During Memorial Day weekend, a Facebook product manager named Mike Hudack published a sarcasm-dripping rant about the state of media, and the failure of new entrants into the marketplace. (“Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy.”)
While his sentiments are generally spot on, the source triggered a lot of Net discussion. After all, who do we have to blame for “22 ways to wash your jeans” stories, if not Facebook? To his credit, Hudack spent the better part of the weekend responding to criticisms left on his page, including mine. His conclusion, “It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this s***” struck me as incredibly shallow, and I told him, challenging him to be a part of the solution. He replied saying he cared deeply about the state of media, but wasn’t leaving Facebook any time soon. I offered up a larger observation, based on his response to me and others, which I am also publishing below.
Mike, first of all, I appreciate you responding to me and those who’ve written to you here. I welcome any dialog about how to make journalism better. I can see the heart of a journalist creeping through in your responses, so I have hope you will join us at some point.
Of course, by virtue of your affiliation, you already have. Your words curiously seem to lack that self-awareness, which I believe is the main source of the ire you’ve drawn. Yes, journalism was already in a race to the bottom before Facebook was invented, but it’s folly not to recognize how Facebook has massively accelerated that race to the bottom. All the thing you seem to hate about news, you are.
What I really heard in your original post, however, was disappointment in all the new news adventures, like Vox, designed to fix news. Folks continually throw around this idea that the problem is all the old farts running journalism, and as soon as news is made by digital natives for digital natives, the “slump” will be over. A simple redesign is all that’s needed! Maybe larger fonts. That’s really naive. As Vox and anyone else who’s done this every day knows, you can’t distill the Ukraine, or Net Neutrality, or even a decent sports story down to seven paragraphs. Brevity is a false god. Also, it’s been tried. USA Today was invented a long time ago. Briefs were invented before that. All these phrases are simply code for “people don’t feel like reading any more, so get over it.” To me, making stories shorter is the “give everyone a trophy” problem of media. “News is hard to understand, so make it easier.” The more we program for the least common denominator, the more we will…get there.
I understand. I helped create one of the very first online news products. I was the Internet kid back then, and I thought we were going to change everything by making all the world’s news free and instant to all the world. Despite some remarkable successes, it’s largely a failure here in the States. Americans have become progressively less and less interested. Yes, there are many, many causes for the downfall of media. I’m happy to put those who run big media at the top of the list. It’s undeniable that the foolish echo chamber created by Roger Ailes and copied with glee by many others has made news boring to most Americans. But in the end, the biggest problem is simple: Americans don’t place a high value on good information.
Everything you say you are missing in news is indeed available. From PBS Newshour to niche blogs like mine, this really is a golden age for information. But pick any data point you want: People don’t want it. And so, Vox has to write about frozen jeans if it wants to stay in the game. Those are the rules. Make it smarter! Make it shorter! Make it bluer! Mike, you are not the first to suggest these ideas. Consultants have been stealing money from desperate news organizations for years with them.
In my parents’s generation, it was considered civic duty to know what was going on around your neighborhood and around the world. That’s how cities were able to support 4-5-6 newspapers (people *paid* for them!) Perhaps that generation watches TV with a beer in one hand, but they’ve earned the right to do that, in my view. They used those hands to build things. Those in today’s generation who make money tapping emails to kill time while waiting for their stock options to vest think the whole world works that way.
Today, most people learn about news because it interrupts their news or Twitter feeds, where it does indeed have to compete with cat videos. Of course, news organizations should try to find new readers wherever they are, even those who can’t seem to be bothered to figure out who Brian Williams is. I’m working on that problem every day. My website gets more than half its traffic from Facebook, so thank you.
But the real, long-term solution to this problem is not to make news digital native-i-er. The solution is to awaken American curiosity. That’s a generation-long project, but it needs to start immediately. If you haven’t noticed, all the other kids on the block are making fun of us. Just today, Macleans magazine published the latest compendium of statistics showing America is dumbing down. And yes, the story points out that Buzzfeed is now neck and neck with the Washington Post. It asks, Has America “lost its mind?” I considered summarizing the post here, but I’d rather not. The whole thing is worth reading.
Again, I do thank you for throwing the Molotov cocktail that sparked this discussion. I hope we do meet, and soon. There’s a lot of work to be done.