Sunday, November 2, 2014

Media and Eyeballs

I'm cleaning up some scraps in the bloggy attic this morning, and some of them took me back to the Time magazine flap of last fall.

There are several chunks of experience that factor into my views of media. I've been a weekly newspaper columnist for almost sixteen years. I was the media "face" of my striking union a little over a decade ago. I teach journalism sometimes, and I have friends and former students in the business.

So I think there are some mistakes that people pretty routinely make when they think about, or deal with, media.

People grossly over-estimate media's investment in a particular point of view. While people may believe that a media outlet is deeply committed to a pro-mugwump or anti-ooblek position, mostly what media are deeply committed to is eyeballs. Lots and lots of eyeballs. Following close behind the eyeball commitment is a commitment to maintaining stature-- which is important because it helps attract eyeballs. If people don't believe you know what you're talking about, they won't come when you call. So, eyeballs.

Media make money by collecting eyeballs and then selling access to those eyeballs. That's the business model. The two big shifts of that model in the last few decades are 1) huge competition for the eyeballs and 2) moving from targets of "enough money to keep lights on" to "enough money for a second Lexus and a vacation home in Spain for the top brass."

With my newspaper gig, I periodically get Letters to the Editor taking me to task for one thing or another (the rule of op-ed is that if I compare, say, a political office to a herd of confused rhinos, I will get nothing from the office and several letters from angry rhino fans). People sometimes ask, "Boy, was your editor upset that Grumpy McSpewsalot chewed you out yesterday." The answer is that no, my editor is actually delighted, because the commotion will sell papers.

However, don't overestimate the excitement of selling single copies. At its 2005 peak, advertising revenue was 82% of total revenue for a newspaper. Today advertising accounts for about 69% of revenue for traditional news media. Subscriptions are great because they represent pre-commited eyeballs. And advertising revenue is driven by the number of eyeballs, which means that media want to get a high number of eyeballs, even if those eyeballs aren't actually paying to see the media.

That's why "I'm cancelling my subscription (and reducing your circulation numbers)" is far more compelling than "I'm not going to buy this at the newsstand."

The internet has both simplified and complicated the picture. Paper copies are hard to really track, but the internet knows exactly how many times you clicked on that picture of Kim Kardashian's boobalicious dress, you naughty boy. If you're tired of reading about Ann Coulter, stop reading about Ann Coulter. She may be full of crap, and there may be few people who take her seriously, but she is reliable click bait.

The internet is perfect democracy, perfect free market in action. And every click is a vote for what you would like to see more of. And every mention of something gives it more presence in the giant google bowl o' internet fun. See, when I refuse to use She Who Will Not Be Named's name, or post links to certain odious websites, it's not just pique. I'm doing my teensy part to give those things less presence on the interwebs.

So if you think for one minute that Time's editorial board was shaking in their office suites, crying, "Oh no-- all the angry teachers are flooding our site with thousands and thousands of views of our controversial article, which is now linked all over hell and back!" you are kidding yourself. The response to the cover story gave Time the kind of click traffic, ad revenue, and web presence that sites dream about. The challenge for them was to maximize the impact of the controversy without actually pissing anybody off who could really hurt them. It's tricky, but it has nothing to do with taking sides, pushing point of view, or taking an ideological stand. It's all about the eyeballs, and at the end of the day, Time made out just great. People who imagine that they are now sad and chastised by the show of teacher might are kidding themselves. Time is circling the bowl, hanging on to relevance by a thread (and being relevant only matters because it keeps you in the business), and for a week or so, they had the coveted spot of Thing People Are Talking About. The great cover story tempest was a win for Time.

Not that I disagree with the loud angry teacher response. I signed the petition that was eventually used as an awkward photo op, and I would do it again. But there's a reason that Randi Weingarten could publicly spank Time in a way that she is apparently unwilling to do with the far more threatening and dangerous Andrew Cuomo-- because Time didn't really mind the petition thing at all. That piece of performance art got the magazine one more day of a free spot in the news cycle.

There was no way that Time's odious cover could go unanswered, just as sometimes you have to ignore the internet wisdom of Don't Feed the Trolls. The rest of the world was watching, and if teachers had let the whole business go by unremarked, it would have hurt in the broader community of opinion. Sometimes you can't let people jerk you around in front of an audience. But we should not pretend that we have just slain a dragon when we just fed it a side of beef and sent it back to nap.

We can do better.

People have a terrible addiction to the Narrative of Overwhelming Righteous Outrage. In their heads, they envision really letting the opposition have it, unleashing righteous rage so great that the opponent falls to his knees and cries out, "Oh lordy I have been so wrong! I repent. The power of your shining words turn my eyes into my soul and there I see such yuckiness that I feel terrible, and want to make things right by doing as you say and confess my wrongness before the world!" This is really satisfying inside your head, and it happens exactly never in the real world.

In the real world, it works differently. And I am sad to tell you that one group that gets it is TFA. Some people were upset that part of TFA's leaked rapid response memo discussed building relationships with certain media outlets. But that's pretty much how it works. Journalists and media people are just like everyone else-- they like dealing with people they know and understand, even trust. Having a relationship with a journalist does not necessarily mean she'll just run whatever you hand her (though there are such relationships built on a currency of money or access). But it does mean that you'll be heard, and it can mean that when the journalist needs a spokesperson for a particular point of view, she'll think to call you.

Journalists have a job to do, and some of them do it pretty well, some do the best they can, and some kind of suck. They have editors to keep happy and a need for sources of information and material that they can feed their editor so that their editor can go collect eyeballs. Anybody who wants to foster relationships with journalists will do better with "I can help you collect some eyeballs" than with "Bend before my awesome wrath!"

This is a tricky dance. There's a fine, fine line between "I've put something together to make covering this easier for you" and "I was hoping you would just work as our unquestioning PR flack in the press." Therefor, relationships. The greatest interviewers have the ability to build an instant relationship with their subjects. News subjects who get lots of good press often turn out to have that same ability. Rich and powerful media people have lots of rich and powerful friends; those relationships are in the mix as well, and it's complicated because you don't believe your friends because they pay you to, but because they're your friends, and you like and trust them.You share a world view, and that world view colors what you see as True.

The best path to becoming a Recognized Spokesperson for A Group is to travel with your own large reserve of eyeballs. That is how Ann Coulter and the Kardashians get to be Famous-- they have collected a vast army of eyeballs that they bring with them to whatever media outlet they grace with their presence. Justin Bieber stopped appearing on magazine covers not because editors decided they didn't like him, but because his covers stopped collecting eyeballs.

Do editors and journalists sometimes throw agendas around because they just want to? Sure. There's certainly something attractive about being a Very Rich Guy and using that wealth to build a media empire with which to foist your ideas on the world. But even war-manufacturing William Randolph Hearst kept his eye on those circulation numbers and his status in the halls of power. I can't think of a single example of a media outlet choosing principle over business, even if it meant going broke. Even Fox will drop people who are ideologically pure if they can't bring the eyeballs or maintain stature any more (looking at you, Palin and Beck). Yes, we have the inspiring stories of journalists who stood up for What Was Right, wielding their Davidian pens against powerful Goliaths. Those stories are rare and celebrated because they aren't the norm.

So in teachers vs. Time, taking our eyeballs and going home after telling Time why we were doing it = excellent plan. Encouraging everybody to click their eyeballs on over to reread the article and then again to read all the responses = not so effective. Calling the writer names (even after it turned out she's actually married to a teacher) = not a great plan. Talking to her so that she knows she has some new education contacts next time = good plan. Expressing honest outrage and sharing information from our side (aka reality) = useful means of educating journalists. Trying to punch them in their metaphorical nose because they didn't already know these things = not so useful. Time is small potatoes these days; only a couple million subscribers and fairly tiny number of single copy buyers. But we'll be more prepared the next time this sort of thing inevitably happens.

The media like a good story. Some media like the same basic story over and over again. And some media like a good story so much they'll not let facts get in the way. It helps anyone who deals with media to remember that they have a job to do-- and that job is gather eyeballs. 

Meanwhile, one last point-- as we often note with our own students, rewards can be better motivation than punishment. During this same time frame both Forbes and The Atlantic published articles that did a much better job of capturing some True Things about the battle for US public education. We should all make certain that we do our part to make those pieces successful. Reading, liking, saving, sharing-- in other words, making good use of our eyeballs-- can show editors and publishers that a more accurate and true depiction of the issues will draw a nice sized crowd. It's not an epic, cathartic battle, but it's still a win-win.

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