[Note: While the issue of what plagues media today is a very complex one, this piece is an attempt to view it through the lens of the page views race.]
If you were running a cement factory, what do you primarily need to do?
Produce good cement. Obviously.
If you are a tailor, what do you primarily need to do?
Stitch clothes that look good and fit well. Obviously.
Why then does it appear as if media companies are not seeing the obvious point that they need to primarily produce quality content that is relevant to their readers? Everything else should come second, shouldn’t it?
Producing good content may not be complicated, but it is certainly not easy and not quick. It takes publishers effort and money to build and maintain a team of good writers; it takes those writers time to write well-researched and thought provoking articles. The payback is usually slow – a publication’s reputation (and hence consumption) is seldom built overnight. In fact, many of the big media names on the Internet are those that have built their brand from the print days of yore.
With advertising bringing in the lion’s share of revenue, pageviews mean money. Pageviews are linked to content (this is a rather simplified statement, but run with me on this for some time). Now here’s a problem: Remember what we said about good journalism not coming easy? Publishers have hence found quick fixes while the long term interest has become collateral damage. Here’s what you’ll find in common across most, if not all of the popular websites, be they special interest ones (like auto or technology) or general interest ones like news.
Articles are a plenty, but very few have any depth. All websites dealing with any niche subject carry essentially the same news, with the same information. Not surprising, since the source for the story is either a press release, or another website that has carried the ‘original’ story. Writers rehashing stories from a competing (or other) website is not something that the publisher just turns a blind eye to, but often encourages. ‘Put something up. Now.’ is the all too familiar instruction that writers are hearing today in online media. Fact checking, analysis, follow up? No time for those.
Even non-news stories (referred to as ‘features’ in media parlance) are increasingly becoming shallow, with almost every analysis or feature on a particular topic towing the same line, across publications and authors. There’s little, if any, research and hardly any of the proverbial ‘other side of the coin’. The reason is twofold. One, writers are expected to turn in greater number of stories now (hence time per story is lesser). Two, in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator, for pageviews again, the stooping standards are sometimes not just a side effect, but also intentional. A reversal of sorts from the time when media was supposed to elevate people’s thinking, eh?
The result? Most content lacks character and leaves the discerning visitor wanting more, but there’s nowhere to find it. There’s no reason for a reader to pick website A over website B. Since content is commoditized and is no longer a differentiator, it is highly unlikely that a visitor who has landed via a search engine would consciously come back to the website (unless search engines lead him to the website again). In an attempt to gain stickiness, publishers go after window dressing with great zeal. Wardrobe malfunction galleries on you-name-it large news portals may work, but that can’t be done every day. Hence the gaudy design, screaming headlines that could use a two size lesser font, and what have you. When these design treatments fail to generate a jump in traffic, publishers go after an overused Internet phenomenon, social media, somehow believing that thousands of visitors would want to share sub-par content; or that content that fails on the website would magically work when ‘shared’. A Kolaveri does not happen every day, does it?
Since many websites rely on search engines for the bulk of their traffic, the strategy of merely populating websites with more number of stories might actually give marginal gains in the short term (more stories being shown in search results). As regards sustenance, there are several questions. What happens when search engines penalize websites that don’t have original content? What happens when advertisers refuse to pay for fleeting visitors and insist on other billing models that factor in stickiness (a visitor who has chanced upon a website and skimming through what he thinks is unexciting content is more prone to banner blindness than a repeat visitor who is more patient) ? What happens when every publication looks like and feels like every other publication? Wait. That’s already happened.
Chasing pageviews is in itself not a bad thing – that’s where the money comes from. The problem, in a nutshell is that in the pursuit of those pageviews, ‘more’ becomes the cheaper and easier solution, while ‘good’ gets shoved out. Packaging and promotion are only skimpy cover ups for poor writing. The solution? How about good old journalism? Content that has character, content that defines a website in the pool of me-toos? Publishers, and more importantly, their funders need to realize that a magazine or a website, takes time and effort to build, notwithstanding the fact that most things on the Internet are immediate. Ergo, quick and dirty is just that. Dirty.
Until a fix is attempted, other issues from the consumers’ and social perspective exist: What happens when readers lose trust in media as a whole (that’s already started to happen)? What happens to a crop of young journalists who are brought to think it’s ok to copy, it’s ok to not fact-check, it is ok to put quantity over quality? What happens to people’s ability to think and question, when they are being continually fed only superficial news, dramatized as it may be?
[Kailas has eight years experience in the field of media and communications. Most recently he was Executive Editor at a consumer technology portal.]