Slate’s David Auerbach on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

David Auerbach. Photo: Courtesy of David Auerbach

What is the business rationale for outrage?
Well, the story of online media was that, once upon a time, print revenues started declining because of the internet, and this made people very worried. And once upon a time banner-ad revenues were much higher than they are right now. And this made people very happy. And these factors combined to cause people to think that online journalism could be a viable thing. And not only that, but you even had these independent bloggers, many of whom now occupy very prestigious positions in mainstream media, who were able to attract a lot of clicks and gain influence for writing outside of the normal channels of getting attention. I had a little blog myself. I didn’t become famous because of it, but I was able to at least write on my own terms and get feedback and be read. And so I think there became this fantasy that online journalism could supplant traditional journalism. In other words, you could publish free advertiser-supported journalism, and have that be a viable business model. The conventional wisdom today has shifted to saying that that’s not going to work. Why? Well, a couple of reasons. One, banner-ad revenues have continually dropped. That the price per click, revenue per click, has consistently gone down, and click-through rates and conversions have gone down as well. And this is why some of the numbers you’re seeing are misleading. Even if readership is growing, free online media is running to stay in place, as the Red Queen says. Because just to keep revenues where they are, they need to either increase their readership or increase their number of ad clicks. And so there’s still an arms race going on that doesn’t show up in the numbers.

No. 2, this arms race shows up in the increase of the number of ads and the obnoxiousness of the ads. Running one banner alongside an article was not considered bad; people were generally okay with that. But as readers got savvier and more jaded, you did have this increase in ads, and that drove people to say, “This is really annoying” or “I’m going to use an ad blocker.” I think that the impact of ad blockers per se is overstated, because click-through rates, even for people not using ad blockers, have gone down. But you can certainly see both the ads themselves and the intermediaries that market the ads have gotten scummier and more aggressive. Third, this leads to these viral-content alternative models like BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed didn’t use the content-plus-ads model. They used the ad-agency model. In other words, BuzzFeed was happy to publish stories with little to no advertising on them that were purely viral. In fact, a lack of advertising helped them to be viral, as a way of building their brand to market themselves as an ad agency to clients. And consequently this actually for a while seemed like the next model after the traditional free-content-plus-ads model.

The idea being, “Look, I made this story go viral, I can make your story about your new chicken burger also go viral.”
We can generate native content for you; come to us and we will [be] an ad agency. So it’s completely different. The problem there, and you have sources saying this in the Financial Times, is that the agency model doesn’t scale because it’s not automated. You need people actually writing this content. So basically you have them saying that they can’t grow at the rate they’re going to grow at, because they can’t scale linearly. And it sounds like BuzzFeed has been desperately trying to automate content generation in this, and you can’t do it … It’s sort of a variation on the old network-news model, that the serious investigations can be subsidized by all the junk, but it’s not working. The irony is that by finding this new model, BuzzFeed actually relied less on outrage than many other outlets.

What is so appealing about content geared primarily to rattle someone’s cage?
There you’re looking at cortisol production. There’s no more powerful force in human history than tribalism. You see this everywhere, that these outrage stories produce tribes. There’s nothing that gets people to band together more than a perceived common enemy. And it doesn’t really matter what the perceived common enemy is. But if you can generate a story that gets the reaction, “This is an outrage, I must tell my friends about this,” and my friends will then feel pressured themselves to read the story, express their outrage, condemn people who do not agree with them in their outrage, and share it further, then you’re going to do better than just some random feel-good story that will be shared by a smaller percentage. Every indication shows that the most shared stories are of two types: On the one hand you have these outrage stories. On the other hand you have things like “The Dress” [The one that looked blue and black to some people and … you remember.] The problem is that no one can figure out how to manufacture Dress stories on demand. Outrage, however, has more of a formula to it. The Stanford-rapist story is genuinely outrageous, and it gets clicks. That’s perfect. So people say, what else can we find to get outraged about? Okay, let’s find someone who’s done something bad and skewer him. Sometimes the target is the actual writer themselves, which is where you get hate clicks. Except most of these stories won’t be as legitimately outrageous as the Stanford-rapist story. So you get the same approach applied to marketing Ghostbusters, and suddenly criticizing Ghostbusters gets treated with the same seriousness as the Stanford story. You’re trying to rile people up. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh pioneered this outrage-all-the-time approach with nonsense like the War on Christmas, and now the mainstream and the left have taken it up. This goes back to — have you heard of the human flesh search engine?

That’s the term in China for when people go and find someone who’s done something wrong and collectively gang up online and destroy them. So, clearly this is a cross-cultural tendency.

What about the Facebook effect on the media?
Facebook increased the demand for virality. And you have to see the relationship of Facebook to news organizations as similar to its relationship with Zynga …

With FarmVille?
Yeah. Zynga was very, very successful because Facebook drove so many people to it. And Zynga burnt out quickly. Unlike casinos and things, they did not try to milk their customers slowly — they tried to suck as much money from them as possible, and they burnt out really quickly. And people got sick of seeing this FarmVille shit, and at one point Facebook cut them off. And that’s exactly what Facebook will do when outrage or whatever starts becoming a problem. And they have already done this, in fact. They haven’t turned the pipe off quite so drastically as with Zynga, but last March it was very clear, if you look at click rates, that something had happened, that had drastically caused traffic to drop, and it’s because Facebook tuned its algorithms a bit to stop sharing as many news stories and to share more status updates. And this is Facebook’s endgame — this is partly why the media started releasing content for Facebook, which is a deal with the devil if ever there was one.

You were saying that these banner ads were paying less and less, so publishers had to get more and more clicks, so a desperation set in.
Desperation. Fear. Because they were becoming more reliant on Facebook, and purely Facebook. So, especially in 2014, 2015, you really started seeing a race to the bottom, where the sheer quantity of content was just building up. People were generating a huge amount of material, a huge amount of outrage bait. The opposite of outrage is hate. Sometimes the outrage was at the article itself, which is where you get hate clicks, where the target becomes not the person being written about, but the actual author.

You see this with op-eds. It was actually easier to get virality if you published something ridiculous. “I think that Bernie Sanders supporters are Gamergaters” or “I think that if you eat meat you are racist” or “I think that if you watch The Walking Dead you are as bad as Dylann Roof” … There’s a general reticence to take responsibility for any of this. “Why do people get so upset that we publish controversial things? It’s just freedom of the press.” Yeah, but now you’re publishing stuff purely for the sake of provoking your readers. Provoking your readers is now the ultimate goal. People share stuff that they actively loathe by saying, “Can you believe this shit?” When the media says, Why are we getting so much criticism and abuse? Well, it’s because you are constantly kicking the hornet’s nest to get clicks. So, yes, they do have the right to complain.

The shitty content makes the clicks more worthless, and so it’s a race to the bottom.
There’s a lot of empirical evidence of that. Tons. There are numbers that show that the model is in decline. That it can’t continue. It’s not going to grow like it did. You’re not going to see more outrage, you’re going to see less outrage. And I would argue we are already seeing that. It’s hard to see it because there’s so much noise and so much data, but I believe that the peak was seen last year, and that there’s already a consolidation going on, and partly that’s because you’re already seeing layoffs. People are exiting the field. The top-line people are exiting the field, but there are still lots of ex–graduate students and ex–adjunct professors who are writing stories that they’re literally getting paid $50 to $100 for, that are still generating this stuff. So there’s still a lot of it, but people are getting paid less for it, and you’re seeing less of it from the top-flight places.

The free-content-plus-ads model in general is not working. The rise of clickbait and its ensuing decline is in fact evidence of this, because clickbait was a consequence of the free-content-plus-ads model and the arms race it produced. The Guardian, for example, is in trouble. They’re planning to cut hundreds of positions. The sites that are doing better, like Huffington Post, have expanded into video. Huffington Post is interesting because they were ahead of the curve. After pioneering this free-content model, someone there evidently realized that it wasn’t going to last, and so they’ve made the shift to video, and so Huffington Post will probably weather the storm simply because even though they’re identified with clickbait, they actually diversified wisely, unlike the Guardian. I’m not saying the Huffington Post isn’t in trouble, I’m just saying that they have clearly hedged their bets and they know the lay of the land.

So the new model is branded content?
I don’t thing that’s going to save them, either. The problem with native content is exactly what BuzzFeed has run into, it doesn’t scale. You thought running lots of ads was annoying, but the media doesn’t have to produce the ads. Native content isn’t an economy of scale and requires expertise. It actually takes more skill to write high-quality advertising-branded native content, whatever, than it does to write clickbait. So that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be viable, right? BuzzFeed put real effort into it by actually adopting an agency model and charging a huge premium. That was their idea. And if they couldn’t make it work, well, the second-rate outlets trying it certainly won’t be able to make it work. So my inclination there is that it’s a nonstarter.

So where do we go?
Who’s we?

All of us. What are we going to do, just tweet at each other? What is content going to become?
By “we” you mean paid journalists?

I mean the whole media ecosystem. I mean, maybe there is no more money in it. But attention is always going to be worth money.

And there’s a lot of bored people.
Well, ask yourself, where did all the dot-coms go? They went onto Amazon, they became third-party merchants. A lot of these media outlets will become third-party content providers for huge internet companies. To some extent that’s already happened. And a lot of this media anger at tech companies is what Nietzsche would call ressentiment, that the tech companies have basically eaten media’s lunch.

So now I’m a third-party content provider, I’m going to put stuff on Facebook.
This is one fallout. To the extent that these companies like Facebook can inject themselves as intermediaries, they will. But even that won’t be a permanent situation either. I think that text as a whole is going to shrink. I think that, to some extent, with the early web, you saw this rebirth of text as a medium of communication, and that was a consequence of technological limitations, and I think that just as you see people go more to Snapchat or Vine or whatever, I think things are going to move away from that as the internet evolves. And that you will start to see things move back toward video. That’s my guess. It will persist in some ways, it’s just that you’re not going to see billion-dollar valuations for things that are ostensibly print news outlets. Remember when AOL bought Time Warner? You’re looking at that again with investments in Vice and such. People, including businessmen, can be incredibly shortsighted and fall for hype.

Which leaves serious journalism where?
To the extent that traditional journalism in the way we think of it is going to continue, it will continue by operating at a tremendous loss. And the question is, who’s funding the loss? ProPublica is doing okay. But these things are basically philanthropic. The Intersect is a philanthropic effort of Pierre Omidyar. Jeff Bezos is the philanthropist for the Washington Post. Rupert Murdoch is the philanthropist for The Wall Street Journal. So the question is, given that they operate at a loss, who or what subsidizes them? The Washington Post puts out some really good stuff. On the other hand, they aren’t doing as much on-the-ground beat investigative journalism. So there are still limitations. Nonetheless, if Jeff Bezos decides tomorrow, Oh, I want a huge investigative unit, well, I guess it will happen, right? We’re tools of the oligarchs.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

David Auerbach on the Media