by John Walters
On Tuesday Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead wrote a piece titled “Journalism and Clickbait Can Both Live In The Same Place,” the inspiration of which was a Twit-a-tete I had (I instigated it) with his boss, the site’s founder, Jason McIntyre. Before you read on here, I encourage you to read Ryan’s story if you have not yet (see, Jason, I’m pimping for you!).
Before I discuss the merits of Ryan’s story, of which there are many, here’s a demerit: he never contacted me. A tenet of good journalism is that you allow the principles of a story an opportunity to express their views, particularly if there is a sense of polarized positions. I’m right here. It would have been easy to simply DM me.
Now, we live in an internet bully age where TBL loyalists will shout me down because they know their site and don’t know me, but that’s just a J-School 101 courtesy. Perhaps Ryan and the TBL mouth-breathers would respond that my tweets were already out there, what else is needed (besides, we all know how much millennials loathe actually having to talk to people)?
But if Ryan had contacted me, he’d have known that I was not chastising Jason about Bobby Burack’s story, as Ryan implies. I did not read Bobby’s story. I would never read Bobby’s story, which is no slight to Bobby as a writer; it’s simply that long ago I tired of reading anything about LeBron, LaVar Ball, the Cavaliers or the Lakers.
If Ryan had only reached out to me, he would have known this.
Anyway, the reason I chided my frenemy Jason on Twitter (“There’s an Olympics going on, but the guess here is you’ve calibrated that that’s not where one goes to find the clicks”) is because he had just tweeted out another breathless tweet about LeBron, or was it LaVar, or perhaps it was about what the Lakers are going to do in the summer of 2018. Or is it the summer of 2019.
No one’s forcing you to follow Jason on Twitter, you might say. And you are correct. But for now, at least, I am. As I was preparing to write this, I did a quick sample of Jason’s last 50 tweets: 28 of them, or 56%, were concerned with LaVar or LeBron or the Cavaliers or the Lakers. One of them, or 2%, mentioned the Olympics.
Only yesterday Jason tweeted something to the effect that he runs a sports site with some pop culture thrown in. And he does. And TBL is an independent site that he founded, so he is under no obligation to be comprehensive or even egalitarian in his sports coverage. His Twitter feed, though, is a window to his soul: he’s out for clicks.
Before launching TBL on his down time, something I greatly admire and respect Jason for doing, he cut his teeth working at US Weekly. And what he likely learned there is that you sell the soap opera. There’s a reason (back then) Jennifer Aniston garnered more covers than both better actresses and even hotter ones: because she was famous and because her personal life was a hot mess. And that’s what sold.
Back to Ryan’s theme: That clickbait and real journalism can not only coexist, but must. In a corporate world, he’s correct. In fact, the story that ran with Ryan’s byline directly after his clickbait story concerned itself with Aly Raisman and Paige Sparanac posing nude for SI, and my humble guess is that it drew ten times the readership that his clickbait piece did. After all, there’s navel-gazing and then there’s navel-gazing.
Before the internet existed, before clickbait, there was the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which hits newsstands right about now (what’s a newsstand?). In my 15 years as an SI staffer, I constantly heard gripes by fellow staffers about how we were producing soft-core porn (which we were) that had no connection to sports (which it did not). My female boss for most of that time, Jane “Bambi” Wulf, had no problem with it. “That single issue pays for half the salaries on the 18th floor,” Bambi, who passed away last year and whom we all loved, would say.
When one of my colleagues at SI, a fellow reporter under Bambi named Chad Millman, left, he played a huge role in ESPN the Magazine launching its “Body” issue, where Olympic and pro athletes pose nude, strategically placing items from their sport in front of their genitals or simply using their hips or arms to hide their naughty bits. It was a terrific idea.
Am I running this photo to illustrate a point or to get more clicks? Does it even matter?
All that said, you the individual (or writer, or editor, or site founder) are not compelled to do anything. Are not compelled to compromise. Let’s be clear here: this is a choice you make. Or that your publication makes, and you choose to adhere to.
At my final Newsweek staff meeting (and you’re about to learn why it was my final one), I broached this topic to our managing editor (who may or may not have been having an affair with a 24 year-old editor of our sister publication in London and who may or may not have been attempting to install her as the No. 2 person here until she foolishly wrote an email about this to him and CC’ed the wrong folks), Matt McAllester. During the staff meeting in mid-May, McAllester informed us that each one of us writers would be responsible for 15,000 clicks daily by June 30. That prompted one of our twenty something reporters, a bright young man, to diplomatically inquire, “What happens after we achieve that goal?”
A second younger reporter asked the question we were all thinking: “What happens if we don’t?”
McAllester simply told us that we would. Then I (foolishly) brought up an old David Halberstam quote. Halberstam used to say that he wrote best-selling sports books because they gave him the latitude to write the books that he really cared about, such as The Best And The Brightest. I asked McAllester if that’s what we were doing. And he bristled, “Don’t you want anyone to read your stories?”
Nearly 50 years ago, Halberstam knew what’s up
Immediately after that meeting, we writers were shuttled into an hour-long meeting in which we were tutored on one thing and one thing only: the tricks of SEO headline writing. For those of you unfamiliar with it, “SEO” stands for “Search Engine Optimization.” It’s about writing headlines that Google puts near the top of its search list, because those stories are clicked more frequently, which leads to higher ad rates, which leads to financial solvency.
A month later, Matt called me in to fire me ( I was later told that when Matt was informed he had only been firing female staffers, it was strongly suggested he needed a male pelt to put on the wall to even the score some; for the record, after Matt was fired I immediately began writing for Newsweek again). Ironically, the firing was delayed four hours because one of our senior writers was dealing with a “tentacle porn” controversy on his Twitter feed, which even more ironically was driving traffic through the roof. If only I had known! That could have saved my gig had I thought of it first. When Matt cut me from the team, I refused the severance and told him, “You’re chasing sites that have been doing this for a decade and do it better. And it’s nothing but fast food calories. Basically, you are turning Newsweek into Hardees.”
I didn’t use profanity. Didn’t curse. I just told him bluntly what I thought of him, and then went down to my bartending shift where I ordinarily earn more in a day than what Newsweek was paying me, anyway. Matt was fired two months later for general incompetence and, unofficially, for being a major douche. It didn’t help that a female co-worker at Time, his former place of employ, was suing him for sexual discrimination.
I digress. Back to Ryan’s point. We all make a choice. To me, the danger of conforming to the clickbait beast is that if a little is good, more is better. And suddenly you’re running story upon story about a wrestling heel (LaVar Ball) while virtually ignoring an event that is the living vestige of the origin of sport itself: the Olympics. Not only that, but one of the four major networks is airing it in prime time every night for a fortnight and it is blowing away every other network in the ratings.
When Jason tweets that he has no interest in the Olympics and when Ryan doubles down that no one on TBL’s staff does, I don’t measure that as a failure of the Olympics. I measure it as a failure of myopic scope. Of hiring practices. Maybe if the TBL’s staff were not all about the same age and all but one the same sex and same skin pigmentation, the site would be more versatile. And before you hit me with a GOML, here’s a response to that.
The more worrisome danger, to reiterate, is more is better. If a little clickbait is good, the irresistible temptation from above is to produce more. And suddenly as a website you become the Chicken McNuggets parents. You could expose little Lucas to something he’s never tried, but he may wail and who has the patience for that? Just buy him the Chicken McNuggets again because you know it works.
In sports journalism, this is what leads to more NFL and NBA stories and to smaller and smaller concentric circles. And this isn’t just the internet’s fault. It’s the fault of every managing editor who was working to please the publisher as opposed to following the tenets of journalism. I was a staff writer at Sports Illustrated in 1998 when France won the World Cup—in Paris, in a MAJOR upset—and even though our M.E. attended, he had us put Mike Ditka on the cover—in July. This wasn’t even Chicago Bears Mike Ditka, it was New Orleans Saints Mike Ditka. Didn’t matter. It was the NFL.
The SI I grew up reading in the Seventies understood that it was the journal of record. It put the most important story on the cover (a miler setting a world record; an amateur hockey team winning a game in Lake Placid), not the best-seller.
Eight years after that infamous Ditka cover, Roger Federer won three men’s tennis grand slams (and was runner-up in the fourth) and had a 92-5 record on the year. The overwhelming consensus in the offices was that he should be named Sportsman of the Year. The boys on the publishing side advocated for Dwyane Wade, who’d led the Miami Heat to the NBA championship (never mind that Wade had finished sixth in MVP voting). Wade got the nod.
These days are over
There is, or used to be in journalism, a thing called “separation of church and state.” Church (editorial) and State (publishing) did not interfere in one another’s business, so as to avoid conflict of interest. If you saw The Post, you witnessed a real-life and historic incident involving such a conflict, and the greater point that was made here is that when newspapers follow their journalistic instincts, they actually DO SELL MORE. You can be fit AND eat what you love!
Does that only happen in the movies—or at The Washington Post? Not necessarily, but it is harder to report stories than to simply parrot the latest LaVar tweet. It does take more effort to find something that no one else has yet reported as opposed to doing a slide show of NFL cheerleaders. I get it.
You can’t be a virgin 90% of the time. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. And as someone who writes a blog for free but has no mortgage and no kids to raise, it’s a little easier for me to be idealistic. I can survive on baloney sandwiches for quite some time (besides, I own like, lots of AMZN shares). But at the end of the day, or of your career in journalism, you are what YOU DO, not what you say you are. And if you claim to be a journalist while promoting LeBron and LaVar with more than half your tweets, I’d argue that you’re more of a huckster.
Moreover, I’d prefer not to marinate in my own ignorance, or not to spread ignorance like a virus. One of my closest friends in this business, Tim Crothers, has been a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina for more than a decade. When we were both reporters at SI and they cut our travel budget to ZIP, Tim hatched the idea of doing a bonus (you’d now call it longform) piece on Red Klotz, the coach of the long-suffering Washington Generals. He didn’t ask permission, because he knew our editors would either turn him down or hand the story to someone senior.
Tim got on the subway to cover a Globetrotters-Generals game, then talked his way onto Klotz’s bus and into Klotz’s life, and then without prompting he filed one of the best bonus pieces of the decade. Nobody knew they wanted to know about Red Klotz, but when they did read about him, it was marvelous.
A girl, and a story, that nobody wanted. Now a major motion picture.
More than 15 year later Tim heard about a young girl who was virtually homeless, living in the slums of Kampala, (Kampala is a city that is not Cleveland or Los Angeles), Uganda, but who was a chess prodigy. Tim pitched the story to SI, which had fired him (and me and William Nack on the same day in 2001 as part of staff layoffs), who did not bite. So he pitched it to ESPN, who did. Tim’s story, The Queen of Katye, became a National Magazine Award Feature Story finalist, and then a book, and then a major motion picture from Disney that you can actually watch on Netflix right now.
Tim followed his journalistic instincts, and not only did he produce fantastic work but it was also lucrative.
One more anecdote, for those still reading. One day when I was at SI, I saw the hard copy of a piece by a then-unknown writer named Jeff MacGregor on the printer outside my office. This was a LONG story, but I started reading and within two grafs I was enthralled. MacGregor’s piece was all about a rattlesnake roundup and it was so well-written (“You can taste the mean”) but then again, as a few muggles-ian editors argued, “What did it have to do with sports?”
MacGregor’s editor, Bob Roe, championed the piece. The coterie shunned it. Then suddenly, the M.E. agreed with Roe and everyone else’s tune changed. The piece ran. It was phenomenal and readers responded to it like few stories we’d run in years. Loser coaches. Ugandan chess prodigies. Rattlesnakes. It’s the story that matters, not the brand.
A day after Newsweek laid me off last June, I received an email inviting me to join the staff meeting via conference call. Obviously, this was done in error, but screw them. I phoned the number, punched in the secret code, and listened in. McAllester was now informing the staff that they’d need to be up to 30,000 clicks per day by the end of October and that, unfortunately, no salary increases were in sight. Also, travel was limited and there wasn’t the money to keep open a Washington, D.C., bureau as an office. Those staffers would have to work from home.
One writer had the temerity to raise an objection, and here I paraphrase. “If I’m hearing you right, you want us to do more work, churn at a higher rate, while there is no incentive from a salary or workplace environment perspective,” the writer said.
McAllester noted that he might have some money at the end of the year that he’d be allowed to distribute to some staffers at his own discretion. “That sounds futile,” said the writer, whom I will not name here but who did resign last week from Newsweek.
When I told that writer that I’d listened in and recounted the dialogue to him, he laughed. But then he corrected me. “I didn’t say, ‘That sounds futile,’ ” he said. “I said, ‘That sounds feudal.'”
We all make choices. You go ahead and surf the internet. As a writer, I’ve more than made my peace with not wanting to serf the internet.
What is the future of journalism, and sports journalism? Is there a way to obviate clickbait for those of us who don’t want to make outlandish and grossly inaccurate analogies such as “Baker Mayfield Is Like Bitcoin” simply to generate clicks? The best way out I see is for philanthropic billionaires such as Jeff Bezos to become modern-day Medicis: to promote the art of journalism for its own sake. Bezos owns The Washington Post because of its vestigial hold on him, and because he appreciates how it shaped his youth. He’s not the only billionaire out there (apparently, they’re growing in number) and here’s hoping there are more Bezos types out there and fewer outright assholes such as Sam Zell, a man who once told his female Tronc underling, “F**k you” when she dared to question him about editorial integrity.
Let’s close with an analogy that may or may not be fair. In the 1990s NBC had two sitcoms that ran on the same night: Friends and Seinfeld. The former scored higher ratings but was open to anything to promote such ratings (remember the stunt-casting episode with ER dreamboats George Clooney and Noah Wylie playing their alter-egos from that show?). The latter was fiercely iconoclastic, going so far as to devote one episode to the idea that they would not stoop to those levels (“I’m not gonna dumb it down, Jerry” was Larry David’s not-so-subtle message to his Peacock overlords that he would not compromise his standards).
Two different show, both comedies. Both ran on the same network. It’s possible to do solid journalism and run clickbait on the same site. Then again, most of us writers don’t have the pull that Larry David did.