"The fact is, it's almost impossible to find a single 'content' company on the web that maintains a horseshit:quality ratio better than 10:1," notes TechCrunch columnist, Paul Carr, in a post ("NSFW: On the Internet Nobody Knows You're a Journalist") that Paid Content was alert enough to notice and link to in its Around the Web section.
Elaborating, Carr writes:
"Just look at the homepages of Yahoo! and MSN, boasting the respective top stories: "Why Clooney Won't Marry" and "Five Things You Shouldn't Do When You Propose". For all its lofty ideals, even The Huffington Post has succumbed to the temptation of bolstering costly and time consuming think-pieces with an avalanche of linkbait crap and blatant cut-and-paste jobs from other blogs."
"Tina Brown's Huffpo-rival, The Daily Beast, is at it too. Sure, today's top stories include a piece on a possible Egyptian revolution, but what's that right underneath? A slideshow of "Ashton Kutcher's 10 Best Shirtless Moments". Hell, even Salon - whose journalism I praised the other week - isn't immune to the page-view boosting lure of the slideshow: today their front page boasts a pictorial guide to "Hotels with a dark past" (including the Bates Motel, which doesn't even exist) while on Friday they bravely addressed the issue of the child sexualisation with a gallery of "shocking" but "sexy" child images."
Paul Carr's column could be a companion piece to the article by Nicholas Spangler in the Columbia Journalism Review about the 40 hours he spent as a Demand Media writer. As I described in this space back in November, Spangler is a journalist that worked for years for The Miami Herald, and wrote with open resignation, about the end of his journalistic world and the rise of the new one typified by Demand. It is a world of "commercial content," driven by algorithms "without", Spangler wrote (perhaps quoting Clay Shirky), "regard to civic value or subjective judgments about quality or any of the other sentimental trappings of the Murrow century."
Paul Carr is more inclined to describe the absence of civic value and sentimental trappings in online content today as, simply, "horseshit." But he is a realist: horseshit is what the people want and horseshit is what the people get.
"AOL's (and HuffPo's and Yahoo's) front pages are packed with celebrity-obsessed crap because that's what people are searching for, and that's what they click on. It's a problem at TechCrunch too: in the past seven days, almost three times as many people clicked on our headline about famous people using Twitter as cared about Mike's interview with Google's three most senior executives."
Last week I took note of the precipitous drop in American Idol's TV ratings so far this season and, despite the fact it remained the highest rated show in its time slot, allowed myself to wonder if our long, (inter)national nightmare with reality TV was coming to an end. No more Real Housewives of Anywhere; The end of real horseshit.
Fat chance, because when media aspires to sustain bigger and bigger audiences in order to attract more and more advertising it winds-up looking half-naked, with a grease-painted stomach hanging over its belt, fist pumping in the air and yelling "More beeeer!" Big media slimes you.
This is true online and offline. But it is also true, online and off, that where media is not trying to be all things to all people it doesn't need washing off. Case in point, the New Yorker, which Paul Carr turns to and hugs like an old friend in his TechCrunch piece:
"The joy I felt today flicking through the New Yorker - stumbling across Tad Friend's wonderful piece about Lenny Bruce tribute actor, Steve Cuiffo and a short story by Woody Allen (Woody Allen!) before reaching the Armstrong profile - was easily the highlight of my day."
(How ironic if new media sends us back into the waiting arms of old media, now leaner and more fit and more in touch with its true self.)
Every brand steward in the marketing business should give careful regard to Paul's happy encounter with the New Yorker if they give any regard (or disregard) to the rub-off affect of media on their brand images. I know when I've been naughty or nice consuming media. I know when I've been slimed. And the truth is that the unquenchable desire for viewers, listeners, readers and users will slime you, every time.
Which was why it was such a good thing that the Internet came along to free audiences from the growing indignity and abuse of modern mass media, providing them with a nearly endless resource of content that seemed so incorruptible. It lacked production value, maybe was not always beautiful, but it was genuine, timely, real, likeable, in an across-the-fence-to-your neighbor kind of way. Now, even the inherent niche quality of the internet is being subjected to manipulation thanks to so-called content mills - not because they possess a vision for an agrarian new media economy with gardens in every yard, but because they, along with much of mainstream media, remain industrialists - old media wannabes - factory farmers spreading fertilizer from the sky.