The Outstater

December 1, 2023

Media Metrics: Extra! Extra! Read All About It

I QUIT COMPLAINING about the mass media a few years ago when it became clear that nobody was interested in differentiating between newsmen and broadcasters let alone in understanding the distortion of corporate ownership. I still notice things, though.

A trained eye can see the malefic impact of Internet metrics. Headlines and stories are written today to gain inscrutable “clicks,” “reaches” and “reactions.” That, directly or indirectly, is how the news business is now funded.

A “reach,” if you give a hoot, is the number of unique people who have seen your story or post. A “reaction” is the number of times someone clicks the “like” button on an or Facebook post. A “click” is when a page follower clicks on a link you have posted, the ultimate reader compliment in the brave new world of Internet journalism.

Please know that this isn’t an evolutionary thing. It’s a new universe entirely, with multiple suns and an altered gravitational pull.

What’s the difference in the end product? I hate to tell you but it is both inadvertent and ghastly.

To understand the impact on modern journalism we have to step back in time. Try to imagine when the success of a newspaper (radio and television news having always been frauds) was measured by home subscriptions.

Marketers know that to invite a product into your home, office or on your doorstep is an act of trust. It is the most difficult marketing goal. Newspaper that achieved high levels of trust and therefore high percentages of household market penetration could command higher advertising rates. The trust they had accumulated had value to advertisers who hoped to transfer it to their business (car dealerships, groceries, banks, etc.).

Trust, therefore, was the coin of the news realm. Compliments from editors would refer to a story’s perspective, insight, timeliness and of course accuracy — all aspects that reinforced a subscriber’s trust.

Consider the difference today. High metrics in clicks say nothing about trustworthiness, only noticeability. Headlines, therefore, make sensational claims, stories pursue titilating but unlikely lines, there’s no prescience. Question marks, scare quotes, mock crises and modal verbs abound. Decorum is abandoned.

Here are some examples from this morning’s Wall Street Journal, the most staid of our national newspapers: “‘Go F—Yourself,’ Elon Musk Says to Advertisers,” or “A1 Is the Y2 Crisis, Only this Time It’s Real,” or “Why Are Workers So Unhappy Right Now?”

Good luck banking on any of that folderol. But again, that’s how the money is made. Journalists today like to talk about trust but the honest ones know it doesn’t have the same value as before. They are glorified news hawkers. Life-and-death matters of politics and state are treated only as click bait — Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Hemmingway’s Sports Writer

Such thoughts make me miss a real journalist, Red Smith, legendary columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. He was Earnest Hemingways’s favorite sports writer and tapped out some memorable lines.

In Red Smith’s columns racehorses passed each other like “oysters on the half shell” and “the 90 feet between home plate and first base is the closest man has ever come to perfection.” Permit me a few graph’s from his Pulitzer-Prize-winning ringside commentary on the last of the three great championship fights between Joe Frasier and Muhammed Ali:

“He (Frasier) brushed pawing gloves aside, rolled in under punches, bore straight ahead and slugged, and by the fifth round he was getting the message across. It was hook, hook, hook – into the belly to draw Ali’s hands down, then up to the head across the ropes. He beat the everlasting whey out of Ali. His attack would have reduced another man to putty. The guy in the white trunks was not another man. He was the champion and this time he proved it.”

Most important, Smith earned his readers’ trust by respecting their intelligence and honoring his subjects. “Sports is not really a play world,” he said. “I think it’s the real world. The people we are writing about in professional sports, they’re suffering and living and dying and trying to make their way through life just as the bricklayers and politicians.”

Be Red Smith . . . clicks or no clicks. — tcl


Leave a Reply