at its root: an urgent desire to get the public to pay attention to whatever the journalist had learned. Extra extra read all about something you don’t yet know, not something calibrated to reinforce your own poorly-informed beliefs. What has happened in digital newsrooms, if you even want to call them that, which I certainly do not, is that the old, responsible model has been stood on its head. Instead of the reporter using her judgment to tell you the story she wants to tell, the editor identifies a trending topic that has already been discussed to death and then assigns the reporter to generate still more digital copy on a subject that guarantees pageviews. In the first model, the reporter is the agent; in the second, she has no latitude other than her own flailing (and usually unsuccessful) attempts to avoid redundancy. The first model depends on a reader who is engaged and curious; the second on a reader who is bored and looking to fill his time with prefabricated outrage. If you’ve wondered why every headline on the Internet for the last fifteen months has featured Donald Trump’s name, here’s your answer. It’s no conspiracy. None was necessary. All that was needed was a bunch of nervous editors and publishers with click-quotas to meet and who, therefore, couldn’t stop assigning stories on the hottest trending topic. Unless we want to be governed in perpetuity by depraved celebrities — the Real Housewives of American Politics — the editorial star-chasing has got to end.
We can all acknowledge that “the world has changed”, whatever the heck that means, and that the media business ought to integrate new technologies and new methods of distribution. No reader, no matter how antiquarian, realistically expects the news to be delivered the same way that it was in 1953. But publishers have adapted to the present moment by mimicking all of the worst elements of social media: the rampant conformity, the celebrity-worship, the obsessive need for popularity and “likes”, the tendency to preach to the converted and to reinforce rather than challenge the assumptions of the audience. This, not the mythical decline of attention spans, is the real reason for shrinking readership. Nobody likes a damned suck-up. The hunger for genuine journalism among genuine readers is still there, and it’s always going to be. If you can’t or won’t serve these people, you’ve got to get out of the way and turn the podium over to those who want to figure out how it can be done in a year as as as contentious as 2016 was (and 2017 is sure to be.)
This is not a partisan piece. I would have written the same thing if Hillary Clinton had won the election. But Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the most powerful position on the globe makes it incontrovertible. Editors and publishers, unless you’re still in a punch-drunk haze, I know you know it. You didn’t cause this cataclysm, but you sure greased the gears, and you sure cheered it on. We’ve tried it your way. It was a spectacular failure. You’ve let down your readers, you’ve let down your country, and you’ve let down yourselves. If you’ve got any decency left, you must know there’s only one thing for you to do. Go.