When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism – The Atlantic

Growing traffic required a new mentality. Unlike television, print journalism had previously shunned the strategic pursuit of audience as a dirty, somewhat corrupting enterprise. The New Republic held an extreme version of this belief. An invention of Progressive-era intellectuals, the magazine had, over the decades, became something close to a cult, catering to a loyal group that wanted to read insider writing about politics and highbrow meditations on culture. For stretches of its long history, however, this readership couldn’t fill the University of Mississippi’s football stadium.

A larger readership was clearly within reach. The rest of journalism was already absorbing this lesson, which Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, had put this way: R = ßz. (In epidemiology, ß represents the probability of transmission; z is the number of people exposed to a contagious individual.) The equation supposedly illustrates how a piece of content could go viral. But although Peretti got the idea for his formula from epidemiology, the emerging science of traffic was really a branch of behavioral science: People clicked so quickly, they didn’t always fully understand why. These decisions were made in a semiconscious state, influenced by cognitive biases. Enticing a reader entailed a little manipulation, a little hidden persuasion.

Chris not only felt urgency about the necessity of traffic, he knew the tricks to make it grow. He was a fixture at panels on digital media, and he had learned about virality from Upworthy, a site he had supplied with money to help launch. Upworthy plucked videos and graphics from across the web, usually obscure stuff, then methodically injected elements that made them go viral. As psychologists know, humans are comfortable with ignorance, but they hate feeling deprived of information. Upworthy used this insight to pioneer a style of headline that explicitly teased readers, withholding just enough information to titillate them into reading further. For every item posted, Upworthy would write 25 different headlines, test all of them, and determine the most clickable of the bunch. Based on these results, it uncovered syntactical patterns that almost ensured hits. Classic examples: “9 out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” and “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next.” These formulas became commonplace on the web, until readers grew wise to them.

The core insight of Upworthy, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and other emerging internet behemoths was that editorial success could be engineered, if you listened to the data. This insight was embraced across the industry and wormed its way into the New Republic. Chris installed a data guru on our staff to increase our odds of producing viral hits. The guru kept a careful eye on Facebook’s trending topics and on what the public had craved at the same time the year before. “Super Bowl ads are big,” he told the staff at one of our weekly meetings. “What can we create to hit that moment?” Questions like these were usually greeted by hostile silence.

While I didn’t care for the tactics, I didn’t strenuously resist them either. Chris still encouraged us to publish long essays and deeply reported pieces. What’s more, he asked a perfectly reasonable question: Did we really think we were better than sober places like Time or The Washington Post? Clicks would rain down upon us if only we could get over ourselves and write about the same outrage as everyone else. Everyone else was doing this because it worked. We needed things to work.


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