2014: When Clicks Won Out Over Facts

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The year 2014 may be remembered as the year when "clicks" definitively won out over facts. From Rolling Stone's sensational UVA story, the comical misattributions to Pope Francis, to Vox's myriad factual errors, we have been subjected to countless stories aimed at increasing web traffic rather than informing - much less educating - the public. The standards and expectations of "old-style" journalism have come to grief with rise of a media culture that measures success by number of "clicks."

The New Republic is a case in point. Whatever human failings underlay the decline and fall of that storied institution, publisher-owner Chris Hughes is right that it boils down to divergent views about "how the New Republic - and journalism more broadly - will survive." "Print" versus "digital" doesn't capture this divergence anymore. Virtually all publications have online "content." The difference is one of purpose.

One view sees readers as consumers with preferences to which editors should cater. The more "consumer choice" the better, as editors respond to consumer demands (discernible via data analytics). Accordingly, readers are met where they already are. The other view sees readers as interlocutors, not consumers, to be engaged on issues of relatively enduring significance (relative at least to the time scale of Buzzfeed). Of course, magazines such as TNR must appeal to readers. But at their best, they also aim to transform how readers see the world.

Such writing requires pitching and refining ideas, editorial review and feedback, fact-checking, copy-editing, with agreed-upon procedures and standards for all of the above. Ideally, however, this time-consuming endeavor is repaid by the impact of the contributions. And it is this type of writing - more than any physical medium - that has receded from the public sphere with the advent of digital journalism. If there is any doubt, pick up-or Google-a story from Vanity Fair from the 1920s or Time from the 1960s: the prose, topics, length, and implied readership will seem recherché even by today's academic standards.

The reason is obvious. While the logic of digital media may be leveraged to underwrite good, in-depth coverage and the occasional "thought piece" - as venues like Vox do at their best - at root, that logic is tailored to a different purpose: sales. Of course ‘old-style' journalism depends upon sales too; but that is not its raison d'être. Consider an example.

As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier recount in their book on big data, Amazon used to employ a team of book critics to write reviews and make recommendations. Then came the famous algorithm that uses data analytics to predict customer preferences. The algorithm was so effective for sales that it replaced an entire team of employees. Similar data-driven strategies have since been adopted by myriad companies, from online retailers to industrial behemoths of all kinds.

But does the algorithm actually do the same work as the book critics? The latter treated customers not as consumers but as fellow readers. Critics don't predict consumer predilections so much as suggest what readers might come to like - or even ought to like. There is a pedagogical dimension. Good critics possess knowledge and also taste - this what they impart via recommendation. And this is what data analytics cannot do.

The situation of the critic is analogous to that of the editor and the writer of "old- style" journalism. Data-drive techniques are great for selling products; but ill equipped to guide humanistic activities, such as literary criticism and long-form journalism, aimed at transforming their participants. These latter are what Plato might call techne, the Greek word meaning "craft" or "trade." Techne involves possession of a particular set of skills - e.g., for carpentry, sailing, or music - as well as practical knowledge. But to be a true craftsman in Plato's sense one must also care for the welfare of the object of one's skills.

Plato used doctors to illustrate the idea. Doctors have certain skills and practical knowledge, but they also care for the wellbeing of their patients. Plato contrasts the doctor with the baker, whose aim is to sell baked goods, rather than to make customers healthy. A modern example is Wal-Mart, which stocks its shelves with Pop-Tarts ahead of hurricanes, because data show that this is when demand for that product spikes. Good for sales; bad for health.

Companies such as Amazon and Wal-Mart may have no business underwriting "techne" (such as literary criticism or medicine). But it doesn't follow that such things are inherently antithetical to business.

To have a techne in Plato's sense is, first of all, to have a craft for which one is compensated by wages. At their best, doctors, literary critics and the like - one could include teachers - aim to change the recipients of their work for the better. We pay them, however, because we value their services. So the difference is not between commercial enterprise and some higher calling, but between two kinds of profession.

Historically, the market supported the profession of long-form journalism because people demanded that service. With the transition from print to digital, however, it has become harder to treat journalism as a craft in this sense. (A similar transformation may be happening to healthcare and education).

True, the digital media ethos has enabled many media outlets to stay afloat. But it has also accelerated the hollowing out of the journalism and publishing professions. Utilizing outside bloggers instead of staff writers, getting by without fact-checkers and copy-editors - once staples of journalistic employment - doesn't just encourage "participatory forms of discourse," it also cuts costs. Consequently, there are many fewer jobs demanding journalistic skills.

The question, then, is not whether journalism is antithetical to commerce, but whether there is any room left in our culture for journalism as craft, whether we value the purposes of such professions sufficiently to patronize them. If such journalism is not to become what Hughes calls a "public trust" or "charity," readers must want the kind of writing that embodies the ethos if not all the trappings of print media.

There is reason for hope. For example, it's heartening, if ironic, that many of the more wistful reactions to the fate of TNR came from digital media exemplars, such as Ezra Klein and Andrew Sullivan. Moreover, according to one former TNR editor, "the pieces that often did the best online were the deeply reported, carefully edited and fact-checked, and beautifully written [...] Those were the pieces that got the most clicks." This suggests that people are not, in fact, satisfied by a media landscape dominated by political propaganda, "twerking" teens, "listicles," and grammatical and factual errors.

Accordingly, the way to keep long-form journalism commercially viable is not to abandon its aims in favor of some technocratic ideology redolent of Silicon Valley, but to pursue them more vigorously and on a larger stage. This requires - has always required - embracing new technologies as means. But when these technological means become ends, cultural institutions such as TNR become commercially viable enterprises with nothing distinctive or of any enduring significance to offer.


M. Anthony Mills is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, specializing in philosophy of science.  He received an M.A. in philosophy from Notre Dame in 2013. Mills graduated from Northwestern University in 2010 with an M.A. in French, and a B.A. in French, Philosophy, and Comparative Literature.  

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