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The End of Culture as We Knew It

Paris Hilton dominates Washington Post front page

I’ve become pretty inured to the cheapening of our media culture that has been directly proportional to the lowered cost of entry provided by technology. Once upon a time it was fairly expensive and difficult to produce mass-market media and, as a result, we tended to see what the elites who controlled the media wanted us to see. This had downsides, to be sure, but over time it tended to sift out the garbage. Then it became relatively easy to provide 500 cable TV channels and an infinite number of Internet “channels” — all competing for eyes — and the implicit filters on what could and couldn’t be provided disappeared. “Give the people quality” became “Give the people what they want” and in a free-market democracy who can argue with that? Well, I can. What I’m seeing is a huge regression to the mean effect taking place, where the standards that people used to aspire to are inexorably declining to satisfy a mass audience with incredibly low standards of quality. The decline is particularly steep online, where the audiences are younger, and the most egregious recent example is this snapshot of the Washington Post online front page, where the majority of the “above the fold” space was devoted to the tragicomic misadventures of a whore:

On the left side of the page, the image box — usually used to highlight a compelling visual of an important news event — was filled with the day’s “money shot” of Hilton being driven back to jail in tears. Below the image are links to more celebrity-related “news” that can be found deeper into the site. This section is the editorial Waterloo of the paper’s credibility — because it could have been used to highlight any of the truly important stories that appear on the page, including news of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs resigning over the failed war policy, or the precedent-setting trial of a sitting Congressman for bribery — but instead was used to draw eyes and attention to the Hilton “story”. One cannot imagine such an editorial decision in the era of Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham.

But it’s the sections on the right side of the page that tell the real story of what drives the decline in quality here. Significant space is taken up by “social media” features that show the most viewed and emailed articles. In the online promotion trade these gimmicks are thought to increase “stickiness” — keep people engaged by providing editorial “short cuts” to the content their fellow low-brow readers liked and provide them a way to engage with the site by emailing their friends and bringing them into the site. Of the 5 articles listed, 4 are devoted to celebrity or gossip (the Clinton book) and of those 4, 2 are related to Paris Hilton. Give the people what they want, indeed.

The coup de grace of the marketing takeover of the front page is contained in the “contextual” ad that appears for the Hilton Family hotels. You can’t buy irony like this. The Washington Post is making money advertising Hilton Family Hotels on the same page that’s plastered with stories about the criminal adventures of that family’s most vapid issue. Of course, the algorithms that pick keywords out of the page to decide which ad to serve are too primitive to appreciate irony, or quality. Once upon a time a media planner who understood the paper would have decided what ads would be appropriate for what content. We’ve gotten beyond that in our Brave New Media World. Too bad for us.

I’m calling out the Washington Post, but others are almost as bad. The New York Times had a [front page story] on their site about Hilton that they’re trying to palm off as an analysis of class distinctions in the way justice is meted out in America. Sorry guys — you shot that wad with OJ, there’s nothing new to see here. You’re just pimping the story out, like all the rest.

I thought of writing a letter to the editor of the Post complaining about what they did — but I doubt it would have much effect. Too “old media”. I have a better idea about how to get their attention. I’m going to plow a few hundred bucks into an AdWords buy at Google, using Washington Post related keywords, so that when people do Washington Post related searches, links to this screed will pop up. If I’m right about the influence of marketing on the editorial division, the media buyers — ever vigilant of their SERPs — will pick it up and refer it to someone who really does care about the reputation of a great paper. Maybe it’ll make a difference.

UPDATE 6/11: Purchase made — targeting the New York, DC, San Francisco and LA markets on the “washington post” keyword.

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