Playboy 60th Anniversary Essay: Tweet Victory

By Ben Smith Illustration by Gary Taxali

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On November 4, 2008 I woke up slightly hungover at six A.M. in a Hyatt hotel overlooking the Chicago River. It was the morning of Election Day, and even at that small hour e-mails jammed my in-box. As a blogger for Politico I occupied a niche at the center of the information storm on that historic day for our nation. Democratic operatives were texting surreptitiously on their BlackBerrys from Obama campaign headquarters down the street; GOP poll watchers checked in from obscure outposts in Georgia. Tips, chatter, electoral-vote predictions and readers demanding to know what I had just heard. Where are you? Are you dead? I didn’t put on pants until noon.

Voters from Harlem to Lubbock, Texas sent me words and pictures: people standing in long lines, weeping or shaking their heads as they cast their ballots. A friend wrote that he’d overheard Charlie Rangel in Harlem: “Those Europeans never thought the slaves would be in charge.” I felt wired in to history, a staticky digital connection I could see in the software that tracked visitors to my blog.

Journalism had already been disrupted by the internet—its business model murdered by Craigslist, its immediacy stolen by websites. In 2008 blogs were at the peak of their influence. Simple web pages arrayed in reverse chronological order, blogs had emerged four years earlier as ideological vehicles for rallying Howard Dean supporters or organizing a defense of President George W. Bush against the hated mainstream media. I watched with envy as openly ideological bloggers such as Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan commandeered the national conversation with the speed, immediacy and humor that were hallmarks of blogs in the hands of smart, obsessive writers.

Twitter, which launched in 2006, was then merely a diversion for people whose overlapping obsessions included technology and politics. On Twitter, 140-character conversations were made public—instantly. The most popular man on Twitter, @barackobama, tweeted just once that day, a simple reminder to vote. I tweeted zero times that day and once the next: the single word vertigo. If only I had known how prescient that tweet was.

Twitter’s simplicity meant it would beat the blogs. Friends and enemies knew the @ symbol solved the problem of conversations between unwieldy websites. As the haze of the election faded and the next fights (health care in particular) started up, many of the key writers—policy blogger Ezra Klein and his Washington crowd, Capitol Hill reporters who could pass on the best tidbits—were using Twitter to organize the conversation. And by the time President Obama was at drawn daggers with Republicans over health care the next fall, Twitter had totally sucked the life out of the blogosphere. Blogs were history. If you wanted to be part of the national conversation, you wrote your blog post, then tweeted the link and hoped it would go viral.

Political reporters and politicians who could sense the change—and many could, because political reporting is a kind of politics, and politics is the media business—dove in with little hesitation. Political writers weren’t alone. Other tribes—tech writers, music critics—were also early adopters. The shift from an old, website-based internet to a new social platform was happening all around me, though I for one didn’t see the broader trend. Family members who used to go to AOL now spent their time on Facebook. Friends hung around, for a moment at least, on MySpace. The seers who had been warning us that Google News would soon be the only news source began to pipe down. A new media age, centered on what is now called “the social web,” had arrived.

And it came to me as a huge relief. Politico and I had prevailed at first simply by typing faster and posting more than anybody else. That, though, is a boring, grinding kind of victory. Twitter and its siblings favored speed, but they really loved scoops. The stories that won on Twitter were the ones that brought revelatory information, lucid argument or riveting narrative. They were the kind of stories reporters got into this business to write.

When Jonah Peretti, who had created a hard-to-figure web phenomenon called BuzzFeed out of widely shared cat pictures and remixed images and text called memes, pitched me the notion of joining his “social news organization,” I had no idea what he was talking about. Political scoops plus cats seemed unintelligible. Then I thought about it more and realized it sounded like my Facebook feed. BuzzFeed had been perfecting the answer to the question of what people share in the warm, emotional medium of Facebook, while I had been racing to win in the cooler, smaller and elite-driven Twittersphere. And so I left Politico to become BuzzFeed’s editor in chief.

The social web—Facebook, Twitter and their siblings, including Pinterest and Reddit—now drives more traffic to publishers than Google or any of the old portals such as Drudge and Yahoo do. For many of us they drive a lot more traffic to our stories than our own front pages do. Our readers open their computers or, mostly now, their phones, start up the Facebook or Twitter apps and find the stories their friends and the people they respect are reading. Some of the forms are new or renewed—lists, you may have noticed, are big—but the values are the same: Speed, accuracy, grace and intelligence are all more prized than ever, in an ecosystem so intensely competitive that a story that is slightly faster or slightly better will go viral while the second best goes unread.

Across the new media—and as some of the great old institutions, the British Guardian and The New York Times first among them, move online—success is often defined by the old values. Scoops, great writing, original insight and hilarity win the day, though they often take unfamiliar forms—GIFs and short videos, essays longer than would fit in a newspaper and, of course, lists. In the spirit of the times, here is a list of five ways social media will save journalism, plus one reason to stay skeptical.

1. Distribution is dirt cheap. News reporters spent little time thinking about how much the medium shaped their message, but the form newspapers had wedged them into had long since grown stale. The pyramidal structure of a news story—designed for space-conscious editors to cut from the bottom to make room for ads—is a kind of formal code, almost incomprehensible to outsiders and with no internal logic. The crowded first sentence, the paragraph that tells you something you already know, the random quotes restating the author’s words—these are what we were trained to do. But they are as hard for young Americans to read as, say, French newspaper articles are for me: stilted and strange, full of conventions more and more readers don’t understand.

The new distribution networks spent a decade growing, and they are now bigger than the biggest of the old networks. In the 1980s, when the evening broadcast news was at the height of its reach, 55 million people tuned in to the three networks. Today 128 million Americans will use Facebook, the biggest of the new networks; tens of millions will use its smaller siblings, and millions will use e-mail to share stories they love with friends. This is the network of people bored at work or bored on the couch at home.

This new distribution network doesn’t require a broadcast tower or a printing press, but it can reach more people than those expensive old mechanisms can. There’s only one catch: To reach these people, you have to write an article so funny, so revelatory or so trenchant that they will actively share it with their friends. To go viral, you have to do something excellent—whether it’s creating the most penetrating list of owls to date or a 10,000-word exposé of false family legends attributed to Mitt Romney.

2. Sharing beats keywords. Reader-to-reader sharing has displaced that scourge of journalism in the late 2000s, search engine optimization. A band of technical wizards realized that a clever set of keywords could trick the algorithms Google had developed in its efforts to bring readers the best information. Headlines had to contain every relevant search term: “Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun Noun!” Tags had to be fixed just right: “Kardashian-diet-sex-baby-divorce-Obama-flat-belly.”

Journalists like me sat through SEO seminars with glazed eyes and a mounting sense of panic: This wasn’t why we’d gotten into the business, and we were pretty sure we weren’t organized enough to trick machines. But while this uninteresting technical crap bore no relation to journalism, it drove big traffic to the outlets that understood it—the Huffington Post first among them. Its victims were readers, who were often served junk they didn’t want, and reporters, whose jobs became increasingly focused on feeding a mechanical beast.

3. Long-form journalism is back. A common calumny from people who don’t understand the social web is that kids these days have short attention spans. The reality is the reverse: Social-media sites regularly publish features far longer than any that appear in newspapers or even in most magazines since Tina Brown stopped publishing 50,000-word essays on zinc in The New Yorker. This goes for silly content—“108 Reasons Corgis Really Are That Great” is not for short attention spans—as well as for serious stuff. One of BuzzFeed’s most popular political stories in 2012 was an 11,000-word reevaluation of Mitt Romney’s father. A broad embryonic movement, an informal network organized in part around sites such as Longform.org and Longreads.com, is offering a vast new audience for what used to be considered magazine journalism.

4. So are journalism jobs. Things are finally getting better for that other class of newspaper employees, reporters. A University of Georgia survey released in August found that more journalism graduates—66 percent—got full-time jobs in 2012 than in previous years. New outlets such as BuzzFeed, Politico and Business Insider have hired hundreds of reporters to beat the incumbents at their own game. This isn’t to sugarcoat a glum fact: A generation of great journalists got screwed. Reporters who were cubs in, say, the late 1980s mastered a game that suddenly ceased being played. They rose to second- and third-rank jobs in newsrooms with an obvious promise that they would rise to the top—only to be faced with endless cuts and buyouts aimed at forcing the old and well paid to leave. This created a harrowing gap in the profession’s institutional knowledge.

5. New business models are emerging. The grim counterpart to SEO-driven journalism is revenue driven by banner ads. As readers learned to ignore those ugly, irrelevant rectangles, publications made them ever more aggressive—jumping across your screen, blinking and dodging, impossible to close—in a kind of lunatic arms race against their own audience. The ads get worse and worse—and they pay publishers less and less each year.

The businesses that have begun to succeed in the social-media ecosystem are taking different paths. First there is sponsored content—high-quality original advertisements that readers like or dislike on their merits. They’re controversial in some quarters, but they’re not unlike the advertising that runs in women’s magazines such as Vogue. Beautiful, well-produced ads are simply an additional reason to buy the magazine, not a reason to scorn it.

Meanwhile, another set of publications has finally made subscriptions work. When The New York Times reported it was nearing $400 million a year in digital revenue—enough to operate even the most ambitious newsroom in America—Business Insider’s Henry Blodget declared that “we never have to worry about the future of journalism again.”

Finally, a vibrant new world of nonprofit journalism has emerged on the web, with Pro Publica leading large journalistic investigations and emerging as a trusted partner in important collaborations. The Guardian handed off a portion of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents to Pro Publica reporters and analysts. And this summer, an investigation that resulted in an exposé of the 50 worst charities in America was led by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom that employs 50 journalists.

And one reason to be skeptical. I’m not a utopian, though I think this is a wonderful moment to be a journalist. The new distribution model is based on psychology, not on ink or radio waves. Its flaws are human flaws, and they have to do with what people share and don’t share. People are not sharing the worst of the old journalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” was the rule of thumb for tabloids, and it motivated the New York Post and your local TV news.

But the social web has its own vices, one of which is that it favors inspiration, warmth and a kind of happy talk that doesn’t always match reality. At its best, this means sharing something like “I gave $100 to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy—I hope you will too.” At its worst, it spreads a false impression that problems can be easily solved if only you’ll share more. The best example of this kind of bad viral news is the “Stop Kony” video, which rocketed around the internet in 2012 with an inspiring narrative calling on Americans of all ages to press our representatives to go after a Ugandan warlord—and, of course, to share the video.

After 100 million views, the U.S. government responded. It sent a military task force to the Central African jungle, and to sharpen the point of the mission its commander kept a STOP KONY poster on his door. The problem: The Ugandan government believed it had the warlord contained and had been working on a nonmilitary solution to his rampages. Many policy experts think Americans’ hunger for inspiration drove terrible policy in Uganda. And Kony is still at large.

But in the end this is a small-bore complaint. There are plenty more reasons to be deeply glad about the state of journalism. I spent this past summer hiring a foreign editor and bureau reporters in Eastern Europe, Istanbul and Cairo; I spent the fall putting together an investigations team. And the market for great reporters, I’m finding, is pretty competitive.


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