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Matney: How viral content infected the media

Lucas Matney, Columnist

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The state of our media is struggling. Journalistic content seems to be losing its bite as a variety of trends promising to be the solution to its woes have influenced journalism to become something it was never meant to be, greatly deriding the quality of its content in the process.

The Twittersphere

I can’t emphasize enough how Twitter, one of online journalism’s “most promising” evolutions, has wreaked havoc on the craft. While Twitter has done outstanding work in disseminating important stories, crowdsourcing popular opinion and giving enterprising journalists a platform to share their work, it has also altered the quality and premises of said work to an unforgivable degree.

When presented with a limited number of characters, how does one make tweets stand out to users? “Clickbait” gives people the content they deserve, not what they need. Articles that laud that “you won’t believe what happens next” have invaded Facebook and Twitter at an alarming rate and are doing so to advertise fluff pieces in addition to hard news stories.

Social media is fundamentally obsessed with “digestibility,” the idea that there’s just so much available information that we’re probably not capable of focusing our attention on a single item for too long.  What has resulted from this are stories that aren’t pieces of reporting but are short paragraphs meant to dumb down current issues and tell us what we should believe about them.

Media Mavericks and Big Data

Ezra Klein and Nate Silver each had ambitious goals when they left their influential positions at The Washington Post and The New York Times, respectively. Their goals were to change the face of media with new brands of online journalism that combined data-driven stories with multimedia elements and unconventional reporting. These ventures got a lot of people pretty excited about journalism finally reaching its online potential, yet when the sites finally launched, disappointment ensued.

Klein’s site, Vox, initially received praise from news junkies for its use of data and multimedia content, but ground-breaking content soon reduced itself to reposted data maps from Reddit alongside short paragraph “voxsplainers” that further dumbed down the data for viewers in a lazy manner that many other sites have chosen to replicate.

On the other hand, Silver’s site, FiveThirtyEight, has approached data-driven stories in an in-depth manner that has wooed critics but has left the site’s declining readers underwhelmed. An over-reliance on data can leave a site feeling dry and robotic, even when it’s done in an amusing way like Silver’s bracket for finding America’s best burrito.

Utilizing data in an effective, yet captivating manner is one of the most difficult plights facing today’s online journalists. While there seems to currently be an over-emphasis on data-driven reporting, presenting especially relevant data in a visually appealing manner is likely to remain imperative.

Mistaken Identity

When BuzzFeed launched in 2006, it defined itself as “The Media Company for the Social Age.” What it quickly became was a wildly popular model for other journalistic sources to reduce themselves to in their quests for clicks and ad dollars.

BuzzFeed is famous for its short quizzes and “listicles” that tell you which cast member from season two of “Dawson’s Creek” you are most like or all the things you’ll only know about if you are from rural Romania. Overall the site is just a lot of repetitive fun, but aside from their occasional “in-depth” reporting piece, very little of it is really journalism.

When traditional media outlets saw the share-ability of BuzzFeed’s content, they deceived themselves into believing that journalistic content and published content were synonymous. This has led to a degradation of journalism across all platforms as well-established online borders have fallen and viral online content reigns supreme.

The death of print media has made this an irresistible trap for media organizations to fall into. Desperation bred identity crises, and most organizations simply settled into the viral trap too quickly, leaving others to follow them blindly.

Takeaways

In the end, places like Upworthy or Reddit aren’t to blame for the problems of today’s media. Users do undoubtedly hold much of the blame in this whole debacle, but the real guilt should be pinned on websites that are selling themselves as trusted news organizations when they are really just feeding the public whatever it desires.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at lucasmatney2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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