Even Data Journalists Like Klein and Silver Aren't Above Hack Tactics

We live in a new world of “method journalism.” In it, bright minds like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein have

offthemedia-1We live in a new world of “method journalism.”

In it, bright minds like Nate Silver and Ezra Klein have staked out new media territory, defined by the style in which their writers produce content. It’s supposed to be a new golden age for content, driven by hard data in Silver’s case, and simplified explanation in Klein’s.

Except of course, they’re not. It’s just the same pageview journalism dressed up with better rhetoric. The same end, just different means.

Take a look at these headlines and tell me you wouldn’t mistake them for Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post or Upworthy:

Rihanna and Dwight Howard tweeted #FreePalestine and it worked out how you would expect

How a better summer vacation could help low-income kids in school

You just had sex, so how many calories did you burn?

“Turn Down for What”: a guide

Toilet Seat Covers: To Use or Not To Use

Double-dipping spreads bacteria. But does it get people sick?

Ah yes, truly the Lord’s work.

Vox has gotten even more clever with their headlines, using extreme click bait ones on their main page and then giving more contextual ones after you click. So the longer Rihanna headline actually appears as “Rihanna tweets, immediately deletes #FreePalestine” on Vox’s main page. The double-dipping headline appears as “Is double-dipping gross or harmless?” and the summer vacation headline appears as “The case for summer vacation” — as if a case needed to be made.

The bottom line is these well-funded publications, with editors-in-chief who had a free hand in picking whomever they wanted to fill their teams, chose to feed the same pageview monster as their predecessors did. And they’re essentially doing it by pulling the same triggers as other online publishers: creating outrage porn, misusing sources, and resorting to snark.

Silver claims to want to be a “fox,” knowing a little about a lot of subjects. I suppose that’s an apt superlative for most bloggers out there—but I’m not sure if it’s a complimentary one. Because the results for FiveThirtyEight so far have not been stellar. As the economist Tyler Cowen pointed out, it’s mostly been “tweener” pieces—heavy on a hook, light on substance. Or worse, they’ve been way off the mark on more serious stories involving climate change and mapping kidnappings in Nigeria. In other words, they’re just chasing clicks.

Vox media has a different issue in that their mission is explanatory journalism, except much of the early content has looked like obvious SEO plays to compete with the likes of Wikipedia instead of newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. They’ve created plenty of what they call “cards” like “What is the internet?” and “What is marijuana?” while adding to it their “Explained in 2 minutes” series about complex and uncertain issues like the crisis in Iraq, the child migrant crisis, and wealth inequality. Of course, that’s when they aren’t posting the same video of Britney Spears without autotune as everyone else.

It all reeks of what we’ve talked about before at Betabeat — The Era of Fake Knowledge. The idea of giving people the gist of a topic and positioning it as “explained” seems to be a good short-term marketing tactic and SEO play, but it doesn’t seem to bode well for the idea of meaningful explanatory journalism. And it’s even more troubling when some of their “deeper” pieces involving data sets come to brilliant conclusions like that you shouldn’t wear a bike helmet. (Shockingly, this was later debunked.)

It’s basically Demand Media’s strategy just dressed up better. And where did that get them by the way? Oh yeah, from 24 dollars a share at the peak of the hype to less than $5 a share today.

It’s all very disappointing to me because Klein and Silver are two bright minds who have a history of doing great work as journalists. But as publishers they seem to have come to the inevitable conclusion that the work — the work that made them famous — doesn’t scale. And now they must submit to the tyranny of page views and CPMs.

I get it, because I’ve been there myself. It’s a lonely decision to look around and think: I’m going to avoid that temptation. I’m going to pass on short term traffic to build a valuable brand. But some of their peers have done it. Grantland is a shining example of taking the long view (and it’s also owned by ESPN). Andrew Sullivan’s subscription-based experiment seems to be working.

Maybe this is all part of a larger game. I sure hope so. Because so far the results haven’t been pretty.

Ryan Holiday is the editor at large of Betabeat and the author of the recent book The Obstacle is the Way.

Even Data Journalists Like Klein and Silver Aren't Above Hack Tactics