If No One Reads What You Write, That’s Because It Sucks

Filed as Features on January 18, 2007 1:43 am

There are a number ways to describe the headline of this post — sensational, trolling, obnoxious, pandering, link bait. I wrote it like that on purpose, of course, to make a point. The feedback loop on content is accelerating at a breakneck pace. YouTube can spread video content as fast as prime time TV. Digg routinely crashes servers unprepared for the avalanche of traffic. And AdSense makes it possible for anyone to experience first hand the intimate relationship between traffic and dollars.

The inevitable result for media companies, who are having an increasingly tough time selling “bundles” of content, is to start paying their content creators based on how much traffic each discrete piece of content can draw. Steve Rubel highlighted ZDNet’s introduction of a pay-for-performance system:

ZDNet’s pay-for-performance blogging system raises some interesting questions. For example, will a blogger favor writing a sensational post that is likely to get more clicks over one that perhaps is less sexy and is based on, say, a press release? News value and clicks often go together, but as we’ve seen on collaborative sites like digg, sensationalist rumors sometimes are more popular.

Fundamentally, this is nothing new. “Yellow journalism” is a century old, and “sweeps week” for broadcast TV has been around for decades. As Dan Gillmor points out, supermarket tabloids have long played it close to the line on sensationalizing for dollars.

But never have the economic realities of content been so urgent and pervasive. As Nick Carr observed:

All businesses and all workers tailor what they do in response to economic incentives, and a shift in the way publishers and journalists make money means a shift in what gets written and what gets published.

So are we all, independent bloggers and mainstream media journalists alike, going to turn into pandering, lowest-common-denominator chasing, sensationalist traffic whores? Do we do whatever it takes, sell our souls, to get traffic?

Well, for one thing, if I wrote headlines like this all the time, people would soon get sick of it and stop reading what I write. Sensational content is manipulative, and people don’t like to be manipulated. Fool me once…etc. The occasional bit of trolling or sensationalism may be a useful short term tactic, but it’s not likely to be a sustainable publishing strategy — unless of course you are in the supermarket tabloid business.

That bit of prudence notwithstanding, it’s likely that pay-for-performance journalism will test the extremes before the pendulum starts to swing back. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Never have so many individual content creators had so much power, rather than being just cogs in a large editorial machine, but with that new power, it’s inevitable that they’re going to break stuff.

Still, I think the pendulum will inevitably swing back. Quality and standards are not a passing fad or a relic of old media economics. If you write good stuff, it’s not guaranteed to get traffic, but quality will increase your odds a lot more over the long term than pandering and sensationalism.

As institutional journalists are given an incentive to follow the siren song of traffic, independent bloggers might have an opportunity to distinguish themselves by holding the line on quality and standards. Which is not to say that news organization journalists will go tripping over that line en mass — it’s more about their facing the temptations that independent bloggers have long faced every time they write a post.

Being exposed to the raw economics of content is an equalizing force — everything that is published, whether by a small blog or a huge media company, is “naked in the marketplace,” as Nick put it.

Read me, click on me, link to me — PLEASE!!!!!!!

Scott Karp blogs and writes the occasional in-your-face headline at Publishing 2.0.

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  1. By Brian Clark posted on January 18, 2007 at 2:45 am
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    I have to agree… that’s a terrible headline.

  2. By David Krug posted on January 18, 2007 at 4:14 am
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    Seriously the worse set of headlines ever invented. That might be worth a link.

  3. By Liz Strauss posted on January 18, 2007 at 8:36 am
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    Aw C’mon I’ve written worse headlines.

  4. By David Krug posted on January 18, 2007 at 9:33 am
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    Good point Liz. :)

    Just kidding seriously. No really. Ok. I’m not really kidding…. Or am I.

  5. By Andy Merrett posted on January 18, 2007 at 10:17 am
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    C’mon, sort yourself out David. Anyone would think you’re losing it. Are you? :)

  6. By David Krug posted on January 18, 2007 at 5:33 pm
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    Lost it long ago Andy.

  7. By Jesse Petersen posted on January 19, 2007 at 12:31 pm
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    That headline got me to click, because I was laughing. Excellent post.

  8. By tish grier posted on January 19, 2007 at 10:29 pm
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    Scott: get real. The folks who will make the most money from the whole pay-for-performance thing, esp. at ZDNet, are going to be the ones that have the most authority in their fields–the headlines won’t make a difference. People will still look for their names…

    The next group will be the ones who have the Rubel qualities of personality and implied authority.

    Then there will be the rabble. Like there is now. Where it will be who you already work for, not the quality of your writing, that will get you noticed.

    You should have figured out all this by now, my friend.

  9. By J. Jeffryes posted on January 21, 2007 at 3:44 pm
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    It’s far simpler, and more complex, than this.

    There are different markets. There will be a market for sensationalistic claptrap, probably a very large market. As more and more of the country gets on the internet and discovers blogs, more of the potential market for blogs will be made up of average people, instead of highly educated technophiles. As we can all see from the sales figures of magazines like People or Vogue, the average person (at least in the U.S.) loves yellow journalism, pandering, and completely vapid puffware.

    But there will be a different market for truth. Many of the people that read blogs now won’t keep reading the ones that get dumbed down for the lowest common denominator. The blogs that stick to facts and honesty may not make as much money, but they will make money, and they will attract readers.

  10. By Lorelle VanFossen posted on January 22, 2007 at 9:15 pm
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    Do you really think people will actually learn to ignore the “cry wolf” syndrome? Anyone who recently featured a post about the death of Saddam got traffic, whether or not their site had anything to add to the conversation.

    I would love to believe that people will tire of the sensational headline. I’m on your side completely. But then…oooh, wait, sorry. I was distracted for a moment. I wanted to slow down and stare at the car crash I just past.


    It’s our job to educate the world, but this one is going to be a tough mountain to jump over.

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