Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet

The ‘strap’ for the Slate article on the rise of the first-person journalism genre asks the question: Why did the harrowing personal essay take over the Internet? But it does not actually answer the question.

Writer Laura Bennet points out the positive social and political shifts of the rise of first person journalism. That there is  “more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever”. They seem to dramatize at the level of genre the relationship between the personal and the political. These are fantastic developments in the contemporary character of mass and niche media. Bennet also indicates the strong negatives:

  • The “first-person economy […] incentivizes knee-jerk, ideally topical self-exposure, the hot take’s more intimate sibling.”
  • Works of first person journalism “seem to be professional dead ends, journalistically speaking […] [r]ather than feats of self-branding”.
  • Pitches all end up sounding like they “were all written in the same voice: ‘immature, sort of boastful.'”
  • They’re predominately popular in a highly gendered part of the market: “many of the outlets that are most hungry for quick freelancer copy, and have the lowest barriers to entry for publication, are still women’s interest sites”. This is of course not ‘bad’. The implication is that first person journalism is a genre that has a very limited market.

But these do not explain why first person journalism has emerged as one of the popular genres of content online. Bennet draws a connection to the personal disclosure mode of Web 1.0’s practices of blogging. That might be true of very early examples of first person journalism online (2005-2009) but seems less true for subsequent generations of writers who simply bypassed the ‘blogging’ era of the internet.

Although they may be using the rhetorical forms of early blog-based first person journalism, the discursive function of the genre I suggest has more in common with celebrity discourse. As David Marshall argues, “celebrities have become the discursive talking points for the political dimensions of a host of formerly private and personal concern” (2009: 27). For example, an analysis of the representation of Slovenian political celebrities taking part in weekly interviews published in mass-market women’s magazine Jana, Luthar (2010) describes a process of personalisation which “involves the construction and representation of famous people and celebrities as individualized human types as the major component of popular discourse” (2010: 696). Luthar is concerned with the discursive articulation of a national Slovenian identity through personal identity characteristics, primarily gender. But we can see how first person journalism is a more general personalisation of what media and communications scholars call ‘public discourse’.

Celebrity discourse is one way to personalise public discourse and the genre of first person journalism is another. (To get more technical, the personalisation of public discourse around social issues through traumatic experience is one way to anchor audiences to affectively resonant ‘issue publics’ and produce click-based audiences as a commodity in the post-broadcast attention economy.) It in part explains why young writers think they are promoting themselves as ‘writers’ when they write and seek publication for works of first person journalism. They think that if their story allows them to  become the center of an issue-based public organised around their experience, then this reflects well on their aspirations for being journalists or media personalities. In effect they become minor issue-based celebrities because of their experience. Instead, I’d emphasise Bennet’s point about the way the ‘click economy’ consumes such aspirants is very useful advice.

#thedress for journalism educators

Black and Blue? Gold and White? What does #thedress mean for journalism educators?

The Dress Buzzfeed
Original Buzzfeed post has now had 38 million views.

At the time of writing, the original Buzzfeed post has just under over 38m visitors and 3.4m people have voted in poll at the bottom of the post. Slate created a landing page, aggregating all their posts including a live blog. Cosmo copied Buzzfeed. Time produced a quick post that included a cool little audio slideshowWired published a story on the science of why people see the wrong colours (white and gold). How can we use this in our teaching?

Nearly every single student in my big Introduction to Journalism lecture knew what I was talking about when I mentioned #thedress. I used it as a simple example to illustrate some core concepts for operating in a multi-platform or convergent news-based media  environment.

Multi-Platform Media Event

Journalists used to be trained to develop professional expertise in one platform. Until very recently this included radio, television or print and there was a period from the early to mid-2000s when ‘online’ existed as a fourth category. Now ‘digital’-modes of communication are shaping almost all others. We’ve moved from a ‘platform only’ approach to a ‘platform first’ approach — so that TV journalists also produces text or audio, writers produce visuals, an so on — and what is called a ‘multi-platform’ (or ‘digital first’, ‘convergent’ or ‘platform free’) approach.

When with think ‘multi-platform’, we think about how the elements of a story will be delivered across media channels or platforms:

  • Live – presentations
  • Social – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.
  • Web – own publishing platform, podcast, video, etc.
  • Mobile – specific app or a mobile-optimised website
  • Television – broadcast, narrowcast stream, etc.
  • Radio – broadcast, digital, etc.
  • Print – ‘publication’

‘Platform’ is the word we use to describe the social and technological relation between a producer and a consumer of a certain piece of media content in the act of transmission or access. In a pre-digital world, transmission or delivery were distinct from what was transmitted.

Thinking in terms of platforms also incorporates how we ‘operate’ or ‘engage’ with content via an ‘interface’ and so on. Most Australians get their daily news from the evening broadcast television news bulletin. Recent figures indicate that most people aged 18-24 actually get their news about politics and elections from online and SNS sources, compared to broadcast TV.

#thedress is a multi-platform media event. It began on Tumblr and then quickly spread via the Buzzfeed post to Twitter and across various websites belonging to news-based media enterprises.  It only makes sense if the viral, mediated character of the event is taken into account.  #thedress media event did not simply propagate, it spread at different rates and at different ways. The amplification effect of celebrities meant #thedress propagated across networks that are different orders of magnitude in scale. Viral is a mode of distribution, but it also produces relations of visibility/exposure.

New News and Old News Conventions

Consumers of news on any platform expect the conventions of established news journalism. What are the conventions of established news journalism?

  • The inverted pyramid
  • The lead/angle
  • Sourcing/attribution
  • Grammar: Active Voice, Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence structure
  • Word use
  • Fairness

When we look at #thedress multi-platform media event we see different media outlets covered the story in different ways. Time magazine wrote the most conventional lead out of any that I have seen; the media event is the story:

Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is
The Internet took a weird turn Thursday when all of a sudden everyone started buzzing about the color of a dress. A woman had taken to Tumblr the day before to ask a seemingly normal question: what color is this dress?

Cosmopolitan largely mediated between the two, both framing the story as an investigation into colour, but also reporting on the virality of the multi-platform media event:

Help Solve the Internet’s Most Baffling Mystery: What Colors Are This Dress?
Blue and black? Or white and gold?
If you think you know what colors are in this dress, you are probably wrong. If you think you’re right, someone on the Internet is about to vehemently disagree with you, because no one can seem to agree on what colors these are.

I’ve only include the head, intro and first par for Time and Cosmo and you can see already they are far more verbose compared to Buzzfeed’s original post. The original Buzzfeed post rearticulated a Tumblr post, but with one important variation:

What Colors Are This Dress?
There’s a lot of debate on Tumblr about this right now, and we need to settle it.
This is important because I think I’m going insane.
Tumblr user swiked uploaded this image.
[Image]
There’s a lot of debate about the color of the dress.
[Examples]
So let’s settle this: what colors are this dress?
68% White and Gold
32% Blue and Black

The Buzzfeed post added an ‘action’: the poll at the bottom of the post. Why is this important?

Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the Relative Value of a Page View

Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg addressed the question of the Buzzfeed business model by posting a link to this article back in 2010:

Some of its sponsored “story unit” ad units have clickthrough rates as high as 4% to 5%, with an average around 1.5% to 2%, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg says. (That’s better than the roughly 1% clickthrough rate Steinberg says he thought was good for search ads when he worked at Google.) BuzzFeed’s smaller, thumbnail ad units have clickthrough rates around 0.25%.

The main difference now is the importance of mobile. In a 2013 post to LinkedIN Steinberg wrote:

At BuzzFeed our mobile traffic has grown from 20% of monthly unique visitors to 40% in under a year. I see no reason why this won’t go to 70% or even 80% in couple years.

Importantly, Buzzfeed’s business model is still organised around displaying what used to be called ‘custom content’ and what is now commonly referred to as ‘native advertising’ or even ‘content marketing’ when it is a longer piece (like these Westpac sponsored posts at Junkee).

Buzzfeed
Image via Jon Steinberg, LinkedIN

On the other hand, Tumblr is a visual platform; users are encouraged to post, favourite and reblog all kinds of content, but mostly images. For example, .gif-based pop-culture subcultures thrive on tumblr and tumblr icons are those that perform gestures that are easily turned into gifs (Taylor Swift) or static images (#thedress).The new owners of Tumblr, Yahoo, are struggling to commercialise Tumblr’s booming popularity.

I had a discussion with the Matt Liddy and Rosanna Ryan on Twitter this morning about the relative value of the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post versus the value of the 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post. Trying to make sense of what is of value in all this is tricky. At first glance the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post trumps the almost 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post, but how has Tumblr commercialised the relationship between users of the site and content? There is no clear commercialised relationship.

Buzzfeed’s business model is premised on a high click-through rate for their ‘native advertising’. Of key importance in all this is the often overlooked poll at the bottom of the Buzzfeed post. Almost 38 million or even 73 million views pales in comparison to the 3.4 million votes in the poll. Around 8.6% of the millions of people who visited the Buzzfeed article performed an action when they got there. This may not seem as impressive an action as those 483.2 thousand Tumblr uses that reblogged #thedress post, but the difference is that Buzzfeed has a business model that has commercialised performing an action (click-through), while Tumblr has not.

Nieman Lab 2015 Predictions for Journalism

Last week I delivered the first lecture in our Introduction to Journalism unit. I am building on the material that my colleague, Caroline Fisher, developed in 2014. One of the things about teaching journalism is that every example has to be ‘up to date’. One of the things that Caroline discussed in the 2014 lecture were the predictions for 2014 as presented by the Nieman Lab.

The Nieman Lab is a kind of journalism think tank, clearing house and site of experimentation. At the end of each year they ask professionals and journalism experts to suggest what they think is going to happen in journalism the next year.

Incorporating these predictions into a lecture is a good way to indicate to students what some professionals and experts think are going to be the big trends, changes and events in journalism for that year. (The anticipatory logic of predictions about near-future events has become a genre of journalism/media content that I briefly discuss in a forthcoming journal article. See what I did there.)

To analyse the the 65 predictions for 2015 in a lecture that only goes for an hour would be almost impossible. What I did instead was to carry out a little exercise in data journalism to introduce students to the practical concepts of ‘analytics’, ‘website scraping’, and the capacity to ‘tell a story through data’.

Nieman Lab
Nieman Lab 2015 Predictions

I created a spreadsheet using Outwit Hub Pro that scraped the author’s name, the title of the piece, the brief one or two line intro and the number of Twitter and Facebook shares. I wanted to know how many times each prediction had been shared on social media. This could then serve as a possible indicator of whether readers though the prediction was worth sharing through at least one or two of their social media networks. By combining the number of shares I could then have a very approximate way to measure which predictions readers of the site had the most value.

Spreadsheet shares
Here is the spreadsheet created through Outwit Hub Pro,

I have uploaded the table of the Nieman Lab Journalism Predictions 2015 to Google Drive. The table has some very quick and simple coding of each of the predictions so as to capture some sense of what area of journalism the prediction is discussing.

The graph resulting from this table indicates that there were four predictions that were shared more than twice the number of times compared to the other 61 predictions. The top three stories had almost three times the number of shares.

combined social shares
The four predictions with the highest number of shares clearly standout from the rest.

Here are the four stories with the total number of combined shares:

  1. Diversity: Don’t talk about it, be about it                              1652
  2. The beginning of the end of Facebook’s traffic engine 1617
  3. The year we get creeped out by algorithms                        1529
  4. A wave of P.R. data                                                                             1339

I was able to then present these four links to my students and suggest that it was worth investigating why these four predictions were shared so many more times than the other 61 predictions.

In the most shared prediction, Aaron Edwards forgoes the tech-based predictions that largely shape the other pieces and instead argues that media organizations need to take diversity seriously:

I guess I could pivot here to talk about the future of news in 2015 being about mobile and personalization. (I would geek out about both immensely.) I suppose I could opine on how the reinvention of the article structure to better accommodate complex stories like Ferguson will be on every smart media manager’s mind, just as it should have been in 2014, 2013, and 2003.
But let’s have a different kind of real talk, shall we?
My prediction for the future of news in 2015 is less of a prediction and more of a call of necessity. Next year, if organizations don’t start taking diversity of race, gender, background, and thought in newsrooms seriously, our industry once again will further alienate entire populations of people that aren’t white. And this time, the damage will be worse than ever.

It was a different kind of prediction compared to the others on offer. Most people who work in the news-based media industry have been tasked with demonstrating a permanent process of professional innovation. Edwards piece strips back the tech-based rhetoric and gets at the heart of what media organizations need to be doing so as to properly address all audiences.  “The excuse that it’s ‘too hard’ to find good journalists of diverse backgrounds is complete crap.”

The second most shared piece, on the limitations of over-relying on Facebook as a driver of traffic, fits perfectly with the kind of near-future prediction that we have come to expect. Gnomic industry forecasting flips the causal model with which we are  familiar — we are driven by ‘history’ and it is the ‘past’ (past traumas, past successes, etc) that define our current character — so that it draws on the future as a kind of tech-mediated collective subconscious. Rather than being haunted by the past, we are haunted by possible futures of technological and organisational change.

My favourite piece among all the predictions is Zeynep Tufekci who suggests that things are going to get weird when our devices start to operate as if animated by a human intelligence. She suggests that “algorithmic judgment is the uncanny valley of computing“:

Algorithms are increasingly being deployed to make decisions where there is no right answer, only a judgment call. Google says it’s showing us the most relevant results, and Facebook aims to show us what’s most important. But what’s relevant? What’s important? Unlike other forms of automation or algorithms where there’s a definable right answer, we’re seeing the birth of a new era, the era of judging machines: machines that calculate not just how to quickly sort a database, or perform a mathematical calculation, but to decide what is “best,” “relevant,” “appropriate,” or “harmful.”

Vox the News Cycle

vox storystreamInteresting discussion at Nieman Journalism Lab triggered by a recent post by Vox Media’s VP of Engineering, Michael Lovitt, on launching Vox.xom as a nine week development project. Vox.com has some very cool features, not least of which is the threading of topically related stories into ‘StoryStreams’, including the stream of “How We Make Vox“. Co-founder of Vox, Melissa Bell, explains:

If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

The launch of Vox.com has been framed in terms of it being a technology company. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of how they actually approach stories and the production of content. Hopefully, it is not like David Eun’s 2011 master plan for AOL.

Eun used an ‘engineering flow’ type approach to integrating SEO and analytics information into the production of news-based media content. Not very many people were happy about this. As one recent commentator described it:

It’s telling that throughout “The AOL Way”, the emphasis is on what managers and technology employees can do to maximize pageviews, and not on actual writing or video production, itself. That is, the presentation implies that AOL management took its content’s quality for granted.

Bell describes the work of Vox.com as addressing the problem of having to catch up after dropping out of the constant flow of the news cycle.  She became aware of this problem after being promoted into her previous role at The Washington Post as ‘director of platforms’ and ‘blog strategy’. From the same Guardian piece:

“It was amazing to me as a reader how quickly I felt I fell off the news cycle,” she says. “If I wasn’t paying attention to the rapid developments, it was difficult for me to understand what was happening in major news stories. When I took that step back I realised the challenge of being a reader.”

What is the news cycle according to Vox.com? There seems to be more or less topical news stories being explained through the website, but there is also “7 things the most-highlighted Kindle passages tell us about American readers” as the ‘most read’ story.

vox kindle

The news cycle used to be organised around the habits of consumers. The evening broadcast television bulletin, the morning newspaper, or the hourly radio bulletin. It was structural to the rhythms of industry and cultural expectations of news consumers. Not unlike the difference between the ranking of books in the New York Time’s Bestsellers list as compared to the highlighting of book passages through Kindle as an index of popularity, has there been a shift in the character of the news cycle?

Journalism Jobs

The ABC is reporting on a leaked “issues paper” from the University of Queensland (UQ) and that UQ apparently plan to merge most of their Communications offerings. Part of this process is allegedly dropping the journalism course (although the leaked document states the contrary: they have no intention to drop the BJournalism degree).

“Issue paper” author and UQ Dean, Prof Tim Dunne, has definitely isolated some issues that are worth engaging with:

Demand for journalism is declining globally as employment opportunities diminish in the era of digital and social media. In recent years, there has been widespread job loss in the journalism profession in Australia. The Australian Government Job Outlook suggests that job openings for journalists and writers will be below average over the next five years, with an overall decline in the number of positions. At the same time, there is increased visibility (on-line, through social media etc) and new kinds of employment opportunities are emerging, including areas such as data analytics.

I am not sure how Journalism is taught at UQ but I find it very hard to believe that students are not equipped to take on the challenge of new “on-line” platforms in addition to traditional media forms.

Prof Dunne presents a bleak picture for journalism, but it is not entirely correct. What is the current state of the news-based media industry, formally known as ‘journalism’? Absolute numbers are very hard to discern, but trends are relatively straightforward:

The ABS Employment in Culture, 2006 – 2011 captures some trends over the five years 2006 to 2011.

[table caption=”Table 1: Employment in Journalism” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]
Role,2006,2011
Newspaper or Periodical Editor, 4844, 5059
Print Journalist, 6306, 5510
Radio Journalist, 671, 603
Television Journalist, 1059, 1123
Journalists and Other Writers (nec), 1279, 1705
Journalists and Other Writers (nfd), 1414, 2125
Totals, 15573, 16125
[/table]

Much has been made over recent high profile lay-offs at Fairfax and News Corp, as if they are the only places that hire journalists. For example, the current #fairgofairfax social media campaign to generate support for Fairfax employees has a high degree of visibility on Twitter. Indeed, the number of print journalists declined by 800 in the five years 2006 to 2011, but as a field the numbers went up. I shall return to this below.

When we turn to the Australian Government Job Outlook data it is clear that this increase in the number of journalism jobs is not surprising.

[table caption=”Table 2: Journalists and Other Writers (Job Growth)” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]

Time Period, Occupation (per cent growth), All Occupations (per cent growth)

5 Year Growth, 37.8, 7.8

2 Year Growth, 28.7, 1.9

[/table]

It seems that the Prof Dunne pays particular heed to this page of the Australian Government Job Outlook data regarding prospects:

Over the five years to November 2017, the number of job openings for Journalists and Other Writers is expected to be below average (between 5,001 and 10,000).Job openings can arise from employment growth and people leaving the occupation.

Employment for Journalists and Other Writers to November 2017 is expected to decline.

Employment in this large occupation (29,800 in November 2012) rose very strongly in the past five years and rose strongly in the long-term (ten years).

Journalists and Other Writers have an average proportion of full-time jobs (75.3 per cent). For Journalists and Other Writers working full-time, average weekly hours are 41.6 (compared to 41.3 for all occupations) and earnings are above average – in the eighth decile. Unemployment for Journalists and Other Writers is average.

So after witnessing jobs growth four to five times the average for the past five years or so, and 10 times the average over last two years, there will ‘only’ be between 5000 to 10000 new positions available.

The broader journalism industry seems like it is in a pretty good state of affairs, which contradicts popularist conservative narratives about an oversupply of journalism graduates. Two years ago The Australian newspaper attacked Journalism Schools and attempted to open up another front of the Culture Wars (or return to old ground after the earlier ‘Media Wars‘). They suggested that Australian journalism schools produce too many graduates, when it is apparent that universities were actually servicing demand. The Australian newspaper does not represent journalism in Australia; in fact, it is a tiny vocal minority.

The bottom line is that there has been an explosive growth over the last decade in journalism and other jobs relating to the news-based media industry. The biggest growth measured in the Employment in Culture statistics for Journalism is in the ‘Not Elsewhere Classified’ category of just under 500 new positions; occupations include blogger, critic, editorial assistant and essayist. The key point is that this growth is not in the legacy media industries areas where journalists have traditionally worked. Most people who work in the media industry know this to be intuitively correct. More media content (writing, filming, recording, producing, etc.) is created and distributed now than at any other point in history.

The real question that Prof Dunne asks, and which is implied by his remarks about the rise of new employment areas, what combination of skills and competences shall serve our graduates in an era that produces more media content than ever before in human history? Or as he states: “What is likely is that there will continue to be a need for strong and vibrant courses in journalism that are practice-based”.

He gestures towards data analytics as an example. Many research projects show how newsrooms have learned to appreciate analytics information about their websites, and increasingly about individual users (in the era of paywalls and required logins). Students report that they feel empowered after the workshop where I give them as editors the task of setting up a ‘dashboard’ in Google Analytics so as to create reports for their team of student journalists. They can see how older forms of journalistic ‘gut feeling’ map onto new analytics information.

Another example is regarding the delegation of editorial responsibilities to more junior staff. Reading into the Employment in Culture figures there has been an increase in the number of editors from 2006 to 2011. Occupations in this role include features editor, news editor, pictures editor, subeditor, and (importantly) website/blog editor. One way to interpret this shift, which is congruent with other observations, is that there has been a ‘flattening out’ of the journalism industry with less medium-specific silos and more network-based cross-platform media enterprises. We train graduates to be prepared to take on some of the responsibilities that used to belong to senior journalists as editors but are now graduate level positions.

Based on proposed five tier funding arrangements there will be a refocus on design and audio-visual studies as the core units of journalism and communication studies. Part of this is because of the very strange separation of Audio and Visual Studies from the other discipline areas in the 1007 Field of Education code so it is in the funding tier that receives greater federal government funding.