Mike Hudack, the director of product management for ads and pages at Facebook, posted a self-confessed rant about the media on Thursday.
It's well known that CNN has gone from the network of Bernie Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett reporting live from Baghdad in 1991 to the network of kidnapped white girls. Our nation's newspapers have, with the exception of The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal been almost entirely hollowed out. They are ghosts in a shell.....
And so we turn to the Internet for our salvation. We could have gotten it in The Huffington Post but we didn't. We could have gotten it in BuzzFeed, but it turns out that BuzzFeed's homepage is like CNN's but only more so. Listicles of the "28 young couples you know" replace the kidnapped white girl. Same thing, different demographics.
He goes on to blast Vox, a site started by former WaPo'er Ezra Klein for its focus on stories like how freezing your jeans doesn't clean them. "The jeans story is their most read story today," Hudack notes. " It's hard to tell who's to blame. But someone should fix this [expletive]."
Hudack is not the first person to level the "we need to focus on the things that really matter" attack on the media. It's a common refrain in the comments section of this blog, in my Twitter feed and, well, everywhere else. If only the media would turn its attention to what really mattered, then the country would follow suit. This sentence is usually followed by an assertion that if the media did its job, many more people would be Democrats or Republicans -- depending on the partisan affiliation of the person speaking. (Hudack is, according to his website, a "civil libertarian" who believes "in people's fundamental rights to personal and political self-determination, the right to be anonymous under many circumstances, and perhaps most of all the right to free speech throughout the world.")
This way of thinking makes two fundamentally flawed assumptions to my mind.
1. That "serious" news and "fun" news can't co-exist. Nothing bothers me more than this oft-repeated trope. My point on this is a simple one: No one, I repeat no one, has only one interest. As in, all people have a variety of interests. Take me. I love politics. I also love college basketball, field hockey, pro wrestling, mystery novels, sad music, Connecticut and lots (and lots) of other things. Every day we consume serious news stories and fun ones. Sometimes I'll spend my lunch hour -- ok, I just eat my food at my desk -- reading Bill Simmons at Grantland; other times I'll read a poli-sci paper on voter turnout. I, like all of you, contain multitudes.
News sites reflect that variety of interests. The WaPo homepage as of 3 pm eastern Thursday featured stories on the military coup in Thailand, the death of 13 people at a Ukrainian check point and a profile of the upcoming Mississippi Senate primary race. It also included a review of the new "X-Men" movie, a look at 40 politicians under 40 to watch, a report on Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's comments about Donald Sterling and an aggregated look at why the Australian prime minister is so unpopular.
That seems to me to be an appropriate mix of the ridiculous and the sublime. I want to know if the new "X-Men" movie is good as much as I want to read our piece about the Mississippi Senate race. But, it's far from the all hard news, all the time golden days that Hudack -- and many others -- seem to pine for. A quick scan of other news sites -- including the ones Hudack directly criticized -- reveals much the same results. (Yes, BuzzFeed is more BuzzFeed-y than the rest but there's plenty of "real" news on the site's homepage too -- including the news about 50 Senators asking for the Washington Redskins to change the team's name.)
I would add that the idea that there was ever any sort of golden age in which hard news was all anyone ever did and all anyone ever wanted is a fallacious concept. We all have a tendency to glamorize the "way it used to be" -- especially in journalism in which things are changing so rapidly. People have always had a multiplicity of interests; they just have more (and easier) ways to access that information now.
2. That the media is to blame for the kinds of content people read. Hudack notes that the Vox item on freezing jeans is the most read piece of content on the site as a sort of indictment on the media.
I don't get that one. Am I or the Washington Post to be held responsible for the fact that the most read story on our site Thursday afternoon was on Cuban's comments? Or that the second most-read one was about a Fox News Channel anchor being arrested at an airport in Minnesota? While both of those stories are on the Post's homepage, neither are "above the fold" -- meaning you have to scroll down to see them. If someone comes to our site, the stories we think are the most important -- above the fold -- are the Thai coup, Ukraine and the Mississippi story.
That readers have clicked on other stories more often speaks to any number of things from the relative power any site's homepage has to the increasing power of social sharing in the content game. What it doesn't speak to is the Washington Post prioritizing "fun" news over "serious" news. If Hudack thinks WaPo or any other news organization has the ability to make people read what they want them to read, he overestimates how much power we have.
The reader wants what the reader wants. Our job is to provide them a wide array of content -- from the great reporting Carol Leonnig is doing on the Secret Service to this GIF of John McCain celebrating a homerun -- told in compelling and interesting ways. We need t0 do both. Hell, we need to do all of it.