As part of my job, I occasionally pitch “real news” editors and publishers with story ideas.
Sometimes, I get back responses like this one: “. . we prefer writers with professional journalism experience. We don’t tend to work with corporate publishing contractors out of a concern that their corporate work will conflict with the role of freelance news contributor.”*
To be clear, I am a marketing writer that’s also a journalist. I make my living by putting interesting and persuasive things in front of readers.
What’s fascinating is how there’s this false rift between “legit” reporters and writers, and those who dabble in both commercial and public interests (as if the two were somehow separable).
Today, I’m here to tell you that the rift is complete and total horse-shit. You know it if you’re in the business, but you may not care much about it if you’re not.
I’m here to emphasize that you should care - even if you’re not in the business.
Whores with Pens
All journalists are whores, whether they acknowledge it or not. In fact, all journalists are marketers, even if they don’t know it. They’re constantly being used by the subtle industry powers, and they’re even more susceptible to corruption in this world of Buzzfeed, TMZ, Huffington Post, Vox, Vice, The Verge, Drudge and Facebook journalism. (I realize that Drudge and Facebook are just a channels, but their feeds are crammed with fake news, of the kind the previously mentioned outlets produce.)
This post aims to shed some light on the wordsmith industry and how the reading public is at a distinct disadvantage in these days of click-analysis, headline bait and the shoddy article sciences. Later, we’ll break it down even further with subsequent break-outs/break-downs.
Ye Olde Newspaper
The beginning of whore-dom began with newspapers, almanacs or journals.
A lot of people get crazy these days about whether or not a particular newspaper or news channel is objective. Interestingly, this was never the case. Traditionally, newspapers aligned along party lines, for example. Early on papers were even named after the party they aligned with. Some names from the past include the Arkansas Democrat and Marion, Illinois' The Daily Republican. Towns would often have two different papers to satisfy the different political viewpoints. Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, for example, countered the more left-leaning San Francisco Chronicle. Eventually many papers would ditch the dem/repub alignment in their titles in favor of less subjective names like Gazette, Recorder and Ledger.
Commercially funded newspapers like Hearst's national papers took specific viewpoints that favored the interests of the publishers. This is much more disguised today, but it persists.
The papers have never been very shy about their promotional proclivities, either. They were packaged as promotion vehicles, with the local sports teams advertised in the Sports section, the local arts, restaurants and entertainment in that section, local business press releases rewritten in the Business section and the political parties in the front pages along side the actual hard news reporting (who was killed, what burned down, etc.).
The New News Thing
Today, people typically find news via social media feeds and news aggregators, like Google News, Yahoo! News or Feedly. Those latter three are more typical of “news junkies.” Recent studies show that most casual news consumers get curated news feeds in their social media feeds on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and elsewhere (And when I say news, I’m including all the junk promotion, native advertising and outright corporate propaganda that show up on media outlets - more on native advertising below). A lot of people also use link aggregators and publishers like The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post to get news that aligns with their particular conservative/progressive orientation.
This is a problem, because news producers no longer control their editorial feeds. Think of an editorial feed as the newspaper itself. A publisher like the L.A. Times has control over the stories they choose to feature (even the ones they don’t produce like stories from AP).
As a result, common media consumers have less and less concern about where their news comes from and how it was produced. They gravitate toward sparkly headlines that are exhaustively tested by the news organizations and form opinions that don’t adhere to a particular editorial agenda. Traditional agendas were historically guided by several large news organizations in broadcast and print. They had semi-monopolies that tended to promote a two-party ideological orientation: L.A. Times vs. O.C. Register; Washinton Post vs. Washington Times; New York Times vs. Wall Street Journal; CNN vs. Fox News.
A new group of “editors” now controls the mass exposure of news, promotions and ideas. One prime example that’s come under fire lately is Facebook. They claim to have algorithms that promote stories in the news area to the right of the wall, but it’s clear that human editorial control and even censorship of story lines is at play. And, like the papers of old, a platform like Facebook now needs to be considered an ideological proponent, much like the Hearst organization of years past.
Cookies and User News Behavior
Something else to consider with the Facebook scenario is behavior tracking. As you may already know, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and many other web properties (including advertisers) track your online behaviors and submit products, news, services and other preferences to you as you surf the web.
With respect to news, this is important. The Facebook news feed on the right hand side of the page, for example, displays news stories that you’re more likely to read. It learns from your Facebook conversations and click behaviors, then presents you with custom news based on its own profile analysis and algorithms. This is also used for the sponsored posts that show up in your feeds.
We'll cover more about the history and evolution of the news business in Part 2 of this series.
*[For the record: I’m a professional journalist with an M.A. in print journalism from the University of Southern California and 21 years of reporting and publishing experience. I’m also the author of McGraw-Hill’s best-selling eBay marketing book.]