When I say that Vox and FiveThirtyEight have quickly gone from promising to clickbait hackery, they almost make it too easy. I mean, “This is what Pangaea would look like with modern borders”? C’mon. Even Gawker was aghast.
But that’s my point, it is so easy to criticize. What’s harder is the dilemma that every web publisher today is facing, including myself and the leadership at Betabeat.
This stuff gets traffic. Are we just not supposed to publish it?
I’ll tell you at Betabeat something we talk about all the time: our stories that mentioned sex get ridiculous pageviews. They are front-page-of-Reddit-picked-up-by-Drudge big. The only problem is that this is not really what the site is supposed to be about.
Same with the ridiculous stuff about selfies, drones, and Pornhub (see, sex again). I mean you can make an argument that they have some tangential connection to a tech blog, but isn’t that really just a convenient rationalization?
I’ve always been fond of that Upton Sinclair quote about how hard it is to get someone to understand something when their salary depends on not understanding. I’m not so dumb as to think it doesn’t apply to myself too.
When I say dilemma, what I mean is this: On the one hand are those easy stories that feature zero original reporting, pander to voyeuristic tendencies or just have nothing to do with the mission of the site, but send Chartbeat into a tizzy the second they go up. On the other hand are the smart investigative pieces that get launched to crickets and very few pageviews.
Why should Betabeat’s writers listen to me when I say: Write more of the latter and less of the former? Why shouldn’t they be jaded and frustrated when they work for a week on something and see it do zero Facebook shares?
Forget the importance of long term branding, what the advertisers want, what the editors and owners want–when they’re right in your face, numbers are numbers. People seem to be voting with their feet, and after a time, the feedback is clear.
I’ll tell you. These are some of my favorite stories from Betabeat in the last few months.
The reality is that they barely moved the needle.
Meanwhile, these are killing it…
It’s a decent metaphor for life. You stress how important it is to play by the rules, you tell other people not to stoop to the tricks that are beneath them, and then deal with the unshakable conclusion that that might be a sucker’s payoff. That the game is rigged so you have to do what everyone else’s is doing. What would you do if you played in the steroid era of baseball? Or competed in the Tour De France during Lance Armstrong’s peak?
I suppose that’s what Ezra Klein came to terms with. I supposed that’s what Arianna Huffington and Jonah Peretti and Nick Denton and Henry Blodget all realized at some point, too.
With my own writing, here or elsewhere, I’m fortunate enough to be at least partially immune to these forces. I have Twitter followers. I have an email list. That whole 1,000 true fans thing is important because it means you don’t have to worry about that zero as much.
Even so it looms in the background. Nobody wants to put effort into something and feel like it was wasted. But I think the crushing fear of this obscures a more important fact: Nobody wants to be someone they don’t like to look at in the mirror.
So when I see the leaderboard on Betabeat during a high traffic day and it’s random stories about whatever, I get that feeling. What is this? What are we doing? I know the other stakeholders do, too. They question the purpose of the vertical altogether. What are we even trying to be here?
That is where brand matters. For morale, for the long term, for the business prospects. As Steve Forbes once said, “your brand is the single most important investment you can make in your business.” Yet, over the last few years Forbes deliberately violated that principle. They deliberately allowed essentially anyone to post on the site (the much ballyhooed “Contributor Model”) and the result was articles like The Top 100 Inspirational Quotes and The Most Popular Tumblr Post Of All Time.
It got them hundreds millions of pageviews, no question. And yet, just last month Forbes sold controlling stake of the magazine for much less than it was worth just a few years ago. They chased the traffic upwards and it took the brand–and its valuation–backwards.
So maybe this dilemma isn’t much of a dilemma at all.