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Left Media?


In the past I have written about why I think left media needs left internal structure, decision making, division of labor, etc., if it is to not succumb to negative dynamics built into more typical corporate structure. In my view an important thing to think about and act on. Here I want to address. Instead, left media purely regarding the content of its communications. What is the responsibility of left media – and what is the best path for left media regarding the words we use and the topics we address.

First, the obvious. These are not easy times for media, not financially or even just in terms of outreach and communication. More, the resulting fiscal and operational pressures are daunting and have serious effects.

What ought to be the left media goal even just internally, case by case, as compared to each operation trying to further not only itself, but also the rest?

Obviously different media will  emphasize different concerns, for example economy, ecology, gender, race, or international relations. I don’t see any problem with that diversity, though making connections is critically important and instructive.

But about what the media addresses, what should be our priority?

Our priority, of course, should be to aid changing the world for the better. Even a news department, much less a department offering mainly analysis and opinion, should choose topics, how much coverage to give, and what that coverage seeks to communicate, not merely to attract more people with disposable income to seeing ads to make more profit for owners – nor even just to attract more eyes per se – and thus it should not be ruled by seeking higher tallies on metrics of usage – but should instead firstly seek positive impact on those readers who do read or view material. If the goal is numbers, we should switch the content to porn. If the goal is social change, we should make our content aid that, and then get audience, as well, of course. Thus, it turns out that while having a larger audience may seem always better than having a smaller one, this is in fact only true if a higher view rate contributes to useful change. Ignoring audience size is self defeating, to be sure. However, going for size at the expense of impact is also self defeating, unless, of course, the main point is revenues and not impact.

The above seems pretty obvious, and I doubt anyone on the left would question it, but, even so, there are trends afoot in progressive and left media which run contrary, I believe, to the above injunction. See what you think.

Here are four such trends: the ideas that short is beautiful, hooks are critical, comprehensive coverage is essential, and editing should attain uniformly excellent style in the eyes of the media venue’s staff.

First, what are the negative trends that I think these policies impose?

They are:

1) a drift toward short, shorter, shortest,

2) a desire that if possible every article has a title that attracts readers due to being a “hook” into something the potential reader is already agitated about and interested in,

3) a feeling that to not cover some event in the world is a sign of failure or inadequacy, and

4) editing to fit media institution standards.

 Why are these rather ubiquitous trends negative?

 

  1. Well, what is it about being shorter that is, in itself, positive? Is there anything lost, almost always, in opting for shorter?

Nowadays looking at sites, I typically find article titles that interest me. The trouble is, when I then go to view them, very often I find a very short piece – I don’t count words, of course, but I guess they are a few hundred words, maybe 1000 or so at the top end. For myself, to be honest, I don’t even read such pieces, and then I stop visiting the site. I can read more serious and in depth pieces about the exact same topics in various place, so why waste time with lesser coverage?

I can only guess at the effect telling folks they should, much less that they have to, write shorter – which seems to be occurring all over left media. My guess is a subset of writers are happy to hear it – less work. But I think most wonder why.

My answer for why so many venues favor shorter content is first that for media that is selling eyeballs to advertisers the goal of an article is to get eyeballs in the vicinity of ads, and then once they have seen the ad – which takes seconds, to move them on to another page with another ad or ads. This is also why there are embedded links, etc. among other features that artists think are design driven, and that the editorial department thinks is content driven, but that are really, as any leftist ought to predict and see, profit driven. The desire to move eyeballs in front of ads has long driven the trend toward the claim that short pieces are wonderful, and even mandatory, but over time I have to acknowledge that it does admittedly leads to a second driving factor. That is, that an audience that repeatedly endures the dynamics, starts to become habituated to short, and eventually even to find longer hard to handle. This trend is rampant. Books are rarely read, compared to the past. Tweets establish habits. Likewise longer essays, unless one is confident others are reading them too, and often even then, are skipped. And due to this, even non advertising periodicals feel the pressure to seek short, understandably, but then by succumbing to it, contribute to the trend, often, rather than bucking the trend, which is certainly hard to do.

The irony is, if I am right, the left not only shouldn’t dispense with length on grounds being longer cripples content, but also going short on the left doesn’t win eyeballs, so to speak. Sure, it means you don’t lose someone who screams in terror at the site of a longer article. But what about the rest of the potential audience? The left can’t compete with mainstream outlets at providing minimalist content. That is their forte, not ours. No chance. So, in time, not only has content been reduced by being shortened, not only have bad trends been abetted, but I suspect audience and especially audience that really cares, is also diminished.

So it seems to me that seeking short as itself a virtue (as compared to just when short gets the job done and more would be a waste), is abetting a horrible trend. This doesn’t mean one should call long a virtue, or should want long per se. – another problem that does, indeed, exist on the left, at times. The issue should not be length other than one priority being to nurture our audience back into being willing and able to handle longer pices rather than being addicted to shorter.

 

2. Why is having a hook is desirable? For that matter, what is a hook?

If being about something currently in the news can be a hook, why can’t original substance promised be a hook? It certainly can be in other domains – science, hobbies, even sports, just look at the most successful magazines in those domains. Is it part of the task of left media to create in its audience a taste for innovative, unexpected, and challenging news and political insight such that offering that via a title constitutes a “hook”?

Instead of “hook” being a title that attracts audience based on desires to improve the world, what is gaining traction is the notion that each title should indicate that the article is about something the potential reader is already interested in due to what is in the news more broadly. Why is that problematic?

I think a news cycle hook – or a sexy title, or other such tactics – is particularly desirable, again, if one wants to catch eyes like catching fish, not to eat, of course, and not to feed/enlighten, even more important, but just to have them see ads. Along with that, in an outlet seeking ad driven profit, content can’t usefully be contrary to readers being in the mood to buy, and thus to their being receptive to ads, and so in news or social commentary outlets, serious substance is a danger, not an asset – unlike, in science magazines, say. Thus hooks like sex, violence, and yes, connection to current events become very important because one can’t have the hook be to deep and worthwhile social substance if you aren’t intent on delivering worthwhile social substance. In that which is ad driven and profit oriented, sensationalism which can indeed be achieved in short hooked articles, trumps substance, over and over, and finally, in what we want. So what is the job of left media in such a context?

One would think news cycle or even worse sensationalist hooking would only expand so far – but I begin to despair that there is little limit when I see progressive sites with stuff that is close to porn, titillating at least, and even sensationalist – though, of course, when they have ads for revenue, it is easier to understand. A more subtle point is critical. If content must be hooked by being about what is prominent  In the (mainstream) news cycle and therefore anticipated and already of interest to potential readers, it builds in a powerful bias against addressing that which is not yet prominent in the (mainstream) news cycle, but which ought to be due to its importance, much less against messages that folks don’t yet want to hear. Provide what they want to receive, not what they need to receive. One would think left operations, without profit seeking, without ads, would see providing that which is not yet widely seen as important but which the writers and venue think is, or providing that which people don’t yet agree with, but the writers and venue feel deserves attention. Maybe one might expect this in the abstract, but I think the trend is in the other direction.

 

3. Why should a left outlet feel compelled to cover everything that is being covered by others?

I think often they do. I think this too is detrimental for a few reasons. It isn’t doing one’s job. It is instead abdicating being original and challenging, again. The reasoning is, if we can do what the big mainstream outlets do, we can replace them. Hello? That is precisely the problem. That is the best case, we become steadily more like them, and think about what that means. But the more realistic case is that by trying to cover everything we squander too much capacity on breadth and not enough on depth. Energy is diverted from covering that which is important, original, that needs hearing, even if it is not currently hot, into simply replicating or even just summarizing what appears elsewhere. This is, again ironically, unlikely to lead to lasting audience, and it will certainly reduce impact.

 

  1. Why should a left outfit have an overarching in house style that governs the editing of all its content?

Is uniformity suddenly a virtue? Does it really attract more viewers, and even if it did, should we cater to it, or should we try to overcome this trend too? It is incredible the extent to which mainstream profit oriented and ideologically vapid media establish norms, make people think they have other rationales, and get people to act on them as if to do anything else is unprofessional, or just plain dumb. Most operations will publish a good many writers. The writers have different styles. Some may write in a second language. Some may have more training, for good or ill. Should an editor try to get all articles to meet some abstract standard? Or should an editor, to the extent he or she makes changes at all, try to preserve the voice of the writer as well as the intent. Diversity demands the latter, I think.

My guess is that another powerful force, not just profit seeking, drives all these trends. I think perhaps we can call it fear of being seen as failing – as compared to fear of failing. The latter is reasonable and should lead to experiments aimed at doing better, of course. But the former is far more prevalent, all over society, media, and the left too. It works roughly like this, though of course in countless forms. There is a prevalent approach, generally established in the mainstream. Then one reasons, if I buck that, and I don’t do so well, it will be deemed my fault. But if I follow the accepted approach, I will not be at fault, I just did what everyone does. This too, of course, has a terribly conservative bias to it, like the rest, at least to my perceptions. And I suspect it is in large part what has pushed all the trends from the mainstream profit seeking consciousness crushing sectors, into even the left.

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Michael Albert June 14, 2015 3:50 pm 

    I think Jacobin is quite good, too… They and ROAR to me are excellent, and even more so, given trends they are bucking. ROAD is already a partner in the new online school, WISC, by the way, and I hope Jacobin will be one too, before long. You may have noticed that right from their inception, in both cases, we have been trying to gain them audience by reprinting pieces from them referencing them, prominently.

    The hooks issue, isn’t that titles should not induce attention, of course. It is the idea that the only thing that can induce attention is essentially writing about that which people are already looking to hear about. Not that addressing topics already on people’s minds is bad to do. Of course it is fine. But the idea that it is the role of the journalist or commentator to do that, and basically only that, is very harmful in biasing against presenting new ideas, reporting new projects, and so on.

  2. avatar
    Jerry Fres June 13, 2015 4:30 pm 

    Thanks Michael. Salon is able to generate decent “hooks” in their titles; but the content sucks. On the other hand, I like Jacobin (jacobinmag.com), which has interesting titles and substance. Clearly they are not over-extended and while small in scope, they offer intelligent pieces.

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