Smartphones dumb down the news

Common denominator: Smartphones are the greatest homogenising force the media has ever seen. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Common denominator: Smartphones are the greatest homogenising force the media has ever seen. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

The internet was meant to be an amazing engine for invention and diversification in the media. With the barriers to entry toppling, anybody could become a publisher and, thanks to the blog revolution, thousands of people did.

In the mid-2000s, especially, the dream of web-based nanopublishing was alive and well: if “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”, as AJ Liebling famously said, then suddenly hundreds of millions of people had a printing press at their fingertips.

Arianna Huffington, and her investors, made a small fortune from aggregating what those people had to say. “Self-expression is the new entertainment,” she said, and she wasn’t wrong.

And then came smartphones – the greatest homogenising force the media has ever seen. In terms of design, every pixel being precious, sites converged pretty quickly on the format we all now know so well – large photos, clean single-column text on a plain white background, a sticky element at the top of the screen that allegedly allows users to navigate the site but which, in practice, is mostly just used for branding and/or advertising.

In the early days of smartphones, mobile was simply a design issue: how best to present your content so that it can be consumed effortlessly on a phone. As phones grew to become an overwhelming carrier of the majority of site traffic, however, the content itself started evolving. For instance, people don’t “surf the web”, or follow hyperlinks from one site to the next, on their phones.

Mobile publishing is a big-company game, and the big companies playing it are filling their newsrooms with “growth editors” and data scientists and “audience development” experts, all of whom basically have one job: maximise traffic, by any means necessary.

It turns out that when you start playing that game, certain tactics win. The headline becomes incredibly important, especially the headline that appears on Facebook. Short and fast beats long and detailed. More beats less. Original reporting and depth of insight are all well and good, but ultimately tend to be less important than optimised sharetext and lots of emotion.

The result is a surfeit of cheap-and-fast stories which fall into the general category of hot takes: no original reporting, lots of attitude. Often they’re attached to something in the news, and often one particular outlet broke the news and will get a lot of inbound links, but it’s a lot easier to repackage someone else’s news story, even with credit, than it is to break your own. Better still, just have a quick opinion on something highly visible. It took Rusty Foster, for instance, very little effort to round up 17 different takes on one hot issue of the day: those stories are easy Facebook-traffic wins – and no matter how many other such stories there are, it always makes sense to do one (or two, or three) of your own.

  So while all news sites claim to be special in some way that probably makes perfect sense to their own journalists, they’re increasingly interchangeable to readers. You click a link on Facebook and you read a story, and then an hour later you try to remember where you read it: Was it the Independent? The Telegraph? The Daily Mail? The Daily Beast? Business Insider? Huffington Post? USA Today? The list is endless, and your chances of getting the answer right, at least if you don’t live in a media bubble, are minimal. Those of us who live in the bubble become obsessed with the narcissism of small differences, and can see differences between them; nobody else cares.

The exceptions to the rule are just as instructive. There was Grantland, for instance, an acclaimed and very high-quality site published by ESPN and devoted to smart, long-form writing on sports and popular culture. Once worth millions, it’s now dead. ESPN’s other great experiment, Nate Silver’s data-driven FiveThirtyEight, is similarly struggling to find an audience, for all that it too produces excellent content.

Vice and BuzzFeed are carving out an impressively profitable niche by becoming video production factories, but that requires extremely deep pockets. The Awl is aggressive in its refusal to play the same game as everybody else, but it has had to make peace, in doing so, with the fact that it will never be much of a business.

And at Gawker Media, which has historically prided itself on zigging when everybody else zags, chief executive Nick Denton’s latest reshuffle memo could have been copy-and-pasted from any other site, with its talk of “continued extension of the brands into lifestyle sections, product recommendations, original and branded video, and events”.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote that “when some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public”. Today, the commotion is Facebook’s app, and the need to find a large public is nearly always a fast-growing news organisation’s first priority.

Which explains the great convergence. We’re all doing the same thing, because that’s the rational thing to do. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

Felix Salmon is editor of the Fusion multiplatform media network

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