Here is a basic shift that has occurred in the news business: Because of the Internet, you, the reader, no longer have to buy information in pre-fabricated packages like “newspapers.” You can just go online and individually select the articles you want to read. And there are lots of websites and blogs to help you out. Every day, Matt Drudge, the Huffington Post, Yahoo, Google, Swampland, or a hundred other different bloggers, will pre-select articles for you and provide links. You choose your own adventure.
There is a corollary effect here: As the value of the package declines, the value of the individual article increases. Online, news organizations charge advertisers based on the number of hits they can get on a site. And since the hits are often coming for specific stories, and not the entire site, a blockbuster story that gets linked to, say, Drudge, is money in the bank.
This means that the competition on the level of the individual story is more intense than ever before, and there is enormous pressure to distinguish yourself from the pack. Assume, for instance, that 12 news organizations do the same story on the same day about how Hillary Clinton has a tough road ahead of her to get the nomination. Which story is going to get the most links and therefore the most readers? Is it the one that cautiously weighs the pros and cons, and presents a nuanced view of her chances? Or is it the one that says she is toast, and anyone who thinks different is living on another planet?
I ask these rhetorical questions because I just finished reading Marc Ambinder’s detailed rebuttal to the Politico story from Friday (which I previously blogged about). That article, by Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, effectively declared Clinton toast, and suggested that anyone who thinks different is living on another planet. Most of Ambinder’s critique is based in the merits of the actual situation, and he notes repeatedly his belief that the Politico authors did little more than repackage the conventional wisdom. But he also glances across something really important about the dynamics of the news business:
Indeed, the authors’ own publication, the Politico, is as responsible as any single publication for printing the type of horse race coverage that, in the eyes of the authors, are overstating the relative odds of the horses. The Politico has two excellent bloggers who provide moment-by-moment coverage of the race. Thanks to the newspaper’s magical pathway to Matt Drudge’s inbox and attention span, the Politico’s horse race coverage often disproportionately influences how editors and producers assess the day in political news.
Left unsaid in this is something which the Politico’s editors and writers (not to mention everyone else in the news business, including me) know well. If you say something provocatively, in a new way, or with an unexpected spin, you will succeed online. If you play it safe, you will not. So we see the difference in style between the Politico story and, say, Adam Nagourney’s more nuanced story on the same topic a day earlier or again in another story today. Suffice it to say, Friday’s Politico story earned a Drudge link over the weekend, and Nagourney’s did not. That’s money in the bank for Politico.
This trend towards story-by-story competition, and away from package-by-package competition, is a blessing and a curse. It is forcing better writing, quicker responsiveness, and it is increasing the value of actual news-making and clear-eyed thinking. But it is also increasing pressure on reporters to push the boundaries of provocation. I am not sure that the Politico story crossed any boundaries, or distorted the truth. I do believe that what Allen and VandeHei did is very much the future of news.
UPDATE: Maybe I did not use the best examples. Drudge has linked to Nagourney’s latest article mentioned above. In my theory’s defense, the New York Times’ new story is quite good.
MONEY IN THE BANK: Overnight, Drudge linked to this post. I think this is funny, though I am not sure if he is laughing at me or with me.
UP FROM THE COMMENTS: Jay Rosen points to this 2004 speech by AP president Tom Curley, which was prescient. (One day, some media reporter will write a story about how the crusty old Associated Press has managed to stay remarkably ahead of the curve these last years, not only in understanding the technology but also the shifts in reportorial style and voice.) Back in the days of yore, Curley predicted:
The implications for content providers are enormous. You cannot control the “containers” anymore. You have to let the content flow where the users want it to go, and attach your brand — and maybe advertising and e-commerce — to those free-flowing “atoms.”