Rejecting the “BuzzFeed” Model
Joe Nocera considers the uproar regarding huge changes and shifts made at The New Republic, and critiques the way the publication’s leadership are turning a traditionally thoughtful and intellectually-minded magazine into another BuzzFeed—
The New Republic … wasn’t generating the number of clicks that its new owner wanted. Even before Vidra joined, The New Republic’s business executives were trying to get the editors to do things that would attract more clicks. One executive suggested that Michael Kinsley — a former New Republic editor himself — come up with a listicle, à la BuzzFeed. (“10 reasons why health care isn’t a free market.”)
Is it any wonder that the staff walked out when this plan was finally unveiled? Their earnest little magazine is the opposite of BuzzFeed. That’s what they loved about it. Or at least it was.
When I spoke to Vidra late Monday, he stressed to me that The New Republic was not going to abandon its heritage of thoughtful journalism and provocative ideas. When I asked him whether he would follow the model of The Atlantic, he demurred. He instead suggested that Vox Media was a more appropriate model for what he had in mind.
After we spoke, I went to the Vox website. I scrolled down until I saw a headline that stopped me cold. “Everybody farts,” it read. “But here are 9 surprising facts about flatulence you may not know.”
Goodbye, New Republic.
Nocera clearly sees something fake and/or sensationalistic about Vox’s mixing of the serious with the ridiculous. Yet many journalists (especially the young) see cat videos and celebrity photo slideshows as harmless ways to get more clicks and attention from website-browsing, distracted readers. This, Vidra and others seem to say, is the future—the way you get people to read.
But this argument falls flat in a couple ways. First, it is very unlikely that people who click on kitten slideshows on BuzzFeed are going to stick around for the serious news reporting. They are two different audiences. Second, by encouraging this sort of atmosphere in the news, we feed people’s cravings for the silly, the crass, and the thoughtless—and the more we feed those inclinations, the less we cultivate an appreciation for the nuanced, the thoughtful, and the serious. The former is easy to read. The latter takes discipline, and a certain amount of virtue. Discipline must be cultivated. Virtue takes work.
Additionally, we must be aware of the long-term effect such websites and reporting can have on people—we may be entertaining them, but are we truly helping inform them in the way journalism traditionally ought to do? A piece from N+1, “Too Fast, Too Furious,” explains this very well:
Both TV and the internet deliver a sense of experiencing a lot very quickly, with abandon, in a way that becomes loathed as much as desired. Time spent watching TV feels rich in stimuli — the joy of Game of Thrones is not just that its characters are dispatched with regularity, but that the show is punctuated by the occasional thrilling bloodbath — but poor in its lasting effects. “TV,” writes Rosa, “apparently tends to leave behind tired, hardly recuperated spectators who are in a bad mood.” The internet, too. What they also leave behind are people whose lives are full of frenetic activity, but impoverished of a sense of lasting experience — flat individuals, nodes or nerve endings in a network that stretches out endlessly in a shrinking present.
There are publications who fight this sort of saturated meaninglessness—publications like Aeon Magazine or The New Yorker deliver thoughtful analysis and in-depth reporting. After reading one of their lengthy pieces, I don’t feel like I’ve wasted time: I’ve learned something. My understanding of the world has broadened in an important, healthy way.
One difficulty is that BuzzFeed’s “silly” content is often its sponsored content: it supplies the advertising money that news needs so badly in order to stay alive. This has been a perpetual dilemma throughout journalism’s history: serious news does not pay for itself. Whether a news publication gets funds through circulars or clickbait, it is often at the mercy of its advertisers. How to fix or change this situation is a dilemma that we have to confront and solve.
Additionally, it’s true that media has always had a weakness for yellow journalism. As newspapers matured and changed, many (not all) became more serious in tone. It could be that online news, as a new medium, is going through a similar yellow journalism stage, one that it may grow out of. But it is also true that the very structure of online news—at least as it presently exists—often discourages thoughtful writing or reading.
The more serious-minded publications like TNR are forced to “BuzzFeed” their operation, the more journalists like Nocera fear that their publications may be forced to adopt similar tactics in the future. Many are fighting this tendency with a passion. But readers (and publishers) must be willing to support the “boring” and the serious—else they may lose it altogether.