Like many, I lament the sorry state of journalism today. The problem as a whole is well-documented – this piece from Esquire says it better than I could. This lack of journalistic quality, however, has extended beyond news into every piece of content we consume.
There are a couple reasons for this. For one, modern social media has created a cycle with no time for quality work. As a publication, if you bother to build out a narrative, do something unique, or even just fact check, you’re almost undoubtedly going to get scooped and subsumed by someone with a grayer code of ethics. And since virality dictates popularity, it pays more than ever to be first.
The lines have also blurred on who we should be looking to for content. Sites like BuzzFeed have taken it upon themselves to start posting political coverage, and “high end” news outlets like CNN have begun to experience the click benefits of posting about Kimye. Many sites don’t even try to hide their intentions anymore – see the rise of click farms like Upworthy and ViralNova.
Since we, as consumers, are clicking these sites without any discretion for journalistic integrity or even quality, we’ve allowed the companies who share that lack of discretion to rise to the top.
Case in point: Vancity Buzz and the rise of the advertorial. If you are my age and you live in Vancouver, you no doubt read VCB. You may also see in tiny print at the bottom that much of their content is “sponsored”. Essentially what that means is that if you give them a chunk of cash, you can write whatever you want on their site and it will be authored by “Vancity Buzz Staff”. VCB is not alone – this is now the de facto business model for local-social blogs across North America. This is troubling for a few reasons: the ethics are questionable, the content is boring, and it works really, really well.
Now, my confession: I have written sponsored articles for both Vancity Buzz (The 3 Best Ways To Get Into Startups After Graduation) and Toronto Is Awesome (Toronto’s Newest Tech Bootcamp Might Just Change Your Career Forever).
When I first thought of this post, I meant for it to be apologetic. I was going to repent and say how I was sorry for contributing to the death of content.
But the truth is, the 2 articles have been massive successes. The TIA one buoyed our company’s expansion to Toronto, and the Vancity Buzz one was shared over 100 times. Advertorials work. And I’m not selling PBR to frat boys here – my target audience is sophisticated technologists who are usually natural skeptics, and almost always have AdBlocker on. It still works. Now I solicit publications all the time, like a shady gambler convincing a boxer to throw the match.I’m not an evil journalist, I’m just a good marketer. And the people who run Vancity buzz aren’t poor editors, they’re just good business people.
Until the collective populace decides to recognize weak publications that for the click farms they are, we are going to keep getting rich, and you are going to keep reading about the 5 best new haircuts for guys this summer.