what do you want to subsidize?

1. Given the economics of current professional online journalism and commentary, blanket condemnations of what is conventionally called clickbait are essentially arguments that paid online writing should contract substantially. You don’t have to like clickbait and SEO stuff– I don’t– but if there’s gonna be such a thing as professional writers whose work appears online, at anything like current scale, then there’s gonna be tactics used to maximize advertising revenue. Nature of the beast.

2. It’s true that companies like Google and Facebook have enormous power to manipulate what gets seen and doesn’t online, and thus what generates money, and thus what people produce. And I think there’s lots of little improvements that can be made on the margins. That said, those are algorithmic processes, always will be, and my trust that algorithms can effectively sort high quality content from low is nil.

3. What do you want to subsidize, as a consumer of online media? Some sites just produce the worst kinds of “curiosity gap,” low info, manipulative dross. You should probably avoid those if you don’t think they’re doing good work, and you should particularly not share them. What crosses that threshold is up to you; lots of people praise Buzzfeed’s reported content, for example, and even Upworthy has its defenders. ViralNova? EliteDaily? Uh, less so. If a site pushes out thoughtful, researched/reported pieces which necessarily take time and effort to produce, and they pay for it with clickbaity viral video posts and similar, then I think that’s a defensible strategy. It all depends on the quality of the high-quality content and just how low the lower-hanging fruit dangles. It’s a judgment call. But like I said: just saying no to viral content is not an option for 90% of the publications and writers out there. Share accordingly.

4. If you use AdBlock and you don’t whitelist the sites that you think are worthy of supporting, you’re cutting yourself out of the system of reward that will ultimately determine which publications succeed and which fail. It’s always easy to say that you as an individual don’t have any impact. But thousands or millions of people thinking the same has a big impact on what gets monetized and thus what gets repeated. So think about using that whitelist feature on the sites you admire and respect.

5. Don’t like clickbait, pay for subscription services or donate. Don’t want to pay, don’t complain about clickbait or SEO. Simple.

9 Comments

      1. If the outlets in question are for profit businesses, it seems strange to say that my subscribing to them, paying them X for Y content, is akin to me donating to promote their work and financial interests. I don’t buy candy bars to promote Mars, Inc., I buy them to eat them.

        The idea that I can subsidize a publication through clicks seems even more muddled. Especially since in many instances the business of these companies is to acquire certain spans of attention from certain consumer audiences and then sell that attention to marketers.

        Maybe these are all distinctions without material differences, but since most of what we’re talking about is business predicated on consumption, I feel like the idea of patronizing or subsidizing obscures the real nature of these transactions.

        1. I think that’s an unnecessarily narrow definition of subsidy. For example, I think it makes sense to say that a popular show on a television network subsidizes an unpopular but critically acclaimed show. Same logic here.

          1. Even there, subsidy implies a sort of beneficence. Presumably each show on a network serves a purpose. A show that doesn’t pull in much direct revenue is going to be kept on only if it serves a broader function, like projecting or maintaining a certain brand image.

            The subsidy description presumes a model in which the money making part of the business exists to sustain another part whose value can’t be broken down into economic terms. Maybe the argument could be made that this is the arrangement at places like Vox or Gawker or The Atlantic, and certainly I’m sure there are a lot of people at those organizations who might feel like this is the case, but certainly the way a lot of these places market themselves based on their audiences it seems more like the ‘good’ content is just as much a part of the overall brand advertisers are buying into when they choose to rent space as the clickbait.

            “The Atlantic is America’s leading destination for brave thinking and bold ideas that matter. With an all-star roster of writers and thinkers covering the world’s most intriguing topics, The Atlantic is the source of opinion, commentary, and analysis for the country’s most influential individuals.”

            “Reaching over eighty million young, affluent, and influential users across our seven celebrated verticals, Vox Media is home to the highly covetable yet elusive audience of discerning tastemakers who care as much about the brands they support as the content they consume.”

            “Gawker Media is the publisher of some of the best loved titles on the web including the eponymous Gawker and gadget sensation Gizmodo. Founded in 2002 by Nick Denton, the influential media group now produces eight original brands with a collective audience of tens of millions of US readers. Attracting fans and critics alike for their inimitable delivery of news, scandal, and entertainment, the Gawker Media properties are heralded as everything from ‘deliciously wicked’ to ‘the biggest blog in the world.'”

  1. Plug-ins like adblock plus block ads on the browser side, so advertisers don’t know if I ever see the ad or not. Given that my “seeing” the ad brings no value to advertisers, and only aggravation to me, I don’t see rational argument against ad-block. Clicking on ads only to support the content of the article is unfortunately a terrible habit from a security standpoint, and again, brings no value to the advertisers. The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve hitched our culture to the rather dubious value of a certain type of “billboard” advertising, advertising that imposes itself in our sphere of consciousness, even if that advertising is specifically tailored to our personal interests and activities. Research in marketing and advertising is usually of very poor quality, biased towards showing it works, and highly over-simplified. Given that the advertising industry is $467 billion worldwide, that is an insane amount of money to bet on questionable premises.

      1. I stand corrected, after some quick research it turns out that you’re right: adblock does block the ads from downloading and advertisers, for the most part, can tell.

        https://adblockplus.org/en/faq_basics#hide-support

        Fair enough, if ditching adblock is indeed what it takes for good writers to get paid, I will grudgingly do it (at least whitelist the good ones).

        Also, thanks for your contributions on the Dish this past couple weeks! I really, really enjoyed your thoughts and writing. I haven’t read a liberal perspective argued with such rigor in quite a while! Where do you normally publish long-form articles on such topics? On this blog?

  2. “but if there’s gonna be such a thing as professional writers whose work appears online, at anything like current scale, then there’s gonna be tactics used to maximize advertising revenue. Nature of the beast.”

    I’m not so sure we really need to preserve the advertiser-supported model, to be honest. It won’t foster independence in writing, especially for journalists and opinion-writers. It’s also not even clear it will make anyone any money. Consumers are more annoyed by online ads than attracted to them, which makes them a rather dubious investment from the perspective of the advertisers.

    I think the only hope is for professional writers to take their work off the World Wide Web and migrate it to the world of paid apps.

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