August 8, 2017

THE ATLANTIC ON HOW SILICON VALLEY TOOK OVER JOURNALISM. The piece is written by Franklin Foer, who describes how Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook, bought the New Republic and promptly began the Buzzfeed-ification of that once august center-left magazine:

My master was Chartbeat, a site that provides writers, editors, and their bosses with a real-time accounting of web traffic, showing the flickering readership of each and every article. Chartbeat and its competitors have taken hold at virtually every magazine, newspaper, and blog. With these meters, no piece has sufficient traffic—it can always be improved with a better headline, a better approach to social media, a better subject, a better argument. Like a manager standing over the assembly line with a stopwatch, Chartbeat and its ilk now hover over the newsroom.

This is a dangerous turn. Journalism may never have been as public-spirited an enterprise as editors and writers liked to think it was. Yet the myth mattered. It pushed journalism to challenge power; it made journalists loath to bend to the whims of their audience; it provided a crucial sense of detachment. The new generation of media giants has no patience for the old ethos of detachment. It’s not that these companies don’t have aspirations toward journalistic greatness. BuzzFeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post invest in excellent reporting and employ first-rate journalists—and they have produced some of the most memorable pieces of investigative journalism in this century. But the pursuit of audience is their central mission. They have allowed the endless feedback loop of the web to shape their editorial sensibility, to determine their editorial investments.

“Unexpectedly,” the Atlantic’s own lust for clickbait isn’t mentioned the piece: CTL-F “Andrew Sullivan,” brings zero results. At the beginning of September of 2008, Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard wrote a post at his Galley Slaves blog titled “The Atlantic Becomes a Laughingstock,” that neatly foreshadows what Foer wrote for the Atlantic’s September 2017 issue on TNR:

What’s caught my attention here, then is The Atlantic. I am, and always have been, an enormous booster for the Old Media, and smarty-pants general-interest magazines in particular. What’s so notable in this whole affair isn’t the tarring of Palin but the fact that The Atlantic Monthly is the vehicle for the irresponsible spreading of smears about Palin and speculation so inane that it can’t be counted, by any reasonable measure, as analysis. (Here, I’m thinking of Sullivan’s claim that he thought it possible both Palin and McCain would relinquish their nominations.)

If Andrew Sullivan were to have written everything he wrote this week at his own website, I wouldn’t have said a word about it. The real scandal here isn’t Sullivan: It’s what The Atlantic has become by publishing him.

As for Sullivan’s page views, I sincerely hope that David Bradley isn’t making his editorial decisions based solely on eyeballs and dollars. Were that so, you could simply give The Atlantic‘s pages over to Perez Hilton or Slashdot or Matt Drudge or any other number of content formats. But the point of The Atlantic, like other great journals, is to be something different–to be a stage in the world of ideas, even if it’s not the most profitable thing.

I find the prospect of The Atlantic devolving into some version of Free Republic or Daily Kos to be immensely worrisome. Hopefully David Bradley will do something to put his house in order. Soon.

Let’s give Foer the exit quote: “Journalism has performed so admirably in the aftermath of Trump’s victory that it has grown harder to see the profession’s underlying rot.”

I question both halves of that premise, especially the first.

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