Off the Media

Ryan’s Hope: Why I Took a Job at Betabeat

Betabeat is an opportunity to do things differently and better.

ryan holiday media manipulator“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud,” goes the line from Nassim Taleb.

A slight corollary from my personal experience: When you do say fraud, you will also probably be called a fraud.

As I recently found out: You may even be called that by someone you used to work with, had just had a friendly conversation with, and oh right–happens to be employed by one of the main targets of your criticism (ahem: Gawker).

So goes the confusing world of writing about and exposing problems in the media.

I have been writing this Off The Media column for nearly two years now, since I was first approached by the Observer after the publication of my book, Trust Me I’m Lying. The book was an expose of the modern media industry–and of my own behavior–and how easily it can be controlled and influenced by marketers.

Since the publication of those columns my role at the New York Observer has slowly expanded from freelance writer to regular columnist to friend to consultant. Having facilitated a number of introductions for new writers, and given my share of ideas for improvements to the site, management suggested I take on a more involved role. I accepted.

So that’s the announcement: I am now the Editor at Large of Betabeat and you will be seeing more of my articles here. I’ll be writing media criticism but also about other topics that fall under the site’s purview. I’m hoping that together we can grow Betabeat into a major brand in the technology space.

I also intend for you to see more in depth features, an expansion of the coverage of Betabeat, more breaking news and more commentary from experts and interesting people. The excellent writers who have been building Betabeat the last few years are going to continue to do what they do as well.

Like I said, it had never occurred to me to contribute to a paper like the New York Observer until Aaron Gell, the interim editor, approached me and made the offer to try out a column. Since then I’ve broken a number of big stories, exposed a handful of scams and written my share of controversial pieces of media criticism. I know there are a lot of other people out there who fall in a similar boat–albeit with different specialties. I want to bring them into the fold.

I was speaking to a potential contributor I’d like to bring to Betabeat yesterday and he told me about the articles he’d like to write–that he knows will do well, but not as well as other articles. Since he’s paid by the pageview by his current online home, he actually has a clear incentive to rewrite and republish certain pageview magnet pieces over and over rather than explore other more edifying topics. You could say he should do both, but there is only so much time in the day–and people have to eat. The opportunity costs of this current system deprive readers (and sites) of exactly the material that helps them grow.

The concept of a column–a beat if you’ll excuse the pun–has the benefit of something we’ve talked a lot about on these pages. When you give writers a long-term brand and goal to focus on, they do better work than when asked to churn out pageviews. It’s the same reason that book authors, with their medium’s longer lead-time and shelf-life–often produce more meaningful work. They’re building rather than producing. It’s why this parody from The Millions is so funny–no author would ever title their book that way.

Columnists and guest contributors bring that to the table in a small way, and we’ll be bringing that to Betabeat soon. (If you’d like to apply or nominate someone, email me at ryanholiday@observer.com).

A final note on my reputation as a “media manipulator.” The irony of my book is that its entire argument is that the real manipulation is being done by the media, for the media’s benefit. Today, bloggers paid by the pageview, with crushing deadlines and little editorial oversight, are the ones who deliberately (though not always maliciously) warp what we see, hear and read. Of course they’re upset about my accusations and my tactics–they are both biased about and dependent on them.

But the revolving door usually goes from journalism to PR/marketing for a reason: the money is better on the other side. I took this opportunity because writing is what I like to do. If I wanted to deceive people and if that was what motivated me, I probably wouldn’t have written a book, put my face on the cover and explained to people exactly what I did and how it worked. Nor would I have taken a public position with a media outlet. I’d have kept my mouth shut, worked in secret and lined my pockets.

There’s a reason the media reacted negatively when I exposed this “racket”–they were the people who profited from it most of all.

In fact, what I am excited about–and I hope you’re excited, too–is that Betabeat is an opportunity to do things differently and better. It’s an experiment in doing good work, with good people and knowing that good sustainable results come from that.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the forthcoming book The Obstacle is the Way.

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