Salon and the demise of quality media

Politico has a great story out today about “the fall of“; a look at how a once cutting-edge, and thought-leading, online magazine jumped the shark for clicks.

The story raises a number of issues about the state of media, the Internet, and society.

Back in 2000, Salon was a huge deal. I remember when friends and I were preparing to launch an online boycott against Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who was outspokenly anti-gay and had just been given a new TV show by Paramount. We needed a top media source to announce our launch, and we gladly turned to Salon. The story, by Salon’s Donna Ladd, helped explode interest in our campaign among the media and the nascent online grassroots. Ladd’s coverage, as the top story on Salon’s home page, was a god-send to our campaign.

Fast forward to 2016.

Salon, like the rest of media, is desperately trying to become profitable. Even those of us who  make a profit, find it increasingly difficult to maintain ad revenue and traffic. So what do you do? You go in seek of clicks, readers, traffic.

The way ad revenue works is, more or less, you get paid based on how many people visit your site, and how many pages they visit on your site. And sadly, there may not be a direct relationship between the quality of your content and the quantity of visitors. There’s a reason the Daily Beast recently promoted a story on “vagina massages,” and I doubt it had little to do with women’s liberation. It’s likely the same reason that Salon publishes stories urging the FBI to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and urging Sanders voters to support Donald Trump. They’re less interested in quality journalism than they are surviving financially, often at the expense of their original mission.

While I’m disappointed in Salon, I also understand their financial constraints. And in some ways, it’s the readers’ fault, at least in part. When I write about a horrific hate crime against a transgender activist in Pakistan, my story doesn’t get a lot of readers. But when I write about Bernie Sanders dissing the AIDS community, or a video that appears to show Sanders embracing a homophobic rapper, the story gets 30 times the traffic of the trans story.

I saw the same thing when, in the same evening, two stories came out at nearly the same hour: the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial; and the death by drug overdose of a “Glee” star. I wrote about both. The Glee story got 5 times more traffic.

And finally, there’s a third problem with the quality of journalism, and it’s linked in part to the financials. The media is hiring younger and younger writers and TV personalities in order to appeal to a millennial audience, as a last-ditch effort to remain relevant and viable. (Younger people also have lower salary requirements than older folks.) But with that youth and beauty comes a lack of experience. Facebook’s Zuckerberg may think young people are simply smarter than their elders, but they’re often not as good at what they do as someone with more years’ experience. Good writing and good thinking, like any specialty, takes years of experience to learn and perfect. And, even then, you continue to get better with age.

I see publications like Ad Age regularly publishing interesting-sounding digital-age stories that read like a college kid wrote them (and it wasn’t always that way). Salon has fallen into the same trap. In order to woo angry and sometimes-naive millennials, Salon has hired far too many angry and sometimes-naive writers. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t good millennial writers and thinkers (Mic’s Gabriel Arana is one), or some good writers at Salon (Amanda Marcotte comes to mind). But when you place a bet on youth over experience, it’s only a matter of time before you end up jumping a shark.

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Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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25 Responses to “Salon and the demise of quality media”

  1. WampusKat says:

    Sorry, but the Hillbot meme, like the Obamabot meme before it, is used the way the far right uses the “Liberal Media!” complaint to gain traction for its propaganda. In other words, “Don’t read that stuff!” And who is behind this BS? Glenn Greenwald. The same guy who’s been touring colleges in the company of Ron Paul and other Koch-backed alt-right lunatics:

    Here ya go… read an actual progressive research site as to why Glenn’s “Hillbot” meme isn’t working out as well as his Obamabot meme… people are wising up:

    The company one keeps tells us much about a person… Ron Paul’s far right Christofascist lunacy:

    And yes, this idiocy does originate with Greenwald over at the Libertarian Intercept. It’s buried over at Daily Kos as well (feeding the newbies right wing talking points):

    I said it before and I’ll say it again: Libertarians are NOT our friends:

  2. WampusKat says:

    Your reversal might work if not for the fact that H.A, Goodman is a Libertarian Rand Paul fanatic. The last thing progressives need is RW Libertarians slinging Breitbart hash or Naderites and their alliance with far right Paulites:

  3. WampusKat says:

    “it’s the readers’ fault”

    Correction: it’s the trolls’ fault. Progressive sites attract trolls whenever they write something that the opposition believes benefits them and nothing attracts right-wing trolls more so than Sanders’ going all Trump on Hillary and her supporters. The question is, should you sell your soul for clicks and ad revenue or do you care about your mission? If it’s money one is after at the expense of others, then what do we need blogs for? We have cable “news” to lie to us 24/7. We turned to blogs as an alternative and now they’re doing the same as everyone else: clicks and eyeballs at the expense of accurate reporting.

  4. Benitamjohnston3 says:

    “my room mate Lori Is getting paid on the internet $98/hr”…..!tr269ur

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  5. Kansachusetts says:

    I agree with most of this, John, though I would add that they seem just as likely to have stories attacking Sanders as praising him. (Joan Walsh also spends a lot of time attacking him and promoting Clinton in the Nation.) They seem to have made a decision that they will play to both sides in the Democratic race.

    Like high tech companies, and like Huffington, they have made clumsy efforts to reach the youth market, and obvious efforts to hire younger writers and editors. Though one cannot easily judge an editor’s age, they’ve had a terrible problem with sensationalist headlines that distort the meaning of articles in hope of getting more clicks. Digby’s articles there have suffered from awful headlines.

    Rather than supporting much independent journalism, Salon has gone heavily for opinion pieces that rehash events with a particular spin. I’m sure that’s because opinions are free but good journalism still costs … something. But does one really need the opinions of Camille Paglia? My general experience with Salon is that much of the content is superficial, but from time to time they have articles that at least point to good content.

    The one reason I hate the website, however, is that it invariably eats up all my memory. Adobe Flash Player spins out of control and I have to shut down Firefox from the Windows Task Manager. Why does Salon do that when no other legitimate political site does?

  6. Demosthenes says:

    You speak truth, Mr. Aravosis. has gone downhill. I used to eagerly read most of its articles. Now, if I scan it at all, it’s to see how many stupid pieces it publishes. Journalism is truly in decline. The ascendancy of the Donald is a reflection of it.

  7. goulo says:

    There is also the factor that the Pakistan story was not controversial AS JOURNALISM, so the primary reason to comment would be to say in agreement, “Yep, that is a terrible situation”, whereas e.g. the “Sanders uses ‘shoot the gays’ rap song” was controversial (and ultimately false) AS JOURNALISM, so it has a “meta effect”: it provokes readers to respond and debate whether the story was even true in the first place, to discuss John’s motives in posting it, argue about it incessantly, get into Sanders-vs-Clinton mutual demonization, etc etc. :/

  8. Prove that that a Sanders supporter did not in fact doctor a video of Sanders’ rally

    Uhhhh, the post wasn’t titled “Sanders supporter…”

    It was “Sanders uses ‘shoot the gays’ rap song at CA rally” which is demonstrably false.

    Just because you changed the headline and entire story twice after it posted doesn’t mean you get to go around crowing about how it’s true now.

  9. Amyllim says:

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  10. Yep, which goes to show why the GOP is wrong about PBS needing public funding.

  11. Yes, but the article about Salon noted that it doesn’t even make a profit, and it’s already $124m in debt. They can’t survive like that. I don’t make enough on this blog to even dent my monthly bills. I think the culture has gotten crasser, and some publishers simply love publishing smut and garbage for the top dollar. But I think for a lot of sites, it’s a lot more nuanced — they’re trying to survive, and the prospects are very dim.

  12. First, you’re not doing your cause any favors by quoting the craziest part of the article that makes Salon, and Sanders’ supporters, look somewhat nutty. Second, rather than simple cast aspersions, prove it. Prove that my articles about Sanders — about his campaigns attacks on one of America’s lead, and longtime, AIDS activists, is untrue? You can’t because it’s true. Prove that that a Sanders supporter did not in fact doctor a video of Sanders’ rally in order to try to fool all of us into thinking Sanders had embraced the music of a homophobic rapper? You can’t because it’s true.

    Weighing in on politics takes a certain amount of intellectual and emotional maturity. You have to understand the difference between “you’re wrong because you support the other candidate,” and “you’re wrong because your underlying arguments are false, and so out of the reasonable mainstream that they’re actually kinda crazy.”

    Simply because you’re a fan of the former, doesn’t make me the latter.

  13. PDQ says:

    From the Politico article cited by John:

    “In recent months Salon has refused to do that. It has developed a
    reputation for being not just sympathetic to Bernie Sanders, but overtly
    hostile to Hillary Clinton, unable to distinguish her from Donald Trump
    in the same way Ralph Nader saw no difference between Al Gore and
    George W. Bush in 2000. Salon contributor H.A. Goodman has written
    several columns for the publication with titles like “I wouldn’t vote for Dick Cheney, so I won’t vote for Hillary Clinton: An unrepentant only-Sanders voter fires back at critics” and “Please, FBI — you’re our last hope: The Democratic Party’s future rests upon your probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails.””

    Reverse the positions of Bernie and Hillary’s names, substitute John Aravosis for H.A. Goodman and Americablog for Salon.

    Pot meet kettle.

  14. Hue-Man says:

    John, aren’t you restating a decades-old theme? Dog bites man vs Man bites dog.

    Both the Pakistan story and the Trayvon Martin acquittal confirm what I as a reader already knew: LGBT people are at enormous risk in Pakistan and justice rarely applies to African-American shooting victims. A Democratic Presidential nominee dissing LGBT community is “new” news. As a consumer, I too have to make choices of what stories I’m going to read and whether or not I’m going to comment – in those few remaining places where comments are allowed.

    Salon is struggling with a problem that no one has solved. Either they will fix it and return to producing quality reporting or they will spiral into extinction. How young writers get opportunities to write (and learn from their mistakes) is more perplexing. The old-school journalism model which has nearly disappeared trained and developed young talent. Without tough editors, how can a young writer ever improve in today’s Wild Wild West?

  15. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    Fortunately for Masterpiece Theater, many viewers are willing to pay for the honor and pleasure of watching them. The donations are also tax deductible. Masterpiece also seems quite adept at finding grants.

  16. Houndentenor says:

    Yes, and then the news sites abandon those readers to chase after the ones that want more crap. It’s not all the readers’ fault. A lot of it has to do with the shallowness and pandering that passes for journalism now. I get better coverage of American stories in the foreign press sometimes.

  17. Yeah but the fact that more people want the Beverly Hillbillies is the problem — you can’t get enough viewers to sell enough ads for most Masterpiece productions. So to speak. The problem isn’t that there isn’t good content to find. The problem is that when you find it, the readers often don’t care. At least not enough of them.

  18. Houndentenor says:

    There is good content out there, but you have to go out and look for it.

  19. Joe Blunt Ltp says:

    Trump is a reality television star who enjoys nearly question free coverage from cable news outlets. His rise can be blamed on cable news and NBC tv.

    The phenomenon outlined by Aravosis is not the main contributor to Trump’s nomination. Online web news outlets both right and left have been far more critical of Trump than any televised reporting.

  20. Joe Blunt Ltp says:

    I think/hope there is an endgame to the tilt toward sensational
    journalism. Eventually the outlet becomes known more for the
    sensationalism than good journalism. Engagement will decrease because
    those seeking good reporting will eschew the outlet purely because of
    earned bad reputation.

    Gawker seems to be nothing but this sort of
    engagement and I will not click on anything from their site. For sites
    like Slate, their best play is to keep click bait down to a small
    percentage of overall content if they don’t want to harm their brand longterm.

  21. Blogvader says:

    Offense is entertainment now.

    Trump is, therefore, a gold mine.

  22. UncleBucky says:

    Day by day, we see this man as truly mentally ill, Becca.

    But how can he be prevented from this? GOPers are equally mad, too, not to mention the voters. But the GOP has to put him there in the nom.

  23. Because it’s what people want to watch.

  24. BeccaM says:

    This phenomenon also explains why Trump — a mentally ill man utterly unfit for elected office — has received more than $2 billion in free air-time during the last year.

  25. 2karmanot says:

    “jumped the shark for clicks.” Oh the irony!

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