More On That “Internet Effect” Thing (Correction Appended)

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One day, perhaps, some journalism school program will create a quarterly academic journal focused completely on the many ways that Matt Drudge continues to mess with the heads of the Fourth Estate. I have written on this a couple times before, here and here. So has everyone else.

But since there are not yet any tenured Professors of Drudge Studies, I am moved to link to a new, candid, and revealing column by John Harris, an editor of Politico. He gives a narrative of how the Internet age has changed news judgement, as told through the example of Hillary Clinton’s big quote on Friday. The quick facts: Those reporters traveling with Clinton did not respond to her comment about the RFK asassination as if it was a second coming. Those reporters traveling with Clinton did not have real-time access to the interview. But once the news spread online, folks like the incomparable Jonathan Martin started bellowing, and the rest is history. As Harris explains:

As leaders of a new publication, Politico’s senior editors and I are relentlessly focused on audience traffic. The way to build traffic on the Web is to get links from other websites. The way to get links is to be first with news — sometimes big news, sometimes small — that drives that day’s conversation. We are unapologetic in our premium on high velocity. In this focus on links and traffic we are not different from nearly all news sites these days, not just new publications but established ones like The New York Times. There are probably a dozen websites with a heavy political emphasis whose links are sought by all for the traffic those links drive.

But the effect of this process is not always ideal, as Harris goes on to explain in a sort of mea culpa, since the Clinton comments in context–both historically and in the frame of her Friday interview–are not quite as outrageous. More interesting for me, of course, is what all this bodes for my profession. I think Harris hits it spot on:

In this era, with their business model challenged by the Web and other forces, and in the same scramble for audience as everyone else, these fabled elite media organs are if anything more buffeted by sensationalism and whimsy than their new media counterparts. Once, the elite papers and network news set the agenda, and others followed suit, following up on what these establishment pillars deemed important.

Now it’s just the opposite. The conservative old voices increasingly take their cues from the newer, more daring ones. The distinguishing feature of most political hype storms is that they pass quickly. Who the hell can remember what we were up in arms about last month? Wasn’t it something about Sinbad and a telecom lobbyist who was bitter about being a Muslim? In that sense, a news culture in which — like the amplifiers for “Spinal Tap” that go up to 11 — everything is exaggerated may not seem like a big deal.

In other words, as Harris explains, the idea of proportionality is shredded.

[My apologies for the factual mistake above, since corrected. For a full account of how the traveling press experienced Clinton's bad Friday, see Katharine Seelye's account here.]

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