Forget Lehrer and Zakaria—Most Online Journalism Is Rotten to the Core

Now with full disclosure!

So while the outcry over small ethical lapses like Mr. Lehrer supposedly “plagiarizing himself” or making up a few quotes sucks up all the oxygen, they are in some sense a distraction from the deeper systemic issues. The media focus on these token misdeeds is a way of convincing the public that the truth still matters—an effort to distract from the truly appalling economics of the news itself. It’s not enough that blogs and fledgling newspapers are putting themselves in an unethical position by taking money from the people they cover. In today’s world of page-view journalism—in which writers are compensated by how many times their posts are viewed—every article is in some sense a conflict of interest.

Think of BleacherReport, a consortium of sports blogs, that was just acquired by Turner Broadcasting for $180 million. BleacherReport, like many blog empires, pays its contributors in part based on page-views. (Meanwhile, some unpaid writers are compensated merely with “exposure.”) In other words, an incentive is created to write articles that get a lot of traffic, not articles that are necessarily “good” or, say, “true.” Intelligent readers are known to disdain the more craven methods sites use to drive traffic—particularly the breed of “entertaining slideshows” that Bleacher trumpets in its slogan—but publishers love the money it brings in from pay-per-impression advertisers. And the reason BleacherReport encourages its writers to chase this sort of page-view growth strategy is that its investors demand it.

This is what I mean when I say every article on these sites has a conflict of interest. The goal isn’t to do worthwhile journalism, it is to profit. BleacherReport, like nearly every site from Gawker to Business Insider to, yes, Observer.com, wants to show hockey-stick growth. Then, should they wish to, they can sell for a profit. Just business, of course. But it warps what they write about and how they write it.

But the media is happy to have readers focus on Mr. Leher and Mr. Zakaria, like they’re the real problem.

I’ve been around the underworld of PR long enough to know that multibillion-dollar industries love to focus on isolated incidents as misdirection. It’s always about the rogue trader, the “unpreventable” disaster or the overzealous campaign flack.

The ensuing hand-wringing and self-flagellation generally prevents anyone from bothering to probe any deeper. To go back to the dog analogy, they’ll never bark at institutionalized backroom dealing or insidious incentives, because that’s what they’re comfortable with.

Recently, a writer for the Poynter Institute tried to dismiss some of my criticisms of the online-driven media cycle by asking his readers “Are you interested in hearing about the sausage [being made] from the guy who keeps dropping mouse feces into the grinder?”

Well … I would hope so. Who better to tell you what’s what?

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and a PR strategist for brands and writers.

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