[…] In 1833, Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun as a “cash and carry” paper—employing hundreds of newsboys to hawk his product every morning on the street corners—and changed the newspaper business forever. Almost immediately, it ended the dominance of the subscriber-based party press and ushered in the era of Bennett, Pulitzer, and Hearst with their sensational, vicious, and rapid-fire “yellow papers.”
One small change in distribution changed everything, including how and what the newspapers wrote. Because newspapers were now sold on a per-issue basis each morning, the headlines of each paper went head to head for a finite share of attention. The most exciting, not the most accurate, won. In my book, I call this the One-off Problem.
The One-off Problem dominated the newspaper industry for decades, and ultimately was—according to many—responsible for everything from mob violence to the Spanish-American war. Its dominance lasted until the re-emergence of news-by-subscription, pushed by Adolph Ochs at The New York Times. As a result, thankfully, for the last three quarters of a century news has been governed by this stabilizer: Consumers pay by subscribing, and publishers protect subscriptions by delivering a quality, valuable product.
But blogs [When I say “blogs,” I’m referring specifically to online sites from Gawker to Business Insider to The Huffington Post. But I also don’t think it’s a stretch to include everything from Twitter accounts to major newspaper websites, web videos to group blogs with hundreds of writers in this indictment.] have brought the One-off Problem back.
Audiences don’t consume blogs like by subscription, they consume them just like they consumed yellow papers—whichever one catches their attention at that moment. A quick look at the traffic sources for blogs confirms this: Referral sources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other aggregators combine to dwarf the direct traffic that sites get. RSS is dead. The Huffington Post doesn’t arrive on your doorstep, you read it when people email you links (and then later you click the most titillating headlines and the “Most Read” and “Related” articles that come along with them).
Blogs compete on a per-article basis, and so here we are in 2011, on our fancy Macbooks and high-speed broadband, stuck with the same bogus headlines they had in the 19th century.
From today: Naked Lady Gaga Talks Drugs and Celibacy; Hugh Hefner: I Am Not a Sex Slave Rapist in a Palace of Poop; The Top Nine Videos of Babies Farting and/or Laughing with Kittens; How Justin Bieber Caught a Contagious Syphilis Rumor; Little Girl Slaps Mom with Piece of Pizza, Saves Life
Compare those with some classic headlines from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: War Will Be Declared In Fifteen Minutes; Couldn’t Sell His Ear, Old Man Shoots Himself; Owl Frightens Woman To Death In Hospital; Bulldog Tries To Kill Young Girl He Hates; Cat Gave Tenants Nightly ‘Creeps’
[…] For a publisher, an ideal blog post strikes several nerves: It’s provocative, it has a simple hook, it generates links and traffic, and it leaves enough out for follow-ups. In other words, it is overstated, polarizing, and incomplete. And it must fulfill these conditions cheaply and at the lightning speed of the web. The divergence of interests is clear: what is good for online publishers is bad for their readers and, cumulatively, for culture itself.
[…] Unfortunately, they worship a single god: traffic. The central question for the Internet is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Will this get attention?” “Will it spread?” And it happens that almost everything that blogs do to get traffic, keep traffic, and profit from traffic puts them at odds with the truth, good journalism, and serving their readers. […]
Columbia Journalism Review, Behind the News, Ryan Holiday: “Our gullible press.”