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Gawker, journalism, and the “slaves to the Facebook algorithm”

Posted on 10 December 2014

As tempting as it is to mock sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy there is no doubt that they are cracking the code of how to make stories that actually reach people in a digital age. To that end, I tend to agree with Ben Thompson when he writes:

“I strongly believe that society in general and journalists in particular should be rooting for Jonah Peretti and company [Buzzfeed]. I’ve been clear that I believe a lot of writing – such my own – is best suited to focused, reader-supported niches. However, I am also aware that I could not do the sort of analysis I do without journalists actually doing journalism. We need strong journalistic institutions as a source for people like me – and the army of bloggers that made The New Republic less important – and, more importantly, as a check on ever stronger governments and corporations.

“For a journalistic institution to be strong means it has the following characteristics:

“Both BuzzFeed and Vox, as I recounted last week, are feeling their way towards an advertising-based business model that works, and as I detailed then, the fact that BuzzFeed makes money on the modern equivalent of the funny pages makes them no worse – and, given the laughs they elicit, arguably far better – than newspapers of old. This is a hugely positive development for journalism’s long-term prospects, and it seems the profession ought to be cheering the company on, not using it as a pejorative.”

It was with this in mind that I read Nick Denton’s crisis letter to Gawker released today. What jumped out at me was this line:

“We — the freest journalists on the planet — were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.”

What he means is that he feels the company spent too much time chasing virality rather than original journalism. In fact, early on he says 2015 will be the year of “more linebackers with fictional dying girlfriends; less pandering to the Facebook masses.”

That’s the problem of virality in a nutshell. You can do a big investigative piece on city hall, but it will never rarely get as many hits as a picture of a giant snowman. And there is no question we live in a feedback loop where “likes” and “retweets” creep in to affect editorial judgement.

So it’s interesting to me that Gawker- one of the pioneers of cracking the Facebook algorithm- is set to rebel against it by refocusing on their own brand of journalism. I think everyone else in the field should be paying attention to how they do.

Filed under: journalism

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