Our gullible press

Ryan Holiday explains how the singular pursuit of traffic makes online media suckers for fake news

One thing has been conspicuously absent from all criticism of online media and the future of news: an understanding of incentives. Incentives explain behavior. They explain nearly every major issue facing online media—from over-aggregation to speculative, iterative journalism, from pagination to the dearth of investigative reporting.

I understand these incentives intimately for a simple reason: It’s my job to exploit them. As a media manipulator for controversial media figures—billion-dollar brands like American Apparel, best-selling authors like Tucker Max and others who prefer to remain nameless—I use the Internet, specifically bloggers, to make and control news. I am asked to create fake scandals, get names in the news, launch products, spread disinformation, and protect against misinformation—all of which relies on an understanding of what makes blogs, and the web, work.

My former occupation is not easy to stomach, I’m sure. But I am asking you to put that aside, because we share the same goal: reform.

After watching my friends and clients get ravaged by shoddy online press, I eventually began noticing work like mine appearing everywhere. My job was so easy that it scared me. I remember one day, during dinner conversation, I mentioned some scandal, one that I knew was probably fake. I did it because it was too interesting not to pass along. I was lost in the same unreality I’d helped create. To borrow from Budd Schulberg’s description of a media manipulator in his classic novel The Harder They Fall, I was “indulging myself in the illusions that we can deal in filth without becoming the thing we touch.” I no longer have those illusions. That’s why I decided to write a book—Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator—in which I explain what I do and why it works.

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. I don’t care whether the owners consider themselves a blog or not—collectively they are all subject to the same incentives (advertising revenue and traffic) and they fight for attention with similar tactics (from click-friendly headlines to rushed, real-time stories). They play the same game, just to different degrees.

The pageview imperative

Blogs make money by selling advertisements, and these ads are paid for by the impression (generally a rate per thousand impressions). Regardless of who sells it or who buys it, what matters is that every ad impression a site does is monetized, if only for a few pennies.

The pageview counters that publishers and advertisers use don’t differentiate between the types of impressions an ad gets. A consciously perusing reader is no better than an accidental reader. As long as the page loads and the ad is seen, a click is a click.

The business model for blogs encourages publishers and writers to value the click above other potential goals, such as truth, accuracy, or fairness. Consider the famous AOL memo that outlined what writers must consider before publishing on AOL’s online properties:

How many pageviews will this content generate? Is this story SEO-winning for in-demand terms? How can we modify it to include more terms? Can we bring in contributors with their own followers? What CPM will this content earn? How much will this content cost to produce? How long will it take to produce?

No mention of quality or accuracy. This is the new reality. A seasoned blog publisher like Nick Denton of Gawker knows that being evasive and misleading is one of the best ways to get traffic, traffic that increases his bottom line. In a memo to his bloggers in 2010, he gave specific instructions on how to best manipulate the reader for profit:

When examining a claim, even a dubious claim, don’t dismiss with a skeptical headline before getting to your main argument. Because nobody will get to your main argument. You might as well not bother…You set up a mystery—and explain it after the link. Some analysis shows a good question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation point.

I’ll be very blunt: A system where top media executives and owners explicitly acknowledge their preference for money over a quality product is a manipulator’s dream. For example, one of the most effective ways to get positive online coverage is to dangle the promise of tweeting out or promoting the article after the blogger writes it. If a company has 200,000 Twitter followers, a blogger will consciously decide to pull his punches so the company will send its fan base to the blog. Call this an indirect bribe.

It can also get a lot more direct. Because I am both an online ad buyer and a publicist, I am able to effectively buy coverage on many sites. On the same day a blogger might be emailing me about a rumor he or she heard, it’s very likely that their publisher may also email to ask if I want to increase the size of my ad buy. Or, more often than not, I only get one email—because the publisher and the writer are the same person. The second my ads start appearing on their sites, blogs become very receptive to the stories I “pitch” them.

Believe it or not, you can actually pay to send traffic to articles via services like StumbleUpon, as a way of making sure the piece hits the “Most Popular” lists (which bloggers then wrongly interpret as a sign of having written a hit). However primitive these tactics are, they produce a consistent and reliable result that has never disappointed me.

The speculation frenzy

Bloggers have to churn out dozens of posts a day. A recent lawsuit filed against Reuters revealed that bloggers were required to write more than eight posts a day, and clock as much as 20 hours a week of unpaid overtime to do it. Bloggers have repeatedly told me that their daily quotas hang over their heads and influence almost every publishing decision they make.

Their editors have made it this way. GigaOm founder Om Malik brags that he’s written more than 11,000 posts and 2 million words in the last decade. When even the boss is churning out three posts a day, you know that the pressure is real.

As a result, no topic is off limits, no source too sketchy, no story too speculative if it will result in an extra post. Veteran bloggers John Biggs and Charlie White put it well in their book Blogger Bootcamp, when they reminded aspiring bloggers that there is “no topic too mundane that you can’t pull a post out of it.”

People like me have incredible luck getting coverage just by sending fake, anonymous “tips” to bloggers about the things we want them to write about. No one has the time, and few have the interest, to verify before publishing. Michael Arrington, who parlayed dubious scoops on his blog TechCrunch into a $25 million acquisition by AOL, said it himself: “Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.” You can’t tell me it’s not easy to manipulate someone so transparent about his self-interest.

Once, during a very public lawsuit, I introduced a narrative into the media (that bloggers had refused to pick up and research when I tried to sell them on it) by composing a fake internal memo, supposedly leaked by an employee of one of the companies in the suit, and sending it to bunch of blogs. The same bloggers who were uninterested in the facts when I informed them directly, gladly put up posts about it that screamed “EXCLUSIVE!” and “LEAKED!”

The poet Hesiod once wrote that rumor and gossip are a “light weight to lift up, but heavy to carry and hard to put down.” Speculation and iteration for blogs is much the same. Publishers and marketers are addicted to it, and it’s this addiction that can leveraged and is exploited every day.

Distribution defines content

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 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’

As magician Ricky Jay once put it, “People respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago.” The One-off Problem is ugly, no matter what century. Only today, the headlines aren’t being yelled on busy street corners but on noisy aggregators and social networks.

Let’s compare two leaks. One from the era of subscription news and one from me, in the era of blogs.

A: In 1971, The New York Times titled its first story on the Pentagon Papers—leaked by Daniel Ellsberg—in typically understated fashion: “Vietnam Archive: A Consensus to Bomb Developed Before ’64 Election, Study Says”

B: In 2010, I orchestrated a fake leak to the blog Jezebel, which is owned by Gawker. Pretending to be an American Apparel employee, I told them I had stolen some photographs from the company’s servers (in reality we couldn’t use them for legal reasons). Their headline: “Exclusive: American Apparel’s Rejected Halloween Costume Ideas (American Appalling).” Overstating has its rewards: The post drew nearly 100,000 pageviews—even though the content was nothing but some extra photographs from an ad campaign.

Granted, the stakes in these two leaks are hardly comparable, but my point is not the substance but the presentation. Imagine a blogger understating a headline because he or she felt the story was too important to sensationalize. They wouldn’t. That’s not their job. They exaggerate and deceive their readers, and are paid well to do it.

Their ideal, our nightmare

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.

Having studied and observed blogs from deep in the trenches, it is obvious to me that they are assailed on all sides, including but not limited to the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and the marketing manipulation of people like me. Under this duress, their incentives become our reality.

In his landmark book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argued that the dominant cultural medium determines the culture itself. Today, blogs and social media are that dominant medium.

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.

That’s the world I operate in. This world exists primarily because it is so poorly understood—too commonly dressed up in the cyber-utopianism of the Jeff Jarvis crowd, or lost in the out-of-touch complaints of old-school journalists like David Simon.

I can’t tell you what can be done about all this—it’s too soon for that. All I can say is, this is what people like me do behind the scenes, this is how it’s possible, and these are the results.

I hope that’s enough.

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Ryan Holiday is a media strategist for notorious clients such as Tucker Max and Dov Charney. After dropping out of college at nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He is currently the director of marketing at American Apparel, where his work is internationally known. His campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and have been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker, and Fast Company. He currently lives in New Orleans and writes at RyanHoliday.net. Tags: , , , , ,